Sauntering south to see Israel’s 'Super Bowl'

Sights and Insights: As temperatures cool, a trip to the Negev Highlands offers an ideal occasion to see inspiring places without blistering heat.

Makhtesh Ramon 311 (photo credit:
Makhtesh Ramon 311
(photo credit:
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at
I thought I understood the wilderness wanderings of Israel. Then I traveled through the wilderness. On my summer visits there, I never had to check the forecast. It only fluctuated from blistering to broiling. That’s why I suggest a fall or winter visit.
After a searing hike through this wilderness, a traveling companion of mine boarded the bus, his shirt absolutely soaked. After he collapsed in his seat, someone asked him if he now understood why the Hebrews grumbled against God. He took a long gulp from his canteen and then blurted, “I’m with them!”
After the exodus from Egypt, the Lord led the new nation of Israel to Sinai to receive the Law. Eventually, they made their way to Kadesh Barnea, a place bordering the Wilderness of Paran in the Sinai Peninsula and the Wilderness of Zin in the Negev Highlands (Numbers 13:21, 26). Because of their lack of faith in God’s promise, the Hebrews would turn an about-face and wander in the wilderness for a total of forty years—one year for every day the explorers surveyed the land (Numbers 14:34).
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The Wilderness of Zin witnessed the ancient Hebrews’ disbelief and disobedience—and even the insubordination of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:51). And the result? They didn’t enter the land. The implications of their example linger.
The most beautiful parts of the Negev Highlands are the makhteshim. Israel contributed to geology the Hebrew term, makhteshim, as these types of craters exist only in Israel. A makhtesh occurs when erosion from a single waterway creates a valley with sheer cliffs, or anticlines, that enclose the crater on all sides—creating a bowl. In fact, the term makhtesh means, “mortar,” as in a bowl. For that reason, some call the Makhtesh Ramon the “Super Bowl” of Israel. I have to agree.
The largest of three makhteshim in the Negev, the Makhtesh Ramon sits as one of the biggest craters on earth. Twenty-five miles long, five miles wide, and plunging as deep as 1300 feet (300 meters). How did the massive crater form? Its elongated shape eliminates the possibility of an asteroid collision. Most scientists believe that the crater reveals the erosion of the central Negev mountains, perhaps also including underground earthquakes.
To me, it looked more like God punctured the surface of the land with his finger.
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Viewing the Makhtesh Ramon from the Mitzpeh Ramon Observatory on the western rim allows the viewer to see the whole picture. Some call it the “Grand Canyon of Israel.” Every time I’ve stood there, an ibex has meandered into the scene. The Makhtesh effectively offers an open-air museum of volcanic rock, variegated clays, rough hunks of quartzite, and massive blocks upended and bare—a geologist’s playground. The area represents the largest national park in Israel. Photography fails to do it justice.
The highway that clings to the walls of the great crater transports tourists today. But in antiquity, a highway crossed the makhtesh for commercial purposes from the Nabatean city of Petra. Spices—especially the fragrant gum resins, myrrh and frankincense—made the highway a lucrative route. The historian, Pliny, described the road as having sixty-five camel stops between Timna and the Mediterranean Sea.
Today, the mountains of Makhtesh Ramon surrender gypsum to commercial production—thousands of tons annually. In the middle of the crater, a factory works the gypsum into a component suitable for plaster of Paris and cement. Smaller mining efforts cull clay and quartz from Makhtesh Ramon.
One of the most visionary efforts in the Negev Highlands came from Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. He saw great potential in the Negev, and in 1953 he relocated to the kibbutz, Sede Boker. Leading by example, he urged other Israelis to carve out a new society in the vast Negev. Water piped south from the Galilee has helped Ben-Gurion’s dream come to life. I find it ironic that water flows in the Negev—so close to the Wilderness of Zin where Moses struck the rock.
The patriarch Isaac’s words, spoken in the Negev, almost sound prophetic: “At last the Lord has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land” (Genesis 26:22).
What to Do There:
Enjoy a visit to Sede Boker and notice how close it sits to the Wilderness of Zin. As you drive south through the wilderness, have someone read (or listen to a recording of) Numbers 13-14 and Deuteronomy 8. Take your time at the Visitor Center and Observation Point in Mitzpeh Ramon. The information center offers material about exploring the crater, but if you do go hiking, take plenty of water and a good hat along with your camera.
How to Get There:
From Beersheba, head south on Route 40 to Sede Boker, then continue on Route 40 through the desert to the Mitzpeh Ramon Observatory.
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at