One of the magnificent six: secrets from the Byzantine city of Shivta

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.

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.

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 site and its hinterland were inscribed onto the UNESCO list in 2005; its designation is based on the conservation of its architecture and the value of its ancient cultural heritage.

During the late summer of 2018, when average temperatures in the Negev are around 33ºC, common sense suggested that a visit to this remote outpost of civilisation should be conducted in the late afternoon. Although the temperature was a major factor, the rich orange setting sun provided an additional motive, projecting eerie hues and tones onto the limestone ruins, sending jagged shadows stretching across the ancient streets.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 offering traditional Arab and Jewish cuisine.

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. These provided water to the public bathing pools and private high-status residences in the town, while the system also irrigated fields with barley, fruit trees, grapes, olives, and wheat nearby. Evidence for food procurement, processing, and storage remains are readily apparent within the town suburbs. Numerous wine presses suggest that wine production was undertaken on a large scale, and it has been estimated that Shivta produced around two-million litres of wine in its lifetime. Dovecotes (or columbaria) are also located on the fringes of the town. Originally there were four, or maybe five, of these: each structure was circular in plan and home to at least 8,000 doves (and pigeons). These feathered occupants would have produced much-prized guano, which was collected and spread over the fields as manure. Each dovecote may have produced as much as 15 tons per year.

The magnificence and splendour of the Northern Church makes it easy to overlook the faint traces of paintwork still adorning the masonry. These painted surfaces become prominent once more after running the photographs of it through DStretch (shown below).

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.

It seems only fitting that one of the most notable structures in this desert ruin is the western gate. Surprisingly, perhaps, this was not part of a town wall, but simply provided a suitably grandiose main entrance to the town. The absence of a fortified wall suggests that the town initially flourished during peaceful times, although it is noticeable that the western stretch of the town boundary forms a low but continuous barrier.

One of the largest residential properties is the Stable House, which was arranged around a rectangular courtyard, while a surviving flight of stone stairs points to the existence of a first floor. Despite the wealth apparent from this desirable property, excavation revealed that the owners shared their property with livestock, as stone water troughs were attached to the walls of a winged annexe.

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.

An ornately engraved if misplaced lintel preserves painted infilled sections including (below) a curious tree painting (brought out using DStretch).

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 (see CWA 90), 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’.

Part of the reason for the impressive architecture of this church is that it also formed part of a monastery. Its wealth can be gauged from the walls of a prayer hall once being sheathed in marble. There were also two side-chapels, one of which contained a large cruciform baptismal font carved from a single block of stone, and a cache of marble tombstones that had once marked nearby burial places.

To the north of this church, another place of worship can be found, in the form of the foundations of a mosque. This would have been used by the Muslim community who settled in the town during the later stages of its life, probably after the Arab Conquest of the 7th century AD.

True colours

While walking around the site in 2014 and in 2018, I noticed it was not only the churches that still bore traces of paint, but also many of the doorways, niches, and walls belonging civic buildings. Was this simply modern graffiti, or something more ancient? As the red pigment had faded into the dressed and porous stone surfaces, I suspected that these patterns and figurative designs had weathered over the millennia and was far from being idle graffiti.

Dog-tooth decoration around the arch of a niche within the Northern Church becomes vivid once more when this photograph is enhanced using DStretch software (shown below).

Elsewhere, blocks of engraved stonework revealed something of the former splendour of the religious and civic buildings that occupy the town centre. It was these engraved stone blocks, several of which formed large door lintels, which initially drew my attention. On close scrutiny faint traces of haematite were still visible within the symmetrical patterns carved into the stone. From these tell-tale traces of pigment, one must assume that many of the surfaces within the churches and other civic buildings were once lavishly painted, with paint also sometimes used to enhance the numerous carved stone blocks.

All I could see on the stone were the faintest traces of red paint. DStretch, though, identified pigment on many of the engraved and worked stone surfaces. Thanks to this software, I also noticed later Islamic inscriptions and Bedouin tribal symbols, along with British Mandate and Jewish graffiti.

Although much of the engraved and painted stonework was, following the initial excavation programme, wrongly rebuilt into the town’s public spaces, such as the lintel stones over doorways, their powerful iconography should not be underestimated. Painted patterns were also found in abundance in and around the churches occupying the central part of the town. Patterns ranged from simple linear designs to repetitive – dog-tooth – triangular patterns that extended around the arches of the niches of the principal spaces of each church.

Thanks to DStretch, we can get even closer to understanding what a visitor to Shivta would have experienced during the city’s heyday. That period of occupation may only have spanned a few centuries, but it was a time when Shivta’s wealth and status were expressed through the exuberance of its architecture and the artistic expressions that adorned it.

All images: George Nash
Further information
Entry to Shivta is free. To reach the site, drive west from the Tlalim Junction towards Nitsana (Road 211). After 19km you reach the Shivta Junction; the site lies 9km to the south of the junction. For more details, see

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