Vertical cliffs of red sandstone beneath the azure sky greets the odd visitor to the Negev desert in Israel. This place is as elemental as nature can be. Weathering and erosion over the millennia has dismantled sedimentary rocks that come in hues of cream, tan, and brown, leaving great places of broken blocks everywhere. Boulders lie strewn along dry streams and pockets of silt are tucked up into little alcoves high along the canyon walls. We watch a heavy winter rain rush over the stepped cliffs in ephemeral waterfalls and tumble rocks down the hillslopes in debris flows. The dry channels drain eastward to the Dead Sea, which sits like a sapphire in a setting rimmed by white salt and golden rock. At dusk, acacia trees stand darkly among the pale rocks. The sun sets in a rose wash over a land of black hollows and blue hills. At sunrise, the mountains of Moab form black paper cutouts against the orange sky and the water of the Dead Sea reflects a pale gold.
It seems unlikely that living organisms could survive in this landscape of rock where only a few inches of rain fall each year. Yet, life abounds. Slender, delicate gazelles and ibex move easily across steep slopes in search of sparsely growing grasses and the leaves of scattered shrubs. Hyraxes – the size of corgis – live in colonies sheltered among the big boulders lining dry streambeds. Migratory birds sweep through on their way to Europe or Africa. Snails less than half an inch long gouge tiny grooves into the rock to get at the algae that grow just beneath the surface of cobbles lying on the hillslopes. Springs burst forth from the apparently unyielding rock, creating oases such as En-Gedi, where pink flowers of Persian cyclamen bloom among sheets of tufa (a type of limestone) covered with emerald-green moss and pale green maidenhair fern. I taste the fresh, cool, clear water, and I believe in miracles in the desert.
Adapted from Ellen Wohl, “In the Negev Desert”, in Sue Ellen Campbell et al., The Face of the Earth, University of California Press, 2011.
In her book, Wohl points out that “human history is layered into the rocks of the Negev”, in particular, by the Nabateans, an industrious Arab people who built the city of Petra and its imposing rock-cut monuments including the famed Khazneh over 2,000 years. According to the Bible, the Negev is also the scene of many events. Issac and Jacob lived for some time in the Negev (Genesis 24:62; 37:1). After the Exodus out of Egypt, the Israelites wandered in the southern-most part of the Sinai Peninsula, then made their way to Kadesh Barnea, a place bordering the Wilderness of Paran in the Sinai Peninsula and the Wilderness of Zin in the Negev highlands (Numbers 13:21, 26). Their wilderness journey ended when they crossed the Jordan River near Jericho, about 15 miles from Jerusalem (Numbers 14:44-45). For a map of the Israelites’ wilderness journey, see http://www.keyway.ca/htm2002/wildjour.htm