Rachel Savorai, Palmach Fighter Who Went to Petra With Meir Har-Zion, Dies at 90

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Rachel Savorai, Palmach veteran who went to Petra in 1953.
Rachel Savorai, Palmach veteran who went to Petra in 1953.Credit: Menashe Levy
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Rachel Savorai, a member of Israel’s pre-state Palmach militia who became famous for sneaking across a hostile border into Jordan to visit the “Red Rock,” as the ancient city of Petra is sometimes called, died on April 25 in Kibbutz Revivim at the age of 90.

Her comrade on the famous trek, Meir Har-Zion, died two years earlier.

Savorai was born on Kibbutz Ein Harod in 1926 to Shmuel Savorai and the former Sara Yitzker. Three members of the Yitzker family were murdered, together with author Yosef Haim Brenner, during the Arab riots in Jaffa in May 1921.

Rachel Savorai’s love of hiking began in school, where she was taught by legendary teacher Moshe Carmi. “He would take us out of the classroom, stand on the summit of Mount Gilboa and, like Moses, who saw the Land of Israel from the heights of Mount Nebo, show us the views and connect us to the Bible,” she related in a 2013 interview with the Mynet Hebrew website.

In 1944, she joined the Palmach and was stationed at Ramat Rachel, outside of Jerusalem. There, her love of hiking continued to grow. “We hiked the area a lot, generally alone, dressed in khaki, our hair up, so they wouldn’t recognize us as girls,” she said in a 2003 interview with the newspaper Hakibbutz.

It was during this period that she first heard about Petra.

In 1946, she helped blow up a bridge in the Jordan Valley during the “Night of the Bridges,” an operation to sabotage the bridges connecting pre-state Israel to its hostile neighbors. In the 1948 War of Independence, she was a rifleman in the Harel Brigade.

After the war, she decided to realize her dream of visiting Petra. “This generation of ours is beginning to survey the Galilee and the Negev, and the moment comes when you’ve had your fill of the sights and the urge to go further presses. ... Good hikers, people who are crazy about it, want ‘to see what’s beyond the next hill,’” she later said, quoting her favorite poet, the Hebrew poetess Rachel. “Many young people dream about hiking to Petra, over the Jordanian border.”

Her longed-for trip finally took place in 1953, accompanied by Har-Zion, who was eight years her junior. “By chance we, Meir and I, were the first, but it’s not Rachel Savorai who reached [Petra]. It’s my generation that reached it,” she said.

She told Hakibbutz that the plan for the trip arose when she met Har-Zion in the dining room at Kibbutz Ein Harod and discovered that their shared love of hiking. “What do you think about a trip to Petra?” she asked him.

“Until then, I hadn’t dared propose this dream of mine to anyone,” she recalled. But Har-Zion assented immediately, and soon afterward, they set out.

“I knew it was dangerous, but it was clear to me that if we were careful, we’d return safely,” she said. “I assumed that if we made every effort, we wouldn’t encounter the enemy. But if we did — it’s captivity.”

Equipped with enough food for two meals and two canteens of water, they set off. Har-Zion described what they found in his diary.

“We were stirred and astounded by the magnitude of the beauty,” he wrote. “A giant palace rested on magnificent pillars, tall and strong, decorated with a vast array of ornamentation. ... It’s incredible that all this was dug out by the hand of man, who is so small!”

Savorai, who never married, is survived by three children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She never disclosed the identity of her children’s father. Savorai was a member of Kibbutz Revivim, in the Negev, for over 50 years. In 2013, she published a book about the authors of the Bible.