A Desert Adventure in Search of a Path Linking Two Biblical Kingdoms

An expedition of scientists and artists, adventurers all, embarked on a four-day desert journey. Their goal: to retrace an ancient trade route that connected the Kingdom of Judah to the Kingdom of Edom

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 “The desert has the ability to preserve testimony for thousands of years, even minor items like pottery shards that would never have survived in a northern country," says Cohen-Sasson.
“The desert has the ability to preserve testimony for thousands of years, even minor items like pottery shards that would never have survived in a northern country," says Cohen-Sasson.Credit: Eyal Biton
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

“This story is filled with adventures and ordeals, laughter and tears, blistered feet and pleasant hours of reading the Bible.” – “In the Footsteps of Kings and Rebels,” by Yohanan Aharoni and Beno Rothenberg, 1960

“After the important organs – brain, heart, lungs and liver – were removed and embalmed in canopic jars, it was necessary to line the stomach cavity so that it would not decay over time,” the botanist and student of medicinal herbs Nissim Krispil told the expedition of scientists and artists who huddled around him at the point where the prodigious dry riverbed of Nahal Hemar first became visible.

“The mummy was placed in salt that the Pharaohs mined in Wadi Natrun in Egypt. The salt dried the skin, which shriveled until it turned black. The stomach was plastered on the outside and inside with pitch, which played a central role in the 70-day mummification process. The kofer [pitch], also known as hemar [clay] and asphalt, which according to the Bible was also used to seal Noah’s ark, was brought from the Dead Sea, where black stains of asphalt could still be seen floating on the surface until the 1960s, and from asphalt gushers that were located in Nahal Hemar and were the source of its name.”

A pause for dramatic effect. The tall speaker, well-versed in the theatrical flourishes that mark a good storyteller, turned his back to the abyss and extended his arms as though to embrace the primal desert landscape and evoke from the recesses of time early sojourners on ancient trade routes.

Archaeologist Eli Cohen-Sasson. His biblical appearance got him roles in evangelical films during his student years.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“Imagine for yourselves,” he said in a low, secretive voice, “the camel convoys passing here thousands of years ago, loaded with pitch, on their way to the Arava, and from there to the Egyptian death industry.”

From his knapsack, the archaeologist Dr. Eli Cohen-Sasson, who planned the desert route on which the expedition trod this past February for four days, pulled out the book written toward the end of the 1950s by the archaeologists Yohanan Aharoni and Beno Rothenberg, in which they set forth their version of the discovery of the Edom Way, the route that connected the Kingdom of Edom and the Kingdom of Judah.

“That book was my bible for a long time,” says Cohen-Sasson, who sports a silver-gray beard and has a luxuriant forelock to match. The young scholar’s biblical look actually helped him fund his university studies. “A woman I met by chance at a gas station told me, ‘You’re exactly what I’m looking for’ – a remark that’s impossible to resist. It turned out that she was casting films that reconstructed biblical scenes for American Evangelicals. I have no acting ability, the settings and texts were at the level of trailers for porn films, but hey, other students sweated as waiters for pennies and I got 1,500 shekels to play one of King David’s youths, or – the peak of my career – to play Jacob. I stepped into the past immediately.”

His fondness for treks and desert vistas led him to become an archaeologist of paths, especially of ancient paths that crisscross desert landscapes and tend to be hidden from the eye and obscure to most people nowadays. “Behind every thing there is a story,” he says, in an effort to explain his choice and the essence of the research.

The caves of Nahal Hemar.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“Some people are drawn to bigger stories – revolutionary events that occurred in permanent settlements that became large archaeological sites. But for me it is no less exciting to arrive at a road and find shards from a certain period, and then conjure up the life of the people who traversed the region. They would have been away from home for long periods, but would have played an important role in the global economic system. I’m interested in the connection between people and the environment, and I try to understand the factors that influence the decision about where the sole of your foot treads and which route to choose.”

What discoveries can be made in this way?

“The desert is amazing, because it has the ability to preserve testimony for thousands of years, even minor items like pottery shards that would never have survived in a northern country. From them one can glean the period – Bronze, Iron, Muslim or other; but what interests me more than the testimony is trying to understand whether the road that became a fixture on the ground is consistent with the model of the ideal road I had tried to predict.

