Israel's Good Name

Archive for the ‘Negev’ Category

University Trip: Arava I

In Israel, Negev on January 15, 2017 at 11:45 AM

Not too long ago Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department hosted its annual two-day trip to a specific region for some intense tours mixed with informative lectures both on-site and off. Last year we took a grand tour of the Kinneret area (posts I, II and III), and this year we headed south, not unlike a migratory bird. Starting early Wednesday morning, our two buses drove southbound passing Yerucham Fortress (a Roman Era stronghold) and the Lost City before reaching the rest stop under the Nabatean ruins of Avdat. As incredible place as Avdat is, we were quickly back on the road heading for the Arava, a particularly dry stretch of the Negev. Entering Mitzpe Ramon, we dropped down into the breathtaking Ramon Crater and persisted southward for another hour of so until we reached our first destination – a lookout at the desert settlement of Shacharut.

Lookout at Shacharut

Lookout at Shacharut

Disembarking, we marveled at the view of the eastern Negev and the red mountains of neighbouring Jordan. We were then introduced to our primary guide for the trip, Dr Uzi Avner, a veteran archaeologist who began his acquaintance with the desert in 1969 as a Field School guide.

Our guide Dr Uzi Avner

Dr Uzi Avner

Whilst walking around taking pictures I noticed an interesting item among the jagged sand-coloured rocks – a crafted flint tool with nicked serrations. Depending on who you ask, this very well might have been a knife used thousands of years ago!

A possible flint knife

A possible flint knife

It was at this lookout that we learned of the first of many desert temples or sites of worship, Dr Avner’s expertise. Continuing on, we were then driven to our next series of destinations in a valley running parallel with Uvda Airbase along the Israel National Trail. Minutes before disembarking once again, we spotted a fox in its grey winter fur running away from the approaching buses.

Gathered at an ancient temple

Gathered at an ancient temple

What we saw next were various remains of numerous ancient, likely prehistoric, desert cultic sites and temples, some with interesting rock carvings decorating what are believed to be ritual altars. I prefer more substantial ruins from more recent periods (especially Crusader) but alas, there was just one building.

Nabatean ruins

Nabatean ruins

This structure was Nabatean, belonging to a group Arab traders who built cities and fortresses in the desert along the ancient Incense Route, including the iconic Petra in Jordan and the aforementioned Avdat. These Nabateans ended up converting to Christianity during the Byzantine era, leaving behind magnificent desert edifices.

Cultic stone carvings

Cultic stone carvings

But we didn’t only learn about ancient religious sites, Professor Ehud Weiss (BIU’s archaeobotanist) showed us an interesting plant called a rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica). This plant is a resurrection plant, meaning that after the rainy season it curls and dries up to hibernate, dead-like, protecting the seeds inside for years until the next rainy season. When that happens the plant that comes back to life, releasing the seeds and then begins the process anew.

Rose of Jericho

Rose of Jericho

Another interesting plant, which I somehow missed out on, was a wild watermelon found in deserts, tiny and practically inedible due to its bitterness. One thing that I didn’t miss out on, and continued to fascinate me throughout the trip, was the never-ending supply of interesting rocks and potsherds scattered all over the place. In between all these interesting sights and moments were the roaring aerial acrobatics of Air Force pilots from the airbase beside us, a fun distraction for some.

Stone leopards at Namerim Temple

Stone leopards at Namerim Temple

Next we saw the most famous of the sites, the Namerim Temple, which was excavated by Dr Avner himself in the 1980s. Believed to be in use from the Neolithic to Bronze Age, this symbolic temple contains many stone depictions of symbolic scenes mostly involving what appear to be leopards – thus the name (namer = leopard). Dr Avner told us an interesting story about how an officer in the Armoured Corps directed tank traffic over the temple remains, crushing some of the leopard designs, and was chastised vis-à-vis his unintentional actions by our Dr Avner. This incident sparked a new interest in the officer and some years later he joined the Antiquities Authority, eventually becoming Dr Avner’s boss, of all people.

Birding in the low shrubbery

Birding in the low shrubbery

Interesting stories aside, it was at the Namerim Temple that the side activity of birding kicked in, with a grand total of three participants. We edged our way into the low, dry shrubbery flushing out streaked scrub warblers, blackstarts and a very bold bluethroat. Unfortunately all of my bird photos came out rubbish, but here’s one that fellow birder Nesia allowed me to use, an amazing shot:

Blackstart (photo Nesia Alon)

Blackstart (photo Nesia Alon)

Wrapping up at Namerim Temple, we gathered ourselves up and headed back to the buses, ready to be taken to the next site on our itinerary: Kibbutz Ketura, to take a look at Methuselah. When excavations were done at Masada in the 1960s by archaeologist Yigal Yadin, a preserved seed of a date palm was found, likely from the food stores of the besieged Jews holding out against the Roman army. This 1,950-year old preserved seed was then germinated, producing a seedling which was eventually planted in the kibbutz, dubbed Methusaleh after the longest-living Biblical character.

