Playing Indiana Jones

Smitten.  That’s what I was from the moment I saw Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981.  I mean, seriously… weren’t you? Harrison Ford and archaeology became intertwined and favorites in my world. I even applied to study archaeology at the Hebrew Universtiy in Jerusalem in 1983, which never happened,  and has remained one of my life’s regrets.

A walking tour to the nearby monastery of St. Gerasimus, led by yours truly.

How else can you explain the fact that, 30 years later, I came back to Israel to became a tour guide in this land of biblical archaeology?  I even try to dress a little like Indy when I guide.

Come to think of it, I need a better hat.

However, I digress.

This past weekend, my husband and I decided to get away and spend some quality time together. I had just finished two weeks on the road and will be taking off for another twelve days of touring this week.

So where, oh where can we find a sweet place to stay? I have wanted to explore the small community of Zippori, only 10 minutes away, and asked my husband to find us a nice B&B there. Little did we know, but we were in for an Indiana Jones style adventure!

I can see Zippori National Park from my house (literaly); the Crusader citadel on the hill, giving a great vantage point to whoever controled it through the ages, also giving the place its name – Zippori, from the word ‘zippor’, Hebrew for bird – a bird’s view.  From the Neolithic era, to the Iron age, to the Hasmoneans who first build a Jewish town there, Zippori has been an important urban area, being the largest city, the capital of the Galilee during Roman and Byzantine times. It was in Zippori that the Mishnah was compiled by Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. Until the 7th century, it was a mixed city, inhabited by Jews, Roman pagans and Christians.

Ongoing excavations started in the 1980’s have uncovered an amazing city of synagogues, churches and pagan temples, private villas, streets and public buildings, gorgeous mosaics and exquisite evidence of Zippori’s grandeur during the Roman/Byzantine/Mishanic/Talmudic times from the 1st to the 6th centuries CE.

After the Crusaders fortified and rebuilt it in the 12th century, it was taken over by the Mamluks and became a small Muslim town for several hundred years.

Today, next to the National Park and the excavations, lies the lovely, modern village of Zippori. Nestled away among lush greenery and rolling oak hills, it includes family homes and agricultural farms, horse stables, the Rish Lakish organic olive press, and several B&Bs.

We headed to the Makom Lachlom, ‘a place to dream’, a couple of nicely furnished, quaint log cabins, equipped with luxurious jacuzzi, small kitchenette and plenty of quiet. Perfect.

However, what caught my eye was what I saw when I looked out the window of our cabin.

An ancient Roman pool ?!?

Owner Avi Hazan told the story:  When he and his partner bought the land to build a small farm and a B&B, they began digging the foundations for three log cabins. Lo and behold, they found the remains of what seemed like a Roman era pool. They called in the Antiquities Authority who immediately began a salvage dig, putting Avi’s plans on hold for almost a year and many tens of thousands of shekels over budget.

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What the Antiquities Authority found was the foundations of a large Roman bathhouse, with three pools and aquaducts leading water from one pool to another. Two of the pools were not well preserved so they were filled in and the cabins were built over them. The middle pool, however, was in good shape and was kept.

Avi told us that several families in the village had found Roman remains and even the ancient tombs of well known Jewish rabbis.

” Are there other Roman remains we can see?” I interrupted.

“Oh yes, there are ones that you can see still buried in the ground.”

“Where? Can we see the now?” I was getting more excited by the second.

“Sure. Follow the cattle fence about 100 meters, cross it and take a right. You’re looking for a large hole in the ground.”

Avi explained that a while back, some antiquities robbers had dug a large hole in the ground and found some Roman sarcophagi before they were driven off by the police.  The archaeologists don’t have the budget to propely excavate, so the site remains untouched. Avi keeps an eye out for robbers and notifies the Antiquities Authority if he notices anything suspicious.

Yitzhak and I were off like a flash. And we found it!

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The first thing we noticed were two sarcophagi half buried in the dirt. A sarcophagus (from the Greek for ‘flesh eater’) is the common name for an ancient Egyptian, Greek or Roman coffin). Yikes!

