The Israeli deserts boast four different remarkable UNSECO world heritage sites – Masada, Tel Bersheva, Avdat and Shivta – all of which make for compelling visits. The stunning outlook at Sde Boker relates to more recent Israeli history, as it is the burial site of David Ben-Gurion. Masada is one of Israel’s classic and unmissable sites, it consists of the remains of Herod’s desert fort which he built as both a winter retreat and an isolated refuge against enemies.
Later, the fort became a Roman garrison. Later still the fort became the last site of resistance of the Jewish rebels who held out against the great Roman empire, having fled Jerusalem after its destruction in 70 CE. The rebels built a synagogue and ritual baths (mikveh) which we can see today. According to Josephus, our main historical source from this period, rather than surrender to the Romans the rebels took their own lives.
The story of Masada is today entwined into modern Israeli myth. The site is stunning not only because of the archaeology and story, but because of the awe inspiring desert landscape. An additional and often overlooked Herodian archaeological desert treasure is Herodion. Herodion buried deep inside the Judean desert, yet just twenty minutes east of Jerusalem. As your guide will explain, Herod was the great builder of the land of Israel in the time of antiquity, and Herodion was his self-designated crown jewel and final resting place. Herodion comprised a palace, a fortress and a lower city, all sustained by a series of huge water cisterns which now form an underground maze for the inquiring visitor. The Negev also offers biblical archaeology tours such as visits to Tel Beer Sheva. Tel Beer Sheva is an impressive biblical archaeology site, and well deserving of its UNESCO world heritage status.
Two-thirds of a city dating from the early Israelite period (10th century BCE) has been uncovered and the site is of unparalleled importance for the study of biblical-period urban planning and biblical history. The water system, which was meticulously planned, is fascinating to view and understand, particularly given the city’s location on the edge of the wilderness. A 70-meter-deep well, the deepest in the Negev, has also been discovered outside the city gate, which of course reminds us of biblical stories around Beersheva and wells. Avdat and Shivta are impressive Nabatean and Byzantine sites very deep inside the Negev desert. For Shivta in particular we usually reach the site by jeep. The sites are part of the Incense Route, and for those visiting Petra during an Israel tour, we highly recommend also seeing Avdat and Shivta in order to piece the various parts of the historic desert puzzle together. At Avdat you can see Nabatean wine presses and water management systems, as well as later Byzantine military facilities. At Shivta the tale of early Christianity truly comes alive, and the triple apse basilicas are truly a site to behold. The site is pretty far off the beaten track, but in our view it is more than worth traversing the desert in order to see. Remember also that on the way to or from the Negev region, it is well worth stopping at the Nahal Zin lookout at Sde Boker for some of the most breath-taking views in all the country.
One can well understand why Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, chose to be buried here. As such, a visit to the lookout also entails a visit to the simple and modest graves of David Ben Gurion and his wife Paula, and provides a natural opportunity to delve into the life of this remarkable couple. You can additionally visit Ben Gurion’s desert home and learn about why Ben Gurion was so focused on making the desert bloom – as he famously said: “It is in the Negev that the creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel shall be tested”
Our tour was a fascinating topological/geological/botanical field trip. Our guide also explained very complicated concepts so we could understand. Avdat’s history was punctuated by close-up examination of scarabs and other tiny creatures that just happened to cross our dusty path.
Berta M, New York
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