Category: Negev

Settlement of the Negev in the Modern Period

We continued our exploration of the modern period with today’s trip to learn about the settlement of the Negev, the desert region in the south of Israel. Although the region has had some sparse habitation over history, in the Ottoman period the residents consisted of nomadic Bedouin tribes. The harsh conditions with little water and extreme temperatures did not make settlement overly appealing.

Still, the Ottomans established the city of Beer Sheva anew in 1900 and with the extension of the train to the area came renewed interest in settling it among the Zionists. Particularly David Ben Gurion, the future Prime Minister, saw it as a priority, and believed that the ingenuity of the Zionist movement would overcome any potential barriers.

Museum of Water & Security, Nir-Am
Museum of Water & Security, Nir-Am

Our first site of the day was the Museum of Water and Security at kibbutz Nir Am, situated a few km away from the border with Gaza. After conducting a geological survey of the area, the Zionists discovered a significant amount of groundwater here. Purchasing old piping from the UK (which had been laid in London to help deal with potential fires during German WWII bombing) they laid out a network to the early Jewish settlements in the area to provide them with water. They also pioneered drip irrigation techniques to help develop agriculture.

Black Arrow Memorial
Black Arrow Memorial

We left the kibbutz, stopping for a look out over into the Gaza Strip before visiting the Black Arrow memorial. Named after a major paratrooper operation into Egyptian controlled Gaza in the 1950s, this site is dedicated to the famous ‘reprisal’ actions of the same decade. In response to continuing violent incursions into the new Israeli state from Gaza, supported by the Egyptian army, Israel developed a policy of major reprisals in the hope of creating a deterrent to such actions. Each such reprisal action took its toll on the paratroopers involved and there is a memorial dedicated to each operation. From the top of the site it is possible to look over into Gaza, where these actions took place.

RAF Graffiti, Beeri Forest
RAF Graffiti, Beeri Forest

Continuing south, we visited the Beeri Forest, original site of the Beeri Kibbutz which has now moved very slightly south. The forest contains a couple of old buildings of the kibbutz, together with a sulphur mine and the ruins of a refinery (Israel’s only sulphur depository) which was operational under the British. An RAF squadron were based nearby and it is possible to see some graffiti on the concrete celebrating the end of WWII in 1945.

ANZAC Memorial, Beeri Forest
ANZAC Memorial, Beeri Forest

Also in the park is the ANZAC memorial, dedicated to the Australian and New Zealander forces in the British army who helped liberate the area from the Ottomans in WWI. Based here where you can look over into Gaza where many of their battles took place, we also learned about their key role in the capture of Beer Sheva.

Maon Synagogue Mosaic
Maon Synagogue Mosaic

Although today was dedicated to more modern history, we made use of our proximity to visit the site of the Maon synagogue. One of only three Byzantine period synagogues in the Negev, it is possible to see the remains of a stunning mosaic with some unusual motifs. It is very similar to a mosaic from a synagogue in Gaza and also to one found in a church at the nearby Ein Shelala – archaeologists believe they may have been made by the same artist.

Homes in Mitzpe Gevulot
Homes in Mitzpe Gevulot

After a brief stop for luncheon we visited the site of Mitzpe Gvulot. In 1943, there was still very little settlement in the Negev, and there was a decision to set up three mitzpim (look-outs) in different geological areas to test out agricultural techniques and learn about the best way to manage in the harsh conditions. Gvulot was one of these and we were able to visit many of the original buildings which had been constructed from local materials: bricks of clay and straw. It was quite remarkable to think of the teenagers who moved here from the Balkans in order to be pioneers in the desert; we learned that they had very good relations with their Bedouin neighbours and developed impressive techniques to collect water and irrigate their crops. They even constructed a factory for cutting diamonds although this particular industry did not last very long! It’s possible to visit the site and learn how to make the clay bricks with your own hands, if you’re in the mood for getting a little bit messy.

