Ein Avdat
Ein AvdatIsrael news photo: Shmuel Browns

The Negev desert, shaped like a 4,700 square mile inverted triangle in the south of the country, makes up more than half of Israel’s land area. A visit to the Negev should be on everyone's itinerary, because only by experiencing the desert can you understand its importance.

Geographically the Negev can be divided into five areas: the northern, western and central Negev, the high plateau and the Arava Valley. The high plateau area, known as Ramat HaNegev (Negev Heights) is a small part of the region, but one of major importance. The plateau stands between 370 metres and 520 metres above sea level, with extreme temperatures in summer and winter and significant differences in those temperatures as day passes into night. The area gets only 100 mm of rainfall per year.

But despite these constraints, and its inferior and partially salty soil, Israeli farmers are successfully growing olives, pomegranates, pistachios and grapes for wine in Ramat Hanegev.

Here are some places to visit as you explore the region.

Kibbutz Revivim is growing five varieties of olives using brackish water, and selling the olives and olive oil in an upmarket boutique dedicated to their products in Tel Aviv.

Park Golda includes a lake and picnic tables to eat your lunch or for an unforgettable desert experience, try Bedouin hospitality in a black goat's hair tent followed by a camel ride.

The Great Makhtesh (Crater) is one of three craters in the region, a unique formation to the Negev, where the inside of a mountain is eroded by water, leaving only the outer shell, like eating a soft-boiled egg.

You can also visit a string of family farms along Route 40 for wine and cheese tasting, (one must check individual kosher certification) and even sleep over in one of their cabins under the desert stars. On farms that are growing grapes and making wine, the vines have been planted on the same 1,500-year-old terraces that were prepared by the Nabateans and take advantage of runoff from the winter rains. These farms are also a symbol of Israel's pioneering spirit in the 21st century, composting their waste, recycling their non-potable "grey" water and generating electricity using solar photovoltaic panels.

From the third century BCE the Nabateans traversed the Negev on caravans of camels laden with precious spices from Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, a route of about 2,400 kilometers punctuated by some 65 camel stops one day apart. Over time the Nabateans settled in the area, building cities; Avdat, Shivta, Haluza and Mamshit have all been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites and are part of the Israel National Parks system.

The famous Kibbutz Sde Boker was built on the Negev Heights in 1952 by a group of discharged soldiers who had served in the area. The kibbutz attracted the public’s attention when David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and elder statesman, and his wife Paula went to live there. Just south of Kibbutz Sde Boker you will see the sign for the cabin of the "Old Man" that today houses the Ben-Gurion Museum. There is a whole campus named after Ben-Gurion, which houses an Arid Zones research institute, an environmental center that includes a high school and college, a field school and guest house, a reptile farm and a desert sculpture museum. TheBen-Gurion Institute, a research facility for the study and the dissemination of his writings, offers visitors a multi-media program about the man and his work.

While staying at the guest house, Sde Boker can also be used as the base for a hike into the canyon at the Ein Avdat National Park with springs, pools and waterfalls, an oasis in the desert.

One may also hike from Avdat -- beside the gas station and Roman bath house that is supplied with water drawn from a well tunneled 70 meters through bedrock -- north along the Israel Trail to the Ein Eikev spring that flows year round. If you continue hiking the Israel Trail for a couple of days, you can reach the Great Makhtesh.

Next, visit the remains of the Nabatean city of Avdat, which was probably the regional capital. There is still disagreement among scholars about the reasons for the sudden appearance of the Nabateans on the stage of history in the second half of the first millennium BCE, and their disappearance in the second half of the 1st millennium CE. Located at the crossroads that join Petra in Jordan to Eilat and to Gaza, Avdat controlled the passage of the caravans from India and Arabia. Conquered in 106 CE by the Roman Emperor Trajan, it lost its importance when a road was built between Eilat and Damascus.

Avdat adjusted by adopting agriculture, particularly the production of wine, as its means of subsistence. Numerous terraced farms and water channels were built throughout the region in order to collect enough run-off from winter rains to support agriculture in the hyper-arid zone of the Negev. At least five wine presses dating back to the Byzantine period have been found at the site, showing us how important wine-making was in this region.

In the Byzantine period (5th and 6th century) a citadel and a monastery with two churches were built on the acropolis of Avdat on the ruins of earlier pagan temples. The town was later totally destroyed by a local earthquake in the early 7th century and was never reinhabited.

Shmuel Browns is a licensed tour guide and conducts tours throughout the State of Israel. All photos in this article were snapped by Shmuel Browns. For more information on tours, click here!