When viewed from afar, the brown and tan and dusty hills of the Negev may not seem appealing or even very interesting. But dig a little deeper, get off the main highway, take a knowledgeable guide with you and an entire and amazing world emerges. A world of secret water cisterns carved in the hard limestone rock thousands of years ago by a nomadic people known as Nabateans. Marvel at rock etchings left by an unknown people that preceded the Nabateans by 20,000 years or more. Be careful not to accidentally crush a petite and beautiful blue flower unexpectedly growing among the bone-dry rocks. And water, always bring your water bottle as the winds of the Negev Highlands can be relentless and will dehydrate you, even on a cool day.
Last week, Judy and I had an illuminating adventure here in the desert. Halfway to S’de Boker (where David Ben Gurion retired and lived the last part of his life), we turned off the road onto a gravel path in search of rock petroglyphs. There are older ones (darker patina) and younger ones (lighter patina, but they’re all ancient. (Pictures # 783, 785) The oldest are believed to be between 20,000 and 50,000 years old. There have been people wandering these hills for a long time! It was less than an ideal day with loads of blowing dust and howling winds, but we pressed on. Beneath the petroglyphs we saw the unlikely blue flower (#788) and also learned about the role of lichen in the ecology of the desert. The lichen is a “joint venture” (symbiosis in Hebrew) between algae and fungus that clings tenaciously to desert rocks. It turns green at the slightest bit of rain or dew and becomes food for snails (Photo # 795). The snails improve the soil and are food for a tiny desert mouse (kotzan in Hebrew) that comes in 2 colors. If these two types of mice are held in captivity, they will eat each other, but in the wild they have worked out a way to co-exist. The golden ones are active at night and the black ones are active in the day; this way they can share the meager resources. Both are food for birds, which of course spread seeds and do other beneficial things, not the least of which is to wake us with their songs in the morning.
Back on the main road, a few Kilometers further south, we are in search of a special wadi (Nachal Avdat, a dry river bed) and the Ramalia cisterns. The wind is still howling and its about an hour hike till we find the first cistern which turns out to be dry. The Nabateans dug large underground storage rooms for water (Perhaps 12 by 12 feet and about 10 feet high) every 30 kilometers or so between Yemen/Saudi Arabia and the ancient port of Gaza. They would bring spices (especially myrrh and frankincense which were very valuable) along with cinnamon, cardamom, gold and other things of high value for export to the Greek and Roman Civilizations. It was a lucrative trade for over 500 years and the caravans are said to have contained up to 2,000 camels, each carrying 200-250 pounds of trade goods on the 2,400 Kilometer route. The first self-driving trucks! The second cistern we find is chock full of water. When the wadi flows in a flash flood the cisterns fill up and are still used to this day by the local Bedouins to water their flocks of sheep, goats and camels. Our guide Rina, who was born in Be’er Sheva and grew up in these hills, remembers swimming in the cisterns every summer as a girl. What a way to spend a hot summer day!
Our mini-bus could not follow us into the wadi as it was way too steep so we agreed to meet it at the closest gas station. The gas station (Called Paz or golden) turned out to have something else golden and quite familiar…. the golden arches of McDonalds. Of course, after a trek in the desert, I could justify French fries and went in to order. I said: “I’d like some chips, please, no salt.” The man behind the counter said: “Order at the screen.” I said: “Order at the screen? I just want chips with no salt.” He said (a bit annoyed): “Order at the screen.” He then showed me the 5 foot tall touch screens to order from…You can choose English or Hebrew or French or Russian. Easy when you know how. I did get my fries and they tasted just like home.
From ancient Nabatean water cisterns to large touch screens at McDonalds in less than an hour. As I have said before, If Israel is anything, she is a land of contrasts. How wonderful.
Sent with Blessings from Israel, R’ Jay
Guide to Photos:
783 and 785 petroglyphs
787 – view from petroglyphs
788 – a brave flower
795 – lichen that we poured some water on
797 – Wadi (dry river bed) Avdat
802 – cistern
805 – cistern entrance
807- cistern totally hidden. If you didn’t know it was there you would never know it was there!
809 – McDonalds sign!