Whether your plans are taking you to Be’er Sheva, or you’re just kicking around the Negev, consider a stop at the Yatir Forest – a 40,000-dunam (10,000-acre) surprise package blending heritage, botany and arid-land ecology.
If you have about an hour to spare, the Yatir Ruins in the heart of the forest are an off-the-beaten-track site dating back about 1,500 years. That’s young compared to the name itself – Yatir is where two of David’s mighty men, Ira and Gareb, were born (2 Sam 23:38). There you’ll find remnants of homes and caves used as dwellings, tombs, cisterns, a columbarium (a cave with niches used to raise doves), a winepress and a church, all from Byzantine times.
At the top of the hill on which the ruins sit are the tombs of two Muslim notables. Legend has it that one of them, Sheikh Atir did not abandon his village despite drought and fires that destroyed its orchards. Folk tradition has it that a visit to the sheikh’s tomb is a surefire cure for infertility.
Near the tomb you’ll find crushing stones from an ancient olive press and, nearby, a large plastered pool.
The church is of the basilical type – a main hall divided by two rows of columns. You may have seen ruins of this general type of church elsewhere on your Israel visit, for example, at Avdat in the Negev or Kursi on the Sea of Galilee, but one unique element here is that some of the columns have Corinthian capitals engraved with a cross and others that are commonly found in architecture of the Nabateans – the ancient masters of the desert from earlier, Roman times. This church had beautiful mosaics that have, sadly, been covered up to preserve them. One of them featured 23 bands with magical symbols and saints’ names.
Archaeologists also discovered a strange symbol in the center of the church floor: a cross topped by a ladder. This symbol is very rare and apparently denoted the site marking Adam’s burial place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Some scholars think it was adopted by a group of monks who didn’t toe the general theological line. A mosaic inscription dates the church to 632 CE, and even though the artist’s signature – “Zacharis, son of Yeshi, the builder” – is one of the elements that is now covered this is a good place to salute his efforts.
On the hill, near the ruins of the church, you’ll see rough stone fences used as ancient corrals, and channels, troughs and cisterns hewn into the bedrock.
If you happen to be visiting the Yatir Forest in October or November, you’re in for a special treat: Follow the Crocus Trail and you’ll find one of Israel’s most beautiful wildflowers. Its clusters of creamy yellow flowers, blooming brightly at a time when the surroundings are still dry, will tell you at a glance why local botanists called the crocus helmonit, a name that comes from the Hebrew word for egg yolk.
There are five entrances to the park, with wooden signs featuring a map of its trails, and a box with an informational pamphlet. Consider packing a picnic lunch (you can generally find everything you need at the convenience stores at most gas stations along the way).
You can get to the Yatir Forest via road 31, the road to Arad, which heads southeast from the Shoket Junction. You can also get there from road 60, turning east on road 317.