Prof Aren Maeir speaking at Methusaleh

Prof Aren Maeir speaking at Methusaleh

From Kibbutz Ketura we drove to our final destination of the day, Kibbutz Elifaz, where we were to spend the night. Once safely inside the kibbutz we rejoined in the dining room for dinner and then headed out for a quick star-gazing tour just outside the kibbutz, in the desert darkness. Powerful green lasers were used first for orientation and to point out celestial marvels and then, when the tour ended, faux lightsaber battles were recreated (including sound effects by the more excitable participants).

Evening in the Arava

Evening in the Arava

Back in the kibbutz we gathered once again to listen to a lecture on acacia trees, and the great effort imparted to sustain the iconic desert plant. Following the lecture was a hard game of trivia in which I went from a very brief 1st place to finish off in a shameful 14th place. Retiring to our country lodging suites, I took a short walk around the area with my friend Itamar and we spotted a barn owl flying about with some fruit bats. The barn owl gave a single “hooo!” and vanished into the night, and I was to see no more birds until the following morning after a hot shower and restful sleep.

University Trip: Northwest Negev

In Israel, Negev on December 18, 2016 at 1:44 PM

Two week ago, on Wednesday, I had an exciting day brewing my first beer – a slightly smoked stout – with my friend Ben from university. Riding on that high come Thursday morning, we then headed off on a university trip to several sites in the northwest region of the Negev led by Dr Shawn Zelig Aster. The first order of business after a quick stop at Beit Kama junction was a lookout across the road from Rahat, the large Bedouin city in the Negev.

Contrast of yellow dirt and blue skies

Contrast of yellow dirt and blue skies

The tour bus took a nice dirt road to the edge of a field, located not far from the old British Rider Police Station which I visited in the post The Negev: Roadside Attractions. From there we had a view of Tel Sera in the distance, an ancient Egyptian, Philistine and Israelite site of mostly agricultural importance, as well as its proximity to Gaza, a major coastal city. Looking about at the expanses of yellow dirt, I spotted movement off in the distance and it wasn’t long before I had a crested lark on the screen of my camera. Next, a darkling beetle made an appearance and the reassuring presence of black kites wheeling overhead – a common sight.

Group photo

Group photo

Moving on, we then pulled into a dirt road on the far side of Tel Sera for get a lay of the land and then crossed Road 25 to enter KKL/JNF’s Nachal Gerar park where we walked to the next tel on our list (a tel being an archaeological mound of layered human settlement). As I’ve become more and more interested in birding, my eyes scanned the area as I spotted various species in Nachal Gerar including stonechats, a Syrian woodpecker, a great tit, my first ever black redstart and some sort of sandgrouse in flight, to name just the highlights.

Bluethroat

Bluethroat

Getting back to the archaeological aspect of the trip we climbed up Tel Haror, a Bronze Age site which also goes by the names Tel Abu Hurairah (literally “Father of the Kitten”) and the famous Biblical Tel Gerar, a story of well-digging and Philistine peace pacts. The remains of a mud-brick temple, built some 3500-4600 years ago, have been uncovered for humanity’s viewing pleasure.

Mud-brick wall at Tel Haror

Mud-brick wall at Tel Haror

Atop the hill is the remains of a recently-destroyed mausoleum believed by the local Bedouins to be the grave of the aforementioned Abu Hurairah, a companion of Islam’s Muhammad; buried around the site are the unmarked graves of Turkish soldiers who fell in battle during WWI.

Tel Sharuhen

Tel Sharuhen

Heading back down to the bus, we were then driven to Nachal Besor, a park with a Jurassic Park feel to it in terms of flora and topography. With Tel Sharuhen (or Tel el-Farah) being our next destination, we drove through the alternating lush streambed and the sandy badlands of Nachal Besor for ten minutes or so, a rather bumpy ride. At last we arrived at the foot of Tel Sharuhen and I spotted a bird far off perched atop a bush – a great grey shrike.

Your humble servant (photo Ogen Drori)

Your humble servant (photo Ogen Drori)

We read about the ANZAC trail named after the Australian and New Zealander troops who, during WWI, traveled this route on their way to conquer Be’er Sheva and then Gaza from the hands of the Ottomans. Finished with the recent history, we climbed the tel to learn about the ancients: Canaanites, Egyptians and Israelites.

Remains of what might have been the city gate

Remains of what might have been the city gate

Partway up the hill, remains of what seems to be the city gate area constructed of mud bricks is clearly visible. At the western end of the tel is some remains of another structure of mud bricks partially buried in the dirt. A bit of scratching around at a burnt corner revealed interesting findings: broken animal bones and pieces of flint which were likely used to cut meat, remains of an ancient kitchen frozen in time.

Ancient kitchen at Tel Sharuhen

Ancient kitchen at Tel Sharuhen

It was there that we tasted from the saltbush identified by one of the members of our party. At the northern end of the tel, a great expanse of interesting land including loess badlands was to be viewed and appreciated.

Nachal Besor

Nachal Besor

Whilst walking atop the tel, the broken rim of a carved stone vessel caught my eye and when I took it to experts at BIU the following week, I was told that it might very well be from the Second Temple period (2,000 years ago) – a fun find!

