All Israeli Ingenuity Needed to Perform Magic was a Desert
(The next installment in the series,, “The ABCs of Future Travel”, designed to inspire you to start planning your next trip.)
For most, the word “desert” conjures up visions of endless miles of rolling sand dunes where only cactuses grow. But, although Israel’s Negev is classified as a desert, its landscape continues to evolve into anything but the stereotypical expanse of burning barren wasteland. In fact, it presents an impressive variety of landscapes, cultures, and innovations, making the Negev a must-see on any Israeli itinerary.
As promised in “I” Is for Israel, here is the long-overdue story of the Negev. After all, this desert comprises approximately 60% of Israel’s land mass, so, why shouldn’t it have a blog post of its own?
Simon, Otto, and I were guests of my youngest cousin and his family, who guided us on two day trips into the Negev. Always on the lookout for the surprises, we soon realized this arid area of Israel would not disappoint. We witnessed several unexpected sights and contrasts: a goat farm in close proximity to a military base, tiny shack-like houses with satellite dishes, a woman in traditional Muslim dress walking along the roadside talking on a cell phone, another woman riding a donkey wearing Crocs on her feet, several signs that warned of camels crossing the road, and vineyards. And we were only into the first hour of our first Negev adventure.
The Negev, as a desert, is believed to have begun its hot history some time between 10,000 and 7,500 BC. Abraham settled in Beer Sheva, and nomads, Canaanites, Philistines, Edomites, Byzantines, Nabateans, Ottomans and most recently, Israelis struggled to make their homes in this seemingly untamable land.
In the first century BC, the Nabateans arrived in the Negev from their capital at Petra. (See “P” is for Petra coming soon.), and brought with them ingenious methods of introducing irrigation and agriculture to this rugged, unforgiving landscape. Then came the Byzantines, who took over where the Nabataeans left off in developing what they could of the Negev. Once the Arabs arrived, the irrigation systems deteriorated beyond repair, ushering in a thousand years of stagnation. The Bedouin inhabitants of the desert, who were accustomed to living in the Negev’s climate, then had free rein.
Approximately 100 years ago, Jewish communities began to appear and multiply. When Israel became a legitimate nation, her first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, not only strongly supported the concept of Jewish settlement in the Negev, he and his Russia-born wife, Paula, chose to make their home there.
The Negev, located in Israel’s southern region, is by far the largest desert in the country. At its southern end lies the strategic Gulf of Aqaba and the popular resort city of Eilat. To the North is the region’s administrative center and capital of Beer Sheva.
Three enormous elliptical desert craters present countless opportunities to get physical and explore. The largest and most popular of these is the Ramon crater, measuring approximately 19 miles long and 5 miles wide. These are not the result of volcanic activity or meteor strikes from above. They were formed millions of years ago by the land collapsing inward.
What makes the Negev an official desert is the less than 8 inches of annual rainfall that barely moistens most parts of the area. It is divided into several regions, including a mountain ridge in the center.
Despite its “desert” classification, the Negev is blanketed with spectacular profusions of brightly colored flowers in Winter and early Spring. Also, flash flooding along the usually dry riverbeds are sometimes caused by random severe thunder storms.
Who says nothing can grow in the desert? Just ask the ancient Nabataeans and the modern Israelis. We witnessed, and tasted, firsthand what the terraced irrigation methods of the past and the innovative underground water supply of the present can accomplish.
My cousin introduced us to Orlya, a farm that grows argan trees (also known as tree of life) and an enormous variety of organic herbs. Yoni, the owner of the property, served us his own blend of herbal tea along with tiny Israeli cookies, and then gave us a tour. We were immensely impressed with what he had done on formerly barren wasteland.
The argan trees were imported from Morocco and planted for the purpose of harvesting the olive-shaped nuts, which are then processed into oil. The oil is then made into cosmetic products such as massage oil, soaps, facial moisturizers, and a superb oil for cooking. All this work is done on the premises by hand.
Although argan trees need little water, and can survive in the harsh climate of the Negev, Yoni’s herbs require much more tender loving care. A process of trickle irrigation, using water piped from desalinization plants, makes it possible for this particular desert to become greener by the year.
A Veggie Lover’s Paradise
But organic herbs and argan trees are just the top of the sand dune, so to speak. The Negev is in a perpetual state of shrinkage. Since the 1960’s, Israel has been perfecting desert agriculture, and leads the world in this area.
Despite the fact that more than half the country is not naturally conducive to agriculture, Israel still manages to produce 95 per cent of the food required to feed its population.
Approximately 2.5 per cent of Israel’s GDP and 3.6 per cent of its exports come from agriculture. In fact, Israel is one of the largest exporters of fresh produce, as well as a leader in agriculture technologies.
