Mitzpe Ramon and the Makhtesh

Mitzpe Ramon is a small town in the Negev desert (in southern Israel), built on the edge of a unique geological phenomenon- a “Makhtesh“.

Mitzpe Ramon, marked on the map. Photo: Google maps.

If you’d rather skip Wikipedia’s explanation of the Makhtesh, here’s my quick version: A Makhtesh is a form of crater. The difference is that while a regular crater is usually formed by the impact of a meteorite, a Makhtesh is formed by erosion.

 This is the explanation usually given by tour-guides inIsrael:

 This is a “Krembo” (It’s probably also a phenomenon unique to Israel). At the bottom of the Krembo is a cookie, the filling is marshmallow fluff and the coating is chocolate.

Imagine a mountain built similarly to this Krembo. The outer crust of the earth is hard, while underneath there is a layer of softer chalk. Israel is sitting on one of the Earth’s major fault lines- the Great Rift Valley, or the Syrian-African Rift Valley, which runs for over 6000 km, from northern Syria all the way to Mozambique in south-east Africa. One day, the outer ‘chocolate’ coating cracks as a result of tectonic movements. Now water can seep into the softer layer of chalk, slowly washing it away over millions of years until a harder layer of rock underneath is uncovered. The harder ‘chocolate’ casing crumbles and what’s left is a Makhtesh.

Aerial view of Mitzpe Ramon and the Makhtesh. Photo: Google Maps.

The Ramon Makhtesh is shaped like an elongated heart. It is 40 km long (almost 25 miles), 9 km wide (5.6 miles) at its widest point and 400 meters deep (1300 feet). The upper tip of the ‘heart’ forms a mountain called Mount Ardon.

The whole area serves as a magnet for hikers, and climbing Mount Ardon is a worthwhile hike (if you’re in shape). The walk and climb from the nearest car-park and back takes approximately half a day, and the view from the top is magnificent.

There are many marked hiking trails in the area, including the “Israel Trail”, an 800 km trail that goes across the whole country from north to south, which goes through Mitzpe Ramon and the Makhtesh

Mount Ardon at sunrise.

View from the top of Mount Ardon.

The desert

When one thinks of the desert, the first thing that comes to mind is heat. It is true that it can be quite hot under the scorching summer sun in the Negev desert. It can also be quite comfortable on a winter day, and freezing cold on a winter night. However, what defines a desert is not the temperature, but the lack of rainfall. Mitzpe Ramon has an annual average of 80 mm of rainfall (and an occasional smattering of snow). In comparison, the average annual precipitation in NY is 1268 mm; in London 601 mm; in Berlin 570 mm; in Sydney 1213 mm; in Tel Aviv 532 mm and in Jerusalem 554 mm. But even with as little as 80 mm of rain, plant life in the Makhtesh is quite lively. During rainstorms, rainwater flows in flash floods along riverbeds and seeps deep into the parched earth, where desert plants thrive. Water can actually be extracted from some plants in case of an emergency (but that’s not something I would suggest trying).

The meaty leaves of this bush, called “Zugan” in Hebrew (Zygophyllum dumosum) are full of water.

Plant life in the desert.

Ibexes

A lot of the wildlife in this area is nocturnal, but one animal is active in the daytime and stands out in particular: Herds of ibexes roam freely around Mitzpe Ramon, and residents may frequently see ibexes sitting in the neighborhood park and munching on the grass. They have amazing climbing skills and blend in naturally with the surrounding landscape. They have grown accustomed to seeing humans and do not seem very afraid of them.

Ibexes on the grass.

A young female ibex comes up to us.

The female ibex, staring hopefully at my box of cookies. They should NOT be eating cookies.

The female ibex.

 Observing the stars and other attractions

Mitzpe Ramon is also home to an observatory. The darkness of the desert provides an ideal setting for stargazing. The night sky is breathtaking, and one can see stars that are normally invisible to city dwellers. Mitzpe Ramon actually hosts stargazing festivals for enthusiasts during meteor showers, when hundreds of people flock to the Makhtesh to watch the spectacle.

The desert bathed in moonlight. Yes, those white dots are stars. Photo by Avi D.

 The Makhtesh also serves as a geological attraction. Geology students go there to study the various geological layers which can be seen in the walls of the Makhtesh, but also laypeople can enjoy the different colored sands: reds, greens, purples, blacks along with the more traditional shades of browns and yellows. Filling small glass bottles with layers of different colored sands is a popular tourist attraction.

 Mitzpe Ramon now has three hotels. The most expensive of the three hotels was recently built at the very edge of the Makhtesh, at the end of the promenade. Some of the rooms have small individual pools for cooling off and enjoying the desert view.

An ibex on the promenade.

To the west of the promenade is a small hill known as “Camel Mountain”, named for its distinctive camel-like shape. It serves as a good, yet windy spot for enjoying the view of the Makhtesh.

“Camel Mountain”

Mitzpe Ramon has a population of almost 4,800 residents. The tiny town has one supermarket, two pizza parlors, three gas stations and some other shops (I think the pizza parlors are the most important, though). It is also home to a high school Yeshiva for boys as well as a Hesder Yeshiva [I explained what a Hesder Yeshiva is in this post, in the second section, in the bullet beginning with the words “The modern Orthodox community”] and many of the residents are connected in some way to the two Yeshivas. Many of the other residents are Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. Many of Mitzpe Ramon’s residents are quite poor.

View of the Makhtesh from the promenade.

Sunset in the Makhtesh.

A herd of ibex near the promenade.

* All photos in this post were taken by myself or by family members, unless stated otherwise.

Have any questions or comments about this post? Please feel free to leave a comment!

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One comment

  1. […] variety of climates for such a small country. In my previous post in this corner, I wrote about Mitzpe Ramon and the Makhtesh in the Negev desert. While nearly half of Israel is desert, things get steadily greener as you […]

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