In The Footsteps of Others

As I wander through my days here in the desert, on this Kibbutz, and this country that is both new and ancient, I am struck by constant reminders of the past, of the history here.

Here in the south there is almost no vegetation to hide the story told by the mountains. I can read about the oceans that once lived here in the rocks and fossils that litter the ground. And I see the huge valley created by the continental rift – a giant crack in the land.

And there are more recent, but still ancient stories, too. The carvings of water, and floods: astonishingly beautiful canyons winnowed through the flat, tan land; looking as if the water could come rushing back through any minute. And the wind, which works tirelessly, coming from the north day after day, and year after year blasting amazing shapes in the soft, sandy rock, and pushing around enormous sand dunes.

And, layered on top of all that, there are the traces of the people – ancient and modern. For thousands of years people have been traveling though, and living in this hot, dry, unforgiving place. The so-called spice route went through here, on which people traveled from Egypt to the ancient cities north and east of here, and to the Mediterranean sea. It feels so desolate driving in my car on the highway, I find it almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like in a caravan walking though all that heat and sand – so alone.

And then they discovered copper in the mountains near here, and they mined it. You can hike there today and crawl around in small holes dug 5 thousand years ago by some slave or laborer. You can still see the green copper seams in the sandstone. When you crawl in with your flash light, you can turn the light off for just a second to imagine what it must have been like – dark, and silent. And when the Egyptians discovered there was copper to be had here they came and took over and harvested the copper. And although you can’t touch it, you can come stare at their hieroglyphs, and wonder how and why they carved them into the giant rock canyons.

When I hike here I am struck by the thought that people have been here for so long. When I am sitting alone resting on the rocks, or wandering through a canyon, running my fingers along the smooth water-carved walls, tracing the layers of rock, I feel so alone. There are no sounds except the wind, no trace of anyone else (except the ubiquitous litter, every where!), but I know that there have been people here for thousands of years, and they rested on these rocks, and they traced their fingers along this canyon wall. And did they marvel at the colors and shapes like I do? Here in Israel, I am always walking in the the footsteps of others.

As we travel throughout the country – the Galilee, and Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, and Qumram, and Masada, and even right here near my own Kibbutz – there are so many traces of ancient society. The Nabateans, The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Otomans, the British – they were all there. And of course the Arabs, and the Bedoins too. They all built amazing palaces, and temples, and great cities, and small villages, and castles, and dug wells, and cleared roads. They all fought, and farmed, and lived here. And they just kept building on top of the cities and temples and roads that were already there. You can walk around and look at it all, layer upon layer. Just south of the kibbutz, next to the highway, there are the ruins of an old Ottoman police station. The British used it after the Ottomans. Several years ago, while repairing a water pipe, some workmen turned over a stone and found an ancient roman inscription at the that very same building.

And layered on top of all that, there are the reminders that people still fight, and farm, and live here. The kibbutz is built on top of bomb shelters, hidden mostly underground, with their air vents tucked discreetly into bushes, or behind other buildings. And the kibbutz is surrounded by trenches, dug into the side of the hill to defend the people in case of attack from the neighboring countries. Its come before, and they desperately hope every day to prevent it from coming again…

But the bomb shelters are unused, and the trenches have filled in over time. They are shallow because of all the sand that has blown in. And the fences have fallen down, or been re-purposed, and the loops of barbed wire are bent and rusted, deflecting none but the most casual of intruders. But its here, left as a daily reminder of the history of this place.

And the mountains surrounding us, with all their folds and crevices exposed, remind me of the weight and the size of the history of this place.

And every morning, when I wake up to the sound of the construction on the house next door – I am reminded that we’re still here, still fighting, and farming, and living, and leaving our footsteps, for others to walk in.

Arches in Timna park carved by wind over thousands of years
Ruins of a Byzantine home in Avdat
Ruins of two temples: Nabatean and Roman in Avdat
The view of the mountains in Jordan from Kibbutz Grofit

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