Makhtesh Ramon

Most tourists or visitors to Israel, Christians and Jews alike, come to see the Biblical sights. Many tour the north and center, going to the main cities, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nazareth, and many archeological sites. But, relatively few venture to the south and even fewer come to see the natural wonders that exist in our little country of Israel.

One such is the Ramon Crater, or Makhtesh, found in the south of Israel, an hour’s drive south of Beersheva. This is such an amazing and unique natural wonder that it is surprising that it is so little known. It is to Israel what the Grand Canyon is to the USA. It is in fact a unique geological feature that is so large it can be seen from space. It is a natural crater 40 km long and 10 km wide, with cliffs 400 m high, and is the major feature of the south of Israel (see photo). Actually it is not a crater, not left by the impact of an asteroid or by subsidence, but was formed by erosion.

Many millions of years ago a sea covered the area, and there was a mountain in the central Negev, the top of which formed an island. The island was eroded by rain and the sea receded and left a mountain with an inverted top. Further erosion deepened the crater, then 5 million years ago the Syrian African rift that runs from the Golan Heights thru the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, the Arava Valley and the Red Sea to Ethiopia, fell several thousand feet, and tilted this Negev mountain. Gradually the sand and silt in the core of the mountain washed down into the Arava, leaving what is known as a Makhtesh. It is indeed a spectacular sight to behold, looking like something from the moon’s surface.

"The sentinel Ibex"

We stayed in the new Beresheet (Beginning) Hotel, now one year old, part of the Isrotel chain . It is a unique collection of stone built units each with two or fours rooms, spread out on the crater’s edge just north of the small town of Mitzpe Ramon (View of Ramon) with ca. 7,000 inhabitants. There are electric carts to take people and luggage around, and of course one can walk, although this is not for those with walking difficulties. When we arrived at our unit there was a large ibex waiting for us at the entrance, as if standing guard motionless (see photo). The driver said he had never seen anything like it before, and we must be special people, I agreed.. It was not afraid of us and only ran away when we came really close. The Hotel has a beautifully designed central lobby and dining areas. There is a separate Visitor’s Center nearby which is unfortunately temporarily closed. There is also a smaller and less expensive hotel in the town called the Ramon Inn.

We took a guided jeep drive through the crater that was quite spectacular. The jeep managed the bumpy tracks that criss-cross the crater’s bottom. Each of these is marked by lines of stones, since it is illegal to go outside the established trails, because it would damage the delicate ecosystem and could be dangerous. The Makhtesh is so dry that it qualifies as a super-desert, and people can die without enough water in a short period of time. The whole area looks completely desolate, but there are plants and animals that survive without external water. The plants have large root systems and some exude salt. We saw two glimpses of gazelles that get their water entirely from plants and we saw footprints of asses that were reintroduced into the wild only a few years ago. The guide took us to see various sights, including cliffs with multi-colored layers, yellow, red, and purple, and several high points with amazing views. One of the mountains in the Makhtesh is a small flat topped conical structure called Har Marpeh (Elbow Mountain) that is used by the elite paratroop group in the IDF for training.

We went into town one day to have lunch and when we returned to the hotel my wife discovered that she had lost her handbag. We searched the room and the car, but no luck, so I drove back to the restaurant, and the manager was holding it for us. We were lucky that he was honest. For the rest of our time we relaxed and swam and ate and visited some other sights, including the Alpaca Farm and the Bio-center that contains a small zoo with desert animals.

So if you ever get an opportunity on your visit to Israel to see the Makhtesh Ramon, please take it, you won’t regret it.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.