Abandoned towns, the vanishing Dead Sea and the country's longest border: Route 90 is a gateway to a forgotten Israel
If you make no stops along the way, it will take you approximately six hours to drive the entire length of Route 90, connecting Israel’s northern and southern edges. It’s a journey of 480 kilometers (300 miles), comparable to driving from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia – but on a winding road with one lane in each direction.
Along the way, you’ll see some of the most extraordinary places Israel has to offer: sites where Jesus delivered miracles in the New Testament; deserted mosques and cemeteries, silently telling another people’s story; old battlefields, some from biblical times, others from the modern wars of Israel; and breathtaking views, ranging from snowcapped mountains up north to glistening sand dunes in the desert.
The real story, however, is the communities and people you’ll meet on the way. Far from the high-tech economy of Tel Aviv, there are struggling so-called “development towns” created to absorb immigrants decades ago, and left to fend for themselves; old kibbutzim, once the proud symbol of a young country, today fighting to remain relevant; and thousands of Palestinians, living under occupation and reliant on this road to travel between settlements and checkpoints.
Last fall, as Israel emerged from a year of lockdowns and fighting, we sent Haaretz photographer Daniel Tchetchik on a mission: to bring the story of Route 90, which straddles Israel’s eastern border with Jordan, and with it, the story of Israel's past, present and future.
Lebanon border to the West Bank
Route 90 begins here with little fanfare at a small roundabout in a residential neighborhood. South of that roundabout, a long road stretches ahead of you, willing to take you all the way to Eilat, if you wish. But north of it, there is nowhere to go: you are within short walking distance from the Blue Line marking Israel’s border with Lebanon. The view here is spectacular: tall mountains filled with greenery, and to the east a snow-covered Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in both Israel and neighboring Syria.
This is where our journey begins.
In Israel’s first two decades, this area was Israel’s frontier, facing the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights and often bombarded from above. But today, it is Israel’s “vacationland,” full of impressive archaeological sites, beautiful natural sites and small kibbutzim that operate hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. It is most famous for attracting hundreds of thousands of birds on their annual migration route to Africa, but has recently been hit hard by a man-made “natural” disaster following the spread of avian flu in the region.
It is hard to think of a place in Israel that has more potential than Tiberias, the only city located directly on the Sea of Galilee. It is incredibly rich in history even by the high standards of Israel: the city was founded by the Romans in the year 20 B.C.E.; features prominently in the New Testament; was home to a thriving Jewish community for centuries, and was developed and expanded under Muslim and Ottoman rule. Today, though, it is a poor place, struggling to remain afloat. The potential is easy to see, but much harder to fulfill.
Sea of Galilee
This so-called sea is actually a lake. But it is also something else: a barometer of the Israeli national mood. For many Israelis, news about “the state of the Kinneret” is just as important as reports about war and peace. When it fills up, usually in winter, the news brings joy and relief. When its water level plunges, so do spirits. This obsession may be outdated, since so much of Israel’s water today comes from desalination. But Israel has only one major lake – providing drinking water, leisure and also a sense of stability.
For religious Orthodox Jews, the most important cemetery in Israel is the one atop Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, where some believe a future resurrection of the dead will begin. But for secular Israelis, if there is such a thing as a sacred cemetery it is this small, crowded burial site at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Kinneret was one of the first Zionist communities set up in Ottoman Palestine. In its cemetery are buried some of the most famous figures in early Zionist history, from Rachel the Poet to labor leader Berl Katznelson.
Like so many places on this journey, Yavne’el is mentioned in the Torah, and plays an important role in Zionist history before the establishment of the State of Israel. Ten Jewish families founded this village in the early 20th century; today it is home to 4,000 people. Situated on the lower slopes of the eastern Galilee, modern-day Yavne’el is in the midst of a power struggle between its “founding” secular population and a community of Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Jews who turned the village into a main center of activity.
Pinchas Rutenberg introduced electrical power production to the Holy Land. An engineer, he worked for years to create a power station in Naharayim (literally “two rivers”), the site where the Jordan River absorbs the Yarmouk River coming in from Syria. Today, however, many Israelis probably know more about the gourmet restaurant named after him, located not far from the abandoned hydroelectric power plant, than the man himself. It’s considered one of Israel’s finest restaurants, and the location – a stone’s throw from the border with Jordan – adds to its unique appeal.
