Shivta National Park

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Shivta National Park showcases the impressive remains of a Byzantine city that existed in the heart of a desert area with no natural water sources whatsoever. The splendid churches, streets, and homes are astonishing even today.

Points of interest

  1. The remains of a partially-restored Byzantine city
  2. Byzantine-era churches
  3. Reconstruction of an orchard using Nabatean growing methods
  4. The remains of columbaria (dovecotes)

 

Points of interest in detail:

The Colt delegation house - a stone building to the south of the parking area, built by the excavation delegation from New York University and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, headed by Harris Dunscombe Colt (son of the well-known American gun manufacturer). The delegation excavated at Shivta between 1934 and 1936.


The Western Gate – Shivta was not surrounded by a wall, and no fortifications were found, but the outermost houses of the city were built in a line, in the form of a city wall. The entrance of the street to the west of the city, called the Western Gate, serves as a kind of gate.

The Stable House is a large residential house built around an inner courtyard. A flight of stairs shows that there was another residential story. In one of the rooms, water troughs and mangers are incorporated in the walls, indicating that this wing of the house was used for livestock. The average size of houses in Shivta, including the courtyard, is around 360 m².

The Pool House - the house, bordering on the public pools of Shivta, is an example of the high building standards of the Shivta homes. The lower part of the walls, up to around 2 m, is built of hard, roughly-hewn limestone, while the upper part of the walls are built of soft, well-worked limestone. The thickness of the walls is 70 cm, providing the houses with excellent insulation. In the corner of the courtyard the opening of a cistern was found, a fixture in the Shivta houses. Another characteristic is the geometric decorations on the lintels and bases of the entrances.

The Pools Square - a square in which there are two large pools (only one of which has been excavated). The waters of the pools came from an aqueduct at a distance of 2.5 km from the city, and then through channels that can still be seen today. The cisterns in the courtyards of the houses were private, but the pools were used by the general public.

The Southern Church – the Southern Church was apparently built over a Nabatean-era ritual building. The prayer hall is in the form of a basilica - a nave, separated from 2 side halls (aisles) by two rows of columns. The nave is paved with marble slabs, while the aisles are paved with limestone. Two square rooms were built alongside the apse, as was customary in the Negev cities of the 4th century. Later, apparently at the beginning of the 6th century, apses with small niches were built in place of these rooms, in which the relics of saints were placed in special reliquaries. To the north of the church a large baptistery was built. Both infants and adults were baptized in baptisteries of this kind, and these would have included some members of the nomadic population wanting to convert to Christianity.

The Mosque - to the north of the baptistery the remains of a hall were found, with two rows of columns, three columns in each row. The mosque presumably served the Muslims who settled in Shivta, or Shivta residents who converted to Islam. At the entrance to the mosque is a stone step inscribed with a cross, which appears to prove that there were no Christians living in Shivta when the mosque was in existence.  

The Governor's House - the title of the "Governor's House" was given to a private residential building that incorporates a tall tower, which has survived to a height of almost 6 m. The ceiling of the tower is almost twice as high as that of a regular home, and on the assumption that there were three stories, when complete the tower would have risen to a height of 12 m. The lintel decorations of the restored entrance remain in excellent condition, as is the original stone slab roofing of the first story. 

The Northern Square - according to the buildings in and around the large square, it may be assumed that it was the focus of Shivta's social and economic life. In the eastern part of the square a wine press was found, and to the north of it a building with a large courtyard, with stone benches along the walls. In another room of the house, more stone benches were found. This building may have served as the Shivta town hall, in which people gathered to discuss the affairs of the moment.

The Northern Church - in the large church of Shivta, the walls have been preserved to a height of 10 m. Inscribed on the entrance gate are the letters alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, hinting at the words of Jesus: "I am the beginning and the end". The church is built in the style of a basilica. The prayer hall is entered through a square atrium, surrounded by two-story halls and rooms, apparently used as a monastery. The prayer hall and some of the walls were faced with marble. In the two side apses niches were found, in which chests containing sacred objects were kept. Through a side entrance in the southern side hall it is possible to enter two chapels, one of them a baptism chapel, in which a large, cruciform baptismal font was found, entirely carved from a single stone. In the chapel there were marble tombstones of the religious figures who were buried there.

The Central Church - a relatively small church, apparently incorporated in an existing residential area. The three entrances to the prayer hall face directly onto the street.

The Vaulted House - the Vaulted House is a very impressive example of stone slab roofing at Shivta, the slabs laying on stone vaults that have been preserved in their entirety.
The large winepress - the winepress contains a large treading area, paved with stone tiles. Around the winepress are separate chambers, in which the vine-growers laid their grapes and waited for their turn.

The reconstructed orchard - the orchard lies some 700 m to the north of Shivta. It can be reached on foot along a clear path, leaving from the Northern Church. The orchard reconstructs an ancient agricultural farm, and the trees planted in it - carob, fig, almond, plum, olive, pomegranate, pistachio, peach, apricots and grapevines - receive all the water that they need from rainwater diverted to the orchard, just as they did in ancient Shivta.

Dovecotes (columbaria) - on the agricultural fringes of Shivta there were, in the past, four or five dovecotes in the form of circular or square stone towers rising to a height of 8 to 10 m. Thousands of doves were bred in each of these towers, producing large quantities of droppings, used to improve the soil. Today it is possible to see the remains of two dove towers. The western columbarium lies on a hill some 300 m to the north-west of Shivta (and 100 m to the west of the access road to the site). The southern columbarium is on a hill to the south of Zetan Stream, some 400 m south of Shivta.

