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close this bookFreshwater Resources in Arid Lands (UNU, 1997, 94 p.)
close this folder2: Negev: land, water, and civilization in a desert environment
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View the documentFreshwater utilization
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Civilization in the Negev

Though the word is derived from the Latin term for "deserted" or "abandoned," deserts are not totally useless wastelands. In fact, some deserts were settled by extraordinarily diligent and ingenious people, who proved that civilization can be established even in extremely difficult circumstances. Evidence of such civilizations can be found in the American South-West, in North Africa, in Arabia, in Jordan, and - notably - in the Negev Desert of southern Israel.

In the original Hebrew, the name Negev denotes dryness. As deserts go, it is rather small, constituting only a minuscule part of the great desert belt of North Africa and South-West Asia. Being on the fringe of this desert belt, much of the Negev is not an exceedingly dry desert. The mean annual rainfall varies from 200 mm in the north-west to about 25 mm in the far south, and is confined to the winter months, November to April. The distribution of rainfall within the rainy season is highly irregular, and the total seasonal amount fluctuates widely from year to year.

The Negev's historical importance derives from its geographical position as a narrow land bridge connecting Asia and Europe on the one hand, with Africa (Egypt) on the other. Hence, it has always served as a crossroads of trade and traffic between the continents. The advantages of controlling the region, however, were frequently offset by the disadvantages. The same routes that made trade possible and opened up cultivable areas to civilized settlement in times of peace were the ones followed by invading armies in times of war.

Moreover, neighbouring desert nomads were always ready to plunder the settled land and its inhabitants. Thus, to the difficulties posed by the paucity of water, the erodible soil, and the fragile vegetation, was added the requirement of constant vigilance against the danger of encroachment by hostile forces.

The long history of human habitation in the Negev began, evidently, during the Chalcolithic Age, and continued, intermittently, throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. It includes the early Israelite period, as reflected in the biblical accounts of King Solomon and his Judaean successors - Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Uzziah. Some time after the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians (in the sixth century before the Christian era [B.C.E.]), a new nation took possession of the Negev - the Nabateans. They built a magnificent civilization there, the achievements of which excite the imagination and admiration of visitors to the region to this day. Starting as nomadic traders, the Nabateans in time became superb architects and engineers, as well as expert hydrologists and diligent cultivators.

The Nabatean domain lay astride the important ancient trade routes between Arabia in the south and Syria in the north, and between the Orient, including India, and the Mediterranean world. These were the routes along which camel caravans transported spices and silks, ivory and incense, frankincense and myrrh, and medicinal herbs- commodities as prized in antiquity as are perfumes, cosmetics, and drugs today. Spices were more highly prized then than now, not so much because people in ancient times had preferred stronger tastes than we do, but because canning, refrigeration, and other means of food preservation that we take for granted were then unknown, and food could quickly become inedible without a heavy dosage of spice.

Caravans passing through the desert needed stopping places where they might rest and obtain water and provisions. To secure and supply their trade, the Nabateans therefore had to establish and maintain regularly spaced bases along their main routes, at important crossroads with secure sources of water. These bases gradually grew into permanent self-supporting villages and eventually into towns, and the Negev became more densely populated than ever before. Although the Nabateans' capital, the fabled red city of Petra, was built in the Edomean mountains (in what is today the Kingdom of Jordan), their population was centred in the Negev, where they built six major cities and numerous smaller villages. To maintain a population of many thousands, the Nabateans perforce had to develop agriculture in order to ensure a livelihood for their people. The same population continued even after the Romans annexed the region and made it a frontier province. And after the division of the Roman Empire and the establishment of Byzantium, the entire eastern realm of the empire enjoyed a period of stability. The Negev became still more densely populated, and the technical achievements of the era surpassed even those of the Nabateans when they were independent.

The eclipse of that civilization in the Negev came in the seventh century. Following the Moslem conquest in 636 C.E., the disruption of the old order and its links to the Mediterranean world caused the population to dwindle. Desert nomads took over and ushered in a long period of retrogression and poverty. Where thousands once prospered, a few hundred now eked out a bare subsistence. Magnificent monuments were prised apart, or crumbled gradually into haphazard heaps of stone. Great cisterns were choked by dust, and strongly built dykes were loosened by time and left unrepaired. Complete farm systems were left untended and allowed to disintegrate. Overgrazing the dry stream beds caused erosion, so that the formerly wide bottomlands irrigated by waterspreading methods became narrow, gouged-out gullies. Terraces once green with crops were left high and dry while torrential floods rushed uncontrolled through breached dykes and scoured the creeks. Thus, the best efforts and experience of generations of diligent people were wasted by neglect and abuse. The casual visitor to the Negev finds it difficult to understand how the ancients could have developed so grand a civilization in the midst of such barrenness. Only a careful study of their techniques can reveal the answer.