Israeli Southern comforts

Beersheba and Mitzpe Ramon offer visitors a plethora of activities, including a restored railway station, alpacas that eat from your hand and local chefs with flair.

December 8, 2016 16:38
the station compound in Beersheba

Hakatara restaurant and the station compound in Beersheba. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

 Alona Rahmilov came to Mitzpe Ramon decades ago. For a while she worked in daycare before deciding to open her own small museum and workshop highlighting traditional carpet weaving from the Caucasus. “I don’t know why I brought weaving tools with me when we came to Israel from Dagestan on the Caspian Sea, but I brought them and they waited a long time to be used.”

One of her carpets hanging on the wall is an ode to the area around the Ramon crater. It has shapes symbolizing local plants and colors of the sun.

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Ninety-nine years ago it was the rising sun that would have provided Ismet Bey and his 5,000 Turkish soldiers in Beersheba a startling sight. Awakened at 5:55 a.m. on October 31, 1917, by the explosion of artillery shells, almost 50,000 Australian, New Zealand and British troops were arrayed around the desert town. Today’s Beersheba still holds the scars of the battle the British expeditionary force won, in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery near the old city center. Rows and rows of soldiers are buried beneath the modern high-rises. Down the street is the old railway station that the Ottoman Turks built during the First World War.

Inbal Arazi, a local tour guide, shows old photos of the station as it looked during the Great War. Here Turkish soldiers were transported south to assault the Sinai Peninsula and strike a blow at the British empire.

Several years ago the city carved out a new two-story multimedia museum (NIS 30) and added two old train cars and a historic locomotive, unveiling it as “The Train Yard – Engine 70414 – Compound in Beersheba.”

The 70414 locomotive (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

The locomotive was painted jet-black with its logo 70414 as a replica of the original locomotive that once plied this route. In a tip of the hat to the Turks’ role, the city also built a small monument to Turkey, with a flag, and put up a bust of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The Turks founded modern day Beersheba in 1900 to create a regional economic center, and to extend their administrative power and draw the Beduin, the only residents of the Negev at the time, into their circle of power. A grid-like modern town was planned with a pretty local administrative center. Then came the German engineers such as Heinrich August Meissner, builder of the Hijaz railway, to help the Ottomans with their railway. Jews came as well, as the museum notes, creating the first flour mill. In a small gallery at the old station, which still has its original Arabic sign, photos show Beersheba in those years with locals resplendent in Turkish fezzes hosting local Beduin chiefs from the Azazmeh and other tribes.

The Turkish experience treating with the Beduin conjures up images of the patriarch Abraham and his meeting with Abimelech, a pagan warlord. As told in the Bible, Abraham had wandered from his native Ur in what is now Iraq, via Syria and Egypt, and come to a well in the desert. At the Abraham’s Well Visitor Center, located near a decaying industrial area, one can get a sense of the travails of the patriarch. The center was refurbished in 2013 and remodeled. A guide dressed in a white robe, perhaps what Sarah wore, provides tours every hour in English or Hebrew. Pointing to a tract of the Bible, the guide notes that today people are fighting over the same things they did back then: water and land. Abraham and his little band of followers give the local savage Abimelech seven lambs at a well near here. For those they called it “Beersheba,” the well of the seven.

Abraham in most depictions looks for some reason like a Beduin chief, his flowing beard and robes. At the center the visitor is taken through a dark hall with quotes from the Bible, to a theater where the story of the patriarch is told in 3D. Remember his poor relative Lot and Sodom? Abraham circumcising himself and blithely going along with a plan to sacrifice his son? “The idea of taking you through a dark tunnel is to give you an idea of the journey that Abraham took – he didn’t know where he was going or what would be...

why Beersheba,” says the guide. At the end of the short film the curtain raises to reveal the well of Abraham.

Well, it’s a well, not necessarily of Abraham because thousands of years after he passed on, the Ottoman Turks rebuilt these wells. The guide shows photos from 100 years ago of the giant well that visitors can peer into, how animals once pulled up the water.

AT HAKATAR restaurant at the historic station, water flows better than it did 4,000 years ago. Appetizers of grilled eggplant, carpaccio, hummus, pâté (NIS 29 to NIS 46) and other goodies are on offer. I had the khachapuri, a Georgian dish that is made from a piece of baked bread curled around cheese and an egg on top. The special cheese gives it a sharp taste and it is served with little sides of tehina, spicy sauce and tomato sauce. For the main course try the shepherd’s pie, or perhaps a hamburger, halloumi salad or a plate of grilled meats (NIS 40 to NIS 169). The home fries, tossed in a sweet sauce, are excellent. If you’re patriarch- like with an appetite, seize the dessert menu and try a pear pie (NIS 38) or knafeh (NIS 34).