I was so excited, my ‘Indiana Jones’ instinct took over and I immediately jumped in. With both feet. Yitzhak followed.

We found an small opening on the side and crawled in.

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It was a family burial cave, with niches for laying the bodies of the dead. About a year later, when the flesh had rotted, families collected the bones and placed them in ossuaries, bone boxes, that were usually kept in the home. This form of burial for wealthier familes was very common in the 1st – 6th centuries CE.

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The limestone hill we climbed must be dotted with many of these burial caves. That was logical because we were across the small valley from ancient Zippori and these could very well be Jewish family burial caves, excavated as tradition dictated, outside the city walls.

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We explored some more, got dirty and LOVED IT!  We crawled in an unexcavated burial cave from Roman times, touched sarcophagi that were still buried in the dirt… real Indiana Jones moment.

As were climbed out, our attention turned to some collapsed concrete buildings that were around us. There were six or seven of them, one sitting right on top of the hole we had just climbed out of.

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Yitzhak and I tried to figure out what they were. Concrete doesn’t fit ancient times, so it must have been from the 20th century. Then,  we both knew.

The Arab village of Saffuriyeh was originally built by the Mamluks in the 14th century on the ruins of the Crusader town, on the ruins of the Byzantine, on the Roman/Jewish ruins. It maintained remnants of its original Jewish name Zippori, via the Greek name Sepphoris. It stood here for several hundred years, through the War of 1948-49.

After six months of civil war, the British Army left Palestine on May 15, 1948,  and then several Arab armies attacked Israel on all fronts.  The Arab Liberation Army (ALA), headed by its Iraqi leader Fawzi al Qawuqji, was headquartered only 5 kms away from Saffuriyeh, in Nazareth. In early July, the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) started its main offensive in the Galilee, named Operation Dekel, and designed to push the ALA back.

Most of the villages in the area presented little or no resistance to the advancement of the IDF.  Benny Morris, the well known historian and author of 1948 writes that, “emboldened by its successes and the weak ALA resistance” the IDF finally decides to take the town of Nazareth, al-Qawuqji’s headquarters.  “On 15 July, Golani Brigade units captured the villages of Ma’lul and al-Mujeidil… while an armored column of the Twenty-first and Seventy-ninth battalions drove straight down the road from Shafa-‘Amr, taking Saffuriya (Zippori), a large village north-west of Nazareth.” (Ch 7, pp 280-81)

The village was known to harbor ALA fighters, so as the soldiers approached, the village was attacked with mortarshell fire, causing villagers to flee their homes in panic.  Many villagers from Saffurieyh ended up in refugee camps in Southern Lebanon. Others settled in several of the villages closer to Nazareth, such as Ilut and Raame.  Four hundred villagers remained in their homes in Saffuriye and eventually received Israeli ID cards, although they were all removed from the village and made to re-settle elsewhere in the early 1950’s.  Click here to read the story of one such family, the al-Alzharis.

After the war, however, the Arab population that had fled the fighting had begun returning to their villages.  This presented a serious problem for the newly created State of Israel. The authorities worried about a fifth-column growing among the Arab villages and didn’t want to have to ‘capture the land all over again’.

Morris writes, “During the war’s first, critical months Zionist energies were directed at defending the Yishuv (Jewish community in the Land of Israel). But in mid-April, within days of the strategic switch to the offensive, the national institutions began to establish new settlements, not only to assure control of the main roads linking the Yishuv’s concentrations of populations and the border areas, but also to consolidate its hold on newly conquered territory.  Initially, the new outposts were set up on Jewish-owned land within the November 1947 Jewish state partition borders. Within months, though, such niceties were thrown to the wind, and settlements were established on Arab-owned land and outside the partition border.” (Ch 7, p 307)

Over a million Jews streamed into the newly founded State of Israel within its first 5 years, tripling its Jewish population. Finding them places to live became a high priority, and several new immigrant families founded a new Jewish village by the name of Zippori, on the lands of the Arab village of Saffuriyeh.

