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Saturday, July 16, 2011

OUR LAST DAY--EILAT TO TEL AVIV--TRAVEL TO REMEMBER

Leaving as few sights unseen as possible, even the last travel day of our Margaret Morse Tour is filled with wonder.  It is time to return for our evening flights home from Tel Aviv.  But just in case we still feel the urge for remembrances, we leave the beautiful Hilton Eilat Queen of Sheba Hotel and head for the Eilat Stone Factory where we see the stonecutter working with Israel’s national stone, malachite, often referred to as a cousin of turquoise.  It’s beautiful.

Hilton Queen of Sheba
view from our room--but we were in Petra, Jordan on the full day here and did not enjoy these amenities

Watching the stonecutter transform the rough stone into a polished gem is fascinating.  Maybe mesmerizing is a better word as I do not leave the Stone Factory without a beautiful pair of earrings. 

Eilat stone

As our bus roars through the desert to our next stop, we see what Israel has done to make the desert bloom.  In the 1990s, embankments were created near wadis, which are gullies, streambeds or valleys that are dry except in the rainy season, and trees were planted.  Now those trees are beginning to come together to form forests in the desert.  It is truly an amazing sight to behold when contrasted with the usual tan barrenness of the Negev Desert.  On a sad note, today I wonder if the rich greenness was destroyed in Israel's devastating forest fires.

desert bloom

desert bloom

We stop for lunch at a palm oasis as we head toward Beer Sheva, Israel’s third largest city, the place where Abraham settled in 2,000 BCE and which King David made a part of Israel.  It is too bad we did not have an opportunity to visit this ancient city where there is a weekly Bedouin market, and one can still buy camels and sheep.  Indeed, 27,000 Bedouins still call the Negev their home.  This would be a must-see on a return trip.

camel crossing
THAT'S A CAMEL CROSSING SIGN

Then we follow the road south through the central Negev through Mitzpe Ramon, often referred to as a crater but which is actually the world’s largest "machtesh," a valley surrounded by steep walls and drained by a single wadi or riverbed. 

Negev Mitzpe Ramon
THE VAST EMPTINESS IS AWESOMELY HANDSOME

Mitzpe Ramon
THESE ARE THE WALLS OF THE MACHTESH

Picture this:  Mitzpe Ramon started forming when the oceans that once covered the Negev began to recede leaving rocks estimated to be 220 MILLION YEARS OLD.  Obviously it is an archeologist’s dream for it is filled with fossils and other ancient remains of civilizations that once inhabited this area.  Indeed, the word "ramon" refers to the Romans. Look at this vast wilderness. 

But remember this is the 21st century, and modern man has modern ideas.  Rappelling from these steep walls is a sport these days. 

Mitzpe Ramon
I DID NOT HAVE TO BE WARNED ABOUT THIS CLIFF EDGE

Visiting athletes require accommodations, and there is plenty of construction going on along the rim.  

mitzpe ramon  building

Remember the Nabateans of Petra who knew how to deal with this environment because they understood how to conserve water?  (http://thirdagetraveler.blogspot.com/2011/06/jordan-and-petra-part-i.html) Our next stop is Avdat National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, named after a Nabatean king.  It was the Nabateans, builders of Petra, who created a city here in the midst of a desert. 

Avdat

Along the way, however, we get to see some wild mountain gazelles, Israel’s national animal.  Cute.  They were just walking in, taking in the tourist sights—us.

gazelle

gazelle

As we approach the National Park, we see one of Avdat’s remaining structures atop a hill.  Buildings like these were probably used as lookouts for caravans along this important trading route.  Alongside the structure is a long, dark, metal sculpture of an approaching caravan.  From far away it  looks almost real.  It’s impressive, and it piques my interest and imagination.

Avdat

Today, in addition to the historical data, there is an experimental farm to study the way ancient peoples developed agriculture in the desert.  If ancient man knew how to tame this vast barren land, then Israel might have something to learn in order to house her growing population.

The Nabateans were conquered by the Romans who did not develop further, but later the Byzantines brought Christianity to the area.  A Byzantine church remains on the site.  When the Muslims conquered the area in the seventh century, development ground to a halt, and the area remained that way until the British took over from the Ottoman Empire.  Roads were paved from Beersheva to Eilat, and a new era began.

Most of the remaining structures, however, are not Nabatean but are Roman or Byzantine.  Still pretty impressive to me. 

Our next stop is Kibbutz Sde Boker where David Ben Gurion made his home in 1953 after retirement as Israel’s first Prime Minister.  He is buried here, and on his grave are two birthdates.  His real one was in Poland in 1888.  The second is when he came to Israel in 1906 which for him was a true birth.

Ben Gurion's view
DAVID BEN GURION'S VIEW ACROSS THE NEGEV

David Ben Gurion is considered the architect of Israel.  He took Hertzl’s Zionist ideas and made them a reality by organizing the Haganah (military), schools, and other necessities of a country. 

Ben Gurion immigrated to Israel in 1906 where he began his new life organizing unions.  The Ottomans expelled him.  He came to New York, and he fell in love with American Democracy.  People come here to study, and Ben Gurion's papers are in the Heritage Center here.

Ben Gurion Heritage Center

Ben Gurion walked the walk.  When he retired, the people on the kibbutz wanted him to live with the special status he’d earned, but he insisted on living in a hut and working in the fields as all members of the kibbutz did.  He did not stop working in the fields until he became ill and unable to continue.

The view from his burial site overlooks the Negev, the place he envisioned eventually in bloom and home to many.  That dream is yet to be realized, but research goes on to make the dream a reality.

desert
BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION

Sde Boker is certainly the intellectual climax of the day, but the emotional climax is arranged by Wendy Morse.  Once again she has reserved a restaurant, and we share a final dinner with our tour-mates back in Tel Aviv before we part ways and head to our individual post-tour destinations. 

Israeli feast

Tel Aviv restaurant

Thank you, Margaret Morse Tours.  Thank you Wendy Morse who accompanied us every step of the way and arranged special days and nights—dancing and music and entertainment, special presents—beautiful mezuzahs by an Israeli artist, special moments—our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs on Mt. Scopus with its panoramic views of Jerusalem, and even cds of the music we heard.  Thank you David, Alan, and the other guides for your encyclopedic and enthusiastic presentations.  Thank you for the new friends we made. Thank you Israel.   

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