The Amazing UNESCO Site Going to Waste in Israel

The ancient desert city of Haluza – a key artery on the Incense Route some 1,700 years ago – lies in shameful neglect. Could Israel’s agreement with the Gulf states reverse its fortunes?

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Some of the ruins at Haluza in the northern Negev. Once a key stop on the Incense Route from Oman and Yemen to Gaza Port, now it only attracts 4,000 visitors a year.
Some of the ruins at Haluza in the northern Negev. Once a key stop on the Incense Route from Oman and Yemen to Gaza Port, now it only attracts 4,000 visitors a year.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Haluza is a different, legendary world. We’re in the northern Negev, in the heart of the huge ancient city that’s 2,300 years old, covered by sand and only 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Be’er Sheva. Very little is visible on the surface. There are five of us in the middle of the site, looking around. The area is vast, open and amazing – and there aren’t many open spaces like this in Israel. We’re surrounded by ruins, plus a few dilapidated structures remaining from the Bedouin village of Halsa, which stood here until 1948. Over the years, many of the stones from the ancient city of Haluza were taken for construction work in Gaza and Be’er Sheva.

Haluza, on the ancient Incense Route (aka Spice Route), was one of the first cities established by the Nabataeans in the third century B.C.E. The city reached its peak during the second and third centuries, when it became a central and capital city in the early Byzantine era. Excavations of Haluza have revealed Byzantine churches, a theater, wells, cemeteries, workshops and a tower that was part of the city’s walls.

Some of the ruins at Haluza in the northern Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
A well at the center of Haluza.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Yoash Limon, tourism director in Mitzpeh Ramon and our guide for the day, takes a few minutes to locate Haluza’s large theater – or at least, the area where it was found, as it has been deliberately covered to protect it from vandalism and erosion. He explains that there’s a big gap between the little we are seeing and the importance of this ancient city.

It was located on a main artery of the Incense Route, on the banks of the Besor Stream, benefited from deep wells and was close enough to civilization. This was where travelers came to refresh themselves and celebrate the end of the arduous, desert part of their journey.

It may be hard to believe but Haluza, which looks totally abandoned, is a global cultural asset, . There’s no sign or indicator that this place is a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.

The Incense Route in Israel.

If that weren’t enough, it’s also in the middle of an firing zone. Entrance is forbidden during the week. The road to it is marked with military codes on concrete blocks, and not with signs typical of tourist attractions.

There are many travelers (including this one) who plan their trips based on ’s World Heritage List. They’d be shocked if they visited Haluza. This is a global asset that refuses to recognize its own worth.

An hour after the visit started, I felt like banging my head against one of the large boulders scattered around the site. I remembered all those times I’d driven hours on winding roads to reach sites that travel writers like to call “a lost city.” The only time I’d visited Haluza – a truly lost city – was during my military service, which ended decades ago.

We drove from Haluza to Khirbet Saadoun and Ruheibeh (aka the Rehovot of the Negev), some 10 kilometers southwest of Haluza. As in Haluza, you see a lot of relics in these ancient Byzantine settlements and only traces of the wealth that once existed. They have endless waves of huge boulders, remnants of the impressive structures and magnificent churches that flourished here some 1,500 years ago.

The sites are not organized, and you need a lot of determination and guidance to understand what you’re actually looking at. There’s some magic in that, because every visit is an independent discovery. However, the feeling lingers that we’re being wasteful – that we’ve been given treasures and aren’t enjoying them. Haluza and Ruheibeh are a thousand times more than what we can see.

Impressive ceremony, then bubkes

Huge camel convoys traversing the spice route would carry valuable merchandise like frankincense and myrrh, used to prepare incense – a vital part of ancient worship. The caravans made their way from Oman and Yemen to the Gaza Port, and from there the products were shipped to Europe. There were dozens of stops en route that provided security, equipment, water, food, shelter and other services to the traders.

One of the structures at Shivta, part of the Incense Route in Israel.Credit: Moshe Gilad

Petra, a major Jordanian city on the route, has become a site that draws tourists from all over the world. In Israel, the stops were Moa, Katzra, Nekarot, Saharonim, Mahmal, Grafon, Avdat, Shivta, Haluza and Mamshit.

In 2005, at an impressive ceremony at Avdat, the Incense Route and the four Nabataean cities were declared World Heritage Sites. The feeling at that optimistic ceremony was that redemption had finally come to the Negev.