This beautiful land, with its layers of history and archaeology is a complex place, ripped apart by war and strife, conquests and conflict. Living among these stories, within sight of archaeological marvels like Zippori, and walking the land like Indiana Jones, knowing that somewhere beneath my feet are buried the remnants of some ancient civilization… is mind boggling. And so cool!

P.S. I send Harrison Ford my most sincere wishes for a Refuah Shlemah, ‘speedy recovery‘ after his flight mishap.  Please take care of yourself.

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Nowhere Else but Here

 

Where in the world can you do what my family and I did for Passover?  Nowhere else but here.

Passover full moon rising over Gilgal

Passover full moon rising over Gilgal

But first, let’s recap one of the greatest stories ever told.

Around 3,500 years ago, the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt.  After wandering in the desert for forty years, their leader Moses dies without ever setting foot in the Land of Israel.  God chooses Joshua to guide the people and orders him to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

The crossing begins as the priests walk ahead carrying the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders. They step into the rapidly flowing Jordan River, trusting that God will protect them as they cross.

From the Book of Joshua 3:15 Now the Jordan keeps flowing over its entire bed throughout the harvest season. But as soon as the bearers of the Ark reached the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the Ark dipped into the water at its edge, 16 the waters coming down from upstream piled up in a single heap a great way off, at Adam, the town next to Zarethan; and those flowing away downstream to the Sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, ran out completely. So the people crossed opposite Jericho

The Bible states that God performed a miracle and the waters of the mighty Jordan stopped flowing and allowed all the Children of Israel to cross safely to the other side. 

Joshua 4:9 And the LORD said to Joshua: ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.’ So that place was called Gilgal, as it still is. 10 Encamped in Gilgal, in the steppes of Jericho,  the Israelites offered the passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month, toward evening.

So seeking adventure, camping, meaning and spirituality, my family and I joined a group of about 120 Israelis and celebrated the first day of Passover in the wilderness. This group, organized by the remarkable Dvir Raviv, a student of archaeology and Jewish history, started this tradition five years ago.

We camped in Gilgal,on the steppes of Jericho, where tradition states the ancient Israelites stayed upon crossing the Jordan River. We ate the Passover meal, the Seder, where the Israelites held their first Passover meal in the Promised Land.  And we did this on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan, the first day of the festival of Passover.

Talk about meaning! It was mind-blowing.

The ancient/modern city of Jericho is seen in the background, a mere two kilometers away

Jericho is seen in the background, a mere two kilometers away

The ancient (and modern) city of Jericho lay two kilometers to our west; the ancient city of Adam, where the waters of the river were miraculously held still, was a little distance to the north; the Jordan River and the place of the crossing was a mere kilometer to our east; the Dead Sea, a short ten minute drive south.

Judge for yourself. Here are some tidbits and great photos from our experience:

The site of the Israelite crossing of the River Jordan was a revered place for generations. In the 4th century c.e, it became a Christian pilgrimage site as the traditional site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Today it’s called Qasr el Yahud, (Arabic for ‘the crossing of the Jews’), and the countries of Israel and Jordan offer baptismal facilities on both banks of the river.

Muslim visitors approach the waters of the Jordan River at Qasr el Yahud, the Baptismal site.

Muslim visitors approach the waters of the Jordan River at Qasr el Yahud, the Baptismal site.

We camped in a deserted date-palm tree grove amidst the gorgeous beauty of the Jordan Valley.

Our date palm tree grove, with the Gilead Mountains of the Jordan in the background

Our date palm tree grove, with the Gilead Mountains of the country of Jordan in the background

Our fellow campers

Our fellow campers

We managed to find an isolated spot among the palm trees

We managed to find an isolated spot among the palm trees

The food was pre-cooked and delivered by caterers a few hours before the feast. Some of us were in charge of digging a fire-pit and warming up the food, while others set tables and prepared the kitchen area.

