Driving anywhere in the environs of Tel Aviv, south even as far as Ashkelon and north up to, say, Hadera, it is easy to gain the impression that this country is simply jam-packed with houses, cars and people. The truth of the matter is, if you keep on going a few more kilometers to the northeast or southeast you will suddenly discover more open spaces. And, while we’re not talking about the great open-road feel of the United States, if you ever make your way down to Mitzpe Ramon you might get a throwback sense of the frontier spirit of the Wild West.
While local residents would, no doubt, object to the shanty town epithet, there is something of an open-ended ambiance to the place. It is as if Mitzpe – as it is generally known – is a geographic and sociocultural backwater, far away from the Tel Aviv metropolis and, indeed, from practically anywhere else in the country. Some of that comes across in the “Mountain of Dreams” exhibition that is currently up and running at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv.
Last year Mitzpe turned 60, and the exhibition curated by Guy Raz chronicles the town’s evolution from a small bunch of hardy and, quite possibly, utopian- minded pioneers to a bona fide town of 5,000 with several luxury hotels and other forms of guest facilities to its name, as well as a bunch of fancy eateries and even a jazz club. However, any impression you might mistakenly get that Mitzpe is slowly evolving into a bustling nodal point of culture, or a mini-financial powerhouse, is not justified. That will probably never happen. Then again, stranger things have happened in this young country’s history.
What is clear from the exhibition is that the town has been through its fair share of ups and downs over the last six decades. That is implied, from the get go, by the exhibition.
“It seems that in all its years of existence, Mitzpe Ramon has been fluctuating between dreams and shattered dreams,” notes Raz.
That comes across in a most succinct fashion from the prints at the museum. Visitors to Mitzpe today can’t miss the designer stone-faced cabin-like units of the Beresheet Hotel overlooking the gargantuan Ramon Crater, but, half a century or so ago, they would have seen a far more modest structure at the top of the Ma’aleh Ha’atzmaut road, which snakes up several hundred meters from the crater floor, which went by the way of the Nabatean Inn. There is a delightful shot of a young boy observing a bus beginning the descent, right beneath the inn. The picture has a touch of the romantic to it and, one might even say, a whiff of pioneering spirit.
“Mitzpe Ramon started out from the idea of building a road to Eilat,” explains Raz.
“There was nothing on the way, just Kibbutz Sde Boker (around 40 kilometers to the north) and only a sort of diner, basically for the people working on the road.”
The route to our southernmost resort was officially opened in 1954, and a couple of years later an ideologically driven gent by the name of Hagai Avriel decided to leave Kibbutz Sde Boker, which he had helped to found, and to establish a new community at the edge of the Ramon Crater.
“The mythological story goes that comrade Avriel decided to leave the kibbutz, got in a jeep and drove south,” says Raz. “He got to the edge of the crater, to the cliffs, and pronounced ‘I’m going to establish a town here. I have a dream.’ So, basically, the guiding theme of this whole exhibition is dreams.”
You can see that vision materializing and disintegrating, ebbing and flowing, through the show. The earlier shots show the original single-story wooden huts, which were soon augmented by asbestos dwellings.
Mitzpe began to take on a more permanent presence with the construction of single-story stone buildings in 1958, and four years later the town began to make vertical progress as three-floor concrete apartment buildings were introduced. A young couple and small child, presumably immigrants from Morocco, are seen happily strolling by the “towering” edifices.
Mitzpe could be seen as a sort of microcosm of the Israeli demographic although, then again, the mix of people you find, and the sociocultural vibe, are probably unparalleled anywhere else in Israel. Walking through the town on any day of the week, you are likely to encounter a motley array of ethnic and socioeconomic exemplars, from Russian olim, of various vintages, to hardy Sabras, youngsters who relocated to the desert spot to get away from the hustle and bustle – and, probably, financial demands – of life in Tel Aviv, and others who were drawn to Mitzpe because of its perceived laissez-faire mind-set.
That feeling comes across in “Mountain of Dreams,” too. The visitor can follow the development of the town from its earliest days with, naturally, various dignitaries making their way down south for the official opening of this or that. The illustrious neighbor from Sde Boker, David Ben-Gurion, also appears. One of the featured celebs is none other than Bezalel Schatz, founder the Bezalel School of Arts and Design, raising a glass in the company of some locals at the aforementioned eatery at the top of the meandering road that climbs up from the crater bottom.
In his 1973 autobiography Chapters of Life, Avriel wrote that after his comrades from Kibbutz Sde Boker decided they could not go on making the daily return trip to the rudimentary diner, which serviced the laborers building the road to Eilat, he drove over there to take his leave. However, stepping down from his jeep he was, once again, charmed by the open spaces of the desert, and the peerless view of the crater, and resolved to establish a town there.
“I began weaving a new dream. Here a new settlement would be built, unlike any other,” wrote Avriel.
“If the distance from all other settlements was so great, doubtlessly the new settlement would be independent, and would not rely on faraway places. In this location, the residents would earn their living from the desert, and other people would provide services – shops, a school, a clinic – for the inhabitants.”
There are several delightfully evocative shots from the 1960s and 1970s that convey something of the local commercial continuum, including a lovely snap of a certain Yisrael Greenberg standing in front of the town’s grocery store, circa 1960, and the social interaction and community feel comes through palpably in a couple of photos of the interior of a grocery store in the 1970s. As, presumably, shopping options were limited back then, all the locals bought their victuals at the same establishment.
Indeed, some of Avriel’s vision came to pass – and some came to pass and moved right along. In September 1957, a gypsum firing facility was established in the crater, and the exhibition duly includes a couple of stirring shots, infused with a sense of pioneering spirit. The intermittent VIP appearances include a visit by then-prime minister and minister of defense David Ben-Gurion and president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi to the local quarry. The gypsum project was officially launched on December 20, 1957, and trade and industry minister Pinhas Sapir, MK David Hacohen and Histadrut bigwig Berl Reptor attended the cornerstone-laying ceremony. The event was, naturally, documented in monochrome print. The firing facility was the first industrial enterprise there, and there were various projects that came and went over the years, including the Ha’atzmaut sewing workshop, which opened in 1972 and operated until 2000, when it was closed down amid a bitter struggle by the employees to keep the dream of locally generated employment alive.
Interestingly, precious little of the town affords a vista of the spectacular landscape that sprawls majestically to the south, but the exhibition clearly shows the gradual urban evolution, as multistory residential blocks – albeit only up to four floors – sprout up and around the ubiquitous presence of the now iconic water tower. A birds’-eye view shot of the town from 2012, one of only a few color pictures in the exhibition, shows the extent of the town’s growth, including the spanking new Beresheet hospitality facility.
Israel Prize laureate photographer Micha Bar-Am was also moved to snap something of the Mitzpe Ramon ambiance, and his collage of a new low-cost housing project from 1960 evokes a sense of the social dynamic in the small urban outpost. By the 1970s, the Beit Noam Youth Hostel had opened for business there, and the shot from the 1970s of three backpackers pictured next to the youth-hostel sign imparts a feeling of adventure and freedom.
The creative spirit of the place also features in the exhibition, with pictures of various desert sculptural works, as well as New-Agey events that took place at the Adama hangar in the Spice Route Quarter. The mix of young and not-so-young and the cultural melting pot range still to be found in Mitzpe today seem to harbor the long-held promise of a vibrant flowering community in the desert. Then again, that unfulfilled potential has been around for much of the last 60 years.
As Raz notes, only time will tell if Avriel’s vision will ever come to fruition – or whether it was all just a dream.Mountain of Dreams closes on June 30, 2017.
For more information: www.eretzmuseum.org.il/