Israel's Negev desert

Israel's Negev desert

For three millennia, history has carved itself into the seemingly barren sandscape of Israel's Negev desert. Erica Jong traces the legendary spice trail across the Negev to Jordan's ancient city of Petra—and finds the journey as enchanting as it was 2,000 years ago.

I never wanted to go to Israel when I was young. Growing up in an assimilated New York Jewish family, I had a horror of kibbutzim. Let them dance the hora in the Negev, I thought, I'm going to be dancing in a Paris boîte on Quatorze Juillet. I considered life in Israel the opposite of elegance and grace. Big-breasted girls wearing khaki and carrying rifles; boys in yarmulkes picking dates. Goody-two-shoes Zionists making the desert bloom with berries, barbed wire, and babies. Spare me. Cole Porter and Noël Coward were my idea of cool, not Ben-Gurion.

What an ignorant little twit I was! I went to Israel for the first time only two years ago (the occasion was a literary festival in Jerusalem) and fell so in love with the country that since then I have looked for every excuse to go back. The Mediterranean landscape, the Israeli exuberance, the way politics is a matter of life and death--all these things beguiled me.Never mind the archaeological sites, the mélange of ancient cultures, the sheer passion of the people for food, music, and literature. Of course, it didn't hurt that most of my books have been translated into Hebrew and are popular in Israel. But my newfound interest in Israel wasn't just a matter of ego. It was a genuine appreciation of the earthiness of a country I had been too uptight to visit in my teens.

LAST YEAR I RETURNED, THIS TIME TO THE CITY OF BEERSHEBA IN THE NEGEV DESERT, to give a series of lectures at Ben-Gurion University on writing and Jewish-American literature. I was enthralled by the way the Negev, seemingly empty, preserves a record of ancient history. In part, I became a novelist to travel through time. I like to be reminded that human nature is constant, that technological innovation alters us less than we usually think it does, and that the past is a prologue to the present. If Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have changed in the past 2,000 years, the Negev, it could be argued, has stayed the same. Jerusalem is eternal both in its beauty and in its endless warfare, but the Negev seduces us in another way. The air is translucent. The mountains shimmer. The stretches of sand are punctuated by green oases. Properly cultivated, the desert could become a great source of food and an attractive place to live in the new millennium.

The Negev was once the heart of the Nabataean empire, which at its zenith, in the second century b.c., extended from Egypt's Sinai to present-day Saudi Arabia. The Nabataeans, one of the wealthiest Arab peoples of their time, sold water and protection to caravans that carried everything from spices to bitumen along the most important trade route between East and West. The remains of their once grand cities, later conquered by the Romans, remind us that this region has always been a crossroads--for Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, from biblical times to the Middle Ages. In fact, the more you travel in the Middle East, the more you realize that Jews and Arabs have as many shared qualities as they do differences. Equally hospitable, bound to the same history, perhaps one day they will become friends and allies. Optimistic?Very. But if the desert can flower, anything can happen.

There's no denying that Beersheba is an ugly town, developed quickly in the sixties and still growing. Except for the Bedouin market and the university, the city resembles nothing so much as a vast building site--like New York, it's constantly under construction. But the energy of the academic community is appealing. Ben-Gurion University has an open, irreverent, pioneering spirit. Students treat their professors with an informality that, I'm told, is rare at the more traditional Hebrew Universityin Jerusalem.

Ben-Gurion University is as deeply committed to the desert as David Ben-Gurion was. Elected Israel's first prime minister in 1949, he believed that the future of the nation lay in the Negev, which comprises most of Israel's landmass. For him, to "make the desert bloom" was as great a test of the country's strength as defeating its enemies.Beersheba itself dates to long before the time of Abraham, who, according to the Old Testament, "planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God." Fittingly, the university's best-known botanist, Yosef Mizrahi, is experimenting with desert-growing plants like white sapote and nopal (prickly pear) from Mexico; monkey orange from South Africa; pitahaya and apple cactus, once farmed by the Aztecs; and the argan tree--which yields a fine oil--from Morocco. The idea is to pinpoint the plants, cultivated or wild, that once were and might again be used for food. As he walked me through his desert greenhouse, Professor Mizrahi let me taste the succulent fruits that he hopes will defeat hunger in the next century.

