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Beersheba was founded in 1900 in the northern part of the Negev desert in the Province of Jerusalem in Ottoman Palestine. It is one of the few cases of pre-planned urban development in the late Ottoman Empire. As a fully-fledged city built from scratch, the imperial administration hoped that Beersheba would serve as a bridgehead to the arid lands between Transjordan and the Sinai Peninsula. The British takeover of Egypt in 1882 that culminated in the administrative division of Palestine and Egypt in 1906 made Beersheba even more of a frontier town. After 1906, the Ottomans started to fortify the border with Egypt. British and Ottoman officials vied for control over the local population, which consisted largely of Arabic-speaking pastoral nomads with a segmentary tribal organization and a Bedouin identity.

The newly-built city was meant to embody the modernity of the Ottoman Empire, which was pursuing a ‘civilizing’ mission designed to dominate ‘unruly’ elements in society such as nomads. Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) sought to encourage Arab subjects’ loyalty to the Ottoman state. Thus, Beersheba was designed to be a place where Bedouins could be educated, ‘socialized’, and sedentarized into the Ottoman community and from where ‘civilization’ would gradually spread throughout the district.

Although Ottoman officials portrayed Beersheba as a purely Ottoman initiative exclusively aimed at the Bedouin population and detached from the allegedly ‘corrupting’ influence of urban Arab notables, most of the engineers, administrative staff, builders, merchants, and technical experts involved in Beersheba were Arab Palestinian urbanites. It remains unclear whether these individuals and families hijacked the Ottoman scheme, whether they were part of a pro-Ottoman network, or whether the anti-urbanite rhetoric of the Ottoman officials was simply a political tool, whereas relations on the ground were more pragmatic.

This project, which is largely based on Ottoman documents, covers the last decades of Ottoman rule up to the First World War (1860–1914). It examines the town itself, its relationships with the rural population in its vicinity – sedentary as well as nomad – and with the Ottoman authorities and its representatives at both the local and imperial levels.

Sources and innovation

Our goal is to make ample use for the first time of data contained in Ottoman Turkish documents housed in the Central Ottoman Archive in Istanbul (formerly Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi, BOA, now T.C. Cumhurbaşkanlığı Devlet Arşivleri Başkanlığı – Osmanlı Arşivi / Turkish Presidency State Archives of the Republic of Turkey).

The lack of first-hand testimony from the Bedouins themselves generally makes it hard to capture their emic perspective, but we can attempt to identify their priorities, opportunities, and constraints, and hence capture in some sense the factors shaping their decision-making.

To date, hardly any research based on Ottoman documents has been carried out on Ottoman Beersheba, with the notable exception of four articles (Avcı 2009; Amara 2016a, 2016b, 2018; Solomonovich and Kark 2019). Some Ottoman documents on Beersheba are also available in translation in Kushner 2005. The most in-depth study of Ottoman Beersheba so far was undertaken by Nimrod Luz (2005, 2008). However, his work is not directly based on Ottoman sources, but rather on secondary literature and an Arabic-language study of the Beersheba district by its former governor ʿArif al-ʿArif (al-ʿArif 1934).

Thus the case of Beersheba is likely to reveal a whole host of underappreciated/under-researched histories and make it possible to revisit and possibly revise theoretical considerations related to the comparisons of empires, nomad-state relations, and frontiers as contact zones.

Research Aims

The aim of this project is to transcend the empire-centered vision of previous studies and better understand the perspectives, agency, and contributions of local actors. Our previous studies on the neighboring town of Gaza showed that by 1900, many Bedouin groups were well-informed about Ottoman state-building efforts, and knew how to leverage legal institutions and the discourse of Ottoman reform to serve their own interests. The main goal of the Beersheba project is to understand the perspectives of Ottoman, Bedouin, and other local actors, trace their interactions, and evaluate the findings within the regional and global contexts.

More generally, this project aims to use the case of Beersheba to understand frontiers as zones of encounter established by the global push of expanding modern states (McDougall 2012; Oba 2013) based on the idea that a frontier is both an edge and a meeting place.

We also hope to harness the data collected during this project to compare the case of Beersheba to Ottoman town planning efforts in similar settings elsewhere as described in the literature on similar cases of towns or neighborhoods established during the late Ottoman period. This comparison will help identify patterns of urban politics, modes of relationships between the urban and rural populations, and the complex interactions and power relationships between the imperial center and the secondary provincial towns in the Empire’s provinces.


Clearly, being Bedouin in the late Ottoman period did not automatically equate with being marginal. Likewise, Ottoman officials did not have a uniform ‘colonial’ or ‘Orientalist’ mindset, even though some of them adopted techniques of rule and urban planning utilized in European colonies as models. Drawing on Actor Network Theory (Latour 2005), we view Beersheba as an ‘assemblage’ of human actors, natural factors, material goods, technology, and ideas. Several reasons for the establishment of the town can be cited, but they all hinged on the existence of the large Bedouin population in the area. To better understand social relations and politics on the ground, we will examine Marc Aymes’ (Aymes 2013) postulate that ideas and strategies of European colonialism were grafted upon indigenous traditions of provincial governance and frontier management.

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