When Jesus headed out into the desert, he fasted for 40 days and was tempted by the devil. My own experience heading out of Jerusalem and into the Negev Desert was quite different.
The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has dubbed the arid Southern portion of the country, “The Friendly Negev Desert,” touting safety of its many hiking trails—from the lack of dangerous animals to the low crime rates to the complete cell coverage and nearby emergency services. And as long as you’ve got plenty of sunscreen and water, you should be able to enjoy the area’s natural beauty and quickly developing attractions without worry.
Covering more than half of Israel’s land mass, it’s a place of extremes, boasting both the lowest point on earth (the Dead Sea sits 1,414 feet below sea level) and the oldest exposed surface of the earth yet discovered (some desert pavement in the Negev has been sitting unchanged for 1.8 million years). There are ruins of cities that stood 4,000 years ago—this was where Abraham fled to from Egypt in the story of Genesis and where the Nabateans traveled by camel, carrying frankincense and myrrh up to ports on the Mediterranean coast.
But a quick drive will also take you to 3,000-foot mountains and one of the country’s fastest growing cities in Be’er Sheva. Here are five reasons to add the Negev Desert to your next trip to Israel.
Explore the Ruins of Advat
The remains of five ancient Nabatean cities are scattered throughout the Negev, but perhaps the most significant—and certainly the most convenient to access—is Advat. A key center along the Incense Route, the city’s first temple was built overlooking a large plateau in the first century BCE and its origins as a waypoint for their nomadic tribes goes back even further. The ancient Arab Nabateans were a fiercely independent monotheistic people, worshiping the god Dushara, until they were finally brought into the Roman Empire in 106 CE, where the influence of their finely crafted pottery made its way to the empire’s far reaches. They eventually converted to Christianity and erected a church in Avdat during the Later Roman Era and a monastery during Byzantine rule.
A Roman bathhouse still sits in the valley just below the city, and hundreds of Roman soldiers were stationed in Advat. Earthquakes caused major damage to the city’s foundations around the 5th century CE and it was eventually abandoned. Tourists can now walk the ruins and explore the many caves cut into the mountainside of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visit Desert Wineries
There aren’t a lot of deserts in the world producing wine, but the Negev’s history of winemaking goes back two millenia. Five ancient Nabatean wine presses remain scattered around the ruins of Avdat, and nearly 2,000-year-old wine jars from the region have been found everywhere from England across Southern Europe, marketed as “Gaza wines” during the Roman rule since it sailed out of the port of Gaza. The region ceased all winemaking in the 7th century when it came under the Islamic rule of the Rashidun Caliphate.
That changed in 1999 when California native Zvi Remak (pictured above) brought what he’d learned working in Napa Valley to the Sde Boker kibbutz. You can visit the tiny Sde Boker Winery, a short walk from the beautiful Nabatean-inspired Kedma Hotel, where Remak serves five different varieties of wine from his small taproom. As a member of the kibbutz, he earns the same share of profits as the rest of the community, but his efforts kicked off a new industry in the region with two dozen wineries, some producing hundreds of thousands of bottles each year.
Most, though, are small farms producing both wine and olive oil, like Marom Eshkolot not far from Advat and the Mitzpe Ramon township. The orchard is a labor of love for Simcha Marom, who planted it in 2010, growing Shiraz and Cabernet grapes for wine and Syrian, Picual and Barnea olives for her award-winning olive oil. She offers hour-long tours covering topics ranging from the challenges of desert agriculture to the Halachic traditions of farming. Many of the family vineyards in the Negev also host bed-and-breakfasts for a full agritourism experience.
Hike Makhtesh Ramon
The largest of the Negev’s three box canyons—indeed the largest steephead valley in the world—Makhtesh Ramon is 25 miles long, anywhere from one to six miles wide, and as much as 1,600 feet deep. The hidden valley is home to ibex, gazelles and the occasional wild ass, but it’s mostly the awe-inspiring views (and solitude) that you come here for. Hiking and biking trails criss-cross the valley, and jeep tours offer a more relaxed way to take it all in. Fossils protruding from the Ammonite Wall tell the story of a very different landscape hundreds of millions of years ago when the desert was covered by an ocean.
And while there’s not a lot of vegetation in the canyon, wildflowers do spring to life after rains, and more than 100 species of birds have been recorded in the makhtesh, from the iridescent Palestine Sunbird to the brightly colored Arabian Green Bee-Eater.
For the more adventurous explorer, crater repelling and sandboarding are options, but we settled in for some evening stargazing instead with Alan Gafny’s Negevland tours. The elevation, dry climate and lack of both light pollution and clouds most nights of the year makes it a great place to explore the night sky—the area has been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve.
Camping and glamping are options, but so is decadent luxury in places like the 5-star Beersheet Hotel with an infinity pool on the edge of the crater and a lovely cocktail menu in the lobby bar. The hotel is right on the National Trail, which stretches from Kibbutz Dan near the Lebanon border in the north to the southernmost city of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba.
Eat Falafel and Hummus in Yeruham
This deserves its own entry because Inti Hummusia offers up both the best falafel and the best hummus I ate during a week in Israel. The small vegetarian restaurant in the town of 10,000 punches way above its weight with varieties of perfectly seasoned and textured dips, flavorful falafel and crispy fried cauliflower. Seating is limited, but it’s definitely worth any wait.
Float in the Dead Sea
The Negev Desert’s eastern edge ends at The Dead Sea. Not only is it the lowest point on earth, but its waters are shrinking at the rate of 10 feet per year—thanks to the increased water usage along the Jordan River that feeds the sea, mineral mining by the Israelis and Jordanians, and the hot, arid climate that speeds evaporation—meaning each day you step on its shores, you’re basically setting a new low. The Dead Sea has shrunk from 410 square miles 90 years ago to less than 240 square miles today, essentially getting bisected into the northern and southern basins.
Dead Sea salt and mud have long been prized for their rejuvenating properties since the time of Herod the Great, and you can find both at gift shops throughout the country or take a tour of the Ahava factory.
There’s life in the mountains around the Dead Sea, but you wouldn’t know it as you approach the shores. At 9.6 times the salinity of the ocean, the sea is devoid of animal life and the only birds I saw were the ubiquitous house sparrows, rock pigeons and laughing doves that hang around any human settlement plus a couple of soaring alpine swifts. You’ll want to avoid shaving any sensitive areas and make sure to keep the water out of your eyes and mouth. I’d also recommend swim shoes, as one of our party promptly cut his feet on the salt deposits on the seabed.
But all the desolation becomes a feature, not a bug, once you let your body float. There’s a reason it’s a bucket list item for so many. The buoyant water lifts your legs into a natural sitting position and floating completely still is almost effortless. The cool water is a balm in the desert air, even on a December morning. Eyes closed and quiet, I found myself losing all sense of time and even space, weightless and carefree.