Shivta is an impressive site, but it's in the middle of nowhere, hard to get to, and has no facilities. If you have a car or plan to go on a tour, this can be a very worthwhile, atmospheric excursion -- there's a good chance you'll have this ruined city all to yourself; otherwise spend your time at the other ruined Nabatean cities of Avdat or Mamshit.
Shivta is about 50km (31 miles) southwest of Beersheva, in the military zone about 8km (5 miles) off the Nizzana road. It's important not to get lost in the military zone, so here are explicit directions: From the highway, the Shivta road is two lanes and paved for the first 2.5km (1 1/2 miles). It then narrows, and after another kilometer you pass a road, on the left, to the military installation. After passing this road, it's another 5km (3 miles) over a rough, curvy one-lane road to Shivta. There are few signs. Officially Shivta is a national park, but there is no office or telephone at this deserted location. Admission, if anyone is around to collect it, is NIS 12 ($3/£1.50) for adults and half-price for children 17 and under.
The Nabateans, a desert merchant people whose capital was the legendary city of Petra, in Jordan, established Shivta in the 1st century B.C., but Shivta (or Subeita) reached its high point during the time of Justinian the Great (6th c. A.D.), when Byzantine wealth and caravan trade were at their height. In addition to commercial wealth, Shivta's ingenious citizens built an elaborate irrigation and water-collection system that allowed them to farm the barren soil. Israelis are studying Nabatean irrigation techniques to this day.
Eventually trade routes slowly changed, and though Shivta survived as an Arab outpost for many centuries, by the 1100s it was a ghost town.
The ruins of Shivta remained in fairly good condition throughout the centuries because they were too far away from newer building sites to make pillage economical. As a result, the city, which dates from the 500s, is still somewhat intact. Restoration work began in 1958. Buildings restored include three churches, a mosque, a caravansary, two water-collection pools, and houses. Signs identify and discuss the principal buildings.
Sde Boker & Avdat
About 50km (31 miles) due south of Beersheva, surrounded by sand and parched mountains, you suddenly come to a farm settlement -- the famous Ben-Gurion kibbutz, Sde Boker. The settlement began in May 1952, at the prime minister's instigation, when the country was first encouraging settlers to populate the Negev. Ben-Gurion became a member of this kibbutz in 1953; he lived and worked here until his death in 1973, at the age of 87. He and his wife, Paula, are buried here, and his fascinating personal papers, photos, and eclectic collection of books on history, philosophy, and religion may be seen in the Paula and David Ben-Gurion Hut (tel. 08/655-0320 or 655-8444; www.bgh.org.il). The hut remains as it was when Ben-Gurion lived in it. Visiting hours are Sunday through Thursday from 8:30am to 3:30pm, on Friday, Saturday, holidays, and holiday eves from 8:30am to 2pm. Admission is NIS 12 ($3/£1.50).
Over the years Sde Boker began to thrive, as did several other young settlements in the Negev. A campus of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has been established at Sde Boker. A modern library, housing the Ben-Gurion Institute and Archives (tel. 08/655-5057) and containing 750,000 documents associated with Israel's first chief of state, is located here. The institute also contains a Research Center for Solar Energy and a Museum of Desert Sculpture, a collection of art created from natural objects and materials found in the desert. The institute also serves as a center for the study of desert areas. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm; you must phone ahead for tours, which are given by appointment for NIS 10 ($2.50/£1.25).
The graves of David and Paula Ben-Gurion are 3km (2 miles) southwest of the Ben-Gurion House, to the right of the Gate of Sde Boker College. The site, chosen by Ben-Gurion, overlooks the dramatic Zin Valley, with the greenery of the Ein Avdat spring in the distance to the right.
Avdat Archaeological Park, 20km (12 miles) south of the Paula and David Ben-Gurion Hut on Rte. 40 (tel. 08/655-0954), was a major city built by the Nabateans in the 2nd century B.C. as a caravan post on a spice and trading route that ran from the Red Sea to the Nabatean capital at Petra, then to Avdat, Beersheva, and onward to Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. The city reached its peak of importance during Roman and Byzantine times and went into decline after the Roman conquest in the 7th century A.D.
Situated on a cliff 600m (1,969 ft.) above sea level, and with many partially restored structures, Avdat offers dramatic vistas across the desert; along with the ruined Nabatean city of Mamshit, it was used for location shots in the film Jesus Christ Superstar. The western half of Avdat's acropolis contains the ruins of two Byzantine churches; the eastern section is dominated by the city's fortress. Beyond the acropolis are a large Byzantine-era wine press and an olive press, evidence of the Nabateans' amazing ability to irrigate and farm the desolate Negev 1,500 years ago. Admission to the Avdat Archaeological Park is NIS 20 ($5/£2.50) for adults and half-price for those 17 and under. It is open from 8am to 5pm (until 4pm in winter). There is a small visitor center (tel. 08/658-6391) at the entrance offering snacks, very good pamphlets with explanatory maps, and a brief video. Beside the ruins of Avdat, the Hebrew University has operated an experimental farm for the past 40 years in which Nabatean agricultural techniques, as uncovered by archaeologists, are being explored and redeveloped.
Mamshit National Park
The ruins of Nabatean cities carry a certain aura of mystery and grandeur about them. This third ruined Nabatean city, 6km (4 miles) southeast of Dimona, is probably a few centuries older than Avdat and was built on a slightly more important trade route. It was a town of large caravansaries, warehouses, and accounting offices; by Roman times, the town sported large public bathhouses, villas with wall murals, and houses of pleasure. The two large, well-preserved Byzantine-era churches may have been converted to mosques after the Muslim conquest in A.D. 635, judging from Koranic verses inscribed on the walls of their ruins. However, the city seems to have been permanently abandoned not long after that time, and the inscriptions may have been made after the city was no longer inhabited. The ruins are set above Machtesh Ha-Gadol, one of the Negev's dramatic erosion craters. Mamshit National Park (tel. 08/655-6478) is open daily 8am to 5pm; until 4pm in winter. Admission is NIS 20 ($5/£2.50).
Mitzpe Ramon (pop. 7,000) lies 139km (86 miles) south of Beersheva and appears to be a typical Negev development community if you approach it from the north. What you don't immediately see is the town's location right at the edge of the spectacular Ramon Crater, a vast, breathtakingly beautiful geologic depression formed by erosion that has exposed a virtual encyclopedia of fossils and geologic structures. Founded in 1954 as a clay-mining town and way station on the long road then being built through the desert to the isolated outpost of Eilat, Mitzpe Ramon was bypassed by the new, more direct road to Eilat built through the Arava Valley after the 1967 war.
Mitzpe Ramon struggled to survive as a viable economic community during the 1970s and 1980s. The Ramon Crater (which had not been picked up by aerial surveys during British Mandate times and was only discovered after the 1948 War of Independence) had not yet captured the imagination of travelers. It has only been since 1990, with the establishment of the Ramon Inn to accommodate middle- and upper-range visitors, that a tourism industry has begun to develop here. In the town's industrial area, artists' workshops and galleries have opened. A luxury resort is planned to overlook the sweeping site. The community has a great public spirit and gives you an opportunity to get a feel for day-to-day life in the kind of Negev community that Ben-Gurion envisioned as an important part of Israel's future. You can also feel the isolation and mystery of the Negev plateau. Sunsets and twilights at the edge of the crater usually bring out an extraordinary vista of changing colors as the landscape slowly sinks into darkness.
North of Eilat
As you travel down Rte. 90 toward Eilat, you'll pass a number of attractions that can be visited along the way or on day excursions from Eilat.