Eilat, Timna and the Negev: Rich History, Not Just a Seaside Holiday
When my wife and I planned our recent visit to Eilat, we expected a glorious seaside holiday. Little did we know that we would also walk in the footsteps of the ancient Kenites and Midianites and that we’d also enjoy an encounter with “kibbutzniks” who create exquisite works of art and raise organic foods in the Negev desert.
Moments after our El Al flight touched down at the Eilat airport, we checked into the luxurious Dan Eilat Hotel, located on the Red Sea beach front, in the center of this thriving resort community. We knew the hotel’s reputation but we were not prepared for the splendor of our room. Like the hotel itself, the room was decorated in hues of pink, turquoise and beige and its furnishings had a distinct art deco look. But the icing on the cake was an enormous terrace complete with hot tub and breathtaking views. We felt as though we had landed on the set of a 1950’s Hollywood Cinemascope spectacular and expected Grace Kelly and Cary Grant to sweep in at any moment.
The point of an Eilat holiday is to relax and enjoy the sunshine and we were hard put to venture forth from our expansive terrace overlooking the Red Sea and the shorelines of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Eilat does have a number of other attractions, however, foremost among them being the Underwater Observatory and Marine Park, which we were told not to miss. There we saw sharks, enormous, ancient turtles and a wide variety of rare fish. The principal attraction of the park, however, is the underwater observatory from which you can see the most amazing reefs and a never- ending parade of exquisite tropical fish. Particularly if you have kids, the marine park is a wonderful place in which to spend an afternoon.
While Eilat has many luxury resort hotels, it also offers simpler accommodations for backpackers and those who come mainly to scuba dive, sail or windsurf.
Located in the desert less than a half-hour’s drive from Eilat is Timna Park, a development of the Jewish National Fund (KKL). The park is a 60 sq.km. site which combines amazing landscapes with the fascinating 6,000-year-old story of copper mining between the fourteenth and twelfth centuries B.C.E. from the reign of the Pharaohs Seti I through Ramses V, a time when the Egyptians partnered with the Kenites and Midianites to create the world’s oldest copper mine. You will see remains of the mines, the tools they used as well as remains of ancient dwellings. You can explore the park on your own, either by car or on foot, along well-marked and maintained roads. The landscapes you will see are unique and are found nowhere else on earth; in fact the complete geological history of the world can be told through the layers of rock seen in Timna.
Among the highlights of any visit to Timna are unusual rock formations called “Solomon’s Pillars,” the unique “Mushroom Rocks” which are the result of thousands of years of erosion, ancient rock engravings of chariots, figures and animals as well as occasional sightings of Ibex (wild mountain goats) and the white-crowned Black Wheatear, a bird which inhabits the cliffs of the Arava. The park is very visitor-friendly and even has a man-made lake with paddleboats as well as a restaurant and gift shop.
Another half-hour’s drive north will bring you to Neot Semander a most unusual kibbutz (collective settlement) in the Negev desert. Neot Semander calls itself “a learning community established in 1989 with the intention of examining basic questions of man’s existence through relationships, action and contemplation.”
While this may sound reminiscent of the communes of an earlier era, the kibbutz is definitely goal-oriented. At its heart is an Arts and Crafts Center complex with a variety of studios and workshops for ceramics and porcelain, silversmiths, glasswork, silk painting, weaving and handmade paper. We were especially impressed by the exquisite woodwork, including furniture, which is produced there by highly skilled craftsmen. The Arts and Crafts Centre surrounds a four-storey tower, whose design seems as though it comes out of a fairy story. It was inspired by the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi and was and built by members of the kibbutz.
The emphasis at Neot Semandar is on ecology and esthetics. This is evident in its flowering green oasis of lush gardens and in its expansive, diversified bioorganic farm. Among the crops that have been successfully cultivated, there are grapes for wine, olive groves as well as deciduous fruit trees. The kibbutz also has a herd of goats that provide fresh milk and cheeses. We had a most delightful lunch at “Pundak Neot Semander” a nearby restaurant operated by members of the kibbutz. With seating in a cozy, air-conditioned, indoor room as well as in the adjacent garden, the restaurant serves light vegetarian meals, cheeses and juices produced on the kibbutz along with homemade cakes and ice cream.
The kibbutz is very visitor-friendly and is planning to establish an educational facility and seminar center.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that even though the Southern Negev is surrounded by Gaza on the West and Jordan on the East, and that Eilat is but minutes from the border with Egypt and is a “twin-city” with the Jordanian port of Aqaba, we found the area to be totally peaceful and saw no signs whatever of a military presence.