This small farming community was established in the early 1950s by Jewish immigrants who came to the nascent State of Israel from the Kurdish region of Iraq. Situated directly on the western shore of the Jordan River, Yardena seemed at the time like an important strategic point. Over the years, Israel’s border with Jordan became its most peaceful one, and the communities along it lost their standing as the country’s first line of defense. This, in turn, caused the government to invest less resources in the area.
When you wander around the center of Beit She’an, it’s hard to imagine the glorious past of this town. In the days of the Roman Empire, it was an important trading post, and the impressive archaeological remains from that period are some of the most well-preserved in Israel. The modern Beit She’an is one of Israel’s so-called development towns, built in the country’s peripheral areas in the 1950s to absorb the massive wave of aliyah from Middle Eastern and North African countries. It was constructed on the ruins of Beisan, a Palestinian village whose residents mostly fled across the river to Jordan in 1948. The remains of the old village, however, are still visible in and around the modern Israeli town, telling an often-forgotten story.
Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea
Jordan Valley and Jericho
When Route 90 crosses the Green Line, leaving Israel and entering the occupied territories, the change in scenery is hard to miss. The road is emptier here, and the distance from one population center to the next longer. There is also a constant military presence. The only city located within this long stretch of the road is Jericho, home to some 25,000 Palestinians and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. The view from the mountains above it is breathtaking, offering a panoramic view of the Dead Sea, the city, the Judean desert and neighboring Jordan. In 2021, as tourism in Israel-Palestine suffered a blow due to COVID-19, Jericho’s tourism industry discovered an old-new clientele: Israelis. Outside the city, though, the tensions of the occupation are palpable: the Palestinian communities here are among the West Bank’s poorest, and illegal Israeli outposts are eating up their agricultural lands.
Land of Monasteries
To the east of Jericho and just north of the Dead Sea, this closed military zone is a historical treasure trove. The monasteries, some of them hundreds of years old, were built here because of the proximity to Qasr al-Yahud, the site where Jesus was baptized and where the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River into their promised land.
Following the 1967 war, the monasteries were abandoned, the area around them became part of a tense border region and was filled with barbed wire and landmines. The old buildings are beautiful, but to visit them one has to coordinate with the Israeli military. We tried for several days to seek a special authorization for Daniel Tchetchik to visit the site. But after receiving no answer, we decided to try something else: simply go there, look for a hole in the fence and enter. Tchetchik wandered around the place for hours; no one noticed him.
The Hebrew name of this river, the longest of the Judean Desert rivers, includes the word “stairs,” reflecting a series of dangerous waterfalls on its path from the mountains to the Dead Sea. Walking it is a challenging hike, even thought the river is dry most of the year; when there’s rain in the area, powerful floods can turn deadly in a second. At the end of the river, however, things are much calmer. Nahum, pictured here, stopped for a refreshing dip, right before the pure waters of the river meet the salty Dead Sea.
In the 1970s and ’80s, you could still drive on Route 90, look out the window and see the shores of the Dead Sea almost within reach. Today, driving on the winding road that snakes along the shrinking salt lake, the water looks farther away. Where tourists once covered themselves in mineral-rich soil under the baking sun, today there are dangerous sinkholes – leading to closures of once-popular beaches. The Dead Sea is receding, dying out, vanishing. It’s a process that has been taking place for decades, but has accelerated in recent years. It is still one of Israel’s most popular tourist attractions, if only for officially being the lowest point on the face of the Earth. But its future looks bleak unless urgent steps are taken to save it, starting yesterday.
On the southern edge of the Dead Sea, Neveh Zohar is a tiny community, home to less than 100 people, who enjoy one of the most beautiful views in the country. It’s located within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, just to the south of the Green Line. Before the construction of Route 90, Neveh Zohar and neighboring Kibbutz Ein Gedi existed in almost complete isolation, connected almost by a thread to the rest of the country. Route 90 opened a way to travel to these communities from Jerusalem via the occupied shores of the Dead Sea. Today, families looking for a “quality-of-life-community” in a unique location are building villas here.