The food was warmed in a fire pit

The food was warmed in a fire pit

The tables being set for the communal meal

Setting the tables for the communal Seder meal

 

As Jewish tradition mandates, all 120 of us began reading the Haggadah together, recalling the story of the Exodus, how God led our people from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Pretty soon each table went off at their own pace, reading and laughing, singing and bellowing into the desert night. It was quite a wonderful cacophony!

The next day, first day of the festival of Passover, included many activities to choose from: resting,  praying, hiking, roasting the Pascal Lamb for lunch, sleeping, tai-chi or study lessons from our sacred texts.

A tai-chi class let by my friend Gil Cohen

A relaxing tai-chi class led by my friend Gil Cohen, with the Jordan River and the Gilead Mountains as a backdrop

A walking tour to the nearby monastery of St. Gerasimus, led by yours truly.

A walking tour to the nearby monastery of St. Gerasimus, led by yours truly.

The Pascal Lamb was roasted for a few hours in the fire-pit

The Pascal Lamb was roasted for a few hours in the fire-pit

Most of the group packed up and left after dark but some friends and us stayed on for another night . We lit a bonfire, cooked some potatoes and onions in the flames, pulled out a guitar and had a great time.

A kumzitz, (bonfire) is a typical Israeli pastime

A kumzitz, (bonfire) is a typical Israeli pastime

Following in the footsteps of your biblical characters of choice — Joshua and the Israelites, Jesus, King David, Jezebel or Samson… it can only be done here, in Israel.

 

 

Renewing the Old – the story of wine making in Israel

My friend Linda and I were hiking along the trail by the nearby village of Solelim, chatting and trying to keep my labrador, Na’ala, out of trouble (she rolls in every cow poop and splashes in every stream).  We took in the gorgeous natural beauty around us; a gnarly oak forest, colorful spring flowers, lizards, butterflies and birds galore, and the occasional dugout cave in the limestone.

“Linda”, I said, “Did you know that many of these hills have ancient wine presses carved into the limestone bedrock?”

“Really?” she answered, “I didn’t know that”.

Now, I don’t know if she does this on purpose, but being the good friend she is, Linda always sets me up to tell the history of this hill or that ancient site.  And she listens patiently. That’s what friends are for.

So I started telling her about the ancient wine production that flourished in the Lower Galilee during the Roman and Byzantine times.

When the Romans expelled the Jews from Judea and Jerusalem in the 1st and 2nd centuries and forbade their return, many of the Jewish people migrated north and settled in the Galilee. They eventually lived side by side with the Roman soldiers, developing friendships and business relationships in many small villages and larger mixed towns.  When the Byzantine Empire took control of the land in the 4th century, the Jews continued living among the growing Christian population until the conquest of the Muslim empire in 640 c.e.

The Jews have always used wine as part of their religious rituals. Vineyards are ubiquitous in the Bible; Noah planted the first vineyard, Micah’s vision of peace was when one sat under his vine and fig tree, grapes are one of the seven special agricultural species of the Land of Israel, and don’t forget Moses’ spies returning from scouting the Promised Land with a huge cluster of grapes. The Hebrew word for wine, ya’een, is mentioned 141 times in the Bible!

Moreover, wine was widely consumed by all ancient Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent peoples; Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans alike. The alcohol in the wine killed the bacteria in the otherwise fetid water they drank. The wine was diluted with water and due to its short production time, contained only around 4% alcohol.

Romans believed wine to be an essential daily necessity and made it available for everyone: slaves, peasants, legionnaires, women and aristocracy.  In fact, Roman citizens (and Jews) consumed a liter of wine per day!

Therefore, as the Jewish and Roman population of the Galilee grew, so did their need for wine. Lots of it!  Wine production was a major local industry and was exported to the rest of the Roman Empire, providing jobs, giving growers and merchants needed business and trade opportunities.

Hundreds of vineyards were cultivated in the hills of the Galilee, and each vintner needed a place to crush the grapes and ferment the  juice. Theses wine presses, some small enough for one vineyard, others large shared by several vineyards, were carved into the limestone bedrock.