Potsherd stuck in the dirt

Potsherd stuck in the dirt

As exciting as our finds were, there was a schedule to keep and so our bus took us to our final destination: Tel Gamma (or Tel Jemmeh). Located just three kilometres southwest of where I stationed as a soldier during Operation Protective Edge (see blog post HERE), it was an unusual feeling revisiting the area under such different circumstances.

Stormy skies

Stormy skies

With storm clouds darkening the skies, we hurriedly climbed the steep tel and surveyed our surroundings, including Nachal Besor to the north.

Tel Gamma the Steep

Tel Gamma the Steep

Archaeological digs uncovered remains that pointed to the Egyptians, Philistines and even the Assyrians who conquered the area some 2,700 years ago. With broken pieces of ceramic vessels and bones littering the excavated area, we couldn’t help but give the burnt wall area a quick surface scratching, revealing some rather large and impressive bones.

Wall-scratching at Tel Gamma

Wall-scratching at Tel Gamma

At last rain began to trickle down and so we headed back to the bus, our tour of the northwest Negev coming to an end. Just to recap, these were ancient cities that were mostly abandoned long, long ago – before the time of Alexander the Great, to give perspective. Also, to simplify my narrative of our trip, there are many interesting historical and archaeological anecdotes that would delight some readers, but, alas, I aim to keep all readers adequately entertained.

Raindrops on the window

Raindrops on the window

With that been said, there is little material evidence of the cities’ prior glory and might to be seen with the naked eye; it takes a bit of imagination to envision what these sites once were.

Be’eri Forest

In Israel, Negev on August 10, 2014 at 4:44 AM

During the past few weeks, due to the ground operations of Operation Protective Edge, I found myself at the Gaza border with infantry and armoured units. One day, I went to explore my surroundings and found that I was at the edge of the southern Be’eri Forest and that there were many interesting sites to be seen. The following is a summary of two hikes I made of the area, all just a few kilometres from Gaza.

Mador Ruins

Mador Ruins

The very first site I came upon was the Mador Ruins, a collection of Byzantine, Ottoman and British remnants just off Nachal Grar. I approached the main structure, and peered under the outer arched ceiling – to look into a seemingly bottomless well. A little research online and I discovered that this was an Ottoman “saqiya” well refurbished by the British – 26 metres (85 feet) deep.

26 m (85 ft) deep

26 m (85 ft) deep

Beside the well I found a mysterious sarcophagus of sorts, unmentioned in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s report of their June 2011 survey.

Mystery sarcophagus

Mystery sarcophagus

Seeing stone mounds in the distance, I kept walking on what became apparent as the Water Systems Trail. I passed a strange partially-covered concrete that looked like a buried vase, and then this, an IDF warning leaflet that was dropped over Gaza before a bombing run and had since blown over the border:

Warning leaflet

Warning leaflet

Walking north-west towards Gaza, I came upon the ruins of a British flour mill from WWII. According to the plaque, the British army set up a large camp to store supplies and ammunition for the battles against the Germans under General Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox”. After the war, the camp was dismantled and the buildings abandoned.

British flour mill

British flour mill

Following some examinations of the several British ruins nearby, I heard a boom coming from Gaza and noticed that a terror tunnel had just been blown up by the IDF forces within Gaza. Here’s a photo of the immediate aftermath:

Gaza tunnel being blown up

Gaza tunnel being blown up

With that, I looped back to our camp and was temporarily finished with my exploratory hikes. However, at about 4pm on Tuesday the 28th of July, I embarked on another exploratory hike, this time heading slightly southwest. Walking through the thick powdered dirt (created by tanks and APCs) I crossed the dry Nachal Grar and came upon the Re’im parking lot, but not before finding this skink.

A skink in the powdered dirt

A skink in the powdered dirt

At the official entrance to the recreational park (which includes picnic grounds, biking trails and more), there is this British well and storage pool. The British dug out and/or renovated dozens of wells in the area and this particular one had a diesel pump and a concrete-coated storage pool.

British well and storage pool

British well and storage pool

Consulting the site map, I decided to walk east with the Se’ora Ruins as my goal. I set out and came across the first oddity quite quickly. The ground in the area near Nachal Grar had collapsed and thus there are numerous cliff edges in unlikely places. My theory is that the underground water tables have dried and so the land collapsed. We know that this area was sought after for its water even back to the times of Abraham, where he watered his flocks. So, thinking of all the people and all the animals that were supplied water from these underground water tables, I think it seems reasonable that the land should collapsed down on the emptied pockets.

''Danger! Abyss''

”Danger! Abyss”

Even now the ground sinks, as can be seen here on the trail. I just wonder how much more will collapse.

The path are a'crumblin'

The path are a’crumblin’

After recrossing Nachal Grar, I came upon the edge of the forest and had to walk in the sun – being about 5:20pm. I kept walking, passing a large amount of discarded sheep wool and then a seemingly abandoned Bedouin encampment. As I worked my way towards this ruins I saw, I heard a loud whistling sound followed by a BOOM in the direction of our army camp. I had a sense of dread and kept checking the news sites to see what had happened. There was a gag order of sorts, as at first nobody reported the mortar that landed in middle of our camp – killing four soldiers and injuring more. It was a miracle that I wasn’t there at the time; I may have not been in the path of the mortar but simply being spared the sights of carnage is a blessing enough. Back on the hike, I wasn’t sure just what had transpired so when I did make it to the Se’ora Ruins I wasn’t as interested as I would’ve been ordinarily. I had a quick look, again seeing a “bottomless” well, and then headed back to my camp.

