Driving from Tel Aviv, we head south on Highway 40, leaving Tel Aviv about 8:00 am. It’s Saturday and the country is quiet. It’s Shabbat. The elevators are automatically stopping at every floor and the toaster has been removed from the breakfast buffet.
We first arriving at Be’er Sheva in time for coffee. It’s chilly. The wind is up and the cafe we find in the old city is mostly outside. There’s a roof, but only a back wall and part of a side wall for blocking the wind. Large men sit in small, white plastic chairs and rickety tables. The women at the espresso machine don’t speak English and my Hebrew is not up to much more than order “Shteim cafe. Gatan.” After that, it sort of breaks down. But we managed.
The coffee was so good we wanted to linger, but the cold was too much. We wandered off to expore Be’er Sheva. Not much to see in the old city. A decaying Mosque with broken windows and boarded up entrances; a poorly-kept sculpture garden, with cool sculptures and dirty, trash-strewn streets.
The town was quiet. Businesses closed, little traffic and few people. Mike spots a sign “Danger of Death” and doesn’t see a group of Orthodox men and a boy turn the corner and walk towards him. They see him, think he’s trying to take picture of them, and quickly turn around and walk the other way, one glancing over his shoulder repeatedly, ensuring we know they are not amused. Mike didn’t even see them.
We continued winding down the empty dirty streets, trying to find the Muslim cemetery. We walk past it several times before we realize it’s the empty lot on the corner, just dirt, some abandoned and mouldering caskets and barbed wire. Be’er Sheva has a long history dating back from 4 BCE and has hosted Jacob, Abraham, Isaac, and Elijah, the Ottoman Empire, the Egyptians, the British and now the Israelis. There’s an uneasy peace between the Arabs and the Jews and Christians here, each keeping to their own areas of the city.
We leave Be’er Sheva and continue down the 40, into the heart of the Negev, or Al Naqab as the native Bedouins call it. It’s beautiful. Road signs warn us to beware of camels near the road. As far as we can see there’s an endless sea of red-brown rocky sand, smooth wadis, and occasional dots of green cactus and brush, unbroken by the hand of man. Then suddenly, on a hill to the east, the remains of a giant city appears
as if from nowhere. Avdat. From it’s beginnings as a seasonal camping spot along the spice route, this amazing city developed. By the end of the first century BCE until an earthquake destroyed it in 7 CE, the Nabataeans lived here. Of course, the Romans and Byzantines where here, too, leaving their marks in the church, the burial tomb of Aphrodite’s priestesses and the monastery. The modern world has left it’s mark too, filming Jesus Christ Superstar here and earning a UNESCO World Heritage Site rating in 2005. It’s amazing here.
The past is clearly written here. The sweeping 360 degree views into the desert ensured watchers could see spice trains, and invaders, from miles away. The confluence of religions and architectural styles create a dissonance that works. It doesn’t seem weird to find a cross and Greek inscriptions along side tombs built into caves or to find ionic columns next to rock-built pens for camels. It seems layered, and progressional. Time marches on and humans evolve, building on the past.
Standing on the mountain of Avdat we hear the sounds of war. US-made F-16 bombers have been sent from Be’er Sheva Israeli Air Defense into Gaza. There’s no sound like it. Destruction is coming. Death is coming. The whine and roar of the engines are unmistakable. It’s still Shabbat. Our elevator is still on automatic. Our buffet line still does not have a toaster. But the hounds of war have been unleashed.