“When I examine a road, I check the point of departure and destination; I examine the topography: what the shortest and most efficient distance is in relation to the gradient and the effort required; and I consider variable environmental factors such as water sources along the route. In some cases, the actual road matches the fastest and easiest route, but when it doesn’t – and the people who walked these roads were well acquainted with the region – the human factor comes into play. Deviations from the ideal road might indicate, for example, geopolitical changes, such as part of the route having been conquered by a strong power, or simply unpredictable human caprices. For example, a person who thinks that a section of the road is cursed because, say, their camel was bitten by a snake or their father died on it, might deviate from it even if there is no apparent logic to the bypass.”

Credit: Shani Avivi

The term “Edom road” or “way of Edom” first appears in the Bible in the Book of Kings, when the kings of Judah and Israel seek to go to war against a coalition of kings from the east. “Without getting into the debate over the historical accuracy of the biblical text,” Cohen-Sasson says, “we are talking – also based on archaeological findings – about a period of 400 to 500 years in which, exceptionally and rarely, no strong power is dominant in the region. Throughout most of recorded history, great powers dominated the Land of Israel. However, at this time, beginning in 1200 BCE, no such power is in control here, so small, local kingdoms were able to stand tall and develop a national consciousness.

“In the case of entities like Judah and Edom, obviously there are roads that connect them,” he continues. “Local goods are carried on this road – minerals from the Dead Sea, asphalt and salt – along with products from remote eastern kingdoms, such as perfumes and spices. An extensive network of local roads develops: roads of kingdoms and international imperial roads that are interconnected. But what impelled Aharoni and Rothenberg, the rock stars of Israeli archaeology during the country’s first decades, was the desire to trace the features of the road that are mentioned in the Bible.”

‘Imagine for yourselves,’ said Krispil, in a low, secretive voice, ‘the camel convoys passing here thousands of years ago, loaded with pitch, on their way to the Arava and from there to the Egyptian death industry.’

At the end of the 1950s, Aharoni, who would go on to compile the “Carta Bible Atlas” and to head the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and Rothenberg, a press photographer who became a successful archaeologist at a relatively late age, led a number of research expeditions to the Judean Desert and the Negev, which at the time were uncharted regions whose trails were plied only by Bedouin shepherds. The book they published about their treks, which even today reads like a hair-raising tale of adventures, rife with sweeping romantic pathos, documents their effort to restore to modern maps the conjectured route of the Edom road.

“That night I was sitting in my study, poring over maps of the region,” wrote Rothenberg – and Cohen-Sasson read out to the present-day expedition that trod the wilderness in the wake of the fathers of Israeli archaeology. Rothenberg added: “I remembered Yohanan Aharoni’s discovery of Horvat Uza. Suddenly I found what I had been looking for. A hidden hand began to record on the map in front of me the route of an ancient road.”

A flock of sheep drinks from an ancient cistern at Horvat Uza.Credit: Ronit Vered

What the “hidden hand” wrought failed when confronted by the tests posited by modern archaeology. Indeed, it was Cohen-Sasson himself, the number-one fan of the impassioned pair of adventurers from Israel’s early days, whose research refuted their proposed route for the Edom road.

“It was an ambitious effort from the start,” Cohen-Sasson notes. “They studied the area and hypothesized a road that looked logical, but in the end they took two sites they found on the mountain – Horvat Uza and Metzad [fortress] Zohar, which today we know are from the Mamluk period and not from the biblical Bronze Age – and conjectured a route that makes no sense. The geographer Menahem Markus was the first to question their conclusions, in the 1980s, and to say that in his opinion they had conflated two roads from different periods. I continued along that line and proved that the route they had proposed was inconceivable.”

“Aharoni and Rothenberg were active in the years when the Zionist ethos sanctified the Jewish people who returned to the desert and the soil,” says expedition member Guy Bar-Oz, a professor of zooarchaeology from the University of Haifa. “The national-oriented archaeologists of the first decades held a hoe in one hand and a Torah in the other. We all tell stories in our own way. Today many of the stories focus on the environment; for Aharoni and his generation, the national ethos spoke. It’s easy to connect dots on the map and see a line when there is an agenda and when you’re looking for that line. The interpretation was more important than the facts that were discovered in the field. The turnaround occurred only two decades ago, when more scientific methods of archaeology became established.”