Se'ora Ruins

Se’ora Ruins

It wasn’t long before we moved out and so I haven’t had the chance to explore the northern Be’eri Forest, but one day I shall. I’d like to end this post with a photo I took of the first Iron Dome interception I saw, the very first day I spent on the frontlines.

Iron Dome interceptions

Iron Dome interceptions

Until next time, and may we have only good thing to share! (A more in-depth and personal account of the mortar attack can be found HERE)

The Negev: Roadside Attractions

In Israel, Negev on May 11, 2014 at 3:31 AM

A few weeks back I was way down in the southern Negev, about an hour’s drive from Eilat, and was called back north for a driving mission. On the way up I decided to take my time and explore roadside attractions. I often stop off places to explore, but usually don’t have enough material to make a blog post about (sites such as the Mazor Mausoleum, the Maqam of Nabi Musa and the Ayit Waterfall). This particular time I had the chance to visit three interesting sites.

Close-up of the coloured sandstone wall

Close-up of the coloured sandstone wall

The first I came across was Wadi Ramon in the Ramon Crater, one of two streams which drain the enormous erosion crater. I had heard about some very interesting “coloured rock” formations, and that they are just a few minutes from the road. Leaving my truck, I climbed down into the dry streambed with just my camera and gun and began walking. Wondering if I’d see any snakes or scorpions, I scoured the sandy streambed with my camera ready as I tread. True to my source’s word, the coloured sandstone rock wall was very visible after just a minute walk.

Coloured wall of Wadi Ramon

Coloured wall of Wadi Ramon

Researching more online, I found a fascinating fact about the Ramon Crater: gypsum, a mineral, is heavily mined in the crater and there are underground galleries stretching out for 16 miles – that I’d like to see!

Looking down at the ''Lost City''

Looking down at the ”Lost City”

Driving further north, I stopped just after Sde Boker (where Ben Gurion lived and died) and happened upon a place I’ve never even heard of: the “Lost City”. What I’ve gleaned from online sources (including my absolute favourite: Biblewalks) is that this “Lost City” was a late Byzantine farming settlement dating back to the 6th-9th centuries CE. However, its history and identification was a mystery for many years, thus earning the name “Lost City”.

The ''Lost City''

The ”Lost City”

Being on the ancient trade route, this farming village would have had prime access to the Levantine, Arabian and perhaps even further markets. After extensive excavations, and a little reconstruction, the “Lost City” is comprised of some 350 rooms along a little valley where vegetation would grow, irrigated by a rudimentary terraced construction aimed to preserve as much of the scarce water as possible. In this slightly panoramic shot, the ruins and agricultural terraces can be seen:

Panoramic of the ruins and the agricultural terraces

Panoramic of the ruins and the agricultural terraces

I saw that there are ruins of an ancient mosque, built some 1,200 years ago approximately, but I didn’t want to wander too far off so I decided to cross the road and search for a different ruins; a fortress said to be from the time of the Jewish kings. I came across these low stone walls, thought it might be the meagre remains, but found out later that I hadn’t found the Haluqim Ruins after all… so I don’t know what these walls and small ashlars are, perhaps a continuation of the “Lost City”. Maybe I’ll find the Haluqim Ruins next time…

Unmarked ruins

Unmarked ruins

The third site of interest is an old British Mandate police station located across from Rahat (the largest Bedouin city in Israel), not far from Be’er Sheva. It was at this station, the Rider Police Station, where the local gendarmerie (a military force charged with police duties) was located. I had passed the building many times and had finally decided to stop, but unfortunately, someone had bricked in all the doors and windows, so exploration was quite limited.

The Rider Police Station

The Rider Police Station

That basically concluded my exploration for the day, although I ended up driving to the upper Golan, clocking in about 350 miles of driving that day alone!

Ramon Crater: The Carpentry Shop

In Israel, Negev on January 5, 2014 at 4:30 AM

Just a little while back I was driving, once again, down south in the Negev Desert. This time I was crossing the Ramon Crater – Road 40 cutting across the crater floor. I had plenty of time for adventure and I had read earlier that a site called “The Carpentry Shop” was just a few hundred metres off the road. So, when I reached it, facing the northern rim of the crater, I turned in and stopped my truck at the entrance.

Entrance to The Carpentry Shop

Entrance to The Carpentry Shop

As I was contemplating driving to the little parking lot or leaving my truck at the side of the road I turned, looked out my window and saw an amazing rainbow against the iconic Ramon Crater rim. Feast your eyes!

Rainbow over Ramon Crater

Rainbow over Ramon Crater

I parked my truck in the little lot, got out and lingered behind a school group waiting for a bit of peace and quiet before climbing the hill that is The Carpentry Shop. As I stood at the base of the hill, hoping the angry clouds don’t empty themselves just as I start my tour, I noticed Mitzpe Ramon way up on the crater ledge and wondered if I’d be able to pinpoint this Carpentry Shop site from way up way.