As I was jabbering away to Linda about Galilean ancient wine making, we came upon a couple walking towards us on the trail.

“Are you coming from the ancient wine press?” they asked.

“What wine press? Where? Here?”

And lo and behold, they led us a few paces off the trail to a most magnificent Roman-Byzantine era wine press at the top of the hill, complete with two liquid gathering vats, and a beautiful mosaic covered grape crushing floor.

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Linda and Na’ala wait for me at the newly discovered ancient wine press. The site is dated to Roman and Byzantine times (1st to 6th centuries c.e.)

The grape-crushing platform, carved out of the limestone, sometimes had a mosaic floor like this one

We find hundreds of ancient wine presses in Israel today, from the Negev desert in the south to the Golan Heights in the north. Many of these are located close to my home in the Galilee.

For example, there is one among the ruins of Usha, a village that served as the first Galilean stop for the Sanhedrin in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

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One of the grape juice collecting vats in the wine press complex in Usha, evidence of a large wine making industry in the area

And there is also one located just a few steps from my home, on the Kibbutz Hannaton hill!

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The Hannaton wine press sits atop the hill, overlooking the Nazareth hills in the background

What is even more exciting is that not only does Kibbutz Hannaton have its own ancient Roman-Byzantine wine press, but it is also the home of Jezreel Valley Winery.

My friends Jacob Ner-David and Yehuda Nahar followed their dream of reconnecting with the land and renewing the ancient Jewish tradition of wine making by founding a new “start-up” boutique winery that is already winning prizes.

Click here to meet Jacob and Yehuda and hear their story

‘Recently acknowledged by the Terravino Wine competition with a silver medal (RedBlend 2012), the Jezreel Valley Winery wines have already been featured in leading restaurants in Israel with the most discerning wine lists, as well as served to visiting delegations from all over the world.’

I love the fact that Jacob and Yehuda purposefully chose to use grapes with a unique Israeli story for their flagship wine, the RedBlend.

The Jezreel Valley Winery RedBlend, made from three varietals with an Israeli story

The Jezreel Valley Winery RedBlend, made from three varietals with an Israeli story

The Argaman variety was developed in the Weizmann Institute in Israel in the 1990’s, making it a ‘sabra’ (Israeli born) grape. Jezreel Valley Winery is the only Israeli boutique winery that chose the Argaman as its main varietal.

The Syrah originates from southern France and is perfectly suited for Israel’s Mediterranean climate.

And the Carignan? This Mediterranean variety was introduced to the Land of Israel at the end of the 19th century, just as the modern Israeli wine industry was in its infancy. It gave high yields cheaply and became the backbone varietal used to make the thick, sweet, sacramental wines produced for so many years by Israel’s major winery, Carmel Mizrahi.

As the Israeli wine industry underwent a quality revolution in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Carignan vineyards were slowly neglected, many of them uprooted and replanted with more sophisticated varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

However, about twenty years ago, vintners noticed that the abandoned Carignan vineyards were yielding less clusters but the quality of the grape had greatly improved. Once abandoned and left to die, the Carignan grapes made an amazing comeback!

The Carignan varietal once used solely for sacramental wines in Israel is now being used to create prize winning, world quality wines. Wow!

Jacob and Yehuda have built Israel’s first successful ‘start-up’ winery, now offering all of us wine and Israel aficionados an opportunity to partner with them in this venture.

Click here to learn more about their ‘start up’

crowd sourcing campaign

The story of wine making in Israel today is a continuation of an ancient tradition, renewing the old, returning to the roots, reconnecting with the land.

L’Chaim !

 

 

 


 

A Miracle of Life in the Galilee

Newly born neighbors

Newly born neighbors

One of the reasons I moved to the Galilee a little over three years ago was because of the diversity and daily multicultural encounters we experience here.

Jews, Bedouins, Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Circassians, Druze… we all live side by side in a fragile co-existence that defies the odds.

Our small community of Hannaton is bordered by the Bedouin village of Bir el Maksur less than a kilometer to the west, the Arab Muslim town of Kafar Manda only 3 kilometers to the north, and a few more Bedouin and Jewish villages to the east and south.

