The Jewish Traveler: Mitzpe Ramon
This desert town teems with delights for the tourist, from geological wonders to extreme sports, ecotourism and frequent camel sightings.
Laden with precious frankincense and myrrh, camels by the thousands trod the craters and ravines of the Negev, bringing the riches of the Arabian Peninsula and the Orient to the shores of the Mediterranean.
The traders were Nabataeans, tribal nomads who held the secrets to the passes and hidden waters of the desert. Along the route they built four way stations in the Negev that grew into towns. Just off the Incense and Spice Route, near Mount Ramon and on the rim of the huge crater known as Makhtesh Ramon, stands the modern town Mitzpe Ramon (Ramon Lookout).
In the early 1950’s, Mitzpe Ramon, 54 miles south of Beersheba and 94 miles north of Eilat, was a labor camp for the builders of the Beersheba-Eilat highway. Then, for a few months, the settlement became an urban cooperative, whose members worked in clay and quartz quarries in Makhtesh Ramon.
In 1956—in keeping with the vision of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, for whom settling the Negev was a priority—it was declared a development town. It soon became home to new immigrants from North Africa and Europe, many of whom were told it was not far from Tel Aviv. But the town was so remote and conditions so harsh that a popular joke told of a man who wanted to commit suicide by lying down on the main road and waiting for a car to drive over him—and died of hunger.
Phoebe Arlaki, who moved there in 1975, remembers the wind whistling around her prefabricated home. “In the beginning we had to go to Beersheba for everything,” she recalls. “The buses were at 6 A.M., noon and 6 P.M., and the roads were closed when it rained.”
The redeployment of the Israel Defense Forces after the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt brought an influx of professional soldiers and their families. In 1988, the government decided to focus on Negev tourism, with Mitzpe Ramon as its center. At an elevation of 3,000 feet, the town had an ideal climate and became a base for trekking, horseback riding, mountain biking and rappelling.
The early 1990’s saw the arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who gave the town a much needed boost; some even joined the local jazz band. Over the past two decades, a steady trickle of talented young entrepreneurs, artists and dreamers from the center of the country has added life and color to the town that residents simply call Mitzpe.
About half the buildings are prefabricated, desert-colored apartment houses, set along broad streets; other residents live in row houses, and on the perimeter of the town single-family homes overlook the desert. A traveling outdoor market brings produce, clothing and shoes twice a week; for almost everything else, including nightlife, residents still must go to Beersheba.
Offering immediate access to the desert and a feeling of wide-open space, Mitzpe Ramon has developed a reputation as a place to meditate and strip away the masks of everyday life. Dancers Nir Ben Gal, 46, and Liat Dror, 45, natives of Tel Aviv, are among about 100 families who have come here from the center of the country. The attraction, Ben Gal says, is that Mitzpe is both “a development town and very spiritual,” which is “more powerful than a place where everyone meditates.”
Of the 6,000 residents, nearly two-thirds are the immigrants of the 1950’s or professional soldiers and their families. About one-third are the more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Also, more than 180 Black Hebrews, members of a Dimona-based sect that originated in Chicago, live in Mitzpe Ramon. And over the last 13 years more than 140 Orthodox families have moved here, drawn by the Torah-Environment Educational Campus, directed by Itzik Zargari, and the local hesder yeshiva.
The real force in Mitzpe, however, is its women. When in 2001 the owner of a factory that made uniforms for the defense ministry decided to shut it down, the women workers staged a three-month sit-in. With support from the Histadrut labor union they took over the factory and renamed it Matperat Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Sewing Factory). Today, 25 of the women are shareholders, and the factory employs 52 women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, but it needs new markets to survive.
And two years ago. the Women’s Forum came into being to empower locals, many of whom had come to the town not by choice but as new immigrants or as the wives of professional soldiers. “We wanted to show that we could effect change even without money,” says Flora Shoshan, 50, a guidance counselor. The group meets regularly to seek solutions to area problems and holds events, such as an evening of vaudeville, that bring together old-timers and new immigrants, religious and secular. Though boycotts are rare in Israel, the forum successfully picketed the local supermarket, forcing it to lower its prices.
To this day the Negev is camel country, thanks to the Bedouin living here, and signs along Road 40, the Beersheba-Eilat highway, warn drivers to watch out for them. A camel might just be nibbling on the bougainvillea at the large traffic circle—Mitzpe Ramon’s best point for orientation—at the intersection of Road 40 and the town’s main thoroughfare, Ben-Gurion Boulevard.
Just south of the circle, on the right, Road 40 passes Gan Habanim, a small memorial park for the town’s fallen soldiers. Stone and bronze plaques bear their names. One commemorates two friends who fell in 2000 within months of each other: Sergeant Tzahi Ittah, the last Israeli soldier to die in Lebanon, and Captain David Chen Cohen, who died in a battle in the West Bank.