Geographic location

Shivta lies in the western Negev. To reach the site: drive west from Tlalim Junction towards Nitsana (Road 211), and after 19 km, at Shivta Junction, turn south, arriving at the site in 9 km.

Lookout points

The excavation waste mounds between the Governor's House and the Northern Square – the lookout point offers a good view of Shivta and its ruins. It also overlooks sites found outside Shivta, such as Mitspe Shivta to the north, and Mt Safun and Mt Raviv to the south-west.

Identity card

Ancient Shivta is a declared national park, covering an area of 1420 dunams. Since 2005, Shivta has been included in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, together with the Nabatean cities of Avdat and Mamshit, as part of the Incense Route. The inhabited area of ancient Shivta was around 90 dunams. The archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld identified 170 homes in Shivta.

Reasons for declaration:

  • Conservation of the remains of the ancient culture
  • Conservation of architecture

​Activities of the Nature and Parks Authority

  • Archaeological excavations and conservation of buildings from the  and Byzantine periods (in cooperation with professionals in these fields)
  • Preparing the site for visitors.

Geography

Shivta lies in the western Negev plain, an area of low hills and ranges mainly made up of Eocene and Cenomanian epoch chalk with flint concretions. The hills rise to an elevation of between 200 and 450 m above sea level (Shivta itself is some 350 m above sea level). The soil in these areas is loess or sandy loess, entirely covering the contour, both hills and valleys. The loess is shallow for the most part on the hillsides, and in the valleys may reach a depth of a few meters. With appropriate irrigation, loess is a fertile habitat, even when the quantity of rainfall is relatively small. The sandy texture of the loess soil in the area of Shivta helps to collect the precipitation in the area, and considerably reduces the loss of surface run-off water and direct evaporation from the surface. 

History and archeology

The beginnings of Shivta are lost in the mists of time. A small number of archaeological finds, mainly Nabatean potsherds, are evidence that the Nabateans first settled here in the Roman period (1st – 2nd centuries CE). The majority of the homes found at the site were built later, in the 4th – 5th centuries CE, a period when Shivta began to flourish. At that time, when Christianity penetrated the Negev, we see a blossoming of the entire area, mainly due to the consolidation of the borders of the Byzantine Empire and the security that prevailed throughout the country. It appears that the Negev at that time was more humid and rainy than it is today.

The first inhabitants of Shivta were Nabateans, members of an Arab tribe. Although their ethnic origin is clear, it is not known for certain when they began to appear in the area as an independent entity. The earliest Nabatean coins and inscriptions found at Shivta are from the beginning of the 2nd century BCE. 

At first, most of them lived as nomads, breeding camels, sheep and goats. The Nabateans accumulated great wealth when they developed the Incense Route in the Negev, which ran to the ports of Gaza and Hrinokorura (El Arish). However, in the 1st century BCE the Romans learned to sail ships from India to Egypt and from there to the Nile, in competition with the route that was controlled by the Nabateans. Trade along the Incense Route declined, until it ceased altogether in the 3rd century CE. Many of the Nabateans converted to Christianity and began engaging in agriculture. The big wave of agriculture in the Negev was demonstrated in the form of splendid farms and settlements.

Shivta too became a flourishing settlement, in which over 2000 people lived. Its economy was based mainly on agriculture, and on providing services to the pilgrims coming to worship at the tombs of the saints buried in the churches at Shivta.

Shivta is mentioned by name in a book from the 5th century known as "The Tales of St Nilus". The monk Nilus tells of his son Theodulus, who was kidnapped in southern Sinai, and after many tribulations ended up in a village by the name of Sobeita, where he was offered for sale. One of the villagers bought him, and sold him to the Bishop of Halutsa, who returned him to his father.

Shivta is also mentioned in two papyri found at Nitsana. One papyrus mentions 30 donors from the Negev who raised funds to build the monastery of St Sergius at Nitsana. Nine donors came from Shivta, evidence of the community's strong financial status. The other papyrus, a copy of which was sent to Shivta, was written at the end of the 7th century (after the Muslim conquest). It was intended to organize a delegation of landowners in the Negev, wanted to protest against the heavy taxes imposed by the new regime.

Shivta continue to exist even after the Muslim conquest, but its residents gradually left their homes until, by the end of the 9th century, it was completely abandoned. 

The meaning of the name Shivta is unclear. It is possible that its name (Subieta, or in Greek: Sobota) commemorates a Nabatean figure, something that is known from the cities of Avdat and Halutsa. "Shubito" is a common Nabatean first name.

Flora

It is hard to know what was the original vegetation of the loess plains around Shivta, because agricultural cultivation in the area has destroyed the vegetation cover. The rocky hills are dominated by Artemisia sieberi, a typical desert plant that covers large areas of the Negev. The bushy bean caper (Zygophyllum dumosum) is also very common. Saxaul (Haloxylon scoparium) is common in the loess areas, while in the areas that were cultivated, the common plant is santolina yarrow (Achilea santolina).

How to get here: Drive west from Tlalim Junction towards Nitsana (Road 211), and after 19 km, at Shivta Junction, turn south, driving 9 km to the site.

For those coming from Road 40 (Beersheba – Shizafon), from Tlalim Junction continue 30 km westward on Road 211. At the junction, beside the filling station, drive 10 km southward. 

 

Length of visit: 1 hour

 

Best season: All year round

 

Don't miss: Looking at the architecture that has survived thousands of years.  

Entrance fee

Free of charge

 Further information

 Click here for site pamphlet


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    Shivta National Park