“We are links in a chain of knowledge,” says the archaeologist and farmer Roy Galili, who joined the expedition on day two. “Academic archaeological research is always based on the researchers who preceded us, even if we contradict their discoveries. But recent decades have seen intrinsic tension, which sometimes resembles patricide, because the archaeology of the present era is undergoing vast changes. In the past, archaeologists were quick to posit assumptions that supported the story they sought to tell, while today we have moved to working with new technologies and tools, including the ability to date stones and not only organic findings; or to decipher a genetic sequence and use advanced chemical and physical methods that change the picture.”

Bar Yerushalmi. Wanted to understand why the original researchers had wrongly interpreted the ancient road.Credit: Shani Avivi

Deceptive journeys

Nevertheless, and even though scholars believe that the route proposed by Aharoni and Rothenberg for the biblical Edom road is fundamentally mistaken, Bar Yerushalmi, the curator of the project in which a present-day research expedition trekked across desert trails, decided to follow the route laid down by the two pioneer researchers. For four days, the members of the small delegation he assembled – academic scholars and artists from different fields – followed a route similar to the one proposed by Aharoni and Rothenberg: from Nahal Zohar, adjacent to the Dead Sea estuary, to Horvat Uza, a distance of a few dozen kilometers and a climb from an elevation of minus 400 meters to plus 600 meters. Fundamentally, the idea was to understand through legwork and visually why the original researchers had erred in their interpretation of the ancient road, and what it meant to conquer a tortuous road in the premodern world by foot or astride beasts of burden.

“I called the project ‘Deceptive Journeys,’ precisely because of this unclear element that connects between concrete and imagined journeys,” Yerushalmi notes. The project had its genesis when he was in residence at the Contemporary Art Center in Arad. “Most of the artists and curators who receive a scholarship spend just a few months there,” he says. “I found myself coming back to Arad over a period of nearly two years. I understood very quickly that what interested me was the desert. More inspiration came from my encounter with Sefi Hanegbi, a person of the desert who lives on a private farm near Arad. I used to go out into the field alone, and as an urban kid with no knowledge, I was bursting with questions.

“It wasn’t clear to me what I was looking at – be it geological phenomena or plants and animals I couldn’t put a name to or whose behavior I couldn’t explain. In a certain sense, putting together the expedition – something like expeditions that set out in the past to discover new worlds – was a way to assemble a dream team that would decipher the world that had been revealed to me. And I think I’m not alone in understanding next to nothing when venturing into the field. Nowadays, hardly anyone hikes through the desert for a few days and discovers its secrets, but if we want to preserve our last remaining wild areas, acquaintanceship and knowledge are the key.

“This journey,” adds Yerushalmi, “is an attempt to crossmatch points of view of professionals from different fields in order to draw the general public closer to the desert. The project’s final product will be an exhibition that will open in October, but if we are able to raise the necessary budget, there will also be a [phone] app that will link to the accumulated knowledge of all those experts, that actual hikers, as well as sofa trekkers, will be able to access. In the day, the ancient trade routes were a space for exchanges of knowledge and culture, and I hope, with the aid of the scientists and the artists, to create an old-new body of knowledge for those who walk them.”

Each member of the expedition saw the desert vistas and the topography of the road from their own point of view. Dr. Nurit Shtober-Zisu, a geomorphologist (a scholar studying the Earth’s surface) and head of Israel Studies department at the University of Haifa, trod the yellow wilderness and saw a blue ocean around her. “The Land of Israel is the gift of the sea, the primeval Tethys Sea,” says the researcher and teacher who is endowed with a sound theatrical sense, not to mention hammers, mallets, magnifying glasses and chemical compounds that she pulls from her knapsack in order to examine the deeper strata of rocks she encounters.

“That sea,” she elaborates, “covered the region for 150 million years, a span of time that we humans have a hard time grasping, and grain after grain that sank in it over time created the exposed rocks we see today in most parts of the country. You walk through a dry desert, but the water and the sea are relentlessly present – in the configurations of the rocks and through fossils of mollusks, conches, snails, fish and other primeval sea creatures that became extinct over the course of time but left their mark in the sedimentary rocks.”