The Carpentry Shop on the left with Mitzpe Ramon in the distance

The Carpentry Shop on the left with Mitzpe Ramon in the distance

At last the group was far enough uphill so I began climbing. In effort to preserve the site, a special set of stairs has been constructed over the rocks to the top of the hill. As I climbed I noticed the specialness of the site more acutely. The rocks are all like bricks, rectangle and dark.

A huge pile of natural bricks

A huge pile of natural bricks

The scientific explanation for this great pile of natural bricks is that this whole hill was originally sand, the sand was heated from below and then cooled after being turned into a liquid, creating these “bricks” as I see them. The term “Carpentry” was dubbed after someone decided that the bricks looked like wood pieces used in a real carpentry shop. They must have never seen bricks before… Regardless, the interesting thing is that this hill, in this unique erosion crater, is the only place in the world where these molten rock formations can be found.

The Ramon Crater from space

The Ramon Crater from space

I reached the top of the hill and took this picture of the jagged crater floor and signs of humanity down below, including my truck:

Looking down from the hilltop

Looking down from the hilltop

Once I had finished looking at the great pile of natural bricks I headed back down and examined some sand patches. It is amazing how throughout the crater floor there are these patches of coloured sand, in all different colours. I found an orange patch and a pink-lavender patch just a few feet from one another. With that I got back into my truck and hit the road, just one of the Ramon Crater’s interesting features under my belt… with many more to be seen.

A special thank you to Mandy Detwiler for photographic help currently beyond me!

Mitzpe Ramon

In Israel, Negev on December 22, 2013 at 4:26 AM

Returning to the desert trilogy of blog posts… After visiting Sde Boker, Midreshet Ben Gurion and the ancient ruins of Avdat I pushed southwards and stopped at Mitzpe Ramon. A town on the northern ledge of Ramon Crater, Mitzpe Ramon is where the Parks Authority office is, as well as other sites of interest.

Mitzpe Ramon Visitors Centre on the rim of the Ramon Crater

Mitzpe Ramon Visitors Centre on the rim of the Ramon Crater

After parking the truck I headed into the Visitors Centre and found out that I had missed the last opening of the day, that I’d have to come back another day but that I was free to look around outside. Here is the view of the northern ledge of the Ramon Crater that I photographed that day:

The crater edge

The crater edge

Not left with many options, the sun gradually sinking over the horizon, I called it a day and made up my mind to try to come back. Two days later, after a nice night in the desert where I had a near run-in with a dangerous little yellow scorpion, I found myself with plenty of free time and so popped on a bus to Mitzpe Ramon.

Nubian ibex

Nubian ibex

The first thing I noticed was the abundance of Nubian ibex wandering around the town. I overheard someone comparing ibex in Mitzpe Ramon to cats in the rest of Israel, that they are all over the streets. It’s true. Next I entered the Visitors Centre and booked myself for an afternoon tour. With some time to kill, and the spirit of adventure coursing through my veins, I visited Bio Ramon. A side attraction attached to the Ramon Crater (also known as Makhtesh Ramon), Bio Ramon is a small “desert zoo” hosting both wildlife and flora. Here is a horned viper (Cerastes cerastes), found in the Ramon Crater as well as other areas of the Negev:

A horned viper in Bio Ramon

A horned viper in Bio Ramon

After a partially-guided tour of Bio Ramon I had lunch and then eventually, as the hour of my Visitors Centre appointment approached, I made my way to the edge of the crater. The Ramon Crater is a whopping 38 kilometres long, 4-10 kilometres wide – the largest of Israel’s erosion craters. Along with the Small Crater and Large Crater to the north and two mini-craters at Mount Arif, the Ramon Crater joins two Egyptian craters in the Sinai Peninsula as being the only erosion craters on Earth.

Ramon Crater

Ramon Crater

Shaped like an elongated heart, the Ramon Crater has interesting rockforms, and a great variety of wildlife that come out mostly at night. Animals of interest include ibex, wild asses, gazelles, foxes, wolves, striped hyenas and even leopards. While the wildlife are hard to spot, the natural beauty is not, and from this balcony lookout, one can look straight down at the crater floor:

''Balcony lookout''

”Balcony lookout”

I had someone take my picture while I stood on the wooden planks separating me from the crater floor way down below; here it is:

Defying death

Defying death

At last I was admitted into the Visitors Centre and the tour began with Israeli hero Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force and Israel’s first astronaut. I remember reading in the papers shortly after I moved to Israel about the death of Ilan’s son, Asaf Ramon, who was killed in a plane crash – himself an IAF pilot as well.

Ilan Ramon as an IAF fighter pilot

Ilan Ramon as an IAF fighter pilot

Ilan Ramon was a crew member of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle and was killed tragically, to the world’s horror, as the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003 just sixteen minutes before their scheduled landing. I never thought much about the story, nor the man involved, but I must say, the Visitors Centre did a great job at opening a window into the life of Ilan Ramon. But before Ilan became an astronaut, he was a fighter pilot in the IAF and was the youngest of the eight pilots to take part in Operation Opera – the daring bombing of Iraq’s unfinished Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981.

