Nitzana - Nitzana's health walk

'In this deafening silence, 
you can hear nothing 
unless you take another step 
that leads you toward the cliff 
to eternity. 
To the desolation, to the desert 
inside yourself.'

Written by Nadav Israeli, killed in action in Lebanon at the age of 20, these haunting words are engraved onto a large rock in the Negev desert near Nitzana. Nadav had spent a year of volunteer pre-army service working with youngsters at the Nitzana Youth Village.

You will see the rock on an enchanting Negev trip to sites off-the-beaten-track. Begin with a new 'Walk for Health' trail developed by the Jewish National Fund, climb Tel Nitzana and visit the youth village for which it is named. Explore an unusual landscape filled with strange white mounds, and end your outing at Be'erotayim, a lush oasis in the wilderness. Perhaps by the time your day in this tranquil region has ended, you - like Nadav - will feel the pull of the desert.

THE 'Walk for Health' concept is not new, and lately this kind of route can be found in many parts of the country. But, what makes the JNF trails different is their locale: they are found within nature, on the assumption that both the ground you walk and the scenery in which you do so contribute to your health. I have written in the past about the beautiful JNF health trek in a wilderness near Eilat; this one begins directly across from the Youth Village inside the Nitzana Peace Forest. To reach the forest, follow Route 211 nearly to its western edge. Then turn left onto an inner road that leads to the youth village. Peace Forest is directly across from the Youth Village.

Enter the forest, whose thinly dispersed trees are typical of the desert. The first sign (in Hebrew) illustrates how to walk correctly, and tells you that the route is two kilometers each way and takes about an hour to complete. You are advised to begin slowly, to gradually pick up speed, to slow down towards the end and to stretch when you get there. Perhaps that's why the earth between your feet is natural forest land: it is hard to walk swiftly on this kind of ground. In addition, experts believe that the asphalt or treadmills we usually walk are far harder on our joints, knees and feet than this kind of floor.

Signs (in Hebrew) describe the wildlife that roam this area, including gazelles, wolves, foxes, wild cats and caracals. (We saw enormous ants.) Nearby, you will see a tree planted in honor of the late Rafael Eitan (Raful). It was Agriculture minister Raful who helped set up a Negev enterprise in which farmers grow salicornia, a nutritious green vegetable that contains no fat, is rich in vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids and tastes something like asparagus. Salicornia can be eaten fresh in salads, sauteed, pureed for soup or added to dips. Because it has a salty flavor, there is no need to add salt to the finished dish. Across the dirt road there is a greenhouse full of salicornia.

Continue through the forest, then move out into the open. The plants you pass have special techniques for dealing with saline soil and the arid climate. Look for a sign next to saltbush, a tasty food for goats and camels, and another in front of the bean caper (sometimes called a Mickey Mouse plant because of the little twin 'ears'). You will also see hairy leatherwood, used for making ropes in the wilderness, and white broom.

In order to save water, the JNF implemented a special kind of desert irrigation called contour bench terraces. You will see them everywhere: long low mounds that quadruple the amount of rainwater the plants would otherwise receive.

At one point you will see tall, sandstone poles to your right, created by sculptor Dani Karavan. There are 100 poles in all, each engraved with the word 'peace' in one of the hundred languages of the peoples who crossed this region over the millennia. They stretch three kilometers from ancient Nitzana to the Egyptian border. At the junction, you can take a detour, and follow the 2.5-km. trail that runs next to the poles - called Path of Peace - to delight in some stunning scenery. Or continue left, to reach remains from a Byzantine-era farm that supplied food for the ancient city of Nitzana.

For some time now, in conjunction with Israel's Antiquities Authority, the JNF has been planting trees and sowing crops at the restored farm. They know which ones to pick because papyrus documents that were discovered during excavations at Tel Nitzana offer specific descriptions. Look for grapevines, and the almond trees that are presently flowering.

Surrounded by hills, this area is one huge drainage basin and deciding to farm here was an act of brilliance. To increase the opportunity for natural irrigation, they built terraces on different levels. Look from one terraced plot to the other, to see how they were irrigated: Rain from the upper level slid down to the next and so on, providing crops with adequate water.

Inside a little thatch-covered shelter, there is a metal box with the name Nadav on the cover. Open it up to see a model of the farm that he built while volunteering at Nitzana. Then walk up the hill a few dozen meters to reach Nadav Rock, and the poem he wrote about the desert.

Next, return to your vehicle, and head for Tel Nitzana by turning right out of the forest and then left with signs leading to the tel. Before you climb up the hill, stop for a moment at a monument. Soon after the State of Israel was declared, Egypt invaded the Negev and its forces cut it off from the rest of Israel. For six months the IDF tried to push them out, and failed. Finally, in December, the IDF managed to rid the region of the Egyptians once and for all.

