In Tel Aviv the Israel’s have managed something quite remarkable for such a young city. They’ve made it look old. It strikes me every time I’m here. The city itself is alive and full of energy; I can hear the beach parties going on as I type this and they’ll continue into the early morning. Walking home from dinner at ten-thirty a few nights ago young kids hovered around ice-cream trucks, multi-generational families cooked on portable grills, and a young Hasidic man danced with traditional foot stomps and claps to techno house music coming out of portable CD-player. A little surreal actually. But with all that life, there’s an ever present level of decay that reminds me of southern Italy. No one cares about the exterior, unless it’s wearing a bikini. Must be the heat.
I have two free days this trip and want to finish exploring the bits of Israel I haven’t gotten to before. Today that meant heading south into the Negev, a desert region that covers more than half the country’s territory, and the name of which apparently means dry. In Antiquity, the Negev was known as the final leg of the journey of incense, brought overland by camel caravans from Arabia and then shipped out to the Mediterranean world from the port at Gaza. What fascinates me is that the route is still visible in the form of ruined way stations and Caravanserai built by the Nabataeans, the folks who gave us Petra. If you’re so inclined you can even walk the old route, starting at the Jordanian border, nearly dying in the blistering heat as you cross the desert, and finally getting shot at as you finish up by climbing the Gaza security fence. I rented a car.
I left the hotel at five A.M. with hopes of avoiding the worst of the heat. I stopped first at Shivta, one of the four major Nabataean towns that housed, cared for, and taxed the hell out of the incense caravans. When I arrived at seven it was utterly empty, possibly due to its spot wedged between the Egyptian border and an Israel Defense Force live fire range. It may also have been because it didn’t open until eight. Either way the site’s staff wasn’t there yet so I missed the sign that said it was closed and wandered the streets that were lit by the golden morning light. They say the Nabataean’s were masters of collecting and storing water. They had to be. It’s hard to imagine building a town in a more desolate location, at least until you visit their other sites deeper in the Negev.
Over the course of the day I stopped at Avdat, En Saharonim, and the curiously named Mamshit. The pattern with each site was the same; functional, brutally inhospitable, and devoid of any life but that which I brought with me. It’s a shame really; as with just a bit of imagination you can easily smell the stench of a courtyard full of snorting camels, flee infested drivers, and local prostitutes helping spread disease up and down the route for an obol or two. But the Negev isn’t only about broken down ruins and Israeli nuclear weapons program. It’s also about the environment.
It started with En Avdat, a stunning oasis set amidst the most barren terrain imaginable. There water flows from three separate springs and has carved out a deep canyon with horizontal lines of jet black flint breaking up the canyon’s otherwise white walls. Within the canyon, the year-round flow supports waterfowl, turtles, and a small population of Nubian Ibex. You’re meant to see them springing across the cliff face with utter disregard for gravity. Instead I found them sitting under a 350 year old terebinth tree, the sort of plant from which you get turpentine. I think the heat had gotten to them too.
Following En Avdat was Makhtesh Ramon, a massive 40 kilometer long, 10 kilometer wide hole in the ground, nearly half a kilometer deep. The thing is immense, and although they call it a crater, it was actually formed by a rather complex series of processes that really amount to an ocean that got lifted up and dumped out. There’s 200 million years of geology there and everywhere you look there’s something unique, from black mountains, to red rocks, and yellow hills. And if you listened closely enough on that day you could even hear a Canadian cursing that the caravanserai which Frommer’s said was just 2000 meters off the main road, was really more like ten kilometers down a rocky path that threatened to rip apart the rental car’s suspension. Next time I rent a 4×4. I do not like Frommer’s. Not one bit.
Amidst all of this wonder are Israel’s remaining Bedouin, the vast majority having fled, or been forcibly removed, during the war in ’48. Now they cluster around Be’er Sheva where their mad-max like villages cling to the otherwise barren hillsides. They are neglected, jobless, and unless I’m underestimating the value of second-hand corrugated steel building materials, dirt poor.
Tomorrow I go north.