The biblical story in Genesis 19 is horrifying. Fleeing Sodom after a warning from two angels, Lot and his family were told not to look back at their home city. But Lot’s wife stopped and turned her gaze backward – and as a result immediately turned into a pillar of salt. In the mountains of Sodom, overlooking the Dead Sea, a unique rock formation that looks like a tall person has been named after her, drawing thousands of visitors annually. Further south from this fascinating spot, Route 90 intersects with Route 25 – Israel’s longest east-to-west highway, which starts at the edge of the Dead Sea and ends on Israel’s border with Gaza.
The Arava Desert and Eilat
Israel’s Arava Valley covers almost a third of Route 90’s entire length. It is the least populated part of the road: From Hazeva, a small community founded in 1965, all the way to the outskirts of Eilat, there are only some 15,000 people living there. The road is vast and empty here, with dry riverbeds on either sides of it and tall mountains rising from both the Israeli side to the west and the Jordanian side to the east.
From the road, this part of Israel looks like the land of eternal summer, a slogan once used to advertise winter vacations in the Arava. If you take a right or left turn into one of the small, agricultural communities along the way, such as Ein Yahav, you’ll be surprised to find fields and greenhouses where Israel’s best tomatoes, peppers and watermelons are grown. But from Route 90, as you head south, you will barely see any hint of this.
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, a new Israeli community was created in the early 2000s, part of a government-led attempt to bring more people, especially young families, to the Arava region. Each new community here can house at most several hundred residents needs a large investment from the state for infrastructure, for roads, water, electricity and more. Tzukim is home to fewer than 400 people, and in recent years has become a popular weekend destination for residents of central Israel looking for a quiet getaway.
The woman pictured is named Zohar and she is standing atop one of the Samar sand dunes, which were formed thousands of years ago in the middle of this desert region. The dunes offer a beautiful view stretching south toward Eilat and east into Jordan. The most striking feature is the vast, quiet emptiness: in a small, crowded country like Israel, many visitors are surprised to suddenly experience such solitude and quiet. Near these sand dunes are two kibbutzim: the older Yotvata, founded in the 1950s and famous for its successful dairy products; and the newer Kibbutz Samar, home to less than 300 people and popular among all sorts of New Age soul-searchers from Israel and abroad.
The Timna Valley, north of Eilat, is rich in copper and has been a mining center for centuries, perhaps as far back as the days of the Bible. Over the years, Israeli governments have made several grandiose plans to develop tourism here, based on the extraordinary geological features of the area and its fascinating history. In 2019, a new airport was opened in Timna, replacing the old airport of Eilat. Still, like with so many other stops along Route 90, there is a sense of immense, unfulfilled potential here, of beauty and neglect. A bit to the south, right before entering Eilat, an unmarked turn east will bring you to one of the road’s most surprising stops: salt lakes that attract hundreds of bright pink flamingos every year.
The city that dreamed of being the Israeli Las Vegas, or maybe Nice, is today suffering due to two years of low tourism because of the pandemic. But even before this latest crisis, Eilat – the most remote city in Israel – was struggling. International tourists prefer the cheaper resort hotels of Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh. And many Israelis in recent years have discovered the splendid hotels of neighboring Aqaba, the Jordanian city sharing the same coastline as Eilat but offering better vacation opportunities. Eilat remains an important city in Israel mostly for its seaport, which is Israel’s largest in terms of incoming cargo. Most of that cargo ends up on large trucks that carry it north into Israel’s population centers – driving, at least some of the way, on Route 90.
End of the road
After passing Eilat’s downtown and hotel strip, the road continues just a little further, until it suddenly ends with a checkpoint and border crossing: you’ve reached the end of Israel. Your only way forward now is to cross into Egypt. If you’ve stayed with us until this point, you’ve just completed an incredible journey – from the green, cold mountains of the Galilee to the always-sunny, perpetually warm beaches of the Red Sea. In the past, when Israel controlled the Sinai Peninsula, Route 90 was extended further along the coast. Today, though, it ends at the border. If you want to continue from there, you will be traveling on Egypt’s Taba-Nuweibaa road, which also has a fascinating story – but we’ll save that one for another time.
