Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Negev

A day after seeing the sites at Latroun, we took a trip south into the Negev, the southern desert region of Israel where Natan's parents live. Kibbutz Urim is located on the northern edge of the Negev, and as previous pictures attest it does not at all remind one of the desert. David and Julia warned me that this day we would be heading into the desert and it would likely be "cold" - I tried not to laugh. I had emailed my parents the night before and learned that Wisconsin had received five inches of snow, while I had awoke to sunshine and birds singing.

We first went to Sde Boker, another kibbutz in the Negev that was the home of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, following his retirement. When I first heard the name, I mistook it for "Stable Care" - which sounds like a clinic or something. Knowing how ridiculous I likely sounded, I refered to it as Ben-Gurion's House for the rest of the trip. Here is a picture of "the Israeli Mt. Vernon", the house that Ben-Gurion and his wife lived in, which basically consists of two of the standard kibbutz huts combined. The rooms inside have been left as they were when Ben-Gurion died in 1973. This kibbutz was also quite green, a testament to the irrigation systems developed in Israel.I'll admit, it was a slightly chilly day. The wind in the desert was constant, and I'd estimate the temperature was in the mid-60's. But there just was no damn way I was wearing a jacket. I was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. I must have been a bit of an anomaly, since all of the other people at Sde Boker (mainly young Israeli Army recruits) were wearing their winter jackets. The docent in Ben-Gurion's house remarked to Julia in Hebrew about my lack of winter attire, and Julia responded that I was from a freezing part of the U.S. Once I heard about this I beamed with Wisconsin pride. We drove just down from the kibbutz to Ben-Gurion's gravesite at Midreshet Ben-Gurion, pictured above. It is a beautiful setting, overlooking a large valley. There is a branch of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev located here, as well as several other institutions. The overlook was starkly beautiful, and was my first experience of the Negev landscape. It was a very peaceful setting. In fact, the only real disruption came from the occasional fighter plane cutting through the cloudless blue sky, another reminder of the duality of the Israeli Thing. Here is a picture from the overlook of the valley, with Natan's father David.Following the tour of Sde Boker we drove further south toward the Nabatean ruins of Avdat. For a UNESCO World Heritage site, there weren't many signs leading to the place. You drive down the road, and there it is, with a small visitor center and an adjacent Yellow gas station, which David assured me were the best gas stations in all of Israel. We stopped at the Yellow station first, where I had my first (of many) Turkish coffee and my first (also of many) Krembo. Suitably fortified, we went up the hill to see these fascinating ruins.The ruins at Avdat were originally a Nabatean waystation along the old Incense Road. The Arab caravans brought incenses like frankincence and myrrh across the desert, utilizing secret oases and cisterns along the way. The city later came under the Roman empire, and a large Roman Army camp was constructed outside the city walls. The city was destroyed in an earthquake in 623 AD. We first saw the ruins of several houses outside of the main city. This also amounts to the most people I could fit into the frame, because I never saw more than eight tourists at this site at any one time. Here's a picture taken from atop the city walls looking over the ruins. If you look closely, you can see Julia's Chevy in the parking lot - the only car in the parking lot. You can also see several of the metal sculptures, which I found to be incongruous with the historic nature of site.See what I mean:Here is the view of the main courtyard, looking west toward the Byzantine churches that were built after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. The fenced-off section in the middle of the courtyard is a water cistern. The inhabitants of Avdat collected all of the rainwater that fell on the city, which is how they could survive in the desert.The northern church had the best view, and the southern church still had a marble baptismal font and burial markers. The ruins commanded the entire area - it was almost unbelievable that people had even decided to live there, let alone build a city. Avdat itself was remarkable in that here was a archaeological site older than anything found in North America, an Israeli National Park, yet it seemed that it was "routine" judging by the few people there and the lack of commercial development. This was the first ruin I had seen in Israel and I was completely astounded. I hadn't come to realize the extent of the history in this country. Yet my memories of Avdat rank about the highest of all the sites I saw in Israel. Part of it has to do with this being the first of the several ruins sites. Part of it undoubtedly relates to the intimate way we were able to see the site, free of the crowds of tourists one would expect. It wasn't even the last place we saw that day. Following this we drove south to Mitzpe Ramon. My experience at Avdat can be taken as an analogy of my entire trip: I was privvy to experience both the places you've heard of (Masada & the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, etc.) and the places that are off the beaten path. I'm sure my time at the more well-known attractions is comparable to anyone else's, but there is something satisfying to me about having seen parts of Israel not necessarily listed in the tour guides.


Blogger over my head said...

Your descriptions and pictures are great! Makes me feel like I am there.

4:21 PM  
Blogger wallrock said...

Thanks AL - could you tell I didn't have much to do at work yesterday? It was a great trip, and I want to get a lot of these details down before I forget. I'm kind of treating this as my photo album/scrapbook.

8:02 AM  
Blogger PrincessGreen17 said...

Great pics once again. Nice to see a blue sky! Are there any pictures with you in them? I like the insight into how Sde Boker might be pronounced! That goat does look a little weird at the ruins. They seem to have held up well for being over a thousand years old. It is cool that you got more of an insider's tour of Israel.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Belle of Madison said...

You Wisconsin lads are so weird. Would it really have been so awful to throw on a light jacket?

9:57 AM  
Blogger wallrock said...

Lydia - there are a few pictures of me, but I didn't think many of them turned out that well. My eyes were closed in an inordinate amount of them. I guess I wasn't used to all the sunshine. There is one @ Mitzpe Ramon that isn't bad - maybe I'll post that. Also, "Stable Care" wasn't too far off. It's actually pronounced [s-day bow-care].

Sarah - I'd brought along a hooded sweatshirt at the insistence of Natan's mom. I didn't put it on because we did a ton of walking around, and I wasn't really that cold. Of course, my manliness came back to get me in the end. Later I put on the sweatshirt when we were going to dinner at the kibbutz dining hall and Natan's father teased me endlessly.

4:49 PM  
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