Travel: Secrets from the Byzantine city of Shivta

4 mins read
Six Byzantine cities once flourished in the Negev Desert, but then the climate changed and these settlements were abandoned, leaving spectacular ruins for future generations to explore. At Shivta, the most impressive surviving structure is the Northern Church, which was once part of a wealthy monastery.

How did cities come to flourish in the Negev Desert? George Nash has gone in search of Shivta’s former glory.

The Negev Desert of southern Israel holds many secrets from the distant past. Its landscape and environment are no longer what they were during the Byzantine period, which roughly extended from the 5th century AD through to the mid 15th century (when its capital Constantinople fell), but one of its secrets is a group of six abandoned Byzantine cities – the ‘Magnificent Six’ – that once flourished in slightly cooler and wetter conditions than today. These desert cities survive as well-defined ruins, sitting at the heart of extensive formerly farmed landscapes. Such agriculture produced the necessary economic resources to sustain the dynamic settlements growing within this arid region.

One of the Magnificent Six is the town of Shivta, which stands around 350m above sea level, within the western section of the Negev Desert, close to the Israeli–Egyptian border.

The remains of one of the side aisles in the Southern Church at Shivta. Columns once supported the ceiling, while the side aisle was paved with limestone. It may not have been the first place of worship on the site, as traces of Nabatean activity have been detected here.

Streets of Shivta

Shivta lies on the Incense Route that ran between Oman, Yemen, and the Port of Gaza, via the Arabian Desert and Jordan, a distance of 2,400km. The route, which also took in the desert cities of Avdat, Haluza, and Mamshit, was used for over 700 years. The main trading commodities included frankincense, myrrh, ceramics, and metalwork, which were transported by camel caravans. Engraved images of harnessed camels from this period appear on exposed rock-outcrops nearby. Later on, a pilgrim route also developed, which ultimately led the faithful to the walled monastery of St Catherine near the foot of Mount Sinai.

It is likely that the town was first settled during the Nabatean period, from the early part of the 1st century BC. Roman occupation is also apparent in the southern part of the town, but much of the architecture in evidence at Shivta suggests Byzantine handiwork, with many houses appearing to date between the 4th and 5th centuries AD. It is at this time that communities in the Negev began to embrace Christianity.

A general view of the ruins forming the central part of Shivta, with the remains of the Northern Church (left) dominating the scene.

Based on the archaeological evidence, Shivta was slowly but surely abandoned towards the end of the 9th century AD, probably due to a gradually warming climate, resulting in reduced water supply and social turmoil following the Arab Conquest in the 7th century AD. After this point, the town’s population began to dwindle. Prior to the Arab Conquest, Shivta was probably home to over 2,000 inhabitants. In the 200-year period following the Arab Conquest, however, Shivta’s buildings fell into disrepair and eventually collapsed. Over the next thousand years or so, many areas of the site were buried beneath the shifting desert sands, thus concealing a wealth of archaeology and history until its rediscovery.

Uncovering a hidden town

The site was first excavated between 1933 and 1936 by American archaeologist Harris D Colt (a scion of the famous gunmaking dynasty). Colt lived in a house on the site that still bears a Greek inscription reading: ‘With good luck Colt built [this house] with his own money!’ The building was constructed in 1936, and stands south of the modern car park, where it now serves as a restaurant.

Colt’s excavations revealed that the city’s complex street network was flanked by dwellings, temples, and civic and commercial buildings. Surprisingly, it became apparent that the town had no natural water supply in the form of wells or springs. Instead, water was transported to the town via a complex irrigation system, which channelled rainwater from the surrounding landscape into rock-hewn underground water cisterns.

An ornately engraved lintel preserves painted infilled sections including (on the right) a curious tree painting (brought out using DStretch).

More recent excavations by Israeli archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld during the 1990s made full use of modern excavation techniques to identify a further 170 dwellings, revealing the full complexity of the town. Following these archaeological endeavours, when walking the streets of Shivta today, one’s eye is immediately drawn to the remarkable street scene – its roads, lanes, and buildings still readily apparent to the visitor. In many cases, though, this owes less to the city being cocooned in sand for centuries, than reconstruction work, some elements more sympathetic than others.

The most visible buildings within the town are its churches, two of which still dominate the skyline as visitors approach the ruins. The Southern Church comprises a prayer hall, nave, and two side aisles, which were capped with roofs supported by dressed stone columns. The nave was paved in marble, the aisle floors with limestone. Intriguingly, the church may not have been the first place of worship to occupy the site, as there are signs that it was constructed over a possible Nabatean-era ritual building.

Decoration around the arch of a niche within the Northern Church becomes vivid once more when the photograph is enhanced using DStretch software.

The Northern Church is even more impressive. It was the largest such structure in Shivta, and constructed in the style of a basilica, which still stands to a height of 10m. Parts of its interior, including the prominent niches, were painted, traces of which still survive. A taste of the former splendour of this decoration can be gained from running photographs through ‘decorrelation stretch’. A software package initially developed by NASA, DStretch is perfect for enhancing faded artistry, as it identifies varying hues of red, yellow, and black pigment, helping to make painted patterns, figures, or graffiti more pronounced and/or decipherable. Because of this, DStretch is particularly popular with rock-art specialists studying prehistoric paintings, but it also provides a glimpse of the former opulence of the church. No such technological wizardry is needed to make out another glimpse of the church’s religious significance, provided by the Greek letters alpha and omega having been inscribed on the entrance-gate piers. Carving the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet into the masonry created a simple metaphor for Jesus’s declaration that ‘I am the beginning and the end’.

This is an extract of an article featured in issue 100 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

All images: George Nash

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