Operation Opera in the video

Operation Opera in the video

The film that led us into the life of Ilan Ramon came to a close with his death, showing footage from both the shuttle and NASA’s “Houston” space centre. Concluding with a connection of the Ramon Crater and space (Israel’s research telescopes are stationed on the rim of the crater), the curtains opened up and bright desert light filled the room, the vast crater directly before us:

The curtains open to reveal the crater

The curtains open to reveal the crater

After an exhibition on the creation of the erosion crater, including hands-on activities and a great flexible rubber model of the crater area, we headed on up to the roof for an even better view of the Ramon Crater.

The crater edge from higher up

The crater edge from higher up

And last but not least, a panoramic of the Ramon Crater:

Panoramic of the Ramon Crater

Panoramic of the Ramon Crater

And so ended my adventurous week in the desert.

Avdat

In Israel, Negev on December 15, 2013 at 4:41 AM

After visiting Sde Boker and Midreshet Ben Gurion, the home and burial place of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, I drove a few kilometres south to Avdat, a national park preserving an ancient mountain-top city. I had once passed this extraordinary ruins, seeing it from the road, and now I had the time and opportunity to explore it.

The mountaintop city from the road

The mountaintop city from the road

Using my handy “year park pass” I gained entrance and watched an interesting video about the site and about the Incense Route, an ancient trade route extending from the southern Arabian Peninsula (Yemen and Oman on our maps) and ending in Gaza, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Incense Route

The Incense Route

The Nabateans, a nomadic people which expanded into a powerful kingdom, ruled the area of the Incense Route some 2,200 years ago. As they became more and more organised they built fortresses and waystations for the convoys making the journey from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea. After Petra, the famous tourist destination in Jordan (also the filming location of key parts in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Avdat was one of the most important stop along the Incense Route – station #62. As such, the city was further expanded and built up by the Romans and Byzantines after the Nabateans were annexed by the Roman Empire, polytheism turning to Christianity.

Bathhouse ceiling

Bathhouse ceiling

With nothing but my gun swinging at my side, I started my journey at the Byzantine bathhouse. There I found an nearly fully intact structure with a great domed ceiling (above) and these reconstructed tile pillars arranged on the depressed floor:

The floor of the bathhouse

The floor of the bathhouse

Next I trekked up the mountain to the base of the ancient Nabatean city, which was believed to have been called Ovdat or Obodat named after the Nabatean king Obodas II. Half-way up I came across the first tier of ruins, a Byzantine house likely belonging to a middle-class citizen, perhaps a wine merchant.

Byzantine house

Byzantine house

After winding in and out of the ruins, passing through and around little caves in the bedrock, I climbed further upwards and made my way through some more Byzantine ruins up to a Nabatean temple, the pillared edge of the acropolis. Here is looking down at the aforementioned Byzantine ruins, the desert and Road 40 down below:

Looking down at the ruins

Looking down at the ruins

The main expanse, a developed plateau comprised of numerous houses of worship and more, starts with the Nabatean temple on the western edge and continues eastward to the two Byzantine churches (St. Theodoros’ Church and the “northern church”). Here are the pillared ruins of the “northern church” and then the pillars of the Nabatean temple in the background:

The ''northern church'' and the Nabatean temple behind

The ”northern church” and the Nabatean temple behind

As I passed through, crossing over from Byzantine to Nabatean and Roman, I became well-aware of the midday desert sun beating down on me. I walked in the shade of the great walls and entered the city fortress. A large open plot (just under 30,000 sq. feet), the inhabitants during the Byzantine era used the fortress for numerous purposes – a prayer chapel was even constructed on the north side. In the centre of the fortress is a cistern, fed by runoff channeled through the floor, and outside a little ways northeast is an large army camp (110,000 sq. feet). Here is the fortress and the temples/churches complex beyond the wall, as seen from the guard tower:

The city fortress

The city fortress

Having finished exploring the northern complex I moved on over to the southern complex, partially seen here:

The Byzantine Quarter

The Byzantine Quarter

I walked through the Byzantine Quarter, a residential area first built during the Roman period. Mostly fallen ruins, the neighbourhood was basically destroyed in an earthquake sometime around 630 CE. I climbed the Roman Tower, complete with Greek inscriptions, and then, after a quick drink from a faucet, headed for the Roman Villa. Seeing the acropolis from the south, I took this photo:

Avdat acropolis

Avdat acropolis

After the Roman Villa I entered the Roman burial cave, dug into the bedrock and containing more than twenty burial niches. Here is the entrance, with depictions of the sun, moon and an altar on the lintel (and a glimpse of the burial niches inside):

Roman burial cave

Roman burial cave

After leaving the cave I walked the rest of the way down the mountain and headed back for my truck. Next stop, Mitzpe Ramon!

Ben Gurion: Life and Death

In Israel, Negev on December 3, 2013 at 8:59 AM

Last week I spent a few days in the desert down south, driving my army truck around and going on adventures in my spare time. One day I was fortunate enough to have many, many hours of spare time and visited numerous interesting sites, among them two national parks. The first stop was Sde Boker, the little Negev kibbutz where David Ben Gurion – Israel’s first Prime Minister – staked his claim and settled down.