I HAD ARRIVED IN BEERSHEBA JUST AFTER PASSOVER, IN APRIL, WHEN THE DESERT WAS BLOOMING. Before the hot weather came, I made several excursions--to Avdat, Tel Arad, Masada, and other renowned archaeological sites, to the Dead Sea, and, finally, across the border to Jordan and the remarkable city of Petra, where the caravan journeys along the Nabataean spice trail once began.

On a windy afternoon I ventured into the desert in a beat-up taxicab to see the ruins of the ancient cities of Avdat and Tel Arad. I was able to wander through them almost alone.

Avdat, a major stop on the spice route, was the point at which the roads branched off to other oases and to the Mediterranean. There I explored the remains of a Roman villa, sat in the shadow of a ruined Roman watchtower with a keystone arch, saw what was left of the Nabataean pottery workshop (whosepots were valued for their thinness), and stumbled on the remains of a Byzantine wine press.

But the best thing I did in Avdat occurred only in my imagination, when I was standing on a balcony at the top of an observation tower thatwas erected on the ruins of a Nabataean temple, looking out overwild mountains. With the wind flapping my shirttails and hair, I imagined a caravan of hundreds of swaying but surefooted camels crossing the inhospitable Negev. The camels would have been laden with spices from Arabia, silks from China and India. Gazing across this vast terrain, and feeling chillier than I had ever thought possible in the desert, I understood why the value of the spices, frankincense,and minerals from the Dead Sea often rose dramatically on their journey across the Negev. The desert was tough duty and still is.

From Avdat, I continued in the same battered taxi to the Canaanite city of Tel Arad and its surrounding fortresses, built under Judean rule more than a thousand years after the city itself. Here I could actually see one of the water cisterns that had made the desert habitable, as well as towers and fortifications in use until Hellenistic times. Yet, in this barren, windy, and haunted place, it takes another imaginative leap to see that this was a thriving city thousands of years ago. Like all desert towns, water was the key to Tel Arad's survival. In fact, it could be argued that the politics of water have always determined the history of the Middle East: Jordan and Israel still argue over rights to the river Jordan, and Syria still seeks control of the Golan Heights and access to one of the largest supplies of water in the region--the Sea of Galilee.

WHEN MY GIG AT BEN-GURION WAS OVER, I DECIDED TO GO TO PETRA WITH FRIENDS. We flew to Amman in a chartered single-engine plane, then took a dusty three-hour minivan ride down to the no-longer-lost city. I imagine it's more ravishing to travel to Petra from Aqaba, on the Dead Sea, arrive at sundown, stay in one of the new hotels near the site, and watch the sun rise over the fantastic Siq gorge and cut-rock tombs. My trip didn't work out that way (it was a Muslim holiday and the border was only open at Amman), but I'll do it right next time.

Our Jordanian guide had tried to prepare us for Petra, but nothing can really prepare you for Petra. Petra defies description, so everyone quotes someone else's line: "the rose-red city half as old as time." I thought it was Christopher Marlowe's, but it's actually from a much lesser-known literary figure, Dean Burgon. In any case, the line is inaccurate. It's true that the soaring canyon walls of sandstone are stained pink, salmon, and terra-cotta by the iron-rich waters that have flowed over them. But most of what you see in Petra is the necropolis outside the city, not the city itself--which is represented primarily by its Roman ruins: the Cardo, or main street, and a vast amphitheater which once seated more than 7,000 people.

The soaring caverns (into which invisible waterways are carved), the tombs hewn from the cliffs, and the play of light make Petra unforgettable. What I had hoped for was the silence to contemplate it--to try to imagine Petra as a flourishing city of traders from all over the known world--and I got that, in part because I arrived in Petra during a Muslim holiday.

In its prime, Petra was so powerful that even Moses found it worthy of God's wrath. In Deuteronomy, Moses says of the Petrans, then known as Edomites: "They sacrificed to demons which were no Gods . . . I will heap evils upon them . . . they shall be wasted with hunger and devoured with heat and poisonous pestilence: I will send the teeth of beasts against them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust. . . ."