The close connection between the desert and the sea that Shtober-Zisu pointed out at every stop along the way, fired the imagination of Sivan Kidron, an Israeli illustrator and animator who has recently been living in London. “I have the feeling that I’ll paint the desert blue. That’s as it should be,” she mumbled to herself as she dashed off sketches in her notebook, leaving behind pencils all along the way.

Like many who walk the ancient trails, the archaeologist Roy Galili – who wore short pants even during the coldest week of the year, when the temperature in the desert plunged to near zero Celsius – also wants to trace the footsteps of the dead. The subject studied by the archaeologist and worker of the land from Moshav Idan in the Arava desert is tumuli, impressive stone mounds whose purpose is not fully clear even to contemporary scholars.

“The desert is rife with riddles,” Galili says, “including inexplicable structures that we find it difficult to understand and decipher. My research focuses on the singular architecture of the tumuli, which can be five to 10 meters in diameter and up to two meters in height, and on the cult of the dead who were buried in them. The desert cultures don’t leave many material findings – the circumstances dictate a modest and spartan way of life – but burial and the cult surrounding it are exceptional. The reason might be that the nomadic shepherds who bury their dead in the desert want, after all, to leave behind something monumental, which will be there to greet them when they return to that place in the next grazing season. It’s important for them to lay a claim to the space they will be absent from for half the year, and the tumuli are usually found in visually impressive places – on clifftops or adjacent to towering waterfalls – which lend them a spiritual aura.”

Archaeological research is always based on the researchers who preceded us, even if we contradict their discoveries. But recent decades have seen intrinsic tension, which sometimes resembles patricide, because the archaeology of the present era is undergoing vast changes.

Roy Galili

Unlike the first Israeli archaeologists, the musician and stage actress Sofi Tsedaka doesn’t carry a Bible in her backpack – because the text of all five books of the Torah are inscribed in her head. “A boy or girl who grows up in the Samaritan community comes home from school and goes to the kohen [priest] for another Torah lesson,” says Tsedaka. During the past few years, she belonged to a musical ensemble that seeks to find the connection between ancient Hebrew and Arabic, on the one hand, and modern languages, by way of traditional hymns. At a young age, the daily memorization of the Torah is perceived as a burden, but it instills a rich world of knowledge that few in the secular world are familiar with today.

“The Samaritans believe in the five books of the Torah and in the Book of Joshua,” she explains. “They do not accept the mountains of Jewish interpretations that were added afterward,” says Sedaka. “My father was a man of the Torah – I remember his anger at me when I was young and I wasn’t able to recite the names of the 12 tribes – and I loved the colorful way he imparted the knowledge to us every day and transformed the Torah narratives into fascinating stories.”

Sofi Tsedaka, a member of the delegation.

Tsedaka and other musicians who were part of the expedition – including the oud and violin player Yair Dalal and the flutist Itzhak (Tzahi) Ventura – frequently played and sang at waterfalls, in caves and in cisterns, in order to test the acoustics and to allow two sound artists – Niv Gafni and Eyal Biton – to record sound landscapes, another form of environmental documentation that wasn’t part of how earlier generations perpetuated the road.

“‘Sound artist’ is a rather vague term,” Gafni says. Like Biton, he trekked four days with sophisticated recording equipment attached to him as though it were a body part. “The amplification equipment makes it possible to concentrate more on the sounds that are produced in the open, and not just to hear them, but to listen to them attentively. It doesn’t alter the hearing experience but it intensifies it – because we spend most of our time speaking or making sounds, we have almost lost the ability to listen and attend to what is happening in the world.”

I don’t know what sort of artistic product the sound artists will create in the wake of the expedition, but after four days in which Tzahi Ventura’s ney flute (a reed flute that comes in three versions: Arab, Turkish and Persian) provided an exciting musical soundtrack for the day’s events, it’s obvious that every person needs a flutist to walk behind them loyally in desert or city. The soundtrack supplied by Zohar Fresco, a tambourine player who invented a distinctive language that allows the tambourine to be a lead instrument, and not only to accompany a band, stirred the body and equally the soul. But I suspect that whether Fresco’s body is in the desert or in a New York concert hall, his soul is always in distant, tempestuous worlds of rhythm. “I’m always there, inside the beat,” he said with an embarrassed smile as I watched his fingers tapping furiously on his hip even while he rested during a break in the journey.

Yair Dalal and Tzahi Ventura.

