Much of the Negev Desert is vast, brown, dry and uninteresting.
It is also beautiful, fascinating and rich in geological history.
This region makes up nearly half the State of Israel, but the population of the desert communities is less than 20% of the total. After withdrawing from the Sinai as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, the Negev also became the site of numerous military bases.
Located south of Beersheba in the Central Negev, Makhtesh Ramon is usually referred to as a crater, but it is not an impact crater from a meteorite, it is actually a "makhtesh," a valley surrounded by steep walls and drained by a single "wadi" (riverbed). It is the world’s largest makhtesh.
Makhtesh Ramon is at the center of two large nature reserves, Har Hanegev and Matzok Hatzinim. Makhtesh Ramon is 25 miles (40 km.) long and 5 miles (9 km.) across at its widest point. Mount Ramon, at the southwest corner of the makhtesh, is the highest peak in the Negev (3,400 feet – 1,037 m.). The name Ramon comes from the Arabic "Ruman" meaning Romans.
Makhtesh Ramon is a geologists’ paradise with fossils, rock formations and volcanic and magmatic phenomenon dating back as much as 220 million years. The Ramon crater began forming when the ocean that covered the desert began to move north. Water and other climatic forces slowly began to flatten the curve on top. Much later, the Arava rift valley was formed and the rivers began to change their flow. As this occurred, it carved out the crater. The crater is about 1,650 feet (500 m.) deep. Some rocks at the bottom of the crater can be dated back 220 million years. A black hill in the north, Giv'at Ga'ash, was once an active volcano. Also, vertical dikes of magnum which squeezed upward through fissures can be seen at various spots through the makhtesh. The lowest spot in the crater, Ein Saharonim, contains its only natural water source. From the visitor’s center, it is possible to get a spectacular panoramic view of the crater.
There are two campgrounds available on the east side of the main road. There are also numerous pathways for both the casual and serious hikers.
A variety of plants grow in the Ramon area, including Atlantic pistachio trees, buckthorn, globe daisy, tulips and other bushes and shrubs. Many animals also can be found here including the ibex, leopard, striped hyena, sand fox, Dorcas gazelle and the ever popular fat desert rat.
Rappeling off the edge of the crater is popular, but not recommended for beginners. For those who don’t mind a less direct route, there are trails for hikers into the crater. Nearby is one of those bizarre, "what’s it doing in Israel?" kind of attractions — the Mitzpe Ramon Alpaca Farm, which has both alpacas and llamas for the production of wool.
Because of the clear, unpolluted air, the altitude and the absence of lights in the area, Mitzpe Ramon is a great place for star gazing at night. Serious astronomers use the observatory on Mount Ramon.
The tribe of Simon settled in the Negev and King David firmly established Israelite rule over the desert. Solomon subsequently built a string of fortresses along the roads. The fall of the kingdom of Judea was followed by the rise of the Nabateans beginning in the fourth century B.C.E. These traders traveled in caravans from Arabia and made their capital Petra, in what is now southern Jordan. They eventually controlled trade in perfumes and spices and built numerous fortresses along the branch of the Spice Route cutting across the Makhtesh Ramon area.
Part of their success in the harsh desert environment was due to their ingenuity in conserving water. The Nabateans built dams, terraces, cisterns and reservoirs that were very efficient in collecting rain water and irrigating crops. Elements of this water system survive in the ruins of many of the Nabatean cities.
About 14 miles north of Mitzpe Ramon is the Nabatean outpost of Avdat, which was named after their king Obodas (Abdat) II. The ruins of the city and its structures sit atop a hill overlooking the road and an experimental farm set up in 1959 to conduct research on ancient desert agriculture. Most of the surviving structures are not Nabatean, but Roman and Byzantine. The best preserved area is a Byzantine church whose columns and apse are still relatively intact. One suggestion you don’t find in a typical guide book is to lick the wall of the "salt cave" to confirm that it was indeed the place where salt was stored.
Another nearby Nabatean settlement is Shivta, whose ruins date back to the first or second century B.C.E. This city was along the trade root between Gaza, Eilat, the Far East and Arabia. Shivta was a supply center for the northern Negev when the Nabateans were in power and a key outpost to protect pilgrims traveling to Mt. Sinai during the Byzantine period.
Sde Boker is about another six miles south. In between, literally in the middle of nowhere, is the canyon of Ein Avdat. From the rim, you can look down to the riverbed and see the beautiful caparis flowers clinging to the cliffs. It is also possible to hike in the canyon to pools and a waterfall. A number of caves, apparently used by monks, have also been found in the canyon.
Nabatean control of the Negev gradually weakened after the death of King Aretas IV (9 B.C.E.-40 B.C.E.). Fewer camel caravans passed through the area after its takeover by the Romans, and the Spice Route was supplanted by other roads.
Unlike most areas in the country, the Romans did not do a lot to develop the Negev. This changed during the Byzantine period, however, as Christians began to build churches and study centers. Settlement of the Negev came to an end after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. The new rulers had little interest in the area and the residents were expelled.
For centuries, the only people in the Negev were nomads. When the British mandate period began, the region enjoyed rapid growth. The British paved the highway from Beersheva to Eilat, the road from Beersheva to the large Makhtesh and the "Petroleum Road" from Yeruham to Avdat and Makhtesh Ramon. In March 1949, during Israel’s War of Independence, the Israeli army vanquished the Egyptians in the desert campaign and captured the Negev for the State of Israel.