Virtual Israel Experience
What comes to mind when you think of the desert? Perhaps a scene from Lawrence of Arabia or The Ten Commandments with a solitary person in a white robe and sandals struggling through endless sand and large dunes whipped up by brutal winds under a scorching sun. The Negev in southern Israel can be oppressively hot, but you won’t see the type of sand dunes associated with the Sahara or other deserts. Actually, the Negev is filled more with dirt, rocks and canyons, which are no less forbidding. The Negev is also beautiful, filled with remarkable landscapes, waterfalls, caves, archeological sites, cities, craters and a rich history.
According to the Bible, this is the wilderness where man met God. Here Abraham communed with God, and, centuries later, the prophet Elijah came to the Mountain of God for a momentous encounter with the Creator. This, in fact, is the region that gave birth to civilization on the banks of the great rivers that surround the desert, and in the oases on the fringes of the wilderness. The desert trails of the Negev were the conduits for knowledge, culture and development.
In 1947 and 1948, when the boundaries of the Jewish and Arab states were being debated by diplomats, David Ben-Gurion made it clear the Negev must be part of the Jewish state. Though it was virtually uninhabited and thought by many to be uncultivable, Ben-Gurion knew this region was needed if the state was to grow. He also had faith that the desert could be tamed and turned into a place where Jews could settle and prosper. More than 50 years later, his vision has been realized.
Still, the desert remains largely untamed. The Negev region makes up nearly half the State of Israel, but the population of the desert communities is less than 20% of the total.
The gateway to the Negev is a place that once was little more than a watering hole for Abraham's sheep. Today, Beersheba is a modern city of 130,000 and home to the Ben-Gurion University. It is also a place where you can still buy sheep and camels at the Bedouin market (open Thursdays 6 a.m.-1 p.m.). Roughly 27,000 Bedouin still live their nomadic lifestyle in the Negev.
The name Beersheba comes from "The Well of the Oath" that Abraham made to Abimelech (Gen. 21:27 and 31). A stone-enclosed well said to be the one used by Abraham is at the corner of Derekh Hebron and Rehov Keren. Isaac and Jacob also lived in this area, which later was given to the Tribe of Simeon.
Though the city has remnants from the Roman and Byzantine periods, it was really little more than a collection of wells where Bedouin watered their flocks until the early 20th century when the Turks built a small town. The city was held by the Egyptians at the time of Israel's War of Independence, and was conquered in "Operation Ten Plagues on October 21, 1948.
When Ben-Gurion spoke of the future of the Negev, he was not doing so for mere rhetorical flourish. He believed what he said and made his home there, joining Kibbutz Sde Boker in 1953. Today, the hut where he lived is a small museum devoted to Ben-Gurion's legacy. The kibbutz is about 30 miles south of Beersheba. A few minutes further south, Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula are buried side by side in the shadow of the Heritage Institute that bears his name and overlooking a spectacular desert canyon.
Located south of Beersheba in the Central Negev, Makhtesh Ramon is usually referred to as a crater, but it is not an impact crater from a meteorite, it is actually a "makhtesh," a valley surrounded by steep walls and drained by a single "wadi" (riverbed). It is the world’s largest makhtesh.
Makhtesh Ramon is at the center of two large nature reserves, Har Hanegev and Matzok Hatzinim. Makhtesh Ramon is 25 miles (40 km.) long and 5 miles (9 km.) across at its widest point. Mount Ramon, at the southwest corner of the makhtesh, is the highest peak in the Negev (3,400 feet – 1,037 m.). The name Ramon comes from the Arabic "Ruman" meaning Romans.
Makhtesh Ramon is a geologists’ paradise with fossils, rock formations and volcanic and magmatic phenomenon dating back as much as 220 million years. The Ramon crater began forming when the ocean that covered the desert began to move north. The crater is about 1,650 feet (500 m.) deep. The lowest spot in the crater, Ein Saharonim, contains its only natural water source. From the visitor’s center, it is possible to get a spectacular panoramic view of the crater.
