Travelogue – Eilat and Timna – Aug. 20, 2011

Imagine a lunar landscape with the temperature of Mars and you have now imagined Timna Park.  In the far southern Negev Desert, 50 kilometers from the Red Sea, in the heart of the Great Rift Valley, Timna Park is a “dot” on the map of Israel.  It’s on the great North-South road that connects Be’er Sheva (the last outpost of civilization) and Eilat (the cosmopolitan beach and scuba capital) on the Gulf of Aqaba.  In between the two outposts is desert, boundless and bare.  Along the long highway (over 243 kilometers) is “nothing” by way of settlement.  There is an occasional monument or ruin, and an occasional growth of date palm trees, amidst a sea of wadis, dry barren stream beds that see water only for a few days of the year, if that.  This is desert, much of it several hundred feet below sea level.

And, as it turned out, the desert was home to armed Palestinian terrorists from Gaza who had crossed the Egyptian border in the Sinai to ambush two Egged buses and two passing cars.  One bus was waved to the side of the road while 3 men armed with machine guns strafed it.  The good sense of the bus driver to accelerate and not stop until he reached a military checkpoint saved dozens of lives.  Other attackers fired on a second bus and on two civilian vehicles at another point on the road, which runs along the Egyptian border, and detonated a roadside bomb near Israeli soldiers who were on their way to the scene of the initial attack.

At the time we were returning from a pleasant day snorkeling in the coral reefs of Eilat.  We were en route to Kibutz Ketura at the time, our base in the southern Negev.  I noticed several emergency vehicles heading in the other direction.  At the Kibutz reception, it was subdued, even though they were celebrating a wedding of two former volunteers who had met at the Kibutz.  We turned on the news, which, even though in Hebrew, we could understand.  Our decision, the following day, was NOT to return to Eilat.  As it turns out, we may not have been able to do so even if we wanted to.

Rather, we opted for a tour of the Kibutz by one of the founders.  We learned a lot about desert agriculture and the life cycle of date palm trees, as well as a number of other species of trees cultivated for growing in the Sahara desert and central Africa.  While Kibutz Ketura is a traditional kibutz where all revenue is shared equally, it is still driven to optimize profits, albeit for the collective.  It is also the home of the Arava Institute, a group committed to environmental education across borders.  It hosts scientists and students from Africa, Jordan, Egypt, and all parts of Israel, Arab and Jew.

After the tour we turned south for a few miles to visit Timna Park.  Over the objections of most of the family, I persisted.  We drove up a long single lane road across the desert floor and into the mountains that border on the Sinai desert.  As we learned, we were in a rift valley that extended from Russia through Turkey, the Middle East and into Africa.  And we learned that the area of Timna Park was actively used during the dynasties of the Pharaohs in Egypt and in biblical times.  In fact, it was a major center for mining copper.  Ingots of copper were mined on-site and shipped by camel and donkey to Aqaba (present day Eilat) where it was carried by ship around the Sinai peninsula and then to Egypt.  There were caves and mines hewn by hand out of the rock.  With temperature over 100 degrees, and a slight breeze, we were assured that the temperature was no more conducive to living at the time of the Egyptian mining enterprise.

And in the midst of this barren wind-swept wasteland was a Mishkan, a full-scale reproduction the desert tabernacle built by the Israelites and carried in the desert at the time of Moses.  It was used in their 40 years of wandering in the desert.  This was a model of the very tabernacle as detailed in Deuteronomy and Leviticus; the contents of which were laid out, including measurements and materials.  It was to have included lots of gold and acacia wood, covered with multiple layers of material, and finally some “impervious skin” which has been translated as “dolphin skin” or “seal skin”.

The key was that this structure was portable.  It was a giant erector set in the sand.  This was not some “grand” temple, like the temple mount.  It was actually quite modest and small.  The tabernacle was portable.  And besides, gold weighs a lot.  We could see a reproduction of the “holy of holies”. The setting of the tabernacle gave us a feel of what it would have been like to be in the desert with Moses.  We could understand the incident of the golden calf; we could empathize with Moses striking the rock to get water (none was to be seen for miles).

And yet this was a hokey site; a stage set for a “passion play”.  The host who opened the tent explained that the installation had been a “Christian tourist attraction” that had been bought by the park.  And then she started quoting scripture; first to explain the details of the tabernacle (many of which we already knew from years of torah study), and then quoting the prophets about the coming of judgment day.  At that point, quotes from the books of Ezekial, Daniel, Isaiah and Kings flew out.  I could sense the desire of our guide to start quoting the Book of Revelations (a Christian text), but she restrained herself.  All told, the setting was spectacular, but I was ready to go.  Incidentally, my oldest son, on ethical reasons, had refused to enter the tabernacle.  We left back on the road to Tel Aviv, this time traveling along the Jordan river, since the other route had been closed by Israeli security.