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Ben Gurion's dream - a garden city in the heart of the Negev

Garden in the Desert, the city of Arad

Arad, Israel’s Jewel in the Desert

Arad is the last urban centre we pass on route to the Dead Sea from the coastal region, so most of us drive through the outskirts of the city without a second thought, the remainder of the journey to our final destination uppermost in our minds. Little do we realise what we are missing. The modern city of Arad was established as a development town in 1962, in accordance with the determination and vision that David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, had of populating the Negev Desert. The Hebrew date of Ben Gurion’s passing, 6 Kislev, has been proclaimed as Ben Gurion Day by the State of Israel, in memory of the great visionary and leader. On Ben Gurion Day commemorating the 23rd anniversary of his passing, prime minister Netanyahu delivered a memorial address at Sde Boker, in which he said; "I need not elaborate on Ben-Gurion's Negev challenge. It is enough to remember the enormous effort made by our forces during the War of Independence to conquer the Negev and reach Eilat. Today, the largest portion of Israel's territory (the Negev) is a result of that decision. By just standing here, in the place in which he chose to spend his last days, and looking at the expanses around us, we can understand how important the Negev was to our first Prime Minister."

Panoramic view of Arad, city in the desert with a rainbow in the background

Arad, situated at the southern extremity of the Northern Negev forms an equilateral triangle with Beer Sheva and Dimona. Beer Sheva is 45 kms west of Arad while Dimona is more or less equidistant south east of Beer Sheva and south west of Arad. The three cities have a combined population of around 260,000 (Beer Sheva the largest, with about 220,000 ) creating a significant urban population, strategically situated in the area between the Judean Desert and the Southern Negev, with Dimona on the border of the area defined as the Southern Negev.

Ancient Arad

While the modern Israeli city was established in 1962, an ancient Canaanite city, now identified as Tel Arad, was situated some 10 kms west of the contemporary site. Archaeological excavations indicate that the Canaanite city was abandoned for unknown reasons in about 2650 BCE. The ancient Israelite city of Arad was established on the same site shortly before, or during the reign of King David (1010 -970 BCE), becoming an important outpost of the Jewish kingdom. Tel Arad has revealed many previously unknown details about religious observance and life in Judea during, and shortly after, the period of the United Kingdom of Israel.

During a dig on Tel Arad in 1962, archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni had the unique experience of uncovering the only Judean temple to be found in Israel up to now. This find brought the number of known Judean temples to three, the Jerusalem temple, the Elephantine temple and the Arad temple. The Jerusalem temple is so well known that there is no need for me to elaborate on it, while we will first visit the Elephantine temple with its strange background history before returning to the story of Arad and its temple.

Elephantine Island in the Nile River

Elephantine Island

Elephantine is an island in the Aswan region of the Nile River, close to the border between northern and southern Egypt, which was often referred to as Nubia. The locality of the island resulted in it being turned into a fortress as far back as 2000 BCE. The island later had a community of Jewish mercenaries in 500 BCE, which is confirmed in a unique portfolio of scrolls known as the Elephantine Papyri, 5th century BCE scrolls recording details of Jewish life on the island. The scrolls were discovered in Elephantine and Aswan from the 1880’s onwards and cover many aspects of daily life of the Jews of Elephantine. Among the scrolls is one confirming the existence of the Judean period temple as well as one giving detailed rules for the observation of the Passover. There are 8 historically important scrolls that give us intimate biographical details of the lives of a Jewish resident of Elephantine, Ananiah, his non Jewish wife Tamut, a former slave, and their children. The scrolls include their marriage document (Ketubah), the Deed of Emancipation releasing Tamut and her children from slavery, the title deeds, purchase agreement and other details pertaining to the family home as well as a loan agreement. These scrolls are on view in the Brooklyn Museum.

