Despite the fact that the Negev Desert comprises 60% of the total area of the State of Israel, its population is much smaller than other areas of the country.
People throughout the world are reluctant to live in the desert because of its remoteness, the existential difficulties it poses, and the fear of living in isolation. Despite this, the desert has always drawn adventurers and individualists who are eager to confront the personal challenges it has to offer.
The Negev Desert is an outlying region far from populated areas with a unique and fascinating history that dates back to prehistoric times.
The Negev during Prehistoric Times – Herdsmen in a Rugged Landscape
During prehistoric times nomads, hunters, and gatherers lived in the Negev Desert. The rainfall in the area was more plentiful in ancient times, and people were able to survive by gathering food and hunting wild animals. There are many sites from prehistoric times scattered throughout the Negev Desert – some of which are located near springs and oases that are still flowing with water today. Flint tools that were used by ancient peoples can still be found at these sites.
Ancient hunting apparatuses called desert kites are scattered throughout the Negev Desert – evidence of mass hunting of migrating animals such as gazelles. These kites consist of two low stone walls that converge, forming a narrow point. Gazelles or other wild animals were herded into the triangular-shaped area between the walls, where they ran amok until they reached a pit at the tip of the enclosure and were slaughtered by waiting hunters.
The Negev Desert in Biblical Times – The Southern Frontier of the Kingdom of Judea
During Biblical times and the reign of the kings in Judea, settlement in the Negev Desert grew and flourished. The central government of the Judean Kingdom realized that if it wished to successfully defend itself, the southern border would have to be colonized. Colonists and soldiers were sent to build watchtowers and water cisterns and to establish agricultural settlements. There are many archaeological remains of the farms and water cisterns from this period, such as the Lutz Water Cisterns.
The Negev Desert during the Nabatean and Byzantine Periods – Way Stations along the Spice Route
This period is considered to be the greatest historical period of the Negev Desert. Archeologists have determined that hundreds of thousands of people lived here at the time of the Roman Empire. The Negev Desert lay along the trade routes from Rome to the Far East, and its Nabatean inhabitants consequently enjoyed a period of economic prosperity. Hedonistic people in the Roman Empire were willing to pay high prices for the exotic perfumes, spices and incense such as myrrh and frankincense that grew in the area of what is now known as Yemen. The Nabateans, a nomadic people who inhabited the Negev Desert and the deserts of Arabia, seized this great economic opportunity and began to move large caravans of camels, serving as middlemen in the spice trade. The Spice Route ran across the Negev Desert through the Nabatean capital of Petra and on through the Arabian desert to Yemen and back. The spices were transported to the port of Gaza, where they were loaded on ships bound for Rome. Cities, farms, and way stations sprang up along the Spice Route to provide services to the travelling caravans.
The Romans took control
The Romans eventually took control of the trade routes, annexing the Negev Desert as part of their empire. In the process they began to convert the nomadic Nabateans to Christianity. This marked the beginning of the Byzantine Period that is a direct continuation of the Nabatean Period. The trade caravans disappeared with the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Negev Desert was abandoned - leaving only the Bedouin – the Arab nomads.
The Negev Desert during the Arab Period – The Wilderness Home of the Bedouin
The Arab nomads returned to the Negev Desert. They were individualists, who isolated themselves from society and lived far from populated areas. The desert was the ideal place for them to live their free lifestyle. The Arab nomads herded camels and goats, engaged in smuggling and trading, and conducted raids on populated areas to the north, retreating back to the desert, which was their refuge and hideout.
The State of Israel - A Test of Strength and Resistance
After the State of Israel was established in 1948, the government once again recognized the importance of settling the Negev Desert. David Ben Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, understood that the Negev and the southern border could be protected only if the Negev was populated. Ben Gurion also felt that the challenge of settling the Negev Desert presented an opportunity to assess the strength and resistance of the People of Israel in their new homeland. He set a personal example by moving his home to Kibbutz Sde Boker.
New immigrants who arrived from Europe and Arab countries were brought to the new development towns being built in the Negev. Some of them chose to remain in the Negev Desert, while others elected to move to more populated areas in the center of the country. Despite the fact that Ben Gurion's vision continued, the Israeli government did not succeed in perpetuating his impetus to settle the Negev. Few communities were established in the region, and the Negev was perceived as a poor and neglected area that was not a viable place for people to settle.
The Wine Route Farms – Restoring the Agriculture of Ancient Times
The Wine Route Farms Project began at the end of the 1990s. Farms and agriculture had previously existed in the area along the Spice Route during the Roman Period. Wine grapes were cultivated and wineries sprang up in the ancient cities along the route. The idea behind the Wine Route Farms Project was to reconstruct the ancient farms, wineries, and wine industry that had existed long ago.
In recent years 24 farms were established along the ancient Spice Route. Carmey Avdat is one of the first farms established on the Wine Route and an example of the new type of settlements in the Negev Desert.
The vineyards of Carmey Avdat were planted on the remains of an ancient farm. The vineyards thrive in the dry climate, high altitude, and cold winters, and are irrigated by the Negev Desert floodwaters during the rainy winter months. The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes grown in Carmey Avdat are made into wine in the family boutique winery on the farm – reminiscent of the wine industry that existed here in ancient times.
The winery at Carmey Avdat in the Negev Desert produces Cabernet, Sauvignon, Merlot, rosé, dessert wines, and Kosher L'Mehadrin wines for the Sabbath and Passover.
Carmey Avdat also has six unique zimmers. Each has a private bathing pool, a high-quality stereo system, a fully equipped kitchen, and a private terrace where guests can lie in a hammock and enjoy the view of the surrounding Negev Desert. The farm has a store that sells farm produce and craft items made by local artists.
Many visitors to the farm are extremely interested in the way of life in the Negev Desert, and the owners Hannah and Eyal Yizrael explain about their lifestyle and the possibilities of living in the Negev. Some of the guests have consequently chosen to make their homes in the Negev Desert.
The Negev Today
Today the Negev Desert is a thriving region of the country. Its inhabitants exemplify the pioneering spirit of Israel's early years. The Negev continues to play an important role in the history of the State of Israel.