Saying ‘Yes’ to the Negev



So you're coming to visit Israel – wonderful! You'll be here a week, and your travel plans are set.

Let's see: You fly into Ben-Gurion, and start in Jerusalem, with all the major sites.You take the Tunnel Tour, walk through Mea Shearim, explore the Old City, shop and people-watch at Machane Yehuda. Then maybe a quick float in the Dead Sea, and a view from Masada. And up to the Golan and the Galilee, finishing off with a night in Tzfat.

Great itinerary, isn't it? Seeing any part of Israel is infinitely better than seeing none at all. But there's one little problem: You're missing half the country. Why? Israel isn't so big you can't include a bit of the south. You just need a little inspiration.

The truth is, the bottom half of Israel is just as interesting as the top, blessed with historic, religious, archeological sites and contemporary things to do. Besides that, the south – the Negev – is radically different from anything you've seen before.

Suppose you turned left when you come out of the airport instead of right? What would you find in the Negev Desert?

You'd find another world, that's what – one loaded with history, nature, wildlife, forests, fresh springs and vegetation. You'd find a landscape as stark and eerie as the moon. Nature-lovers will find paradise – the best hiking, bird-watching, wildflower gazing on the face of the earth. You'll explore ancient and modern battle sites, old synagogues and remnants of ancient civilizations. Abraham Avinu spent decades here, welcoming guests to his tent. They saw the Negev – you can, too.

Here are a few highlights from the other half of Israel:

Start with the white beaches of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean, then move inland a bit toYad Mordechai. Relive the famous 1948 battle site, wander the elegant new museum, and then settle down for some honey-tasting. Yad Mordechai is Israel's largest honey producer; the array of flavors is simply astonishing.

Tel Jamma can be next. It may be the biblical city of Gerar, where Isaac kept his flocks, but it was also an important stop on the Perfume Road, the ancient Babylonian/Nabatean/ Byzantine trade route – 2,000 years ago, more or less.

Remnants of those ancient travelers abound, all along the way.

The Besor Scenic Route is not to be missed. It's about a dozen miles of the most exquisite scenery this side of Gan Eden. Spring is glorious; wild flowers grow everywhere. This month, red anemones cover the ground, followed just a few weeks later by red tulips.

Explore a 4,000-year-old adobe, take a dip in a swimming hole and wander along the easy walking paths.

Mitzpe Revivim, one of the first Jewish settlements in the Negev, has a fabulous museum, part of it set up in the old Byzantine cistern where the first pioneers in the 1940s lived.

Airplane buffs will appreciate the warplanes. The primitive tractors, water wagons and hand plows were what made the desert bloom. The kibbutz produces the world's best-tasting olives; plan a tasting session.

Beersheva, a busy city of 200,000, is great for an overnight stay. Be there on a Thursday, if you can, for the famous Bedouin Shuk opens before dawn with camel auctions, and all day long, ethnic crafts, antiques and -quite honestly – a lot of junk can be found. But you can look and examine the items, haggle over prices, and even buy authentic belly-dancing costumes for everyone on your list.

And that, as they say, is just the beginning.


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