I’ve lived in Israel for over 12 years now. I’ve navigated the narrow alleyways of Jerusalem and enjoyed the peaceful solitude watching the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee. But, when it comes to the southern Israeli city of Be’er Sheva, I embarrassingly have to plead ignorance. While I’ve slept under a blanket of desert stars and witnessed an explosion of color erupt from the mountains’ surface during spectacular sunsets in the Negev, I’ve never spent any time in this biblical city. This changed a few years back when, writing for Travelujah, the only Israel travel network focused on Holy Land travel, I participated on a special, off the path Negev holy land tour.
The Abraham Path is a non-profit, non-political and non-sectarian initiative founded by Harvard University that honors all cultures and faiths and provides cultural tourism while following the footsteps of Abraham. When completed the entire path will run from Turkey to Egypt, approximately 1200 kilometers. Avner Goren, the lead character and expert tour guide profiled in Bruce Feiler’s best selling book “Walking the Bible”, served as our guide for the day.
Residents living in towns along the Abraham Path often live impoverished lives. By encouraging these people to set up small businesses such as souvenir stands and snack kiosks along the way, the project serves as a catalyst for economic development as well as creating a rich spiritual opportunity for all who have the chance to travel sections of the trail. And maybe most importantly, the Abraham Path provides positive media opportunities highlighting the warm and rich culture of different peoples living in the Middle East.
Although the city now boasts first rate academic and educational venues, looking out across the desert landscape, with Avner’s expertise, it was easy to be transported back in time. I honestly felt like I really was walking the bible. My sandal-shod feet, covered with dust, hiked paths once crossed by Abraham and King Solomon As a group of us stood on a hill overlooking the vastness of the Negev desert, we saw a herdsman leading his camels back home. Single file, these camels followed one another, never losing their footing as they navigated the rocky terrain that hasn’t changed that much since Abraham traversed this land 3,000 years ago.
While we met with municipal advisers who enthusiastically described plans for a 600 acre Be’er Sheva park complete with sport fields, amphitheater and luxury apartment buildings, it was the antiquities and local people we met that really inspired me.
We stopped at nearby Moshav Nevatim, located about eight kilometers southeast of the city. It’s an agricultural community built by people who hailed from Cochin, on the southwest coast of India. Avraham, a community leader with pride bursting from every pore of his body, explained that the residents of this comfortable middle-class community were merchants and professionals; doctors, lawyers and storeowners. They knew little about farming and, living on the fertile shore of the Indian Ocean, knew even less about desert agriculture. But despite the pragmatism of staying put, their faith inspired them to pack their bags and embark on a journey that would test them physically and spiritually. This little-known Jewish community was eager to help build the modern State of Israel. Pragmatism would not deter them.
In 1956, these faithful came as a community and, despite tremendous hardship and a complete lack of farming experience, they learned to make the desert bloom. Though the work was arduous and backbreaking, they learned to grow flowers for export and, 55 years later, boast three generations of families who have dedicated their lives to helping the Holy Land prosper.
Mira, an engaging young woman with Indian features and Hebrew-accented English, told us about the history of the ornate synagogue appropriately occupying the center of the Moshav. The hammered pewter reliefs decorating the red-painted walls were reminiscent of an Indian temple. But the Hebrew biblical verses lining the walls and the velvet curtain covering the ark where the holy scrolls rested reminded me that we were not in the Far East. Rather, we were standing on ground where our forefathers once stood. Each piece of the building was lovingly brought over from India and provides a magnificent fusion of their former and present lives; allowing them to build a future without forgetting their past. When asked if the entire community is still religious, Mira offered what she explained was a traditional Indian response.
“If you cut a cake into enough pieces, there will be something for everyone.”
I left Moshav Nevatim utterly inspired by people who left a community that was comfortable and familiar for land that was barren and unforgiving so that they could help rebuild the land promised to Abraham. I wondered if I would have been so dedicated.