The military camel

The third day of the journey began in the Nahal Hemar Cave, in which a skull whose rear portion bears a net-like design was found in the 1980s – a remnant of cultic rites that took place 9,000 years ago – and which is today on permanent display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; and ended at Horvot Uza, the ruins of a wayside fortress from the Iron Age, namely the biblical period. It was the finest day of all and also the most difficult, thanks to our being required to climb to high places with steep drops.

“Suffering is an inseparable part of the road,” we were told more than once by Cohen-Sasson, a mountain goat disguised as an archaeologist, “and every expedition needs a bad guy to unite the other journeypersons. I am simply sacrificing myself for the common good.”

The final ascent, to the remains of the high fortress, included a climb to a clifftop by way of a narrow, steep path along which a herd of black goats had made their way only minutes earlier. Those who completed the trying climb perched themselves at the edge of the cliff as dusk fell to watch the others in the group groaning from the effort – no joy can compare to reaching the summit and watching one’s friends gasping for air – and to view from above the tortuous trail the expedition trekked for three days, from the Dead Sea to the mountain ridge.

As though by invitation, shepherds from the Bedouin village of Al-Fur’a, who were still watering their flocks of sheep and their camels in ancient but still-functioning cisterns, began walking back to their “unrecognized” village, providing the folks on high with a magnificent show, almost like in days of yore, of convoys of livestock hoofing across the desert.

“What a wonderful animal,” murmured the musician Yair Dalal at the sight of a small caravan of camels – males, mares and calves – pacing their way home in tranquil splendor. Dalal, who currently lives in the country’s north, spent many years in Sinai and the Negev, and was also the owner of a legendary camel named Ulman, which went with him on marvelous journeys across the length and breadth of the country, and even gave him a lift one day to the Shabazi neighborhood in Tel Aviv (“I was in the camel unit in the army, and when I was discharged I redeemed Ulman, who was army property. Not a day passes when I don’t miss him and the desert”).

As on each day of the trek, the conversation swung around to the mysterious identity of those who once walked the roads and inhabited the citadels that were built along them. “We aren’t able to give them a face or an ethnic identity,” says Bar-Oz, who in recent years has been studying the more famous perfume roads from the Nabatean era, with the help of the mounds of refuse the ancients left behind.

Credit: Eyal Biton

“Archaeologists aren’t able to say who those people were, but it’s clear that there was a royal economic safety net that provided them with an infrastructure and with food from plants and animals. Mutton especially, but also meat from hunting – spiny-tailed lizards, pheasants and gazelles. We are on the fringes of the desert, on the watershed line, so you already have agriculture and crops of wheat and barley; from the country that’s populated to the north come the raw materials of Mediterranean nutrition, such as legumes and dried fruits; and among the goods being transported are exotic spices from the East.”

From a high vantage point, the Bedouin, the modern-era successors of the ancient desert trekkers, are a sight of full-blown majestic splendor; but Fur’a, a village where 8,000 people live in poverty and neglect, more accurately reflects the status and socioeconomic situation of the Bedouin in Israeli society. And hanging over the heads of the villagers is the danger of evacuation so that a phosphates plant can be built on the site.

“I am doing part of my research in an unrecognized Bedouin village near Mitzpeh Ramon,” says Dr. Noa Avriel-Avni, from the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, who studies human relations with the environment. The daughter of Hagai Avriel, who was identified with the Negev – he was one of the founders of Kibbutz Sde Boker and of the town of Mitzpeh Ramon – she is engaged with the question of “sense of place,” referring to the way we develop a connection and feeling of home with particular locales.

“The Bedouin are not permitted to wander, and are under pressure to move to the permanent towns, so they cling to the places they now inhabit in difficult conditions, and their sense of place – a basic need of the human species, one that defines us – is troubled. But I also conduct research in places like Mitzpeh Ramon and Arad, and there I discover that even people who chose to live in those towns still feel threatened by the desert’s wild and open areas. They feel at home in their private space and in their neighborhoods, but they are fearful of the gorgeous spaces that surround the communities.

“When Bar invited me to join the expedition,” continues Avriel-Avni, “I was interested in thinking about the sense of home of those who walk the roads – can a road be a place in its own right? And also to try to understand whether a journey like this, with scientists and artists, can help the desert become a magnet for more people.”

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