Map of northern Egypt showing locality of Elephantine Island

Judean Temple in Ancient Arad

And now back to the Arad temple discovered by Yohanan Aharoni, which he found contained incense altars and two stone pillars as well as an inscription on the site identifying it as the “House of Yahweh”. This temple remained standing and apparently in use after the Babylonian destruction of the Jerusalem temple. There is also evidence that some polytheistic practices such as the worship of other gods was carried out, adding veracity to the many warnings against such activities ascribed to the Prophet Jeremiah. Ethiopian tradition holds that shortly before Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Ark of the Covenant was removed and transported to the temple at Arad. From there it was taken to the Elephantine temple before being transported to Aksum in Ethiopia for safekeeping, where it has remained to this day.

To read a more detailed account of the life and times of the Jews on Elephantine Island and greater detail about the temple there, click on this link;

You can also enjoy a 5 minute virtual tour of ancient Arad on this link:

Exposed remains of the Israelite temple on Tel Arad

Contemporary Arad

The Arad of today had very humble beginnings in 1962, when a few families seeking the peace and tranquility of the desert surroundings, became the first residents of the newly established town. This number grew slowly and by 1964 there were 160 families living in the small town. Growth was slow until a new policy of encouraging olim to settle in Arad came into effect in 1971. A slow trickle of new Israelis from around the world resulted in the population growing to around 12,000 by 1984. The big growth spurt began with the arrival of olim from the former Soviet Union (FSU), often referred to as Russians, although many were from the traditional Jewish areas in the Ukraine, Moldova and Lithuania. The population of Arad, which was proclaimed a city in 1995, is approaching 30,000, which will probably increase further as a result the establishment of new IDF bases in the surrounding region.

Oil in Arad

Shortly before the founding of Arad, the Israel National Oil Company drilled test holes in the area, striking oil at a depth of 2,200 metres, although the reserves were not considered economically viable and were abandoned. During April 2018, legendary Israeli geologist and prospector, Eliahu Rosenberg, announced a new oil exploration venture in the region between Arad and the Dead Sea, with reputed reserves of 7 to 11 million barrels of oil. Should oil be found in payable quantities in the region, the face of Arad and environs will change forever.


For now Arad’s most important resource is tourism, which is unfortunately suffering from the Coronavirus pandemic, as is tourism globally. While the main route to the Dead Sea resort town of Ein Bokek and on to Masada passes through Arad, another minor route, road 3199 goes directly to the western side of Masada. This route does not connect with the more popular Route 90, which provides access to the highly developed Masada tourist site. The western side of Masada, without the tourist infrastructure, is resplendent with all the beauty and allure of the Judean desert. There are numerous hotels in Arad providing excellent and varied accommodation as well as several Bedouin style hotels offering tented accommodation with varying degrees of luxury. With Arad being a 20 or 25 minute drive from the Dead Sea together with the other nearby attractions and access to western Masada, the city has become increasingly popular among tourists.

Arad Music Festival

The annual Arad Open Air Music Festival is a cultural highlight of the region, held towards the end of August every year, attracting thousands of people from across Israel. The focus of the festival is to feature Hebrew songs, turning Arad into the national centre of Hebrew music for the three day duration of the event. Visitors to the festival are also entertained with street theatre performances, while the numerous museums and art galleries offer quiet relief from the music while providing culture of a different kind, when needed. The 2020 festival which was planned to run from August 17 - 20 has been cancelled because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Amos Oz, Israel's most celebrated contemporary author is Arad’s most famous resident, having lived there from 1986 to 2014. Oz, the recipient of a plethora of literary awards, who passed away in December 2018, was the author of 40 books which have been translated into 45 languages.

Once the health safety restrictions have been lifted, Arad is one of the places that you should write into your must visit in the future list.

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Another fine and educational article Peter, thank you, Israel continues to amaze, even if it's only on a laptop - for now! I find it amazing that Ananiah of Elephantine Island was subject to the bureaucratic red-tape the scrolls indicate!

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