Not too long ago Bar Ilan University’s Archaeology department hosted its annual two-day trip to a specific region for some intense tours mixed with informative lectures both on-site and off. Last year we took a grand tour of the Kinneret area (posts I, II and III), and this year we headed south, not unlike a migratory bird. Starting early Wednesday morning, our two buses drove southbound passing Yerucham Fortress (a Roman Era stronghold) and the Lost City before reaching the rest stop under the Nabatean ruins of Avdat. As incredible place as Avdat is, we were quickly back on the road heading for the Arava, a particularly dry stretch of the Negev. Entering Mitzpe Ramon, we dropped down into the breathtaking Ramon Crater and persisted southward for another hour of so until we reached our first destination – a lookout at the desert settlement of Shacharut.
Disembarking, we marveled at the view of the eastern Negev and the red mountains of neighbouring Jordan. We were then introduced to our primary guide for the trip, Dr Uzi Avner, a veteran archaeologist who began his acquaintance with the desert in 1969 as a Field School guide.
Whilst walking around taking pictures I noticed an interesting item among the jagged sand-coloured rocks – a crafted flint tool with nicked serrations. Depending on who you ask, this very well might have been a knife used thousands of years ago!
It was at this lookout that we learned of the first of many desert temples or sites of worship, Dr Avner’s expertise. Continuing on, we were then driven to our next series of destinations in a valley running parallel with Uvda Airbase along the Israel National Trail. Minutes before disembarking once again, we spotted a fox in its grey winter fur running away from the approaching buses.
What we saw next were various remains of numerous ancient, likely prehistoric, desert cultic sites and temples, some with interesting rock carvings decorating what are believed to be ritual altars. I prefer more substantial ruins from more recent periods (especially Crusader) but alas, there was just one building.
This structure was Nabatean, belonging to a group Arab traders who built cities and fortresses in the desert along the ancient Incense Route, including the iconic Petra in Jordan and the aforementioned Avdat. These Nabateans ended up converting to Christianity during the Byzantine era, leaving behind magnificent desert edifices.
But we didn’t only learn about ancient religious sites, Professor Ehud Weiss (BIU’s archaeobotanist) showed us an interesting plant called a rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica). This plant is a resurrection plant, meaning that after the rainy season it curls and dries up to hibernate, dead-like, protecting the seeds inside for years until the next rainy season. When that happens the plant that comes back to life, releasing the seeds and then begins the process anew.
Another interesting plant, which I somehow missed out on, was a wild watermelon found in deserts, tiny and practically inedible due to its bitterness. One thing that I didn’t miss out on, and continued to fascinate me throughout the trip, was the never-ending supply of interesting rocks and potsherds scattered all over the place. In between all these interesting sights and moments were the roaring aerial acrobatics of Air Force pilots from the airbase beside us, a fun distraction for some.
Next we saw the most famous of the sites, the Namerim Temple, which was excavated by Dr Avner himself in the 1980s. Believed to be in use from the Neolithic to Bronze Age, this symbolic temple contains many stone depictions of symbolic scenes mostly involving what appear to be leopards – thus the name (namer = leopard). Dr Avner told us an interesting story about how an officer in the Armoured Corps directed tank traffic over the temple remains, crushing some of the leopard designs, and was chastised vis-à-vis his unintentional actions by our Dr Avner. This incident sparked a new interest in the officer and some years later he joined the Antiquities Authority, eventually becoming Dr Avner’s boss, of all people.
Interesting stories aside, it was at the Namerim Temple that the side activity of birding kicked in, with a grand total of three participants. We edged our way into the low, dry shrubbery flushing out streaked scrub warblers, blackstarts and a very bold bluethroat. Unfortunately all of my bird photos came out rubbish, but here’s one that fellow birder Nesia allowed me to use, an amazing shot:
Wrapping up at Namerim Temple, we gathered ourselves up and headed back to the buses, ready to be taken to the next site on our itinerary: Kibbutz Ketura, to take a look at Methuselah. When excavations were done at Masada in the 1960s by archaeologist Yigal Yadin, a preserved seed of a date palm was found, likely from the food stores of the besieged Jews holding out against the Roman army. This 1,950-year old preserved seed was then germinated, producing a seedling which was eventually planted in the kibbutz, dubbed Methusaleh after the longest-living Biblical character.
From Kibbutz Ketura we drove to our final destination of the day, Kibbutz Elifaz, where we were to spend the night. Once safely inside the kibbutz we rejoined in the dining room for dinner and then headed out for a quick star-gazing tour just outside the kibbutz, in the desert darkness. Powerful green lasers were used first for orientation and to point out celestial marvels and then, when the tour ended, faux lightsaber battles were recreated (including sound effects by the more excitable participants).
Back in the kibbutz we gathered once again to listen to a lecture on acacia trees, and the great effort imparted to sustain the iconic desert plant. Following the lecture was a hard game of trivia in which I went from a very brief 1st place to finish off in a shameful 14th place. Retiring to our country lodging suites, I took a short walk around the area with my friend Itamar and we spotted a barn owl flying about with some fruit bats. The barn owl gave a single “hooo!” and vanished into the night, and I was to see no more birds until the following morning after a hot shower and restful sleep.