northern Negev site located 43 km (27 mi.) southwest of Beersheba, in region 1 of the Beersheba basin, on the north slope of Wadi Zeitan, which drains Subeita's water into the Lavan valley (Gutwein, 1981, pp. 75 (best map), 89). Subeita has been identified with Sobata in the Neṣṣana papyri (nos. 75, 79) and Suka (corrected to “Soubeita” by a medieval Jewish codex) in the fifth-century CE Nilus narrative, a combination martyr document and desert adventure story (Mayerson, 1994). Its present name derives from a modern Arabic designation, but the site is referred to by widely varying names in the modern literature: Shivta (Heb.), Sbeijta, S'baita, Esbeita, Sbaita, Sbeita (Segal, 1983, p. 25, n. 4). Avraham Negev proposes a tentative derivation of the site's name from the Nabatean Shibitu (Negev, 1993, p. 1134).
Beginning in 1870 and continuing throughout the twentieth century, at least five plans of the city have been drawn, the last of which, by Baruch Brimmer, is the basis for recent studies of the city by both Arthur Segal (1983) and Joseph Shereshevski (1986). Portions of the site were excavated, cleared, and restored by the Colt Expedition in 1934–1936 and again by Israel's National Parks Authority in 1958–1960; however, no stratigraphic results have ever been published. The earlier reported occupational history of the site as Nabatean, during the reign of Aretas IV (9 BCE–40 CE), and Byzantine (founded in the late fifth century, with a floruit in the sixth and seventh centuries) is based entirely on inscriptions found on site, on coin finds, and on unstratified pottery published by G. M. Crowfoot. Crowfoot's report was based on pottery and forty-four coins given to her by H. D. Colt from the 1935 Colt Expedition excavations in two trenches laid in a dump on the slope of the hill. Early estimates placing the size of the ancient town at 29 acres have been reduced to 20 acres in recent scholarship, residents' housing being now confined entirely to the unwalled site itself.
The town itself sits in the midst of an agricultural hinterland with visible surface remains of enclosures, farm walls, and agricultural structures (see Gutwein, 1981, p. 241, table 9). Located neither on a major trade route nor road, with cisterns being the only source of water, the city appears to have functioned as a service center and place of residence for the populace of the self-contained hinterland. It was also a market town for the region's pastoral nomads (see the Nilus narrative). Shereshevski (1986) has demonstrated that the dense insulae that constituted the city's housing primarily constituted one-story buildings.
The partially planned, partially unplanned Byzantine city divides structurally into three areas, each of which contains its own Byzantine Christian church integrated into its design. The architecture of the three Byzantine churches follows the Negev's regional and liturgical preferences, uninfluenced by trends and reforms in either Constantinople or Jerusalem as George Kalantzis (1994) has shown.
Early scholarly contentions that the southern part of the city is the oldest, based on the reuse of a Nabatean inscription in the south church, have been challenged by Shereshevski. The south church, a triapsidal structure equipped with a baptistery and side buildings, was decorated with wall paintings and is dated by inscriptions to the beginning of the fifth century to some time after 649. [See Baptisteries; Wall Paintings.] Little is known about the central church, except its plan and the fact that it was built over an earlier building. The north church, or Church of St. George, demonstrates a complicated history from its founding in the early sixth century to its last inscriptional date (648). St. George's lavish size and decoration have been reconstructed by Avraham Negev (1989, pp. 129–142).
- Crowfoot, G. M. “The Nabatean Ware of Sbaita.” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement (1936): 14–27, pls. 1–4.
- Gutwein, Kenneth C. Third Palestine: A Regional Study in Byzantine Urbanization. Washington, D.C., 1981.
- Kalantzis, George. “A Comparison of the Architectural Elements of the Fifth and Sixth Century Byzantine Churches in the Negev and Constantinople.” .
- Mayerson, Philip. “The Desert of Southern Palestine According to Byzantine Sources.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107 (1963): 160–172.
- Mayerson, Philip. “Observations on the ‘Nilus’ Narrationes: Evidence for an Unknown Christian Sect?” In Monks, Martyrs, Soldiers and Saracens: Papers on the Near East in Late Antiquity (1962–1993), pp. 105–128. Jerusalem, 1994.
- Negev, Avraham. “The Cathedral of Elusa and the New Typology and Chronology of the Byzantine Churches in the Negev.” Studium Biblicum Franciscanum/Liber Annuus 39 (1989): 129–142.
- Negev, Avraham. “Negev: The Persian to the Byzantine Periods.” In The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, edited by Ephraim Stern, vol. 3, pp. 1133–1135. Jerusalem and New York, 1993.
- Negev, Avraham. “Sobata.” In The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, edited by Ephraim Stern, vol. 4, pp. 1404–1410. Jerusalem and New York, 1993.
- Ovadiah, Asher. Corpus of the Byzantine Churches in the Holy Land. Theophaneia, 22. Bonn, 1970. See pages 166–173.
- Segal, Arthur. The Byzantine City of Shivta (Esbeita), Negev Desert, Israel. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, no. 179. Oxford, 1983.
- Shereshevski, Joseph. “Urban Settlements in the Negev in the Byzantine Period.” Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1986. .
Dennis E. Groh