A hodgepodge of people and cultures, faiths and customs, languages and traditions.

Is it perfect? No.

Are there problems? Yes.

Does it work? Actually, yes it does!

Case in point:

Allow me to share an amazing event my husband and I witnessed last week on our usual Shabbat (Sabbath) hike in the fields around Hannaton.

We had put our vivacious Labrador on a leash, trying to steer her away from a herd of sheep in the distance.  We noticed a Bedouin shepherd among his flock and did not want our dog to scare and stampede the poor sheep (really, she’s done it before)

However, instead of telling us to stay away, the shepherd called and invited us (dog and all) to come closer and see something… and so began a new friendship, an amazing hour together as we shared in the miracle of life.

Click here to watch this amazing video (viewer discretion is advised, but its awesome!)

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An Insignificant Hill

An Insignificant Hill

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The view from my front porch

Looking out my front porch, I enjoy oaks and pines, vast olive groves, a beautiful Beit Netofah valley floor checkered with shades of green and brown agricultural fields,  two mountain ranges dotted with Bedouin villages and a small, green hill in the middle of it all.

In Israel, however, one can never make assumptions or think that something seemingly benign can’t have deep, historical meaning. Like this green hill. Right outside my window. The insignificant one.

Tel Hannaton may seem like a nothing hill, but the history of this artificial mound (tel) goes back over 3500 years! It happens to be located at an important crossroad; on the Via Maris, the ancient road leading from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and on the road from Damascus to Akko, an important port on the Mediterranean Sea.

We first learn of Tel Hannaton in the El-Amarna letters, 380 clay tablets (written in Akkadian and found in excavations in Egypt), used as correspondence between the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (who eventually called himself Akhenaten) and Burnaburiash, king of Babylon.  Tablet number 8  translates like this:

To Akhenaton,  King of Egypt, my brother, to say:
Thus speaks Burnaburiash King of Babylon, your brother.
I am well. To your country, your house, your women,
your sons, your ministers, your horses, your chariots,
many greetings. I and my brother have signed a treaty,
and I spoke thus: Like our fathers, who were friends, we will be friends.
And now, my merchants who traveled with Ahutabu delayed in Canaan for business.
After Ahutabu set out on his way to my brother and in the town of Hanatun which is in Canaan,
Shumda Son of Baluma and Shutatna Son of Shartum from Akko
sent their men there. They beat my merchants and stole their money.
Ahutabu , whom I sent to you, is before you. Ask him and he will tell you.
Canaan is your country and its kings are your slaves, in your country I was robbed.
Bind them and return the money they robbed.
And the men who murdered my slaves, kill them and avenge their blood.
Because if you do not kill these men, they will again murder
my caravans and even my ambassadors, and the ambassadors between us will cease.
If this should happen the people of the land will leave you.

Don’t know about you, but I find it spectacularly fabulous that a Babylonian king wrote to an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh about wanting his money back because his merchants were robbed outside my front porch about 3500 years ago. “And if you don’t give me my money back”, he states, “I won’t be your friend no more!”

Tel Hannaton has several more claims to fame:

  • It is mentioned in the Bible (book of Joshua 19:14) , as being the northern border of the lands of the tribe of Zebulon.
  • Tiglath Pileser III

    Tiglath Pileser III

    Our dear friend Tiglath Pileser III(732 b.c.e), King of Assyria, carved the stories of his victorious military campaigns on the walls of his grand palace in Nineveh and boasted that he conquered and plundered five Canaanite cities, the fifth one being… you guessed it, Hannaton!

  • The Greeks, the Jewish priestly families, the Romans, all left their mark in the area
  • The Crusaders built an agricultural farm at Hannaton in the 13th century, during their 2nd Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It is the ruins of this Crusader building that are still visible under the ground.

