Photo Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
The excavation at Rahat.

A 1,200-year-old luxurious rural estate, the first of its kind to be discovered in the Negev, was exposed in an archaeological excavation that was carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority and funded by the Israeli government’s Authority for the Development and Settlement of the Bedouin, ahead of expansion works in the town of Rahat.

Rahat is a predominantly Bedouin city in southern Israel, 12 miles from Beer Sheva, population 75,000. As such, it is the largest Bedouin city in the world.

Aerial view of the rural estate uncovered in Rahat, with the vaulted complex in the center. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

A surprise awaited the archaeologists in the building courtyard: a unique vaulted complex overlying a three-meter-deep rock-hewn water cistern.

The water cistern. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The building, dating to the Early Islamic period (8th-9th centuries CE), was constructed around a central courtyard and comprised four wings with rooms to serve the needs of the residents.

Aerial view of the rural estate uncovered in Rahat, with the vaulted complex in the center. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

In one wing, there was a hall paved with a marble and stone floor and walls decorated with frescoes (murals – DI). The extant small fresco fragments were finely colored in red, yellow, blue, and black.

Other rooms in the building had plaster floors, and in other rooms, very large ovens—probably for cooking—were uncovered. Amongst the small finds were fragments of delicate decorated glass serving dishes.

Oren Shmueli, Dr. Elena Kogan-Zehavi, and Dr. Noé D. Michael, the directors of the IAA excavations, said, “We were surprised to discover a complex of stone-built vaults at a depth of 5.5 meters below the courtyard, standing to a height of 2.5 meters. The vaults were carefully constructed, and they probably led into additional underground complexes that have not yet been uncovered.”

Artifacts retrieved in the rural estate. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“Our biggest surprise was the discovery of an opening below the vaulted rooms, that led into a deep rock-hewn cistern,” they continued. “It seems that the stone-built underground vaults were built as storerooms to hold foodstuffs at fairly cool temperatures, and the supporting vaulted structures enabled the residents to move around underground safely and comfortably, to protect themselves from the scorching summer heat, and to drink cool water from the adjacent cistern. The clay oil lamp sherds retrieved on the vault floors were used for lighting the dark rooms, providing evidence of the residents’ activity here.”

The excavation site at Rahat. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

“The luxurious estate and the unique underground vaults are evidence of the owners’ means,” said the excavation directors. “Their high status and wealth allowed them to build a luxurious mansion that served as a residence and for entertaining.”

“We can study the construction methods and architectural styles, as well as learn about daily life in the Negev at the beginning of Islamic rule,” they added.

The hall paved with marble and stone floor. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

IAA Director Eli Eskosido noted that “the excavation in Rahat is the result of close cooperation between the IAA and the Authority for the Development and Settlement of the Bedouin. In the excavation, the luxurious estate was uncovered in an area located between two ancient mosques, perhaps among the earliest ever discovered. By a good chance, and much to the local population’s interest and excitement, the Islamic building remains have been discovered in the area planned for expanding the town of Rahat. The IAA and the Authority for the Development and Settlement of the Bedouin are planning together to conserve and exhibit the finds for the general public.”

On Thursday, August 25, the dig site will open to the public for free tours as well as family digging and sieving activities. For details and registration, see the Israel Antiquities Authority Facebook Page.

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