After that, I naively believed that the area would flourish and the Incense Route was set to become Israel’s very own Silk Road. Tourists would flock to the four cities and the smaller stops along the entire Israeli route, bringing local pride, livelihoods and well-being to the Negev’s residents.

A sign for tourists in the Negev, including a direction to the "spices road." Credit: Moshe Gilad

Little has happened since then. The much ballyhooed link between Petra and the Gaza Port came to nothing. Certain parts of the route – primarily those close to the Arava Desert or to the organized sites at Shivta, Mamshit and Avdat – were developed. But few Israelis or foreigners have traveled the Incense Route in recent years. The roads are only suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles. The route, parts of which I traveled this time and a few times in the past, is fascinating. But it hasn’t become the desirable tourist route we dreamed of.

Now, though, the Tourism Ministry is developing and promoting what it calls the “southern product,” with the Incense Route supposedly part of that. The dream is that millions will land at Ramon Airport near Eilat, and from there tour the Negev, including the spice route.

Zeev Temkin, who for years headed the Negev Tourism Development Administration and the planning team to develop the Incense Route, tells Haaretz that the initiative for the route’s economic and tourism development originally came from Shimon Peres. The dream was to do this in cooperation with Jordan, following the peace treaty between the two countries in 1994. But Temkin says that all fell apart when Moshe Katsav was appointed tourism minister in 1996.

A four-wheel drive in the Negev. The only mode of transport (other than camels) for completing the Incense Route.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
A well at one of the ancient settlements in the Negev. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Just add orchard

Shahar Shilo, tourism director for the Ramat Negev Regional Council, has a rare talent for description. He manages to excite the imagination of anyone he speaks to. I’ve traveled the length of the Incense Route with him before, and it was as if I could smell the frankincense and myrrh. He sounds optimistic about the future of the route, primarily because of the recent agreements signed with the Gulf states.

Now, Shilo explains, tourists can finally travel the entire length of the Incense Route. They wouldn’t necessarily want to do so on the back of a camel, since the route is 1,500 kilometers long. But they will be able to fly to Oman, Yemen (OK, maybe not Yemen just yet) or Saudi Arabia, and from there make their way along the route by air, sea, car – or indeed on the back of a camel. At the end of the journey, he says, the traveler would receive a coveted certificate confirming that they had made the entire trip along the Incense Route.

Guide Yoash Limon in Haluza.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
The Incense Route stop at Saharonim.Credit: Moshe Gilad

What’s missing for him is an actual orchard containing frankincense and myrrh, where visitors could walk, smell and collect those ancient spices used to make incense.

I ask Shilo why so few people are familiar with the Israeli Incense Route. “The development didn’t succeed because it was stopped immediately after the road was made passable to four-wheel drive vehicles,” he says. “I assume that only 4,000 people a year do the route. The potential is many times greater than that. As a UNESCO site, that’s an embarrassing statistic. The reasons are partly political – the second intifada, the cooling of relations with Jordan – and are partially related to a lack of infrastructure. The route has gone into hibernation. To date, there isn’t a single hotel along it. But the time has come to wake it up,” he says.

“Desert tourism has become fashionable,” Shilo continues. “The Tourism Ministry, especially since the appointment of Amir Halevi as director general, is pushing the ‘southern product.’ The Incense Route is a star of that plan as a link between the Arava and the Negev hills. What we need to develop now are hiking and camel trips along segments of the route.”

The remains of a large Byzantine church at the "Rehovot of the Negev."Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
An acacia tree between Haluza and the "Rehovot of the Negev." Sometimes, the lack of tourists has its benefits.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

And what will happen to Haluza? It’s a big site, perhaps too big. Maybe the solution for this amazing site would be to offer a visit that would include an archaeological dig as part of the experience. The visitor would feel like a partner in excavating the site. There could also be a digital, 3-D rendition of Haluza in its glory days.

Between Haluza and Ruheibeh, there’s a huge spiraling acacia tree that provides a lot of shade. We sat and drank coffee beneath it. Suddenly, the Incense Route, undeveloped, raw and attracting only a few tourists, looked perfect. It won’t spur the economy or provide jobs anytime soon, but it offers space and quiet. Some 2,000 years ago, the Nabataeans understood its economic potential much better than us.

A deer in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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