Although the Tel Nitzana region seems totally wild and untouched, in Byzantine times it was a major tourist center. Christian pilgrims on their way to Mount Sinai and travelers from Egypt to the Holy Land stopped off at Nitzana, one of six Nabatean cities in the Negev.

Lock your car and walk up to the tel. Slated to become an official national park at some time in the future, Nitzana has no entrance fee and there are no closing hours - or bathrooms. Nevertheless, there are some signs to help you find your way. 

nitzana picturenitzana picture
Like most of the other Nabatean cities, Nitzana was established around the second century BCE. At its peak in the sixth century CE it contained 116 homes and about 1,500 people. Church leaders ran the city's religious and secular life from the acropolis which overlooked the city, and the riverbeds below provided water for a well-developed agricultural system.

Nitzana is the only site in the Negev where archeologists have found a large number of papyri, well preserved by the dry desert air. The documents include literary and theological sources, such as a Greek dictionary to Virgil's Aeneid, parts of the Gospel and 195 non-literary documents covering many aspects of everyday life: financial contracts, divorce, property, military matters and taxes.

Following the Muslim conquest and heavy taxes imposed by the Arabs, the town was gradually deserted. The water system fell into disrepair and families apparently packed up one by one and left. By the end of the ninth century this formerly prosperous city was totally abandoned and neglected.

Now it's time for an adventure. Back in your car, turn right to get back on the inner road and soon you will see a sign on your left pointing to the ancient Byzantine farm and to the 'hillocks.' You are now traveling on the 'mandatory road,' which will lead to another sign for the 'hillocks'. In Hebrew called hamukim, these hillocks are smooth, rounded mounds formed by erosion of the region's chalky rock. Aren't they beautiful? Let the kids loose to run around and explore as much as you like.

Afterwards, turn right to get back on the mandatory road, then left onto the inner road. Your second-to-last stop is the Nitzana Youth Village on your right. Founded in 1986 by former Knesset member and illustrious statesman Aryeh (Lova) Eliav to realize his concept of modern Zionism, the village hosts youngsters - among them young Russians and Ethiopians - whose parents have remained abroad. During their stay at the village, boys and girls experience the desert, carry out reclamation projects and learn to irrigate with both fresh and saline water. Over the years the village has added a variety of ecological and desert programs for youth from all over the country. About 15,000 young people study and take field trips at the village during the year; another 5,000 participate in programs during the summer.

Artifacts from Tel Nitzana are on display in an attractive little museum at the village. Among the most interesting are a marble column decorated with a cross, part of a doorframe inscribed in Hebrew, and ancient Jewish coins.

Over the years Nitzana has added a hostel (with bathrooms and air conditioning) and family apartments for tourists. Lunches and dinners are available as well, for there are few restaurants in the region. If you make arrangements in advance, you can also tour the village's exciting solar park and unique recycling center. For information, to visit the museum and to reserve rooms, meals, and tours, call (08) 656-1435.

There are several other wonderful sites to visit in this area, one of them left over from the days of the Ottoman Empire. During World War I, the Turkish authorities decided to draft young men from the Mikve Yisrael Agricultural School into the Turkish army. The principal had a better idea: he offered to have his people grow beautiful trees and plant them at Turkish army posts. One desert post was at Be'erotayim, named for the two wells ('be'er') found within its confines and located along the Turkish railroad line.

Be'erotayim is located on the same inner road which led off of 211 to your Health Walk and other Nitzana sites. Stunningly developed by the JNF, Be'erotayim is, today, a lush oasis boasting foliage of incredible beauty along with picnic tables, bathrooms and colorful play equipment. Enjoy the sight of graceful gazelles who gaze at you with startled looks; here and there on the branches you will spot a bird that Israelis call kova hanazir (monk's cap), because the top of its black head is white.

Finally, head back towards Lea's Garden, near the youth village. From Be'erotayim, take the inner road towards the village. You will see a big brown sign on the side of the road. 

nitzana picturenitzana picture
Developed with the help of the JNF by Village founder Eliav, the garden was dedicated to his twin sister Lea Sachrovs in 1989 after she died. 'Lea always looked out for me,' says Eliav, recalling a letter he received during World War I while serving with the British in the Egyptian deserts. It was from Lea, reminding him to drink his milk!

The orchard, planted by Eliav's pupils, boasts the biblical seven species and delicious fruits. Tending the garden are 18- to 20-year-old Ethiopian and Russian pupils attending the village's year-long programs. Feel free to wander around and, later in the season, to help yourself to juicy ripe fruit!