Continuing with Day 2 of the Archaeology department of Bar Ilan University’s annual two-day trip to the Arava, we awoke in the desert just after dawn. I set my alarm clock a tad earlier than everyone else in my room to snatch some early morning birding. And the birding inside Kibbutz Elifaz didn’t disappoint – I spotted a good twelve species, including some highlights: red blackstart, blackstart, chiffchaff and a whole bunch of Spanish sparrows.
After morning prayers and breakfast (and chancing upon the kibbutz’s Druze members) we boarded the tour buses to start a long day of desert touring. Our first stop was mere minutes away, Timna Park, with its breathtaking landscape and intriguing historical remains.
Entering the park we parked outside the copper mines area, where I saw a bold white-crowned wheatear and a desert lark.
What caught my eye next was beautifully compelling; oxidised copper residue streaking through the erosion-sculpted yellow and pink sandstone. All over I’d find these eye-popping green traces, sometimes in the form of grainy pebbles.
Walking along the trail, I marveled at the ancient mining shafts that were pointed out to us, remains of some of the world’s oldest mines. Originally these mines were thought to belong to King Solomon, and were named as such, but recent developments shed light on evidence that the mines were, in fact, Egyptian, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. In the vertical shafts, hand and footholds were scraped out of the grainy rock walls, enabling miners to safely descend tens of metres into the rock strata to reach the veins of copper. Baskets were lowered into the mine shafts to remove both copper ore and waste materials.
Hiking up, down and around the irregular landscape, we then arrived at what is known as the Miners Cave. A natural cave with a mine shaft excavated within the cave itself, we settled down to listen to Dr Uzi Avner.
One of the mine shafts at the cave, located just outside the entrance, was filled in for likely religious reasons – to pacify the Egyptian gods (perhaps Geb, god of the Earth). Climbing the opposite hill, we were soon to see many filled-in shafts, identifiable by their plate-like appearance on the otherwise grainy, gravel-strewn ground. There are thousands of these mine shafts, mostly filled in, in the Timna area – an impressive operation.
Spotting a brown-necked raven perched on a ridge far away, I reluctantly abandoned the bird to follow the group towards the next site of interest: a complication of mines from various periods located around a wadi. Seizing adventure where I could, I entered and exited each of the caves and mine shafts that I deemed worthy of exploring, before we headed back to the buses.
No, our tour at Timna wasn’t over yet – in fact, it was just beginning. We were then driven to a site known as the Smelting Camp and nearby geological oddity, the Mushroom (seen in the centre of the background in the above photo). Standing on the lookout over these two sites, we heard more from Dr Avner, watched sunbirds frolic in the sparse desert flora and then got back into the buses to be taken to the next location: Solomon’s Pillars.
Now, the area of Solomon’s Pillars was jaw-droppingly awesome; the smooth, reddish-pink sandstone cliff edge of Mount Timna. Stricken by the natural beauty, I walked quickly across the sandy ground towards the cliff base, where an ancient Egyptian (and later, Midianite) temple was excavated. Called Hathor’s Temple, or the Miners’ Temple, this house of worship was built by Egyptian mining expeditions to service the goddess of miners, Hathor.
Climbing up the cliff with the aid of carven stairs in the pink sandstone, my eyes were beset by a glorious desert view and then the curious ancient Egyptian wall engraving. Scratched into the rock, the engraving is from the 12th century BCE featuring Ramses III (left) making an offering to the goddess Hathor with an inscription below in hieroglyphics that reads: “The Royal Butler the Justified Ramessempre”. Because the detail is hard to see in the photo below, here is an illustration of the engraving from the Biblewalks website: see HERE.
This compelling rock engraving reminds me of the the life-size Roman soldier in regalia carved into the cliff wall at Nachal Kziv – something not many people know about (which can be seen HERE). Leaving the heights with its incredible view I looped back around the bottom of the cliff to rejoin the group, and then off to photograph a wee bit of free-climbing.
Across from Solomon’s Pillars is a small butte of sorts by the name of Slaves’ Hill, where archaeological work was done. On the short hike over, some of our party quenched their thirst on the sweet juice of pomelos gifted to us by the kibbutz; one of their agricultural exports. We climbed the hill to take in the views, and to watch ravens patrolling the adjacent cliff edge. Remains of what seems to be a gate and walls were uncovered, as well as organic materials – including an ancient grape seed that was found by Uri, a prominent member of our party.
As interesting as a preserved grape seed is, there was something even more interesting – a littering of slag (copper ore waste, in this case) covering the ground from the smelting actions done thousands of years ago.
Descending from Slaves’ Hill, we made the trek back to the buses. But first, a posed photo of me:
We were to leave Timna, sadly, without having seen all the magnificent sights as we had to head to the next site on the list: Tamar.