Sometimes you’re brought to remote but interesting places. My latest was Nitzana (נִצָּנָה, ניצנה), a youth village and communal settlement in the western Negev desert in Israel, right at the Egyptian border. It’s just about 2.5 hours from Jerusalem but feels much farther, probably because there’s not a lot happening in the near vicinity, unless you count an ancient Nabatean city and international border crossing.
We were there with a bunch of family and friends, continuing our week-long celebration of my nephew Akiva’s bar mitzvah. Why Nitzana? One of my sisters had been there recently and liked the location as well as the clean, simple and inexpensive hostel-like accommodations for our large group. Built as a youth village in 1987, it now has a population of around 50 families and serves as home for a variety of populations including disadvantaged Israeli, Arab and Bedouin youth learning science, technology and ecology education, as well as Asian students studying at an agricultural outpost of Hebrew University and a range of guests who come to stay in the new guest quarters. The place was founded by Aria Lova Eliav, a beloved Israeli who died just this year, after 89 years of life in Israel, where he moved at the age of four. Lova Eliav, as he was known, founded the city of Arad in the eastern Negev and was responsible for developing the towns of Lachish and Kiryat Gat. When he saw that the South lacked facilities for youth, and he had an idea to turn the sand dunes of Nitzana in the Western Negev into a youth village.
They weren’t the first ones to stake out the desert as a possibly creative and productive outpost. Nitzana appears to have been a station on the eastern branch of the ancient Spice Route, serving pilgrims and merchants travelling to Sinai or central Egypt. A tel to the south of the modern settlement is home to several ancient churches, a well and some living quarters. There’s also a manmade cave that appears to have been hewn out of the stone above to serve as temporary living quarters for travelers.
It’s all ironically similar to the current scenario down here, where the Nitzana Border Crossing used to once handle pedestrians and private cars between Egypt and Nitzana, but no longer. Now it only handles commercial trade and is just across the road from the Path of Peace, an environmental sculpture of columns created by Israeli artist Dani Karavan. Running over three kilometers, from the hills of Nitzana to the border, the 100 round columns are each inscribed with the word ‘peace’ in a different language, each one representing all those who have traveled through or lived in this region.