T his walk combines ancient Arad with the small, modern city bearing the same name. At 12 km. it is a short, fairly easily accessible section of the Israel Trail, suitable for all ages. With fresh water available at both ends, the route supplies enough variety to hold the walker's interest throughout. Ask the Beersheba-Arad bus driver to set you down at the junction of the main road with road No. 80. Walk 20 minutes northward, keeping an eye on Tel Arad - the 400 meter-high hill in front of you. Private vehicles may park at the site of Tel Arad. The walk starts here.
It's worth spending at least an hour exploring the site, currently under the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The place divides into two, each from a different period. To the west - on lower ground - is the pre-Israelite, third millennium BCE, Canaanite city of Arad. The remains on view demonstrate that the settlement was very carefully planned. It is divided by a network of streets into quarters: the temple complex in the west, the residential areas to the south. And the natural depression at the urban center appears to have drained water into a large reservoir, ensuring water supply during the long, dry summers.
Go up to the summit of the 400-meter hill, which is crowned by remains from the Israelite period. It is a complex site with different settlement strata, showing service from the period of King Solomon until the Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judah (10th to sixth centuries BCE). Together, they indicate that it functioned as a citadel within a series of fortifications, protecting the trade routes in the Negev, and the southern border of the kingdom from marauding nomads. Observe the partially reconstructed fortress gate, protected by towers on both sides. The shrines contains twin temples, with a monument found in their Holy of Holies, and two incense altars just outside, recalling the prophets' constant admonitions and tirades on idolatry: "They cried to other gods to whom they burn incense. They will not save them at the times of their troubles" (Jeremiah 11:12).
There is no evidence that this hill was settled by the "Canaanite King of Arad" who heard that the "Israelites [under Moses's leadership] were coming along the Atarim route." The king had "fought against Israel and taken some of them captive" (Numbers 21:1). No archeological remains suggest that anyone lived permanently on the site during the Late Bronze Age - the period of the Exodus. The current view is that the King of Arad was the ruler of the Kingdom of Arad - "the Negev of Arad," whose capital was another city in this region.
Exit Tel Arad, and rejoin the white, blue, and orange-marked Israel Trail as it crosses road No. 80. Ahead to the south east is Park Arad, which at that distance appears as a patch of green. And much further to the east lie the tops of the apartments marking the modern city of Arad: the end of this walk. Part of the trail is hard to follow, for waves of sandstorms and Beduin Mitsubishis have been eroding the trail logos to near-vanishing point, but as long as you make for Park Arad, you should not go too far wrong. Tel Arad still commands the landscape from behind. On the left, the recently reclaimed and irrigated semi desert supports successions of wine producing vineyards, date palms, and orchards. The semi-desert reverts to type on the right, with tussocky grass kept down to size by the nomadic pastoral Beduin tribes' sheep and goats - one of whose shepherds eyed me suspiciously from afar, but relaxed on discovering that he did not understand my English, and did a couple of generous photo poses at the head of his flock.
Less than an hour's leisurely walking envelops you inside Park Arad, with its tall eucalyptus trees and fairly discreetly placed picnic benches. The welcome shade beckons the walker to halt for lunch. (The water fountains were in sulky mood as I tested them, so please don't rely on them - carry the minimum two liters of water per person for the whole ramble.)
Park Arad is a fairly recent addition to the landscape, commemorating the life of Ran Shochat, killed in the Yom Kippur War. Rather small at 500 dunams, it soon gives way to semi-desert cereal cultivation, with seeds on the chewable side. The trail is wide and undulating for the best part of an hour, but then jerks a sudden turn to the north, and meanders its way down into the Tze'elim Valley.
This is a wadi whose flash floods beat the softer rock into pebbles, leaving the harder rock upstanding. They carve out a limestone-based terrain of weathered, gently curved hilltops, and a winding river bed whose spurs elegantly interlock. The Tze'elim river bed is somewhat ankle twisting, but after a short distance, the Trail narrows its sights upwards on the south side of the valley - not easy to follow and may need a mini-scramble, but gives a sense of achievement as you regain the plateau above.
You have been following the Tze'elim Valley to its source. It makes a U turn in the other direction and drops down to the Dead Sea, parallel to its southern neighbor, Wadi Yair, which flanks the rock and fortress of Masada.
The plateau becomes scrubby with stubby vegetation and a rising Lego-Land impression of the brightly colored dovetailing blocks, assembled as the private suburban homes of Arad. Frustratingly, the trail does not head directly to civilization, but tantalizes the walker as it strays north, before abruptly changing its mind, pushing east, and greeting urbanization through a wide gate, whose backside is boldly colored with a black local trail logo, plus the multi-colored Israel Trail sign. You are on the junction of Rehov Hevron and Rehov Maon - on the extreme northwest of the city. Welcome to the first whiff of settlement big enough for a supermarket since Tel Aviv.
Following unsuccessful attempts to settle the area by Jewish pioneers in the 1920s, Arad was founded in 1962 by a group of young Israelis. Most of them were ex-kibbutzniks and ex-moshavniks seeking an environment free of the urban ills of overcrowding, traffic, noise and pollution - plus the buzz of being on the desert frontier. Its current form was planned throughout - its Web site claims that it is the first pre-planned city in modern Israel. In due course - in June 1995 - it did receive city status. The current population approaches 25,000, comprising of religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Beduin and Black Hebrews, native-born Israelis and new immigrants. Its clean air attracts asthmatics worldwide.
The trail gets to Rehov Ben-Yair - the city center, leading to a range of refreshments and buses to Beersheba. Unfortunately its best attraction - the Desert Center, with its realistic simulation of the local desert conditions - closed down recently. But a short distance from Rehov Ben-Yair Street is the Eagle Sculpture Promenade, which, despite its close-range beat-up appearance, conveys a lonely desert environment stalked by hungry birds of prey. I got there in tune with the setting sun, making it a splendid end to a perfect day.