The Ancient Leopard Temple

I am fascinated with prehistoric archaeology and the Leopard Temple in the Uvda Valley, about an hour’s drive from Eilat, is one of my favorite sites. When I stand at this place, used by ancient peoples for 4,000 years (let me spell that out, four thousand years!) as a cultic sanctuary, from the Neolithic Age, (mid 6th millennium BCE) through the Chalcolitic to the Bronze Age, (mid 2nd millennium BCE), I can barely comprehend this time span of human spirituality. Wow. Just wow.

After an Israeli army tank on maneuvers in the Uvda Valley drove past some sand dunes and soldiers noticed strange formations on the ground, archaeologists excavated and cleaned the site in the early 1980’s. It consists of a courtyard, surrounded by a parallelogram-shaped, low, double wall, each side 12 meters long.

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Parallelogram-shaped courtyard, lined with stones

 

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One of the ancient altars, a pit lined with stones

In the courtyard were found four altars from different eras spanning 4,000 years, each one a shallow pit, dug into the ground and lined with stones. Using Carbon 14, the oldest carbonized remains were dated to about 7,500 years ago.  Do you get that? People like you and me were here, in the middle of nowhere, bringing and sacrificing offerings to their gods, starting seven thousand five hundred years ago. Who were these people? Who were their gods? What did worshippers ask for? Why here?

To the western side of the courtyard we find what archaeologists dub the “Holy of Holies”, a reference of course, to the most sacred chamber in the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where monotheistic Jews believed rested the essence of God. The “Holy of Holies” at the Leopards Temple is an elongated, rectangular, stone-surrounded enclosure that contains exactly 17 upright, unhewn stones. Archaeologists believed these stones represented gods or venerated ancestors.

Upright stones? This reminds me of one of the our most important Biblical stories about Jacob, one of our forefathers. Jacob left Beersheva and set out for Haran and on the way camped for the night. He took a stone and used it as a pillow. He dreamed about a stairway reaching to the heavens, with angels going up and down. At the top he saw God, who reiterated the promise He made to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, whereby his descendents would be numerous like the dust of the earth and will spread out far and wide, populating the land.

(Genesis 28:16-19) When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. 

Jacob called the place where he erected an upright stone Beth El, the house (or place) of God.

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The ‘Holy of Holies’ made from uncut stones and in the center are 17 standing stones representing gods

The act of placing an upright stone on holy ground, at the place where God or the gods reside, does not begin in the Hebrew Bible. It is as ancient as the Neolithic era, when worshippers erected cultic sites with standing stones on both sides of the Jordan Rift Valley, on the Golan Heights, in the Syrian Horan and in Jordan. Later civilizations such as the Nabateans also venerating upright stones, and worship at the megalithic Kaaba stone in Mecca precedes Islam.

 

Unhewn stones? Isn’t that a Jewish thing? God required Moses to build him an altar, explicitly only with stones untouched by iron. He says to Moses:

And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your sword upon them you have profaned them. (Exodus 20:22)

God demands uncut stones because He knows weapons of war are made of iron. He wants no tool that is used for war to be used to build his altar, his Temple. Greg Salisbury, in his article Have You Got the Stones to Make Peace? in the Jewish Exponent (Sept 4th, 2015), writes:

The prohibition against using an iron tool to shape the stones runs like a thread through ancient Jewish history. While invading Canaan, Joshua built “an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded” (Joshua 8:31). When Solomon built the First Temple, “only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built” (1 Kings 6:7). When Judah Maccabee and his band of brothers liberated Jerusalem in 164 BCE, “they took unhewn [whole] stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one” (1 Maccabees 4:47).

So no, uncut stones go way back. What I find absolutely titillating is that these desert people who built this sanctuary and worshiped in it long ago, had much in common with our Biblical forefathers and their stories.

Lets get back to the Leopard sanctuary. To the east of the courtyard we find what gave this archaeological site its name, a series of 16 animal figures outlined in the sand with stones pressed into the ground. The row of 16 creatures is about 15 meters long and depicts female leopards (so identified because of their raised tails) and one headless antelope. Archaeologists believe this ancient religious art installation represents the story of life and death, predator and prey, the cycle of life. The leopards, probably also representing goddesses of fertility, are all facing eastwards, towards the rising sun (life, new day, new beginnings) and the antelope is facing west (sunset, death, finality).

 

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Female leopards representing fertility all face eastwards towards the rising sun

Sometime at the beginning of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago, ancient people began to settle down in small groups, plant crops, domesticate animals. They needed as much help as they could get as life was difficult, especially around the Fertile Crescent where much of their success depended on the amount of annual rain, the seasons and the climate.  They began worshipping in some organized manner, first the Sun and Moon and stars, and then trees, mountains and what they perceived as powerful and wise animals. These gods were called upon to bless the crops, to provide rain and to keep away evil things.