Hanging Bridge over Nachal Besor
Hanging Bridge over Nachal Besor

Our final destination was Kibbutz Ruchama, but on the way we had a brief stop at the hanging bridge over Nachal Besor. The bridge leads into the local badlands which provide pleasant view of rolling peaks and crevices. It is possible to hike in the area, but we had to press on.

Security Building in Ruchama
Security Building in Ruchama

Ruchama was actually the first Jewish settlement in the Negev in the modern period, established in 1911. These early pioneers had a very tough time but were managing to get on top of the conditions until 1917 when the Turks expelled them (they feared they would collaborate with the advancing British forces). The settlement was established twice more in the 20s and 30s before being abandoned in the face of the two major Arab riots in this period. Finally a kibbutz was set up in the 40s and is still around today. It is possible to see some of the original buildings, the impressively deep well and even the remains of an Egyptian plane that the kibbutz members managed to fell in the 1948 war!

Shivta and Nitzana

Another catch-up trip as I travelled south with the English-speaking course from Jerusalem to visit some of the Byzantine period settlements in the Negev: Shivta & Nitzana. I always love going south and watching the landscape gradually become more barren, desolate, wild and beautiful. There is something enchanting about the desert, its peace and calm. Understandably, most tourists in Israel focus their trips around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but I really think that more should come down to this wilderness for a completely different Israel experience.

Memorial for the French Commandos
Memorial for the French Commandos

We began our day at a memorial that was en route to our first major stop, dedicated to the French Commandos. In 1948, with the removal of British immigration restrictions, thousands of Jews moved to Israel or came to volunteer in the War of Independence. However, most had no military experience and could not speak Hebrew. A Christian French officer from the French Legion also arrived as a volunteer and offered to put together a unit of French-speakers; he trained them and led them as they played an important role in battles in the south of the country against the Egyptian forces.

We then journeyed south to Shivta, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a very impressive city. It’s a bit of a trek to get there but entry is free and the site is fascinating. It’s one of the most complete cities we have from the Byzantine period in the world and also is the only site in the world where a mosque and church form part of the same building – you can really see the beginnings of Islam taking root, although clearly it was not in a militant fashion.

Byzantine Church at Shivta
Byzantine Church at Shivta

Our guide told us about the Nabbateans who would have been the first people to settle this area and about how their culture evolved from being a nomadic one to a settled one; how they adopted the new religions of Christianity and Islam, in the end assimilating into the regular Byzantine population.

We learned how they managed to harness the flash floods of the desert for extensive agricultural activities, and also hosted pilgrims heading south to St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, hence the three churches at the site.

We were the only visitors at the site and I really enjoyed the visit. It’s true that it is somewhat off the beaten track but it is worth the journey in my opinion.

Byzantine settlement at Nitzana
Byzantine settlement at Nitzana

From Shivta we continued further south to the border crossing with Egypt at Nitzana, and to the nearby site of Tel Nitzana. From the same period as Shivta, with similar structures, this is much less impressive, largely because the Ottomans used the stones in many of its structures to build a nearby railway station and homes in a village.

Still, it is the site of a very important discovery, that of the Nitzana Papyri. Over 200 papyrus documents were discovered here dating from the 7th century onwards, detailing official matters but also aspects of regular life – marriage, letters, even a request for a tour guide! Also located on the pilgrim route to Sinai, this town would likely have been an important stopping point for those on the journey.

Memorial for the 8th Bridge at Nitzana
Memorial for the 8th Bridge at Nitzana

As we reached the base of the tel, travelling down a staircase from the Hellenist period in the 2nd century BCE, we paused at a memorial to the 8th brigade and all the soldiers who died here in the battle for Auja in Operation Horev in 1948.

As a bit of treat at the end of the day, we were taken to the Khan Beerotayim near the small settlement of Ezuz. We relaxed by the fire with some tea and coffee, watching the sun set over the beautifully barren landscape, before heading back north with only dreams of the desert to take with us.

Nabatean Cities in the Negev

Today’s trip was dedicated to the Nabateans, an ancient people of the Middle East. We don’t know a huge amount about them as they did not record their own history (or if they did, we have not found it), so their story is told through their encounters with others and archaeological evidence.

