83km (52 miles) S of Jerusalem; 113km (70 miles) SE of Tel Aviv

For thousands of years, Beersheva was a trading post and desert watering hole; its modern history as a settled town dates only from its founding as a small outpost of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire in 1907. The book of Genesis contains two versions of the story of the town's origin. The first tells of a covenant made between Abraham and Abimelech over a well that Abraham had dug in the desert here. The second story also involves a well (in Hebrew, be'er) dug by the servants of Isaac, who gave the well and the town its name: "And he called it Shebah: therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba unto this day." The phrase "from Dan to Beersheva" appears repeatedly throughout the Bible. Dan was at the northern boundary of traditional Israelite territory; Beersheva at the southern end.

Today, Beersheva is the capital of the northern Negev, and a sprawling city of 250,000 inhabitants, with housing projects, shopping malls, and newer districts of detached and semidetached homes surrounded by increasingly lush gardens. The ever-expanding Ben-Gurion University rivals the universities at Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, and is the pride of the city. Immigrants from more than 70 nations have settled here, and tucked away throughout the city you'll find unusual synagogues, cultural centers, and shops serving these diverse communities. But the region still doesn't have enough jobs for its people, and Beersheva, like other towns in the Negev, faces serious economic problems.


Tourism-wise? Beersheva's Sinfonietta is so good that world capitals would kill to have it, and a bit of community atmosphere can be found in the old downtown district, where there are a few authentic, long-running family eateries, plus some cafes with occasional live entertainment. The "Well of Abraham" site has been excavated, but in the crush of the city, you don't get much feel for the exotic, tribal oasis described in the Bible. A much-touted Thursday-at-dawn Bedouin market is now mostly ultracheap junk (excellent Bedouin crafts can be found at the Lakiya Bedouin/Negev Weaving project). But the city offers little atmosphere, ancient or modern, and only one decent hotel (which at press time was busy housing Israelis evacuated from Gaza in 2005). Unless you're visiting the university, you'll find Arad, The Dead Sea, and Mitzpe Ramon are better bases for overnighting if you want to explore the beauty of the Negev landscape.