The park also contains a Holocaust monument by local sculptor Adi Ben-Zvi consisting of six marble prisms sliced diagonally at the top, suggesting the six million lives so brutally cut off. Survivors and their families come to the monument for an annual Holocaust memorial service.
Just past the park, a right turn and a quick left lead to the Makhtesh Ramon Visitors Center, on the rim of the crater. An excellent short movie and a 3-D model help visitors understand the formation of this geological phenomenon: It is the largest (25 miles long and nearly 6 miles wide) of five erosional craters in Israel, the only country where such craters exist.
Decorative panels in the visitors center are made of colored sand from Makhtesh Ramon; a sophisticated sundial that can tell the date as well as the time is on the roof. The center affords panoramic views of the crater and is a starting point for trails and guided treks through the Ramon Park Complex where visitors may see gazelles, ibex, onagers and vultures (011-972-8-658-8691; go towww.parks.org.il and search for Mitzpe Ramon; ask about the National Parks Ticket that allows visits to several parks). The complex includes a pub, Hahavit, and a souvenir shop.
To drive into the crater, return to Gan Habanim and turn right on Road 40, which snakes down to the crater floor. Soon after, a dirt road leads about half a mile west to a sight known as The Carpentry Shop, a low hill covered with prism-like shapes of sandstone that crystallized as it cooled.
At Be’erot Campground, about six miles farther on Road 40, visitors will find a shaded picnic area, campsites, cabins and huge tents where Bedouin offer hospitality and explain their way of life and where (pre-ordered) kosher Bedouin-style meals are served (972-8-658-6713).
Returning to the visitors center, follow the walking trail on the rim going north, or drive back to the traffic circle and turn right, following the signs to the sculpture park. This rim-side park, established in 1962, has dozens of works by Israeli and foreign sculptors. Best viewed at dawn and at sunset, these sculptures offer dramatic new ways of seeing the landscape. In 2004, a group of concrete-and-steel “musical sculptures” was added. One consists of 20 pipes of different lengths, arranged in two rows like a vertical marimba; sound is created when coin-like pieces hung on chains strike the pipes.
Overlooking the sculpture park is the Desert Ecolodge, a center for trekking, biking and meditation as well as a variety of workshops. According to proprietor Ziv Spector, 45, originally from the Haifa area, his center—where visitors sleep in doorless adobe huts—offers a spiritual and ecological experience of the desert (972-8-658-6229; cell, 972-54-627-7413).
Return to the traffic circle and turn right to Ben-Gurion Boulevard. Follow it south and then west for about three miles to reach the Wise Observatory, owned and operated by Tel Aviv University. Because of its modern infrastructure, its location and the many cloudless nights in Mitzpe Ramon, the observatory plays a vital role in projects conducted jointly with observatories in other countries.
Every August, as Earth passes through the debris of Comet Swift-Tuttle, hundreds of Israelis flock to Mitzpe Ramon to see the meteor shower known as the Perseids. On this day (and on several other days of the year), the Tel Aviv University Astronomy Club (www.astroclub.tau.ac.il) hosts visitors at the observatory, offering guided tours, seminars and guided telescope observations. In 2005, Mitzpe Ramon dimmed its lights for the occasion. The observatory is also open to the public on the night of Independence Day and occasionally hosts individuals or small groups (972-8-658-8133;https://wise-obs.tau.ac.il).
In the same direction lies an unusual farm, where alpacas (South American cousins of the camel) are raised for their fine wool. Catering especially to families, the Alpaca Farm offers children a chance to feed the animals and learn about their interesting habits, ride llamas and view the spinning process. The farm offers accommodations and a center for horseback riding, including endurance riding (972-8-658-8047; www.alpaca.co.il).
Drive back to the traffic circle and continue north on Road 40, turning left after about half a mile at the sign indicating the Incense Road Quarter. Formerly the town’s industrial area, the quarter is now a mix of workshops, factory shops and restaurants. It takes its name from the Incense Route, over which for five centuries (from the 3rd century B.C.E. to the 2nd century C.E.) were carried not only incense but also other precious goods, people and ideas. In 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Committee chose the Incense Route within Israel—with its Nabataean towns, fortresses and agricultural landscape—as a World Heritage Site (https://whc. unesco.org/en/list/1107), citing as a reason that these “almost fossilized remains…display an outstanding response to a hostile desert environment.”
Among the businesses in the quarter are the Matperat Ha’atzma’ut sewing factory and the Nature Scent natural cosmetics factory, which has an attractive shop (972-8-653-9333;www.naturescent.co.il). R.D. Jewelry moved its production facility and factory store from Tel Aviv to Mitzpe Ramon, where it makes silver watches and silver jewelry studded with semiprecious stones (972-8-659-5126).