Such curses are unlikely to follow today's visitors, though flash floods in the Siq gorge are not uncommon. (A few years ago, a group of French tourists drowned there.) My entrance into the city was both less eventful and less spectacular, though the ride from Amman to Petra was beautiful. In April, the desert is alive with poppies and there are bits of green visible in the occasional oasis.

Ancient Petra was a city of slaves as well as freemen, a city where practically everything--from people to jewels--could be bought for a price. It was a city that believed in benevolent gods, watchful ancestors, and malevolent djinni. If I ran into a djinni, I would ask to be transported to Nabataean Petra for just one day and given the gift of language. Like the English writer Rose Macauley, I am less moved by "broken towers and mouldered stones" than by the notion that human life has repeated itself with minor technological differences for thousands of years.

My most durable reason for traveling is to transport myself into other worlds. If I can't be transported back to the Nabataean world by a jinni, perhaps I'll write a novel set in that world and make my own magic. The desert is a time-machine whose lambent light beams you back to ancient days. Like Macauley, "it is less ruin-worship than the worship of a tremendous past" that I'm after.

Negev-Petra Itinerary
On the Spice Trail Israel is such a small country that it's possible to see Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and the spice trail of the Negev all on the same trip. You can follow the ancient Nabataean caravan route across the Negev desert, starting at the Dead Sea near Qumran or Ein Gedi, visitingBen-Gurion's tomb in the central Negev Mountains, and winding up in Petra, Jordan. Along the way, visit some of the archaeological sites; you can even participate in digs for a modest fee. (Check out the current listings in Biblical Archaeology Review at, or call 800/678-5555 to subscribe.)

Chief Sites
In the Negev, the most interesting archaeological points are Avdat, the remains of a Nabataean city; Tel Arad, the ruins of a Canaanite city;and Masada, on a cliff 1,000 feet above the Dead Sea. Masada is one of the most visited spots in the Middle East, but despite the crowds it's still worth seeing. It was here that a group of Jews fled after the sack of Jerusalem, and where they killed themselves several years later rather than surrender to the Roman army.

Desert Retreat
Ben-Gurion and his wife, Paula, are buried in a simple tomb overlooking the Wilderness of Zin, near the kibbutz of Sde Boker, where the former prime minister spent the last years of his life; you can also visit his modest house-- a hut, really. Ben-Gurion's extensive library has been preserved just as he left it. His bedroom has only one picture--Mahatma Gandhi's.

Where to Stay
Beersheba makes a good base for excursions into the ancient cities of the Negev, though the best hotel in town is as new as most of the city's other high rises. Paradise Negev is centrally located, and has a health club and a pool (972-7/640-5444, fax 972-7/640-5455; doubles from $135). Or, if you decide to make day trips from Jerusalem, the King David Hotel (800/223-6800 or 972-2/620-8888, fax 972-2/620-8880; doubles from $380), built in 1930, offers elegance, history, and views of the Old City walls. Across the city, in the Arab quarter, the American Colony Hotel (972-2/627-9777, fax 972-2/ 627-9779; doubles $253) is as romantic asthe pasha's palace it was in the 19th century, with a shady courtyardand antiques in the rooms.

Across the Border
Petra has been building hotels at top speed since it was made famous by Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.The newest luxury base for visiting Petra is Taybet Zaman--a hotel in the Jordanian hilltop villageof the same name, with 105 rooms and suites,a spa, a swimming pool, and craftsshops--six miles from the archaeological site (962-3/215-0111, fax 962-3/215-0101; doubles $211). In Wadi Musa, the valley around Petra (where Moses is supposed to have struck the rock that provided water for the Israelites), there are numerous hotels and restaurants, and a visitors' center.

Dead Sea
This famous body of water, surrounded by tacky spa hotels and shops pushing Dead Sea-enriched cosmetics, is all too discovered, butstop for a meal at the enchanting oasis of Ein Gedi, with its date palms, flowers, andtropical trees.The kibbutz here, like many, has a hotel (Ein Gedi Resort Hotel, Kibbutz Ein Gedi; 972-7/659-4222, fax 972-7/658-4328; doubles from $74)and restaurant, but this one also has magnificent gardens and vistas of the Dead Sea.*

On the Web
There are two good general sites about Israel, with numerous links to tourist and archaeological resources: is the home.)

For information on joining archaeological digs in Israel, see our Web site at

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