On the small hill next to the Leopards Temple are the remains of circular grain threshing floors and a few structures used as living quarters. Historians believe that ancient farmers cultivated wheat and other grains here during the winter and used the water from flash floods to irrigate the crops. It is believed the farmers left after the harvest, only to return the next year for the next planting. Perhaps these farmers created the sanctuary to honor not only their gods but the powerful predators of the desert, the leopards. Were they asking them for divine help? For protection? For their blessing for a plentiful grain harvest? For ample rains in the high desert that would spill to the valley? Who were these people?

I love a good archaeological mystery.

 

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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

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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.

A makhtesh… a what? A makhtesh!

As we continue in my series of posts on the beautiful Negev, we arrive at the point where we need a short lesson in geology.  I know, not all of us love geology, so I promise a short and easy-to-understand explanation.

The Negev cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the unique and fascinating geological processes by which it was shaped and formed.

One of the  extraordinary landforms of the Negev is the makhtesh, of which there are 3 in close proximity, all very similar in their characteristics and all formed in essentially the same way. The geology lesson begins here, as we try to understand the makhtesh

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A makhtesh is sometimes translated as a ‘crater’ but that is misleading, as craters are usually created by volcanic eruptions or meteorites hitting the Earth’s crust.  A makhtesh is none of that… it is a  geological formation unique to the Negev and the Sinai, created by erosion, the slow process by which soil and rock is removed by wind or water flow, then transported and deposited somewhere else.

It all started hundreds of millions of years ago, when the Earth’s crust was repeatedly covered with layers of sediments.   For millions of years,  these sediments would be of tiny grains  of sand, made up of quartz and feldspar and other minerals  eroded away from massive granite mountains that had been created by magma emerging to the surface of the Earth.  These sand deposits eventually hardened and became different types of sandstone.

Then, with shifts in the tectonic plates, the area would be covered by an ancient ocean for millions of years, and  skeletons and shells of billions of marine creatures would sink to the sea floor, laying layers of calcium carbonate (CaCO3 for those chemistry inclined), eventually creating limestone and chalk.

This geological process repeated itself over and over again. Hard limestone layers and soft sandstone layers, accumulating on top of each other over the millenia.

Stay with me, it gets better.

The Negev (and most of the areas of Europe and the Middle East) was covered by an ancient body of water called the Tethys Sea about 100 million years ago. As it began to  recede,  immense geological pressures started pushing and  shoving the terrain into folds, eventually becoming mountain ranges that  all extend in the same direction,  from the southwest to the northeast.  These ranges are clearly visible today and reach from the Sinai to the southern Dead Sea.

רשים מכתש1As the folds, now mountain ranges,  began to rise, deep cracks were created in the top hard limestone.

Rainfall found its way into these cracks, and over time made them deeper. As the cracks became bigger, the water reached the deeper sandstone layers and began to erode the sand away.תרשים מכתש

The harder top layer of limestone eroded slower, the softer sandstone underneath eroded faster, and over several million years, a large cavity in the ridge formed,  and voila… a makhtesh!

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The Makhtesh HaKatan is a beautiful site, an almost perfect bowl,  carved into  the colorful sandstone of the Negev. It is still drained by only one stream and has attained a balance of sorts,  not growing and not shrinking.

It is the smaller of the three makhteshim in the Negev and the first you should visit in order to fully understand this geological phenomenon.

Sitting on the edge of this beauty is quite breathtaking.

This makhtesh is only accessible by foot and walking its many hiking trails is an amazing experience.  The sandstone walls are gorgeous, painted different colors by the amount of oxides in the sandstone; iron makes red, copper makes green, manganese makes orange… there are also browns and purples and whites and yellows, quite a kaleidoscope of colors.

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We will visit the other two makhteshim and go on other Negev adventures in my upcoming posts.

They should have spelled it ‘Mamsheet’…

They should have spelled it ‘Mamsheet’…

800px-Mamshit_IMG_6193Funny how some Hebrew names just do not sound well in English. Take  for example the boy’s name Dror,  or the girl’s name Osnat, beautiful names in Hebrew, but in English? No.   Such is the fate of an amazing place in the northern Negev called Mamshit.

Let’s get one thing straight, it should have been transliterated to Mamsheet on all the English brochures, but go figure.  Guess no one thought of it.  Its actually pronounced Mamsheet…  you gotta ‘sheeeeet’ when you say it.

So now that we’ve got the  pronunciation right, let’s get to business.

When visiting the Negev, do not miss this gem!