The nearby shop Totzeret Mitzpe Ramon (972-8-659-5111) displays the wares of five artisans: fashion designer Sara Epstein, potter Diana Lerner, jewelry designers Oded and Kinneret Schickler and adobe furniture designer Dror Roth. Completing the complex are an artists’ gallery and Ha’adama, the studio of dancers Ben Gal and Dror.
Avdat, the largest of the Negev’s four Nabataean towns and a way station on the Incense Route, is 14 miles north of Mitzpe Ramon on Road 40. The site has Roman and Byzantine buildings, including an army camp, a citadel, a wine press, a pottery workshop that produced unusually fine vessels, a bathhouse and a reconstructed Roman villa built around a square courtyard with a water cistern at its center. An observation balcony lies on the ruins of a Nabataean temple. Inscriptions found here mention the Nabataean royal family: Avdat, Pata’el and Sheudat, sons of Hartat. Brilliant agricultural methods that captured every drop of rainwater sustained the town. The visitors center has a selection of attractive local crafts as well as books and maps (972-8-655-1551).
In 1953, David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) became a member of Kibbutz Sde Boker (22 miles north of Mitzpe Ramon on Road 40); he quit political life in 1963 and moved to a modest cabin in the kibbutz. Today, the cabin is furnished as it was when he died and is open to the public. An adjoining cabin is a small museum (972-8-656-0469); one of the most interesting exhibits is a short film in which kibbutz members describe what it was like having the Old Man working in the fields with them. Stone inscriptions of Ben-Gurion’s famous sayings are set among the olive trees surrounding the cabin; among them, “It is in the Negev that the Jewish scientific talent and ability for research shall be tested.”
Ben-Gurion and his wife, Paula, are buried two miles south of the kibbutz, overlooking the Zin Valley and the Avdat Plain (972-8-655-5684; www.parks.org.il and search for Ben-Gurion). The tombs are adjacent to Midreshet Ben-Gurion, a complex of more than 20 research and educational institutions (www.boker.org.il).
In July 2003, Vicky Knafo, a 43-year-old divorced mother of three, marched from Mitzpe Ramon to Jerusalem to protest severe cuts in child allotments and income supplements for single mothers, most of whom work but don’t earn enough to support their children. Knafo galvanized single mothers throughout the country, who joined her Jerusalem sit-in that spotlighted women’s poverty.
Since 2001, Michal Romi, 29, has published Kvish 40 (Road 40), a crusading monthly magazine featuring culture, environment, local personalities and the Bedouin.
Reading, Music, Films
The relationship between a civil engineer and a teacher is at the heart of Amos Oz’s novel Don’t Call It Night (Harvest), which is set in a Negev development town.
The Negev figures powerfully in Joseph Pitchhadze’s film Under Western Eyes, in which a young architect living in Berlin comes to Israel for the funeral of his father, a scientist who had been imprisoned for espionage.
Turn Left at the End of the World, directed by Avi Nesher and set in 1969, also in a development town, follows the friendship of Nicole, whose family emigrated from Morocco, and Sara, an Indian immigrant.
The Perfume Road, a CD by Yair Dallal and the AIOI Ensemble (Magda), evokes the camel caravans of ancient times.
Spring, when the desert comes alive with wildflowers, and fall are ideal times to visit Mitzpe Ramon, but its elevation makes it a favored base for touring even in summer. Accommodations range from a mattress on the floor of a Bedouin tent to a pleasant bed-and-breakfast in town or on a local farm. But most comfortable are the suites with kitchenettes in the Isrotel Ramon-Inn, which has a swimming pool. The hotel’s lavish breakfast includes a colorful assortment of tomato, eggplant, fig and other preserves (1 Ein Akev Street; 972-8-658-8822; www.isrotel.co.il).
Mitzpe Ramon’s tourism office can provide information and handle all reservations (972-8-659-5577).
It’s a 10-minute walk from the hotel to the Central Synagogue, Hechal Shlomo, and the mikve (Nahal Ha’elah Street; for information contact the Mitzpe Ramon Religious Council, 972-8-658-8111, or Rabbi Daniel Bar-Muha, 972-8-658-8379).
Just behind Isrotel Ramon-Inn, Midreshet Or Hadarom, the adult-education institute of the Torah-Environment campus, caters glatt kosher meals and offers Bible-based tours (Itzik Zargari, 972-50-852-9248). Half a mile north of the hotel, just off Road 40, kosher Pangea—with its trendy décor, outdoor dining area and Bedouin tent—has a dairy kitchen serving Italian dishes and a meat kitchen offering South American grill (5 Har Oded; 972-8-653-9222).
But the true taste of Mitzpe Ramon is the desert itself, best savored during a stroll along the crater’s rim at dawn or sunset and, at night, with a view of the star-studded sky from the rimside local pub.