Losing the 'Lost Town'

A plan to build a vacation village on part of an archaeological site in the Negev has locals up in arms.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

The sixth-graders at the Zin school are very concerned. They worry that a vacation village planned not far from their school, which is part of the community of Midreshet Sde Boker, will damage the environment - and, particularly, an ancient settlement known familiarly as the "lost town."

"The lost town is a 1,500-year-old archaeological site. The Ramat Negev regional council wants to build a vacation village there," according to a petition written by the students and circulated on the Internet, which has already been signed by dozens of people. "Building on part of the lost town will destroy parts of the site, the animal habitats and hiking trails in the vicinity."

Archaeological site near Sde Boker.

The site is located about 300 meters to the west of Halukim Junction, in the Negev, and about one kilometer north of Kibbutz Sde Boker.

"This spells the privatization of archaeological assets that belong to the public," says Shay Tahnay, the nature reserve coordinator of the southern branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

The plan, still pending approval from the regional building and planning commission, calls for construction of a resort on an area of about 40 dunams (10 acres ), consisting of some 40 units, a visitors center, a restaurant and two pools dug into the streambed where some of the remains of the so-called lost town were discovered.

Yehuda D. Nevo, an archaeologist from Midreshet Sde Boker who excavated the site in the 1980s, found dozens of structures made of local stone in the streambed. His findings indicate the settlement dates back to the late Byzantine period (the 6th century, C.E. ), and was populated by Arab nomads. In contrast to the surrounding society, which became Christian between the 4th and 6th centuries C.E., he believed the inhabitants here remained pagans, before converting in the 7th century to Islam.

Nevo, who died in 1994, attributed ritual significance to the site, but the Israel Antiquities Authority rejects his interpretation. "This was a Muslim farming settlement from the 7th and 8th centuries C.E.," says Yoram Haimi, the organization's archaeologist for the southern district.

Since Nevo completed his excavations at the site, the now-exposed ancient buildings have been subject to the natural forces of erosion. "Everything is crumbling," says Haimi. "There are a lot more archaeological sites in this area and all of them are in a similar state. Restoration of all those sites would cost billions, and the antiquities authority has no budget. Therefore, when developers made a proposal to build a holiday village on the site of the lost town and also to reconstruct the ancient farm there - we welcomed it."

The developers, Eran Yehoshua and Yuval Kadosh, have made a commitment to preserve the ancient buildings, adds Haimi. The guest rooms will be built in an area where there are no ancient structures, and all the work will take place under the close supervision of the IAA.

"This could be a gem - a combination of vacationing, preservation of antiquities and an opportunity to experience agricultural work in the desert as it existed in the 8th century. They said they would not fence the site in and not charge an entry fee. Why not give it a chance?" suggests Haimi.

Tahnay is unconvinced. "According to the plan," he explains, "construction of the village will require very heavy infrastructure work, right next to the antiquities site. If you want to preserve it, it's possible to do things to prevent destruction: to create paths for visitors and observation points. We don't believe it's possible both to maintain a vacation village and to preserve the site and develop it for visitors."

If public opposition is tough enough, Tahnay believes, the plan can be stopped in its tracks.