Mamshit 024Mamsheet  (which is how I will spell it) is a beautifully restored ancient Nabatean city, that is not only a delight to visit because of its fascinating archaeology, history and architecture, but also because twice a year, during the 7 days long holidays of Sukkot and Passover, the ancient city comes to life with a fun, not-to-be-missed, ethnic,  Nabatean market… but first, a little history.

Mamsheet sits on the Nabatean Incense Route which ran from the southern Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean.  The Nabateans were masters of the desert, controlling the  important incense and spice trade routes from about the 3rd century b.c.e to the 3rd century c.e.  They accumulated great wealth as they transported myrrh and frankincense,  cinnamon and nutmeg, and other luxury commodities from the East to the shores of the Great Sea.  They built great desert cities, oases for their camel caravans,  not only in the Negev but also east of the Jordan River, with amazing Petra as their capital.

Mamsheet was built in the 1st century c.e. and was the only walled ancient city in the Negev, protecting its wealthy residents from nomadic intruders.

The Romans coveted this wealth and Emperor Trajan finally annexed the Nabatean Kingdom in 106 c.e., charging them high taxes and creating the province of Arabia Petraea.

By the 4th century and the start of the Byzantine era, the Nabateans had settled down,  developed unique desert agriculture techniques and began to breed Arabian horses. They eventually converted to Christianity and later, with the arrival of the Arab empires,  they blended into the local population and disappeared as a culture.

Although Mamsheet is the smallest of the Nabatean cities of the Negev, it has been beautifully  restored.

Mamshit 027The city walls, one built in the 1st century and the second built by Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century, still enclose the town. Today one can enter the city through its ancient gate.

Mamshit 033Several of Mamsheet’s  streets have survived intact and visitors can enter rooms in luxurious homes, courtyards and even see troughs and stalls in the ancient horse stables.

There are two well preserved Byzantine churches in Mamsheet, exquisiteMamshit 023  examples of   basilica style churches;  nave, aisles, atrium, apse, elaborate mosaics… the works!Mamshit 031

Nabatean Market Days

Walking through a beautifully restored Nabatean city is one thing, but visiting Mamsheet during  Nabatean Market Days is FUN!

Arts and crafts, pottery, ceramics, antiques and ‘not so antique’ finds, funky clothes, delicious food, colored glass, sand paintings, ethnic jewelry, amazing music… and all by authentic Nabateans! Well, maybe not Nabateans but a delightful mixture of artists of all backgrounds…

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Usually on Thursday nights during Nabatean Market week, the market is open till the late hours of the night.  It is an absolutely enchanting place to be and an unforgettable experience.

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So, come visit the Negev with me, and on our visit to Mamsheet, you can stay at their campground.  You may camp under the desert stars, sleep in lovely bungalows or large bedouin tents, stay in spacious, comfortable cabins, any way you want.  Camping in the desert sure adds to a wonderful experience…

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Truly Extraordinary

When in Israel for the first time, or the second, or fifth, one tends to visit the same ol’ places: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Safed, Caesaria… and there is nothing wrong with that. Great places, wonderful experiences.

However, I  invite you to begin exploring a truly extraordinary region, a desert  unique in its beauty, its geology, wildlife, history and increasing importance in facing today’s global challenges… the Negev.

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Monotheism and the Jewish People were born in the Negev when Abraham chose to settle here so many years ago.  The Israelites wandered through on their way from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  The nomads crisscrossed these rocky sands, so did the Nabateans with their incense-laden, camel caravans journeying from southern Arabia to the shores of the Mediterranean.  The Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the founding fathers of the early Christian Church, hermit monks in search of God…

Today the Negev is a desert region that encompasses almost two thirds of Israel’s land area and includes cities, towns, kibbutzim, communities, farms, Jews, Arabs and Bedouins, a world class  university and colleges,  desert studies and agricultural research centers, military facilities, and industrial parks.

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It is an arid and semiarid, rocky desert of  breathtaking beauty, incredible landscapes, fascinating ancient cities and archaeology, unique geological formations… but don’t only take my word for it.

Lonely Planet, the world famous travel magazine, picked the Negev as the second most desirable world region to visit for 2013. They write:

” Look closely between the rocks of the wadis (valleys) and you will find water and even wine. The Negev Highlands region is also home to so many vineyards that it now has its own wine route. Today, ecologists from all over the world come to the kibbutzim of Sde Boker and the Arava to study solar energy and water treatment. But this isn’t new. Two thousand years earlier, the Nabataeans cultivated grapes and practically invented desert irrigation, which can still be seen at the ancient ruins of Shivta, Mamshit and Avdat.

This region, comprising 62% of Israel’s land mass, may seem sparse but it offers a world of adventure, including mountain hikes, camel treks, 4WD desert drives and Red Sea diving. “

I agree!Mamshit 036

In the next few posts I will introduce you to some of my favorite sites in the Negev.   Stay tuned…

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