A political road is born
When you ask a navigation app for driving instructions from Metula, Israel’s northernmost town, to Eilat, the country’s southernmost city, it suggests using several roads – but not Route 90, which runs directly from the former to the latter.
That’s understandable: navigation apps are aimed at saving time, and driving the entirety of Route 90 is a time-consuming experience. One holdup or accident, two stops for coffee and gas, one bathroom break, and suddenly your estimated driving time is more than seven hours.
It will take you past the Sea of Galilee, past the Dead Sea – the lowest place on Earth. You will also see one of the most surprising natural phenomena in Israel: salt lakes that attract bright pink flamingos. If you have the time, this trip is more than worth it.
Until 1967, Route 90 didn’t formally exist. Instead, Israel had two “eastern border roads”: one stretching from the Lebanon border, alongside the Jordan River, all the way to the point where official Israel ends and the West Bank begins; and a second road that connected the Israeli-controlled parts of the Dead Sea to the southern port of Eilat.
After Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, a fateful decision was made: to connect the northern and southern “border roads” into one long route that would extend all the way from Metula, bordering Lebanon, to Eilat, bordering Egypt.
That’s how today’s Route 90 was born.
The motivation behind Route 90 was political, according to Prof. Arnon Soffer, Israel’s premier geographer: “When Israel took over the territories, it wanted to mark a new border with Jordan. Connecting the two roads was the way to do it,” he explains.
Route 90, however, is not a completely artificial creation. “It goes along the Great Rift Valley," Soffer notes. "Theoretically, if you continued straight north after Metula, you would eventually reach Homs in Syria, and later the ancient city of Gaziantep, Turkey. Maybe one day we’ll be able to make that drive, when there’s peace.”
Soffer doesn’t see that happening anytime soon, which is why he supports holding onto the occupied Jordan Valley – “a strategic necessity for Israel’s security.” His brother died fighting the Jordanians there in 1948.
But the Jordan Valley is also home to tens of thousands of Palestinians, including the residents of Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world. For them, Route 90 is a main traffic artery but also a daily reminder of Israel’s occupation: the road is completely controlled by the Israeli military.
Across Jordan’s parallel version of Route 90 – a long road stretching along the kingdom’s border with Israel – there are more than a million people, many of them descendants of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in the 1948 and 1967 wars. On the Israeli side, meanwhile, towns and cities along Route 90 are home to fewer than 250,000 people, and many of them have been suffering population decline for decades. “Government after government chose to neglect this part of the country,” Soffer laments, “and the public doesn’t seem to care."
The road to Israel’s backyard
If there is a “left-behind” Israel, it is located along this border road. When you look at Daniel Tchetchik’s photographs from his journey, you will sometimes find it hard to believe they were taken in Israel and not in some remote corner of America. An image of a backyard from one tiny agricultural community south of Tiberias reminded me of West Virginia. Further to the south, his pictures of the mountain ranges above the Dead Sea look like they were taken in the Arizona desert. This is no accident: Tchetchik, who grew up in the U.S., mentions the American tradition of traveling photographers such as Robert Frank and Alec Soth as a main source of inspiration, which is clearly evident here.
For Tchechick, this is one piece of a 25-year-long journey to document the personal aspects of major global stories – immigration, climate change, conflict – and what those look like in different parts of the world. That journey has taken him, among other places, to frozen Scandinavian towns in the middle of winter, and to the shores of the Mediterranean where immigrants fight for access to a better life.
His mission statement is to stray away from obvious representations, political symbols and recognizable sights, and to focus instead on what lies beneath the surface, behind a closed door, on the sidelines of a well-known location.
This background made Route 90 a natural choice for him to focus on. In a “post-truth” era, there is no substitute to seeing and being in a location, and documenting the truth you see, hear and feel in that place.
This chapter of Tchetchik’s 25-year visual investigation of local lands and peoples deals with the influences of human activity and the climate on a landscape, and the search for identity and meaning in a constantly changing society. The journey shows a unique point of view on Israel’s contemporary surroundings through the photographer’s insightful and sensitive gaze on this forgotten highway.