The Negev, which extends over Israel’s southern region, accounts for over half of Israel’s land area. Due to its desert character, however, this region is sparsely populated.
Even so, the Negev has seen its share of history. Abraham built his home in Be'er Sheva, the Nabateans passed through here on caravans of camels laden with precious trade goods.
For these and other reasons, the Negev has become one of Israel’s popular tourism sites.
Various peoples have lived in the Negev since the dawn of history: nomads, Canaanites, Philistines, Edomites, Byzantines, Nabateans, Ottomans and of course Israelis. Their economy was based mainly on sheep herding and agriculture, and later also on trade.
The story of the Nabateans is particularly fascinating. The Nabateans were lords of the desert, where they established a trade route known as the “Spice Road.” Caravans of camels traversed this route carrying spices, perfumes and salt from Yemen in the East to the port city of Gaza. Rest stops were built along the route and their remains still beautify the Negev expanses today (Avdat, Mamashit and others).
The modern Israeli settlement of the Negev began about 100 years ago, when a few communities were built. These were joined by another 11 settlements whose founding members built the first homes in a single night. After the establishment of Israel, the new country’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, promoted the settlement of the Negev and after he moved to live in Sde Boker a few more settlements were built.
The Negev is defined as a desert due to the small quantities of rain that fall here (less than 200 millimeters annually), and is divided into several regions, starting with the Be'er Sheva-Arad rift in the north, to mountain ridge in the center and the Arava and Eilat in the south. Although the Negev is barren most days of the year, its expanses desolate and its river beds dry, nature here is very surprising. In the winter, despite the small quantities of rain, the Negev is covered with amazing flowers, including luscious red anemones. When there are heavy storms they can cause flash flooding along the riverbeds.
Today the Negev is the gateway to the desert. It offers charming nature corners, historical and archeological sites, springs and the remains of agricultural compounds. Tourism in the desert is a developing industry and many tourists explore its expanses on foot, on bicycle and in all-terrain vehicles.
The Judean Desert is bordered by the Mountains of Judea to the west and by the Dead Sea to the East. It is considered a relatively small desert, spanning only 1,500 square kilometers, but it contains many fascinating nature reserves, historic sites, monasteries and primeval panoramas that make it an exciting and unique place to visit.
The Judean desert is full of breathtaking views that are constantly changing. Mountains, cliffs, and chalk hills stand alongside plateaus, riverbeds, and deep canyons. The width and breadth of the desert is crossed by several rivers that have created canyons up to 500 meters deep. Some of these rivers have water all year round, and create oases such as Nahal Arugot, Nahal Prat, and Nahal David. The ancient cliffs on the eastern edge of the desert tower to a height of 300 meters above the shore of the Dead Sea, and nature reserves such as Ein Gedi and Einot Tzukim lie at their feet.
The Judean Desert is close to Jerusalem and relatively sparsely populated. The few settlements that are there were established at its perimeter. The desert is known for its rugged landscape, which has provided a refuge and hiding place for rebels and zealots throughout history, as well as solitude and isolation to monks and hermits. During the days of the Maccabees (about 2,000 years ago) large fortresses such as Massada and Horkenya were established in the desert. During the period of the great rebellion against Rome the last battle of the Jewish zealots was fought on Massada, and during the period of the Second Temple members of the Judean Desert cult lived there.
Several decades ago the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered hidden in a cave in Qumran, which shed light on the Bible and on the period during which they were written. It is worthwhile to visit Qumran National Park and see the archeological remains of the Jewish settlement that existed there.
Jewish rebels were not the only people who lived in the Judean Desert. During the Byzantine period (approximately 1,500 years ago) a special order of monks known as the Laura lived there and based their lifestyle upon total isolation and solitude. The magnificent monasteries that belonged to monks of this order were built in the cliffs and rock crevasses, with small, personal chambers and cupolas for common meetings during days of prayer.
Many monasteries have been established in the Judean Desert. Some of these are still active, and others, such as the Mar Saba Monastery, the Mar Jirias and others are empty and only the ruins remain.
Near the Judean Desert and the monasteries is one of the most important sites in Christianity, the Baptism site on the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. According to Christian tradition, the waters of the Jordan River are sacred, and many pilgrims come to the spot and immerse themselves in the waters. (The site was later moved to the spot where the Jordan River flows out of the Kinneret, which is more easily accessible.)
Visitors can go on excursions in the Judean Desert for several days on foot, by bicycle, or with an SUV. Tourists can lodge in one of the many hotels in the area or camp out under the stars for a real desert experience.