The Beer Sheva Central Bus Station is a bustling place. It is the southern terminus of the train tracks and the end of urban civilization for 99% of Israel. Being the hub of the wheel of the Negev, it sends fleets of buses into the desert linking residents of development towns and kibbutzim with home, soldiers with their bases, Bedouin with their encampments and hikers with their trails. Everyone is in a hurry, and other than a brief stop for a sandwich or some last-minute shopping to grab that item they forgot to bring for the trip, few have time to ponder what is beneath their feet: A Byzantine city lays underground, visible through a glass window in the floor that every traveler walks over as they enter and leave the station. 1500 years ago, an equally busy city – also a southern frontier town – lay here. Two large churches, a Roman Army camp, and a busy public market have been discovered under central Beer Sheva, and today’s bus station sits atop the ancient city square.
In Israel, before any construction project can begin, the Antiquities Authority has the right to conduct a salvage excavation, a quick check to see if there is any history underground. In 2009, when the Beer Sheva Bus Station began a major expansion, a large part of Byzantine Beer Sheva was discovered, and the authorities faced the same dilemma that countless Israeli building projects have presented: Build on top of the antiquities? Build around the antiquities? Stop the crucial and expensive infrastructure project to preserve an ancient building that few tourists will bother to visit?
If necessity is the mother of invention, Israel is the land of necessity. After the dig was complete, and the important artifacts were preserved, a large underground space was protected. The Beer Sheva Station is a living roof protecting the underground city for as long as it stands. There under the large glass floor at the entrance one can clearly see the courtyard of a small home with a circular stone granary for storing the year’s wheat harvest, and a small set of steps for descending from the house to the yard. There, 1500 years ago, some family hung their laundry, cooked their meals, and stored their grain.
The window down into history often goes unnoticed. On a recent Friday, a young woman selling flowers for travelers to take home to their spouses and grandmothers decided that this was the perfect spot from which to snag customers.
In a country that includes historical gems like Jerusalem and the holy sites of five religions, it is sometimes easy to forget that for millennia, plenty of unremarkable people have settled here, shopped here, worshipped, farmed, lived and died. It is somehow fitting that the view through this window into history is not of a church or a fortress or a palace, but the back patio of an anonymous family: Just somebody’s house, not unlike the destination of the busy locals rushing to catch a bus above it.
Too often we think of antiquity in terms of kings, prophets, wars and empires. But the vast majority of people that have lived in this land are just like us. Like them we are working, loving, living, and hopefully, eking out a happy existence with our little yards, each with our own versions of this home-made stone granary from 1500 years ago. Being from the far south of Israel, I am in the Beer Sheva bus station at least once a month. I try to remember to stop at the window in the floor, look down at the little home, and symbolically tip my hat to the family who lived and died there. They too, are part of the story of this land. One of my favorite pieces by Yehuda Amichai reflects this beautifully:
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower. I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.”You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.”
“But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: Redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family”.