They were however clearly a very impressive people who built a massive trading network from modern day Yemen to the port in Gaza, navigating the desert wilderness and building ingenious cisterns that would collect the limited rainwater from the area and prevent it from evaporating so that they could be relied upon by the camel trains. Their capital was in Petra, now in Jordan (and famously featuring in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) whence they would set out across the Negev desert to the Gaza port and their spices and later wines would ship across the western world (their wine jugs were even found in the UK).

They originally constructed small waystations in the Negev but eventually these grew into larger settlements. As the Nabatean community in the Negev grew, new towns were constructed in the wilderness. The remains we have are from these larger, later settlements, dating from the Byzantine or late Roman period and have been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO.

View over Mamshit
View over Mamshit

Our trip was based around two of these settlements, Mamshit and Avdat. We began with the former, situated not far from the town of Dimona. Mamshit was in fact a later settlement (from around the 1st Century), in Greek called Mamphis; indeed the epicentre of American rock and roll was named after Mamshit, although having been there a year or so ago I can testify that the surroundings of Tennessee are quite different! As we wondered the ruins our guide taught us about the Nabatean culture, how to identify their architecture and to marvel at the way they managed to live in the desert. We also learned about their assimilation into Roman culture and indeed it seems that Roman soldiers were garrisoned in this city as evidenced by the baths complex and the large stash of coins that were unearthed; probably present to pay the soldiers. We noted an ancient fresco of the story of Cupid and Pysche as further evidence of the absorption into Roman culture; indeed our guide argued that these later Nabateans should be called ‘Descendants of Nabateans’ in order to maintain a distinction between those who maintained the original way of life and those who did not.

Mamshit: 'Nilus' Church
Mamshit: ‘Nilus’ Church

We also marvelled at two ancient churches in the complex, both with beautiful mosaic floors. These Nabatean communities adopted Christianity when it became widespread in the Roman Empire, and the baptisterium which they would have used in their proselytising of the surrounding nomads.

View from Avdat - note the greenery to the left coming from revival of ancient irrigation techniques
View from Avdat – note the greenery to the left coming from revival of ancient irrigation techniques

We headed further south to the jewel in the crown of the Nabatean cities in Israel, Avdat (also known as Ovdat). Named after its founder Oboda, this large city sits atop a hill a little south of Kibbutz Sde Boker. Its inhabitants were early proponents of Ben Gurion’s dream to make the desert bloom; we witnessed the remains of their networks of small channels and aqueducts to make the most of the 80ml of rain a year and to irrigate their terrace farms. In the 50s a small group returned to the area and restored these ancient structures, proving they worked, you can see the small patch of green in the middle of the desert.

At the base of the hill is a visitors centre with a good explanatory film and samples of all the spices and incense that the Nabateans used to transport. Ever wanted to smell myrrh? Now’s your chance!

Avdat: Church of St Theodore
Avdat: Church of St Theodore

We explored the complex, including a burial cave only for women (possibly priests in a temple to Aphrodite) a former camp site for Roman soldiers, a watch tower and more magnificent early churches. In one, marble inscriptions on the floor marked the final resting places for those who had served the church 1500 years ago. The site is a place of pilgrimage for Christians of today and we witness a group of French Catholics performing a mass inside one of the ancient church structures. It was quite moving.

Once Christianity became widespread in the Roman Empire the Land of Israel grew in importance as the birthplace of the religion – there was a great desire for wine from the Holy Land for religious ceremonies. We saw the remains of an ancient wine press and learned how it would function, also visiting wine cellars at the base of the hill.

Sadly our trip was cut short due to our driver (probably the most important person on the trip) suffering from awful toothache and we missed out on the bathhouse and nearby vast and impressive cistern, but it’s good to save something for the return visit!

Archaeology of the Biblical Negev

After various introductory field trips we are now at a stage where our weekly excursions are broadly supposed to tie in with what we are studying class. Therefore, as we began our lessons on archaeology we spent last week exploring some of the tels (archeological mounds) in the north, and this week we were doing the same but in the south, in the biblical Negev.