Animated David Ben Gurion

Animated David Ben Gurion

I parked outside the kibbutz and walked over to the historical site, Ben Gurion’s little house. Within the property, belonging to the kibbutz, I found a winery store and then various huts leading up to the front office. In two of these huts I found screens, and attempted to watch the animated film depicting David Ben Gurion’s life but, alas! the computer shut down mid-screening and so I temporarily abandoned the video presentations. Composed of superb animation, which reminded me of the “The Adventures of Tintin” TV show, and a richly accented English voice, I really enjoyed the video (screenshot above).

The Ben Gurion residence

The Ben Gurion residence

A brief synopsis on a pretty influential life, David Ben Gurion (originally David Grün) – often referred to as the “founding father of Israel” – was born in Poland (Czarist Russia) in 1886 and immigrated to the Holy Land in 1906 where he began working on settlements. By 1915 Ben Gurion was expelled by the reigning Ottoman Empire and made his way to the United States, there further aligning himself with Zionism. In 1918 he enlisted in the British Army’s Jewish Legion and returned to the Holy Land. In 1935 he was elected Chairman of the Jewish Agency and on May 14, 1948 announced the establishment of the State of Israel. Becoming the fledgling country’s first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion switched between politics and living quietly on Kibbutz Sde Boker, in the above house.

David Ben Gurion and quote

David Ben Gurion and quote

I entered the little green wooden house – left exactly as it was back then – and looked around, starting with the living room. An informational plaque on the wall explained the identity, and sometimes origin, of the various items and knick-knacks placed throughout the little room. I felt like I was in an Israeli version of Greenfield Village.

The Ben Gurion living room

The Ben Gurion living room

After inspecting the living room, bedrooms, library, kitchen, bathroom and outside yard of the Ben Gurion residence I met up with a docent, likely a member of the kibbutz. He insisted on returning my entrance fee, seeing that I came alone and I behaved myself so nicely. Despite my persistent refusal he managed to slip the coins into my pocket and so I gave up and then asked him for advice. Being a local, this man instructed me on where to go next – Ben Gurion’s burial place at Midreshet Ben Gurion. His instructions were good and sound, and I slipped my truck into a great parking spot at the national park’s entrance:

Parked truck

Parked truck

I walked through the well-designed park path and made my way to the burial spot, where my guide back in Sde Boker told me that I would see one of the best views in the Negev. Entering the plaza, I did see an incredible view – one that could easily pass for an alien planet:

View from the plaza

View from the plaza

And here is a panoramic which includes a wider shot of the intense desert view and the windy road heading down to Ein Avdat, another national park:

Panoramic view

Panoramic view

I stood and photographed for a while and then began to look around. I noticed that an army unit was getting an official tour and asked them which unit they were. The answer: “Oketz“, the IDF elite canine unit. Cool. Next. two IAF fighter jets did a screaming flyby, passing not too far over our heads and definitely capturing our attention. On their return trip, heading back to the wilderness, I tried capturing them on camera but it came out blurred.

The casual tourist

The casual tourist

David Ben Gurion died in 1973, immediately after the Yom Kippur War, and was buried with minimal fanfare and no eulogies (as requested). Here is David Ben Gurion’s gravestone, looking out over the Negev which he so loved, resting alongside his wife who passed away back in 1968:

David Ben Gurion's grave

David Ben Gurion’s grave

As I headed back down the pleasant stone and shrubbery walkway, lined with trees, I stopped and became aware of a presence. Glancing to my right I started, for I saw an ibex watching me. I’ve never come across an ibex in the “wild” and was a tad on the startled side. But then I came to my senses and began to use my camera, capturing the friendly beast for you to see – the Nubian ibex:

An ibex

An ibex

As I left the park, headed for my next destination – the national park Avdat – I took this photo of this pleasant green area, a break in the yellowish tan of the Negev desert:

Midreshet Ben Gurion

Midreshet Ben Gurion

Be’er Sheva

In Israel, Negev on August 1, 2012 at 7:03 AM

Today, the second day of my much anticipated trip, I headed way down south to the Negev city of Be’er Sheva. Having never been further south than Bet Shemesh, this was a true change is climate and landscape. When I got off the train and met my friend Ofir, who was my local guide for the day, I couldn’t help but notice the extreme dry heat that gusted from every direction like an oven. Outside, we passed by Bedouins, native of the Negev, who dressed very differently than the Muslim, Christian and Druze Arabs that I see all the time in the north. Sadly, I didn’t get any photographs of them. But I did get a picture of this street that, to me, was marvellously reminiscent of Miami – but in the old Turkish town area known as the Old City:

Street in the Old City of Be’er Sheva

As we walked through the Old City, the crumbling Ottoman-era stone walls visible on nearly every corner, Ofir pointed out all the places of interest, including this – water in the desert:

