Perched above the town of Mitzpeh Ramon is a hill shaped like a camel. The appropriately named “Har Hagamal” (Camel Mountain) can easily be reached by vehicle or on foot, and is only a couple of hundred meters outside of the city, but that short distance allows one the luxury of a 360-degree view from high above Makhtesh Ramon, and just a smidgen of solitude at the right time of day.
The makhtesh is not a “crater,” though the confusion is understandable: It is a rare geological phenomenon, of which three exist in Israel, two in the Sinai, and pretty much nowhere else. The word “makhtesh” describes a collapsed mountain that has crumbled in on itself like a layer cake taken out of the oven too early: Three geological layers, with porous limestone on the top, softer sandstone in the middle and ancient, hard granite on the bottom, combined with a steep east-west height differential (to the west is the Negev Highlands, to the east the Great Rift Valley) to create the conditions necessary for this gradual implosion.
The terms “collapse” and “implosion” are imprecise, suggesting that this happened all at once. It is a process, still going on, that began with the formation of the mountain 19 million years ago, after which water began to seep through the porous layer of limestone, creating underground erosion in the layer of sandstone (all washing downhill to the east) and ultimately, emptying the mountain of its guts. While this is not a precise description of the morphology, it gives one a sense of the unique drama represented by this 19-million-year-old botched soufflé.
The reward that awaits at the end of a climb up Har Hagamal is a commanding view of this five-mile-wide depression in one direction, and a town on the edge of a cloud in the other. During the climb, one is almost certain to encounter some ibex, the sickle-horned wild mountain goats that inhabit the cliffs of the Negev desert, but that have made themselves particularly at home in Mitzpeh Ramon, where they roam the streets and alleyways of the town with the nonchalance of permanent residents.
A moment of solitude is worth a thousand words. Standing on that lookout, one begins to think about time. What is 19 million years? How can we even imagine it? When the makhtesh began it’s slow, stately collapse, homo sapiens did not yet exist. The lowest geological strata revealed at the bottom of the makhtesh are over one billion years old. What we are looking at is the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis. And the lone climber, in his tiny, tiny piece of space, and his infinitesimally brief spark of time on this earth, can only gaze in wonder and feel the grandeur of the universe. It is moments like these, in places like this that can make believers out of agnostics and poets out of cynics. In this moment, I am really no different from those ibex, a small organism, with a brief life, whose problems, troubles, and anxieties melt away in the face of the vastness of creation. The one difference, perhaps, is that unlike the ibex, I can communicate my wonder, recognize my amazement. A little.