Tour Israel: Lost cities, sunburn and Australian war memorials

The sites around Nitzana, including Kadesh Barnea winery (now called Ramat Hanegev), is testament to the layers of history here.

The springs and waterfalls at Ein Avdat are located in the Negev, south of Sde Boker. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The springs and waterfalls at Ein Avdat are located in the Negev, south of Sde Boker.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The Negev is a vast canvas.
Half the land area of Israel, with less than 10 percent of the country’s population, the extensive desert has swallowed up cities and travelers throughout the ages. For generations up until 1900 it had no fixed human settlements, and its residents were primarily nomadic Beduin – and the slaves and peasants who worked for them. We know that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, wanted to make it “bloom,” and he was even buried overlooking one of its more striking expanses at Sde Boker. It never really bloomed, but for the traveler, hiker or tourist, that doesn’t matter much; if it had bloomed, who would be able to stand on the sun bleached ruins in the middle of nowhere and marvel at the fact that human inhabitation ever succeeded in this forsaken desert? Touring the Negev presents several initial challenges. The only way to get around is by car as public transport only serves the major towns and cities, such as Beersheba, frequently. Hitching rides is theoretically possible, but also only works best on well-traveled roads. So you’ll need a car, but even a car won’t get you to the places off the beaten track, since in the Negev “off the beaten track” literally means driving down a dirt track into the wastes of the desert, and requires not only a four-wheel-drive vehicle but a competent driver. What follows are a few suggested itineraries.
ON THE morning of October 31, 1917, the Turkish commander of Beersheba and his German general, Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein and his Turkish deputy Ismet Bey looked up from their morning coffee in Beersheba to see a British army on the horizon. They had marched across the desert in secret from Gaza during the night. Australian light horsemen had ridden their horses over two days from 55 km. south of Beersheba, at the watering hole of Asluj.
At six in the morning the British began their bombardment of the city.
In the 19th century, Beersheba had been only scattered ruins. A city mentioned in the Bible, it had long since ceased to exist and was known only as Bir es-Seba, site of a large well. In 1900, the Ottoman authorities refounded the city and established it as a municipal center. It was a modern town, with streets laid out in a grid. The old mosque and some Ottoman-era buildings can still be seen downtown. In World War I it served as a minor military base.
When the British laid siege to Gaza in 1917, having marched across the Sinai from Egypt, the Turks concentrated their forces there, not suspecting the British would try a complicated ruse to get around their position.
Australian and New Zealand troops, known as ANZACs, played a key role in the British campaign and their cavalry charge at Beersheba is still reenacted.
Over the last decade, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund has established a 100 km.- long “ANZAC trail,” tracing their route in southern Israel, with commemorative statues and marking sites associated with the war. One supposes they could mount a horse and literally follow in the footsteps of the Lighthorsemen, but why do that when you can drive? The trail begins northwest of Beersheba near the Gaza Strip. Near Kibbutz Be’eri is a lookout that the soldiers called Sheikh Abbas in 1917 after a local dignitary’s tomb. Nearby is a memorial to the troops who died. South of there along route 232 is the Tel Gamma lookout. It is ironic that this was a staging area in the battles for Gaza in 1917, just as today during the recent Gaza war, friends and I went there to observe smoke rising from the Strip. During the recent conflict, tanks were stationed next to the hill, visible evidence that war has not left this region. Yet Tel Gamma remains unexcavated and provides little to see.
Next the trail takes the driver along a scenic portion of Nahal Besor. This wide stream is picturesque and contains several sites related to the war, such as watering holes. There is also an old Ottoman- era mill. A suspension bridge marks the southern portion of the wadi and has a beautiful lookout over the region. The trail ends in Beersheba where there is a statue of a Light Horse soldier and one can visit the conquered old city.
IN 1838 Edward Robinson, an American biblical scholar, and his colleague Eli Smith, who was a pastor fluent in Arabic, left the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea. They were two of the first Westerners to traverse this part of the Negev. The ground was “literally strewed with the bones of camels and graves of pilgrims,” Robinson wrote in his diary. Since there were no modern maps of the region he carried with him notations on Roman maps from the fourth century. His intention was to survey the “wanderings of the Israelites of old” and “throw light on the darkness of this portion of scriptural history.”
Robinson traversed what is now the Eilat mountain ranges and straddled the area that is now the Egypt-Israel border. His Beduin guides helped him along the way.
Eventually they came to a ruined city. He thought it was “doubtless ancient Eboda... They [the ruins] consist of the walls of a large Greek church and an extensive fortress.” They trudged on, coming to another ruined city; walls of houses still standing and remnants of churches. He noted in his diary: “Khalasa, the site of ancient Elusa,” a city first mentioned by Ptolemy. He was disappointed; these were not biblical sites, but cities from the period of Greek and Roman rule in the region. When he came across a large dry river bed he asked the Beduin the name. “Wadi Reheibeh” they replied. The Arabic name suggests the Rehoboth of scripture. He and the pastor were excited now. They pressed on until they came to Bir es-Seba, the ruined village that was the “long forgotten city” of Beersheba.
Robinson’s wanderings and subsequent explorers and archeologists, including T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), brought to light a network of ruined cities in the Negev; today known as Mamshit, Avdat, Halutza (Elusa), Nitzana, Rehovot and Shivta. These are the Nabatean trading cities of the Negev, almost all of which subsequently became Christian during the period of Byzantium. They are all easily accessible, except for Rehovot, which is in the middle of nowhere. Each has its own particular interest.
Avdat is perched on a hill and entrance includes a visit to the Avdat spring below Sde Boker.
This extraordinary oasis culminates in a small pond in the base of a spectacular narrow canyon.
A dam constructed decades ago keeps the water level high, but the National Parks Authority does not permit swimming. A nice alternative watering hole is 39 km. northeast on roads 204 and 225, heading to the southern entrance of the Ramon Crater. Near there is Ein Yorke’am, which is marked on maps and signed. A 500 m. trail leads to a pretty spring with a small waterfall.
Continuing an exploration of the Nabatean cities, it is worth driving to Nitzana on the Egyptian border.
Less than an hour from Yeroham on road 211, this takes the driver through barren desert. A turnoff to Shivta leads to an abandoned city that has no entrance fee (although things may have changed recently). Another fifteen minutes takes one to Nitzana, next to the Egyptian border. There is an old Ottoman building, a monument to the IDF’s Eighth Brigade and the War of Independence, as well as a “path of peace” monument that consists of pillars stretching off into the desert and relates to the peace with Egypt and aspirations for peace in the region.
The sites around Nitzana, including Kadesh Barnea winery (now called Ramat Hanegev), is testament to the layers of history here.
From the period of the Bible, the secular moshav Kadesh Bernea bears the name of the campsite of the Israelites in the wilderness. The ruins of Nitzana bear witness to the Nabatean period when the Negev flourished as a center of trade. The Ottoman military barracks near the town and the war memorial recall the struggle for the Middle East and the birth of Zionism. And the modern winery, part of an increasingly popular Negev wine route shows how Ben-Gurion’s dream is slowly coming true.
Some good printed resources: Israel Field Trips: The South, by Menahem Markus (Keter, 2003, in Hebrew) About the Spring, by Moshe Kosta (kostiko@, in Hebrew) Long Hiking Trails in Israel, by Dani Gaspar (Eshkol Publishing, 2009, in Hebrew) Traveling with the Bible, by Galia Doron (Zmora, 2009, in English) Websites: For hiking, (in Hebrew) has maps, although the site takes some navigating to figure it out, while http:// has many locations of nature reserves and springs.