As our group descended from the bus in the Bedouin community of Tel Sheva just a few kilometers outside the city, we were eager to taste the traditional meal waiting for us. We gorged ourselves on a sumptuous vegetarian meal of warm, homemade lafa (round flat bread), rice flavored with cardamom and saffron; chickpeas with garlic and parsley marinated in olive oil and lemon; chopped cucumber and tomato salad topped with fresh mint and lemon; and freshly-baked almond cookies with just a hint of sweetness.
Sitting down to this customary Middle Eastern lunch in a Bedouin tent, I would discover that, even in 2009, there are special people who break societal norms while still remaining true to their faith. Mariam Abu Rakeek, also known as Daughter of the Desert, grew up in a traditional Bedouin family. Dressed modestly, her hair and body completely covered, her warm smile exuded warmth and good cheer.
“Welcome, welcome to my tent. Please, before I tell my story, eat. Eat and I hope you enjoy the meal. Hospitality is very important to us. Then, with a twinkle in her eye and a slightly mischievous grin on her face, she added, “If you have any questions, please ask. Just don’t ask when I will get married. You’ll sound too much like my family.”
Despite immense community pressure, she convinced her father to let her study business in at Luton University just outside London. She returned to her Bedouin family, but without money, was not sure how she could implement her business acumen. Selling the few gold bracelets she owned and borrowing money from skeptical sisters and brothers-in-law, she opened a cosmetics business in her lovingly decorated tent. She employs natural herbal recipes she learned from her grandmother and also tests her own ideas. Each lotion, cream and bar is handmade by Mariam or one of her sisters whom she can now afford to hire. Sitting on brightly colored pillows, listening to her story as we sipped sweet tea flavored with sage and lemon out of traditional glass teacups, I had a sense of the hospitality enjoyed by the three angels who visited Abraham’s tent. Avner, himself, referred to the story of Abraham.
“Imagine that this tent is divided in two by a brightly colored carpet; men on one side and women on the other. That is how it is arranged in most Bedouin tents and how it was when Sarah listened as the visitors promised Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son in one year’s time.”
Unlike the other places I visited in Be’er Sheva, you must make a reservation to visit Mariam as she is busy developing and selling her products. But she is easy to reach by email.
Before re-boarding the bus, I looked out to the East and saw the hills of Hebron that Abraham traveled on his way to Be’er Sheva and felt such a sense of awe as I realized that I actually had the opportunity to travel in his footsteps.
Though it has been an action-packed day, we still had two destinations left on our itinerary. Situated between Tel Sheva to the east and the modern city of Be’er Sheva to the west, Tel Be’er Sheva is an archaeological site believed to be the ancient city of Be’er Sheva mentioned throughout the Bible. Trying to reach the ancient cistern located there, we descended steps that were 2,700 years old!
It was getting late but I was eager too see the last site on the tour. Driving the short distance to the edge of Be’er Sheva’s Old Town neighborhood, we saw the original well that Breitling Superocean Heritage Replica Abraham dug. Standing above it during a brilliant sunset¸ Avner Goren explained the importance of this Replica Watches well. Of course, the well guaranteed a constant water source for residents and their flocks. But it also meant something more. Digging a well meant that Abraham would, at least temporarily, stop his wandering. Digging a well is a sign of settling down. From here, the story of the Holy Land would unfold.
No longer a newcomer, I still appreciate the marvels of living a modern twentieth-century life in such a holy place. Sometimes, I’m stuck in traffic, growing frustrated that I will be late for a meeting. Then, I look up and see the sunlight dancing on the ancient walls of Jerusalem’s Old City and I remember what a miraculous place this is.
…and Avimelech said to Abraham, “What mean these seven ewes which you have set apart?” 30He replied, “You are to accept these seven ewes from me as proof that I dug this well.” 31 Hence that place was called Be’er-sheva, for there the two of them swore an oath. (Genesis 21:29-31)
Join Travelujah on our virtual Negev tour of the Zin Valley, Ramon Crater and Eilat. Register here.
Onnie Schiffmiller works as a freelance tour guide.