Traveling With History © Allan Seiden 2012
The Negev is my kind of desert. Not too large, yet possessed of diverse landscapes, a grand scale, cushioned silences,
and midday colors that fade to cloud-soft pastels as the end of day closes in, sun-drenched heat replaced by the desert-cold night, the sky alive with a glittering halo of stars.
Despite the harsh environment, people have lived here for millennia. In fact, most of us had ancestors who traversed the Negev in the
migrations out of Africa that started about 60,000 years ago and continued for the next 50,000 years. Some headed north and west into the vastness of Asia, the Pacific islands, and the Americas. Others headed north and east, populating Europe.Some settled in before moving on, many more continued seeking greener pastures.
Neolithic hunters, in search of ibex and other game, wandered the Negev, followed by nomadic peoples whose herds of sheep and goats could survive the harsh climate, providing them with meat and milk, wool, skin and bone. Theirs was a subsistence lifestyle that survived until recently amongst the Bedouin, a non-Arab, desert-dwelling people converted to Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, whose tents are still part of the Negev landscape, although nowadays part of a jury-rigged shanty.
Knowing where to find water has always been a matter of life and death in the Negev. It was something the Nabateans understood. By controlling the wells on the caravan routes from Arabia to the Mediterranean, they created a trading empire that included a number of outposts in the Negev, with the largest, Avdat, partially restored to its Nabatean, and later, Roman past.
Avdat was served by the waters that flowed through a
rocky canyon not far from their hilltop city with its temples, burial niches, wine presses, house sites, and 360-degree views of the Negev lowlands. No caravan made its way without being noticed.
By 200 B.C.E. the Nabateans prosperity allowed them to make their capital, Petra, renowned as a city of magnificent temples, tombs and monuments. Their reign in the Negev came to an end with
the arrival of the Romans in the mid first century with with Nabatean Avdat replaced by Roman Avdat, the Romans adapting to the masterful techniques developed by the Nabateans that made desert agriculture possible and assured a water supply even in times of drought.
While Petra lay fewer than 100 miles to the east, Avdat and Petra were separated by the deep rift that makes the Dead Sea the lowest place on our planet, with steep cliffs rising from both is east and west shores.
The Negev has always been a frontier. It is the geologic boundary between Asia and Africa, part of a fault line that is moving Arabia eastward, and the African plate toward the west, the tectonic movement creating the Negev’s towering cliffs as the rift widens. The Negev, and the Sinai desert to which it is attached, are slowly drifting to the southwest.
The sense of the Negev as an Israeli frontier has existed since the first U.N. division of Palestine in 1947 put the Negev under Jewish control. Today, its 4,633 square miles comprise about 60% of Israel, although it is home to only 7% of Israel’s population.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and first Prime Minister, spoke often of the need to expand into the Negev, seeing it as a frontier waiting to be exploited, a place to make the desert bloom. Ben-Gurion’s grave is a Negev memorial, not far from his home adjacent to the kibbutz Sde Boker. Slow-but-steady growth have changed things in
the six decades that have followed Ben-Gurion’s death, with tourism, mineral extraction, agriculture, and the military, key props to the Negev’s economy. Israel’s nuclear facilities are located here, no longer as isolated as they once were as townships expand and the hills are mined.
Israeli farmers, and agricultural scientists developing growing techniques that have made agriculture possible.
Ben-Gurion spent the last years of his life at a kibbutz (agricultural cooperative) at Sde Boker (where his home, adjacent to the kibbutz is open to visitors). He’s buried along with his wife at a memorial park nearby, where plentiful
Ibex cautiously forage midst the scattered pines.
The Negev landscape combines the austerity and sense of distant horizons of the American southwest,
made accessible by short camel excursions or more intensive jeep tours that make their way through the rocky scree of mountains stained purple to grey, brown to white by the minerals
that define them, ultimately descending in a switchback descent to the blue-green waters of the Dead Sea, visible from as far away as Avdat, the pink hills of Jordan rising in the distance.