A variety of plants grow in the Ramon area, including Atlantic pistachio trees, buckthorn, globe daisy, tulips and other bushes and shrubs. Many animals also can be found here including the ibex, leopard, striped hyena, sand fox, Dorcas gazelle and the ever popular fat desert rat.
Rappeling off the edge of the crater is popular, but not recommended for beginners. For those who don’t mind a less direct route, there are trails for hikers into the crater. Nearby is one of those bizarre, "what’s it doing in Israel?" kind of attractions — the Mitzpe Ramon Alpaca Farm, which has both alpacas and llamas for the production of wool.
Because of the clear, unpolluted air, the altitude and the absence of lights in the area, Mitzpe Ramon is a great place for star gazing at night. Serious astronomers use the observatory on Mount Ramon.
The tribe of Simon settled in the Negev and King David firmly established Israelite rule over the desert. Solomon subsequently built a string of fortresses along the roads. The fall of the kingdom of Judea was followed by the rise of the Nabateans beginning in the fourth century B.C.E. These traders traveled in caravans from Arabia and made their capital Petra, in what is now southern Jordan. They eventually controlled trade in perfumes and spices and built numerous fortresses along the branch of the Spice Route cutting across the Makhtesh Ramon area.
Part of their success in the harsh desert environment was due to their ingenuity in conserving water. The Nabateans built dams, terraces, cisterns and reservoirs that were very efficient in collecting rain water and irrigating crops. Elements of this water system survive in the ruins of many of the Nabatean cities.
About 14 miles north of Mitzpe Ramon is the Nabatean outpost of Avdat, which was named after their king Obodas (Abdat) II. The ruins of the city and its structures sit atop a hill overlooking the road and an experimental farm set up in 1959 to conduct research on ancient desert agriculture. Most of the surviving structures are not Nabatean, but Roman and Byzantine. The best preserved area is a Byzantine church whose columns and apse are still relatively intact. One suggestion you don’t find in a typical guide book is to lick the wall of the "salt cave" to confirm that it was indeed the place where salt was stored.
Another nearby Nabatean settlement is Shivta, whose ruins date back to the first or second century B.C.E. This city was along the trade root between Gaza, Eilat, the Far East and Arabia. Shivta was a supply center for the northern Negev when the Nabateans were in power and a key outpost to protect pilgrims traveling to Mt. Sinai during the Byzantine period.
Sde Boker is about another six miles south. In between, literally in the middle of nowhere, is the canyon of Ein Avdat. From the rim, you can look down to the riverbed and see the beautiful caparis flowers clinging to the cliffs. It is also possible to hike in the canyon to pools and a waterfall. A number of caves, apparently used by monks, have also been found in the canyon.
Nabatean control of the Negev gradually weakened after the death of King Aretas IV (9 B.C.E.-40 B.C.E.). Fewer camel caravans passed through the area after its takeover by the Romans, and the Spice Route was supplanted by other roads.
Unlike most areas in the country, the Romans did not do a lot to develop the Negev. This changed during the Byzantine period, however, as Christians began to build churches and study centers. Settlement of the Negev came to an end after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. The new rulers had little interest in the area and the residents were expelled.
For centuries, the only people in the Negev were nomads. When the British mandate period began, the region enjoyed rapid growth. The British paved the highway from Beersheva to Eilat, the road from Beersheva to the large Makhtesh and the "Petroleum Road" from Yeruham to Avdat and Makhtesh Ramon. In March 1949, during Israel’s War of Independence, the Israeli army vanquished the Egyptians in the desert campaign and captured the Negev for the State of Israel.
Before leaving the Negev, a visit to a Bedouin village for a cup of sweet tea or strong coffee and a camel ride is a must! Bedouins have lived in the Negev for thousands of years. For the most part, they have given up their wandering lifestyle and live in semi-permanent communities.
Copyright 2008 The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise