For such a small country, Israel is incredibly geographically diverse. From the lush greenery of the North to the Mediterranean beaches of the center and finally to the arid desert of the Negev in the South.
This vast expanse of desert takes up 55% of Israel’s landmass, and barring the city of Be’ersheva as well as a few small towns (including Dimona, where my grandparents live), that landmass is mostly devoid of human life. The Negev’s endless cliffs of yellow-orange stone shimmer hazily in the sun, the heat already oppressive though it will only get hotter as the summer progresses. Faced with the undulating expanse I am sometimes overcome with reverse claustrophobia; the sky is too vast, the landscape unchanging.
I was in the Negev for a Shabbaton with my friends. A Shabbaton is trip taken over the shabbat. It is essentially the same as any field trip, except that come sundown on Friday night everyone gathers under a gauzy tent wearing dinner-appropriate clothing (desert, shmesert-for shabbat you dress nice) to welcome in the shabbat. I am not a religiously observant person, but I am a lover of beauty- and listening to the sonorous prayers under the desert night sky is an experience not to be forgotten.
The restful shabbat prayers were a fitting culmination to the jam-packed flutter of activity earlier in the day. A hike through the mountains and into a desert pool finished with a trek up a cliff overlooking an ancient monastery carved into the stone.
The hike up and down the mountain is operated by Bedouins. The Bedouins are a nomadic, Arab ethnic group who are divided into clans throughout the desert. Used to the crowds of tourists, they were yelling “Donkey? Donkey?” offering rides up the mountain on these tiny little donkeys wearing beautifully embroidered but heavy looking saddles, while a solitary camel munched on orange peels to the side. I have a soft spot for donkeys, and took way too many photos of the hardy beasts.
The sheer scale of the thing is mind-boggling; How did the monks carve that structure into the stone? what was it like to enter one of the caves hewn from the rock and remain there in solitary confinement, contemplating the universe? the questions jumble on top of each other before being released into the desert air.
Before the sun set, we settled into our campsite overlooking the dead sea. Unfortunately we were too high up to make it down and float (you can only float in the dead sea, the salt content buoys you up) but the view from up there was a balm for weary eyes.