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    Entrance to the underground dining hall at Tel Hannaton, exhibiting typical Crusader arches and masonry

  • The Mamelukes first, then the Ottomans turned the Crusader structures into a caravanserai, a roadside inn where travelers and their animals could rest and recover from the day’s journey.
  • Tel Hannaton is called Tel Badawiyya in Arabic, from the Arabic word for Bedouin, nomad.

Tel Hannaton was partially excavated in the 1980’s but has remained untouched for many years.

Today, school children on educational seminars at the Hannaton Educational Center visit and learn about the site, and it also gets visits from occasional curious families and hikers.

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Israeli school children on a visit to the underground ruins of a Crusader farm building on Tel Hannaton

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Typical Crusader architecture windows provide light in the underground room

But for me, its a constant companion, the ancient hill outside my front window.

Tel Hannaton

Tel Hannaton

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

As I mentioned before,  Lonely Planet, the world famous travel magazine, picked the Negev as the second most desirable world region to visit for 2013, not only for its sheer beauty, but also for the variety of interesting places, fascinating history, diverse people and the many adventures and quiet meditative moments one can experience here.

And now, after we’ve peeked into the awe inspiring Small Makhtesh, toured Mamsheet‘s ancient streets and Nabatean Market, collected colorful sands in the Large Makhtesh, we come to the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the beautiful Negev Desert, Makhtesh Ramon.

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First and foremost, Makhtesh Ramon is the Grand Canyon of Israel.  Created by erosion of sandstone and limestone layers over millions of years, this makhtesh is the largest such geological formation in Israel, stretching about 40 km from end to end and 2-10 km wide.  The makhtesh has been a thriving habitat for many species of animals and plants and a crossroads for nomadic people for millennia.

For tourism, activities and accommodation purposes, the town overlooking the makhtesh is Mitzpe Ramon, a small community with a lot to offer.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this post due to the great number of options and adventures available in the area.  I finally decided to create a list, a mere sample of the many wonderful things to do near Makhtesh Ramon…

What would YOU like to do?

  • Hike in the gorgeous desert with your family?
  • Sleep in a Bedouin tent and enjoy Bedouin hospitality?
  • Hunt for fossils?
  • Ride a camel along the ancient Nabatean Incense Route?
  • Take a jeep tour through millions of years of the geological timeline?
  • Learn how Israel leads the world in anti-desertification techniques?
  • Study the stars in the pitch black night of the desert?
  • Taste the delicious produce grown here and exported to the world?
  • Stay at a 5-Star hotel with the most amazing view from your personal, outdoor pool?
  • Get cozy with alpacas (?!?) who happen to thrive in the desert climate?
  • Go wine tasting at award winning boutique wineries?
  • Learn about David Ben Gurion’s dream, visit his home and his graveside?
  • Rest and relax in one of the many B&Bs in the area?

Now lets make a partial list of great experiences to be had in the Mitzpe Ramon area, not in any particular order:

1.  (hiking, archaeology) Khan Saharonim– In the heart of Makhtesh Ramon lay the ruins of one of the Nabatean caravansaries (khan) on the ancient Incense Route from Yemen to Gaza. The Nabateans were THE expert desert travelers 2000 years ago, building an empire based on the trade of incense, spices and perfumes, and here they rested their camels and their weary bodies on their months long journey.

IMG_2367(fossils, hiking) Ammonite Wall – Ammonites were large mollusks that lived in the ancient seas and became extinct 65 million years ago.   They moved around by filling their shells with air and then releasing it. When the Ammonites died, they floated and were carried toward shallower waters  close to shore. Thus, great numbers of Ammonite shells collected in one place. One of these Ammonite graveyards can be seen right outside Makhtesh Ramon.

IMG_23353. (modern Israeli history, museum) Ilan Ramon Center – Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, loved the Makhtesh Ramon area so much, that as a young pilot, he changed his family name to Ramon, in honor of this spectacular geological formation. He was one of Israel’s heroes but his life was tragically cut short when he perished with the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003. A museum honoring his legacy was just opened, overlooking the spectacular makhtesh . Definitely worth the visit.