Inside one of the old railway cars that is part of the open air museum there is a display showing a man and woman seated on a train bound for Beersheba in the 1950s. The man is complaining about the fear he has for the desert, but his wife admonishes him: “We are going to be pioneers and raise sabra children.”

The first pioneers in the Negev were dumped by the government in the barren wilderness. One woman in Mitzpe Ramon, an hour south of Beersheba, recalls how Moroccan immigrants were sent here to the beautiful cliff overlooking the epic Ramon Crater.

It was beautiful, but it also gets cold in winter. David Ben-Gurion wanted to make the desert bloom, but little blooms here. Even the government’s plan to extend a railway via Dimona to Eilat didn’t pan out. “Today the Dead Sea chemical factory, tomorrow Eilat,” said the banners back then. Some bureaucrat probably quietly shelved them.

The Ramon Crater had waited 200 million years to welcome tourists, so it waited a bit longer. However, in the last half-decade, the quiet town of 5,000 residents has begun to take off. Even Condé Nast thinks visitors now have a reason to stay there after the exquisite Beresheet hotel was opened in 2011. According to local photographer Irus Hayoun, who runs desert photography tours and sells herbal cosmetics, says Mitzpe Ramon feels like it is coming to a crossroads.

The Ramon Crater (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

In a close-knit and diverse town that has veteran pioneers from the old days, religious communities, Black Hebrews, and a newer, younger crowd of artists from Israel’s center, tourism is a double-edged sword. The quiet tourism of old – hikers, outdoors enthusiasts and those stopping for a day to see the crater or camp in its middle – is changing. New hotels are being planned that could bring 4,000 workers. “Some fear it will become like Eilat,” says Hayoun.

Sit for lunch at InnSense, a bistro that also has suites (NIS 600 to NIS 1,000 a night). Run by chef Zohar Rosenfeld, it is part of the new trendy culinary achievement in Mitzpe Ramon. With a modern interior featuring photos of the crater blanketed in snow, he seeks to provide visitors with a richer experience here. The menu boasts excellent sweet-potato soup with ginger (NIS 38), and “Sinia Mitzpait,” an eggplant with meat and tehina (NIS 60) for a main dish. I ordered the meat stew (NIS 70) cooked in red wine and vegetables. It was perfectly done, with flaky beef and perfectly textured vegetables. A dessert tray offered up an espresso mousse, crème brûlée and homemade ice cream (NIS 20). The restaurant is a respite from some of the more mediocre fare in town, a classy bistro featuring excellent wine and service that could be in Tel Aviv. Partnering with local products such as Ramat Negev wine, the chef is one of many entrepreneurs here, like Hayoun, who combine local inventiveness with a global appeal. It’s an example of how this area is looking to the future.

Beef stew and sinia at InnSense restaurant, Mitzpe Ramon(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

MITZPE RAMON offers a variety of places to stay. For the hiking crowd there are two campsites in the crater, and inside the town itself above the crater there are a variety of options. Sami Alkrnawi runs Ramon Suites, and is an example of local success. His suites, with heated pools, are rated on TripAdvisor as the second- best place to stay. He also rents private homes or “villas” that can sleep up to 40 people. One of them is a two-story complex with blue interior mood lighting.

It looks like one could have quite a party here. At his suites hotel, prices range from NIS 600 to NIS 750, but the villas, he says, cost up to NIS 5,000 a night for a place that could sleep 15 people.

At night the temperature here drops to around 8°C in winter, and it can get colder as well. A steep, biting, wind comes up, but because I am a glutton for punishment, I hiked up to the “Camel lookout,” a small hillock that overlooks the crater. To the east and west, 40 square kilometers of land are splayed out beneath around 300 meters below. It is Israel’s largest national park, and the site of fascinating geology that reveals that the crater of course is not a crater at all but the result of erosion. That’s all very interesting, but the real marvel here is seeing such an epic site.

For dinner we scooted over to Hakatze, a local restaurant open since 2002 and run by Barak Nevo. A small desert fox was fighting with a cat outside, and someone had put the iconic American radio show Prairie Home Companion on the radio. Inside, in the warmth, we had a nice home cooked-style meal: goulash (NIS 58) and a dish of chicken thighs with rice. The menu is updated daily on a board. Soup of the day (NIS 30) was spicy lentil soup. There is a vegetarian option as well, and the restaurant is open on Friday nights.

Most visitors come to Mitzpe Ramon either as a stop on the way to somewhere else, or to do outdoor activities. Things are changing.

Sitting on the rim of the crater at his Tzokim restaurant early in the morning, Alkrnawi says that for decades this town remained sleepy without major investment.