One of my favorite fruits of these technologies that is transforming the Negev is cherry tomatoes. The amount of water and its mineral content used to grow them make them two to three times sweeter than your average supermarket tomatoes. You can take it from someone who spent an entire week gorging on multi-colored cherry and grape tomatoes and sweet peppers from the Negev. Each bite was an explosion of juicy sweetness that only made me want more.
The Negev produces tomato crops three to four times larger than any other country in the world. Along with the tomatoes and peppers, the Negev offers up cucumbers, zucchini, grapes for some intensely delicious wines, olives, flowers and many other gems that make life sweet.
Wine and Dine Negev Style
Speaking of wine, the Nabateans established vineyards for their wine consumption, and now the Israelis are making an international splash with juicy, mellow wines from the Negev.
Unlike the Nabateans, today’s Negev farmers have access to advanced irrigation systems, and techniques that enable them to keep the wine flowing. In order to protect the grapes from the sun’s brutal heat and radiation, farmers have figured out how to grow the vines in such a way that they create a canopy of leaves to provide shade for those precious grapes.
Our first taste of Bedouin culinary culture came in the form of a visit to an authentic Bedouin hospitality/events tent just off the road to Beer Sheva. The business was owned and operated by Abu Yusuf, an acquaintance of my cousin, and his family.
It was mid-morning, so we sat in the shade of the tent’s interior, drinking Turkish coffee, while I interviewed Abu Yusuf about his thriving business.
Although the gracious Bedouin spoke no English, my cousin acted as translator, and through our conversation, I came to know a truly smart and thoughtful individual.
Abu Yusuf told us that he had carefully chosen the location for his business, because of the through-traffic on the road. To him, it just made sense.
The Bedouin entrepreneur’s approach to his customers was down-to-earth and refreshing. He said that all people are the same to him. Famous or not, they each receive the same treatment
By this time, we were sampling tea that Abu Yusuf made himself. When I asked if we could purchase some of his blend, he said that it was not for sale. He then gave us one packet of black tea leaves and a secret herb-mix as a gift.
One of the many highlights of our time in the Negev was a visit to Kibbutz Sde Boker, the home of the legendary David Ben-Gurion. The house was small and simply decorated. What stood out for me, was the staggering number of books present in one home. During the tour, our guide did a masterful job imparting anecdotes about this great man and the simple and altruistic way he chose to live.
We then visited the desert garden where the Ben-Gurions are buried, which stood atop a hill, with a breathtaking view of the Tsin Canyon below. As I soaked in the peace and tranquility of this sacred place, I couldn’t help but wonder what David would say about how his vision for Israel in general, and the Negev in particular is constantly moving toward fruition.
Israel’s security was one of David’s many challenges at a time when none of her neighbors would recognize Israel’s existence, and some threatened to completely obliterate the Jewish state from the map. Would he be proud of the state-of-the-art military bases and research facilities dotting the Negev?
David wanted the region to flower both literally and figuratively. What would he say to the agricultural advances that are making the Negev less of a barren chunk of land and more of a Garden of Eden by the year?
David believed in the potential of the Negev as a vital, productive part of Israel, despite the fact that it seemed hopelessly uninhabitable at the time. He sensed the Negev’s future fertility. He had an unshakable faith in the determination, ingenuity, and will to survive of the native Israelis and the Holocaust survivors who streamed into the new Jewish homeland following World War II. Would he be proud of the Israeli researchers who continue to develop ground-breaking technologies that turn brackish water into life-sustaining irrigation,. Technologies that are the key to feeding populations world wide.
I’m no psychic, but I don’t know how David wouldn’t be pleased to see his dream for Israel coming true. After all, he provided the leadership and the example upon which those who came after could build.
Although day trips to the Negev are possible from many cities in Israel, spending one or more nights in the desert would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Exploring the history, culture and landscape of the desert during the day and spectacular star-gazing at night are my idea of a perfect vacation.
I would want to go back to the famous Plateau known as Masada. Yes, this solemn piece of history is located in the Negev. One of Israel’s most visited sites, Masada is definitely worth adding to a Negev itinerary.
I would want to visit Beer Sheva. Not only is it the largest city in the region, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beer Sheva, is approximately one hour south of Tel Aviv by car, but I would want to spend at least one night getting to know the city. I would take my time exploring the ruins of ancient walls and a well from the biblical and Roman era. Then I would tour the prestigious Ben-Gurion University.
Natural beauty comes in many forms in the Negev’s. Take in extravagant panoramic views. Try off-road jeeping, ride a camel, hike in the Ramon Crater, then camp on the crater’s floor, or all of the above.
All this and so much more is available in Israel’s Negev Desert. So while you’re planning your visit, I’m going to try to figure out what to do with Splendid while I ride that camel.
Note on Covid19: Travel is beginning to resume, but countries, states, provinces and municipalities are reopening at different rates. The rules may vary from place to place. Be sure to check the website belonging to venues, restaurants, events, or accommodations you plan to visit before finalizing your plans.