Journeys: Into the Negev

Vista overlooking the biblical Wilderness of Zin in the Negev Desert in Israel. Credit: Lawrence Levy.

At dusk the acacias stand darkly among the pale rocks. The sun sets in a rose wash over a land of black and blue hills. As night falls, a curtain of clouds unveiled a full moon, glowing like a pearl over cliffs of dark chocolate brown. That night, we slept under a sky overflowing with stars, feeling infinitesimal.

A colorful star trail captured from inside Ramon Crater, the world’s largest “erosion cirque,” located in Israel’s Negev Desert. Credit: Miguel Claro.

At sunrise, the mountains of Moab form black paper cuts against the orange-blue sky while the water of the Dead Sea glimmers like the colors of pale gold. We are in the northern part of the Negev Desert, the largest arid landmass in Israel. With an area of over 13,000 km2 (4,700 sq mi), the Negev covers nearly 60 percent of the country’s land area.

We have come to the Negev to study traces of ancient floods that have cut into the rocky landscape. Weathering and erosion have shattered sedimentary rocks that come in colors of cream, tan, and brown, leaving great piles of broken blocks everywhere and a landscape that seems to be a massive crumbling.

As in most deserts, silence and nothingness loom in the Negev, giving the impression of immobility. Closer inspection, however, reveals evidence of change. Boulders lie strewn along dry streams. Pockets of silt suspended in the waters of past floods are tucked up into little alcoves high along the canyon walls. Cobbles roll hidden in brown water that rumbles like the sound of bowling balls. The dry channels drain eastward to the Dead Sea, which sits like a sapphire in a setting rimmed by white salt and golden rock.

En-Gedi, literally “spring of the young goat”, is an oasis and a nature reserve in Israel, located west of the Dead Sea, near Masada and the famous Qumran Caves (site of the ancient Dead Sea scrolls)

As in most deserts, too, the Negev is seemingly lifeless. How can there be life in a place where only a few inches of rain fall each year? Yet, life abounds. Slender gazelles and ibex move easily across the steep slopes in search of precious growing grasses and the leaves of scattered shrubs. Hyraxes – rodents the size of a small dog – live in colonies sheltered by the big boulders along the dry streambeds. Migratory birds sweep across the sky on their way to Europe or Africa. And springs burst forth from the apparently unyielding rock, recalling the story of Moses who struck the rocks for water at Horeb told in Exodus. It is springs like these that create oasis, such as En-Gedi, where pink flowers of Persian cyclamen bloom among sheets of emerald-green moss. I taste the fresh, clear water, and I believe in miracles in the desert.

A metaphor for beauty and grace, these Negev gazelle called Dorcas are a favorite of biblical poets. “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold, he is standing behind our wall, He is looking through the windows, He is peering through the lattice.” (Song of Solomon 2:9)
Sunset over the Negev desert.

Note: This blog is an edited adaption from the essay, “In the Negev Desert” by Ellen Wold, in SueEllen Campbell et al., The Face of the Earth, University of California Press, 2011.

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