He spent 16 years running the Beduin tent accommodation at Be’erot, a campsite in the crater.

“We have many things to do here, such as hiking to Mount Adon, people do weddings and bar mitzvas, there is jeeping on the historic spice and incense route, you can walk to ancient khans [travelers’ inns], there are camel tours,” he explains.

As we spoke, a Nubian ibex, with horns that look like something from a safari, plodded nearby while joggers ran along the lip of the crater. Cooks at the restaurant were making shakshuka and ice coffee. Alkrnawi was constantly on the phone, juggling tourists who wanted a place to stay and things to do.

THE NEED to experience the desert is ever present.

Yoash Limon, who has worked here for 10 years, runs jeep tours ( and provides services for trekking ( He recommends that families book a four-hour jeep tour with coffee and snacks along the way. Although prices for a jeep can be more than NIS 1,400 for six to eight people, it’s a perfect way to enjoy the desert. For those hiking for days in the region, he also arranges to drop people’s gear at the end of every day so they can enjoy long-distance hiking without the burden of carrying tents and gear.

A short walk from Tzokim and its exquisite view of the crater is a small Bio-Ramon museum run by the Nature and Parks Authority. For NIS 22 visitors can see exhibits that look like they haven’t been updated in a decade or so. They are supposed to show animals that are local to the desert, but most of the great animals that used to live here such as bears and lions are extinct.

There were up to 10 Negev leopards still roaming the desert in the 1980s, but friendly humans have probably since exterminated those or they’ve died out. So what’s left? There are cute little turtles, owls, hedgehogs and porcupines. Chameleons, so much like the rocks that one probably will not see them, lurk around. A few exhibits show deadly and dangerous scorpions and snakes. Perhaps if one is going to go hiking, it’s best to visit the museum afterward to take in the dangerous little things one has survived.

After the museum, we headed out on a seven-minute drive northwest of town on a pleasant road that leads to the Alpaca Farm. Like Alkrnawi, this site has been a fixture of the area for three decades. It has four cabins (NIS 700 to NIS 800), but the real gem is the opportunity to frolic with alpacas (NIS 30 entrance). The farm has around 100 alpacas and 20 llamas from South America, whose ancestors came to Israel by plane decades ago. “At first glance, alpacas may look a lot like their camelid cousin the llama,” claims Modern Farmer.

Llamas can weigh up to 90 kilograms more than an alpaca, and are 25 centimeters taller.

For an alpaca-ignorant person like myself, it’s unclear what the difference is. But at the Alpaca farm visitors can feed the animals, who nibble out of the hand safely, and walk among them as they roam around.

There are numerous paddocks carved out of a valley between tan hills and overlooked by the cabins. The local family still lives here, and their adult children run different aspects of the farm, including looms, a horse corral and a small café. Children up to 20 kg.

can ride the alpacas, or the llamas – they all look the same anyway: furry, funny-faced animals with scraggly teeth. The llamas supposedly spit at people from time to time, but we didn’t receive any.

Guests are also offered a “llama picnic” in which they take one of the beasts of burden and it carries their items while participants trek along to the rim of the crater a few kilometers away. The owners trust the tourists with their woolly animals. After every winter some of them are shorn and a small factory creates yarn (NIS 50 for 50 grams).

WE COULD have spent all day with the charming alpacas and the menagerie of other animals at the farm, but lunch was calling. Back in the industrial area of Mitzpe Ramon, which has been transformed into a series of entrepreneurial businesses – some with eclectic signs and funky people running them – we came across the Ethno Center and Alona Rahmilov.

Rahmilov was born in Derbent, a city in Dagestan on the Caspian Sea. The city is dominated by an impressive Sassanid fortress, which rises above it like the walls of the Ramon crater rise above the valley below.

For 22 years Rahmilov and her family lived in Mitzpe Ramon, and recently she decided to put her traditional carpet-making skills to use. She didn’t want these skills to disappear, as they are throughout the Caucasus. The small museum has full-size figures wearing traditional Caucasian dress, the kind that Jews from the mountains used to wear, replete with pockets on their chest for bullets. The patchwork of ethnicities near Dagestan is like a carpet from the region.

Rahmilov’s museum has been visited by Circassians from northern Israel, another Caucasian people who are Muslim and live in two towns in the north. Her multi-decade path to bringing back traditional weaving is akin to what’s happened here in Israel’s South.

The Negev is beginning to bloom with projects like Ethno Center, renewing a multi-decade battle to pioneer a home in the desert. Abraham, who once bartered over a well at Beersheba, would have been proud.

The writer was a guest of the places mentioned.

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