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.
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.
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.
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.
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.