The waters of the Dead Sea, like a mirage in the Negev’s parched landscape, are indeed a deceptive miracle, too saline and mineral laden to drink or use. Swimming is impossible, and even floating takes some mastering.
In mistaken effort at scientific enquiry,
I took a dive in to see how long I could stay submerged. The answer came to maybe a second, and eyes that burned for hours from a single underwater blink of my eyes. Yet even the ungainly can stay float here.
The Negev would have an outsize hold on Jewish consciousness, a place where history and identity were forged two thousand years ago, at Masada and Qumrun.
King Herod had a great fortified palace built here, a place tried to escape the political intrigues of Jerusalem and his own descending insanity. From Masada’s 1,300-foot summit, Herod looked east to the Dead Sea and the sun rising above the purple mountains of Moab (today southern Jordan) and settling into the Negev’s mountains, the southernmost portion of his kingdom. The Roman’s occupied Masada, losing it in battle to a Israelite partisans seeking an end to Roman rule in Israel. The Romans then set siege on Masada in a months-long battle that saw the Romans build a massive ramp that allowed them to finally breach Masada’s walls. They found 960 bodies, each killed by another until the last was a suicide.
An equally meaningful site was discovered in the Negev cliffs about 20 miles to the north at Qumrun. It was here that the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish community, lived at about the time of Christ.
It was the scrolls that they left behind in a dry cliffside cave that were discovered by a Bedouin boy herding goats in 1946. They, and other finds made later, proved to be the earliest documents of Jewish scripture as well as journalistic insights into everyday life.
The desert has long been a place of revelation. Its silences are vast and enveloping, almost humming with electrical energy lost in the cluttered complexity of a technological world. The Essenes lived lives of communal, spiritually focused authority, their community surrounding the Qumran caves. Both Masada and Qumran are pilgrimage sites.
Eilat, the Israeli resort on the Red Sea, attracts the sun, surf, and sand pilgrim, Israelis and foreigners who fill restaurants, clubs, snorkel cruises and hotels along the eight-mile-long Israeli foothold on the Red Sea.
Eilat also provides Israeli with shipping access to Asia and Africa.History played out here in 1966, when Egypt closed the Straights of Tiran, where the Red Sea empties into the Indian Ocean, to Israeli ships, thereby blockading Eilat. The war that broke out in 1967 again pitted Israel against a host of enemies. Israel’s victory would prove its future headache, for as a result of the war, Israel gained the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Past and future collide in the Negev. Camel drivers and nuclear scientists rubbing shoulders, Eilat’s hedonistic reality and the cosmic austerity of the desert. And the
stark beauty of the desert bordering the briny waters of the deep blue sea.
Ministry of tourism: goisrael.com
It takes about 2.5 hours to reach the Negev from Tel Aviv. Roads are comparable to American roads, mostly two lane in the Negev.
A good guidebook helps navigate without a guide, although tour options like camel rides or a Bedouin-style dinner and more off-the-beaten path locales can be booked with local tour operators like lanegev.com. Negev cities offer little to attract visitors.
Mitzpe Ramon is a small comfortable town in a central location for touring the Negev, including scenic Maktesh Ramon at the edge of town (where the new Beresheet Hotel, www.isrotelexclusivecollection.com/beresheet, is new five star luxury hotel has recently opened), Avdat and Sde Boker. Accommodations can also be arranged at Sde Boker). In town the Isrotel Mitzpe Ramon
(www.isrotel.com/ramon_inn/is a less pricey alternative complete with spa and pool and nearby restaurants. Jeep tours into the Negev are available at www.desertecotours.com/english/negev and www.negevjeeptours.com/
The Lonely Planet Guide to Israel & the Palestinian Territories, is an excellent planning tool for the Negev.
THE MAGIC OF VIENNA