4.  (luxury, location location location)  The Beresheet Hotel –  Situated on the edge of the towering cliffs of the makhtesh and blessed with a breathtaking view, this exceptional hotel is pure luxury. 

room with a pool5. (entrepreneurship, animals, family fun)  The Alpaca Farm – One of the strangest experiences one encounters near Mitzpeh Ramon is at this farm, where one can get up close and personal with a herd of alpacas and llamas … yes, you heard it right.  IMG_2356Straight from the Andes Mountains, these camel relatives are thriving in the Negev Highlands, where the air is cold and crisp at night and the altitude is just right.  Sheep, horses and other critters make for a fun day for the whole family.

6. (astronomy)  Star gazing, anyone? – My friend Ira Machevsky leads guided, customized tours of the starry desert night, the clearest sky in the country.  No astronomy experience is necessary… just bring a warm jacket and enjoy!

DSC_0326-300x2007. (entrepreneurship, wine tasting, food) Rujum Winery – When the Nabateans converted to Christianity in the 3rd century CE, they turned their agricultural efforts to the growing of vineyards in the desert in order to supply wine during the Byzantine Era.  The high desert plain actually produces excellent grapes  due to the loose soil, bright sunshine and extreme temperature differences between night and day and the seasons of the year.

gallery_20-300x2008. (eco-tourism)  Eco Desert Lodge – “We are not a 5-Stars, we are a million stars” is their motto. I love that!  Check out this amazing lodge with different desert accommodation options. Romantic  🙂

camels9. (culture, Bedouins, food)  Bedouin Encounters – If you are interested in the REAL thing, an authentic encounter with Israeli Bedouins, this is the place.  Stay at a Bedouin village, sleep communally in a Bedouin tent, enjoy a delicious dinner prepared in front of you, ride camels, chat with Sheikh Salman, leader of this Bedouin clan.  Spartan conditions, unforgettable experience!

And we haven’t even made a dent in the myriad activities and experiences to be had in the central Negev, let alone in the Arava Valley to the west or the magnificent Eilat Mountains and beaches to the south.

Lonely Planet is right. The Negev is THE destination of choice for the travel aficionado!

Israel’s very own Painted Desert

Negev

As you travel around Israel, you are bound to pick up some sweet souvenirs, the best ones being the ones you either make with your own hands or dig from the Holy ground yourself.

Here in the Negev we have  the Makhtesh HaGadol, the Big Makhtesh, our own version of the American Southwest’s Painted Desert, with its gorgeous, colorful sandstone walls.  You already know what a makhtesh is from my previous post about the Makhtesh HaKatan

This Big Makhtesh is found in the mountain range adjacent and a little to the west of the Small Makhtesh, and is, true to its name, the bigger of the two.

The drive into the Makhtesh (thanks to the College of Wooster’s Geology Department) is quite spectacular, as one enters this gigantic basin with its colorful walls.

These hills,  created hundreds of millions of years ago by ancient rivers that deposited their quartz and feldspar laden silt, have been eroded through time and now bare their colorful sands to us. The oxide concentration in the sand changes their color;  green, orange, purple, white, red, yellow and tan are among the most prevalent.

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My favorite site  is the Colored Sands, where visitors collect sands of different colors and create for themselves a fun, handmade  souvenir to take home.  This is especially fun for the youngsters, but also great for the young at heart!

For 2 shekels (about 60 cents), a local entrepreneur will sell you an empty glass bottle out of his ice cream truck. You can then spend a good hour or more walking the hills in search of just the right colorful sand combination for your painted-sand art project.  If you bring a straw or a small funnel, you can combine colors and designs in a delightful pattern.  When done, that same ice cream seller/ glass bottle vendor will seal your masterpiece with some  clay and you’re done.

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From here you may also depart on a couple of lovely hikes to the rim of the makhtesh, choosing the easier hour long walk or the more challenging three hour trek.

If rest and food is what you desire after your adventure in the painted sand hills, you may lounge in the shade of a tree or partake of a packed lunch at one of the picnic tables.

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All in all, a fun way to spend some time in our very own Painted Desert.