Running water in the desert city – the marvels of ancient engineering

After a little while spent roaming the streets in the blazing sun, with temperatures clearly surpassing 100° Fahrenheit, we ducked into a little café by the name of Lola where I ordered an iced coffee. It was fun because I never, ever, go to coffee-houses. Shortly after our coffee break we headed back outside and found ourselves in front of Beit Ha-Ful, a restaurant. Both of us hungry, we went on in and Ofir promised to get me this special food – I wasn’t quite sure what he intended at the time. The man behind the counter did some deft scooping and arranging-within-the-pita movements and then surfaced, asking me if I wanted lemon and charif (spicy – a generic term for something paste-like, spicy and made from peppers). He spooned in a little salt, much to my curiousity, and then added the lemon and charif. Next, to further propel my confusion and curiousity, he mashed up everything inside my pita. Then he asked if I wanted salads in my sandwich as well – I chose some chopped cucumber (somewhere along the line hummus was added in too). I took my completed sandwich from the man, waited for Ofir to get his and then took our mysterious culinary loot to our table. I examined my pita, noting the contents, and took a bite. What I was eating was beans and hard-boiled egg that had been mashed into one lovely, smooth, lemon-y and spicy entity. Here is what it looked like before I started eating:

Ful in a pita at Beit Ha-Ful

If you think this sounds kinda gross… trust me, it is remarkably tasty. Here my sandwich is again, in an advanced stage of its short life:

Partly devoured ful in a pita

After we finished our pitas and the complimentary falafel balls given to us, we took ourselves back into the afternoon sun and kept looking at cool things. The two museums in the area were both closed, in fact most things in Be’er Sheva worth visiting are being worked on now. But, the old WWI-era British cemetery was open. The final resting place for probably hundreds of soldiers who died for the British Empire is just smack in middle of a residential area in Be’er Sheva. I had fun imagining the British great-grandchildren of some of these fallen soldiers telling someone that his/her great-grandfather died during the Great War and was buried not in France or England… but in southern Israel. Makes for a great story, I suppose.

WWI-era British cemetery

After seeing the cemetery we went up to Ofir’s apartment for some cold water and relaxation in the coolness of man-made shade. Ofir checked the times for our next stop, the Israeli Air Force Museum “just outside” of Be’er Sheva and we headed out for the bus at the appropriate time. Getting off the bus in what would seem to be wilderness if not for the large presence of military buildings and the planes flying circles over our heads, we made our way to the museum.

Welcome to the Israeli Air Force Museum

Having paid admission, we were let in by the IAF soldiers and we started our exploration of the museum. Obviously revolving around aircraft, most of the museum is actually outdoors – parked planes “on the tarmac” or in open hangars. The “Old to New” jet fighter exhibit has 150 different warplanes order chronologically – from the WWII-era Spitfire which Israel used in the 1948 war to the modern-day F-15 which is still in use today.

An Israeli F-4 Phantom

Part of the experience outdoors, other than the relentless desert sun, was made 0h-so real by (1)the IAF training planes circling overhead, and (2)the IDF/IAF gunfire in one of the bases just across the main road. The sounds, together with the visuals, really helped create an experience – that and the fact that my friend is an avid plane enthusiast. Getting back to the aircraft, some of the stories behind the planes were known to me from books. This Syrian MiG-17 has a story which almost sounds too “unfortunate” to be true:

A Syrian MiG-17 which accidentaly landed in Israel

Accidentally landing in Israel and then having to surrender the plane must have been very nerve-wracking for the Syrian pilot. But then again, simply flying one of the older planes in the IAF’s history is probably nerve-wracking as well, presenting the biplanes of old:

Old propeller planes in a hangar

Some of the planes, a very small percentage, are open for sitting in but the ones that looked interesting had long passed by when I noticed the discreet ladders offering their services at the sides of the planes. Blame it on the heat and the sun. I did, however, sit inside the helicopter that hosted Begin and Sadat, leaders of Israel and Egypt respectively, as they flew to a military command centre in Be’er Sheva to sign the peace treaty in 1979. That was interesting.

Old Israeli fighters that have been decommissioned

On of the other interesting findings was the hang glider that was used by a Syrian-based terrorist to fly into Israel, in the Golan, and raid an sleeping army base in the dead of night. I had read the story in the book I bought from the Navy Museum in Haifa back in February (as can be seen here, in this old post: Haifa Again). Now knowing the story, it was both fascinating and chilling to see the exact hang-glider sitting in a hangar seemingly detached from the blood-drenched history that it helped make. If only aircraft had the power of speech…

The bulk of the aircraft on display

Towards the end, we climbed into a dormant Boeing jet and watched a short film about the history of the IAF – with the comforting air conditioning cooling down the plane’s interior. It also should be noted that this museum offers extremely cold water on the far end of the main display lot so, should you go visit, you’ll know ahead of time to be liberal with your water. So, after about two hours of so, we had seen all the aircraft there was to see and had read about more incidents then we could remember and so we headed out, back out to the main road. The training planes had ceased for some time, and apart from the sporadic staccato of gunfire, it was hot and silent in the great desert expanse. Back in Be’er Sheva, I said my good-byes and thank yous to my friend, Ofir, and continued on to the train station where I boarded a train for Tel Aviv. As a parting shot, the perfect indication of a day growing old, here is sunset from the train, hastily photographed as the well-tended crops below whip by the windows:

Sunset from the train

Now that was a nice day trip. It’s good to have finally entered into the vastness of the Negev, if only just to see a city. Hopefully one day I will visit all that there is to be seen way down there (including the famous Ramon Crater and Eilat) but for now I have Tel Aviv to focus on. Until tomorrow!