It’s been hard for me recently during the lockdown to write about places I can’t even dream of visiting. But now, with the end of the lockdown in sight and vaccinations happening at a dizzying pace, the occasionally warm days of February give me hope of going somewhere sometime. In normal years, during the month of February there is a winter festival called Red South, celebrating the wildflowers in the Western Negev (especially the red flowers). So I decided to write a February series exploring some of the popular sites in this area, famous for their flowers, but also containing a lot of history.
The Pura Nature Reserve is a terrific place to see beautiful wildflowers and hike during February. If you venture into the interior, away from the crowds of people stopping on their way south to capture nature with their cameras, you will be rewarded with beautiful vistas, modern and ancient history. I explored there 2 years ago with a good friend on a warm, bright February day.
The most popular attraction – wildflowers – is accessible 5 minutes from the parking lot off the main highway. The normally yellow-brown Negev landscape is brilliant green during the late winter and feels more like Ireland than Israel. Wildflowers carpet the hillside and wild wheat is flowering on its stalks.
Pressing inland past the seasonal lake, one continues through some large trees along the side of the Pura stream and comes to the ruins of a bridge. This bridge is part of the railroad system built over 100 years ago. The Turks, in anticipation of war and incursion from the British in Egypt, built a rail line stretching to Beer Sheva in 1914. It was completed and the Beer Sheva station, across the street from my house, was inaugurated in 1915. The troops and supplies, transported over this bridge, did not stop the British, who captured Beer Sheva on October 31, 1917 and went on to take Jerusalem a few months later. The smaller gauge, introduction of the automobile and terrorism all contributed to the cessation of railroad usage during the British Mandate; and this bridge was left to crumble.
After passing the remains of the bridge, you see in front of you Tel Nagila which rises above the surrounding countryside. The tel was excavated in 1962-1963 as a possible site of the ancient Gath from the Bible. Archaeologist Ruth Amiram found settlement stretching back to the Chalcolithic Period in the deepest layers of the tel, built on a natural hill and next to the stream bed where the water table is quite high. During the Early Bronze period her team found large Arad-style houses, and then the tel was unoccupied for 700-800 years.
The Intermediate Bronze (1750-1550 BCE) brought the largest-scale settlement with the entire tel surrounded by a large wall and filled with houses, streets, and public buildings. During the Late Bronze period settlement waned and the meager remains point to it being, at best, a peripheral town. Much to Amiram’s chagrin, there were almost no finds from the time of the Philistines, negating the possibility that this was the biblical Gath. (Today biblical Gath is identified with Tel Tzafit.)
A 7th century BCE small farm was uncovered at the base of the tel, on the banks of the Shikma stream, but no signs of settlement were found on the tel itself. Hundreds of years later, a caravansary, including a large central courtyard and surrounding rooms, from the Mameluke era was built which occupied over 1/3 of the area of the tel. During Israel’s Independence War in 1948, the tel was an important observation point for the Israeli army, protecting the airstrip at nearby Ruchama.
There’s not much to see on the tel from the archaeological work in the 1960’s. However, the topographical advantage, the impetus for building a city in the first place, retains its allure today for those who hike up and are rewarded with a 360 degree view of the beautiful western Negev. Hopefully, we will soon be able to explore the nature and the history of this enchanting place!