However, our first stop was unconnected. En route on the border of the Judean lowlands and the Negev is the Joe Alon Centre for Regional Studies (focused on the Negev region).

Learning about Bedouin culture at the Joe Alon Centre
Learning about Bedouin culture at the Joe Alon Centre

The main part of the centre (and, in my opinion, the most interesting) is the museum about Bedouin culture. The Bedouin are a nomadic people who in Israel are mostly located in the Galil and desert regions. They are moving away from their traditional life and now the majority live in fixed accommodation; however on travels through the desert it is still possible to see their tents. Although the displays are a little tired and don’t look like they have been touched since the museum opened in the 80s, there is still a lot of interesting information and we were accompanied by a Bedouin guide who went into more details. There was also a short film about the Bedouin in the Negev which was a very good and concise introduction to their lifestyle and the challenges they face in the modern world.

After being led around the museum we were taken into a traditional tent structure where we were served sweet tea and learned about the important culture of hospitality. A most pleasant experience.

From there we quickly looked at the replicas of various cave dwellings in the Negev, from the late stone age to the Bar Kochba revolt, and enjoyed the view over the area from the elevated viewpoint. The tours and videos are available in English (although you probably need to call ahead) and it is a nice stop if one is heading southwards.

Descending into the vast water system at Tel Beer Sheva
Descending into the vast water system at Tel Beer Sheva

We continued south to the region of the biblical Negev. Unlike the Negev of today, this was located only in the area of the valleys of Arad and Beer Sheva, and was a border region between the desert and the rest of the country. Our first destination here was the UNESCO world heritage site of Tel Beer Sheva. Located near modern Beer Sheva, it is considered by some to be the site of the biblical city where Abraham dug his well. The remains on the mound are later, from the post-Exodus period of the Israelite kingdom. They are very impressive (hence the UNESCO recognition). Our guide took us around, explaining the function of different structures and our theories on their uses and purpose. Most incredible was the underground water system, constructed in case of a siege. Huge caverns had been hewn out of the rock and covered with plaster; water was then secretly diverted from the nearby Hebron stream (when it was flowing) into this underground reservoir. We walked out through this water system (for extra fun, we were required to wear hard hats!) and saw the replica of the altar they found at the site; an impressive cube structure with horns on each corner; the original is now in the Israel museum.

Remains of a late Canaanite period 'Arad House' at Tel Arad
Remains of a late Canaanite period ‘Arad House’ at Tel Arad

Our final destination was at Tel Arad, located just outside the city of the same name, where we were honoured to be guided by one of the site’s main excavators. This tel is important as it contains the remains of a vast city from the early Canaanite period, with no further layers above it. This means that archaeologists can use it to really understand what life was like in this period, without the confusion of having other later constructions intermixed. We learned about the typical building construction, now found in other places but still called the ‘Arad House’ as it was here that it was discovered for the first time, and in such large quantities. Our guide also explained to us his theory that the Israelites came into Israel about 1000 years earlier than the current received opinion. Sadly (for him) he seems to be rather alone in this point of view, although he argued his case well. Given that it would mean reorganising the entire chronology of the ancient world, I can see why there might be some resistance.

The original altar in the temple at the Israelite fortress in Tel Arad
The original altar in the temple at the Israelite fortress in Tel Arad

We then went up the hill to visit the Israelite period fortress. Although there was no inhabited settlement here since the early Canaanite period, there were fortresses along the border with the unruly desert nomads. The fortress was a large impressive structure, and contains the remains of a temple; evidence that there were other temples outside of the main one in Jerusalem. It seems to have been destroyed at some point, perhaps as part of the concentration of ritual Judaism into the capital city.

We enjoyed the stunning desert sunset over the ancient ruins and then began the long journey home.

Sunset over the ruins of the Israelite fortress at Tel Arad
Sunset over the ruins of the Israelite fortress at Tel Arad