Mitzpe Ramon is a unique town situated on the edge of a vast cliff in the heart of the Negev desert, overlooking the magnificent view of the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon). The weather is very convenient due to its location at an altitude of more than 800 meters above sea level. It may get very cold in winter, but there is little rain, and in the summer, thanks to the altitude and the lack of moisture, the weather is pleasant and cool at night.
Mitzpe Ramon was established in 1956 as a community cooperative and is today a local council with more than 5,000 residents. The desert town is located in the heart of the Negev Highlands Nature Reserve and is considered the most isolated settlement in the country. The nearest cities are Be’er Sheva to the north and Eilat to the south. There are benefits to isolation, such as peace and quiet and being close to nature, and the town is truly a creative space for inspiration. Thanks to the lack of light pollution, Mitzpe Ramon is a majestic location to observe the night sky and the country’s largest Observatory is located on the edge of the town.
The establishment of Mitzpe Ramon
Until the 1950s, the area on which Mitzpe Ramon is located was used by the al-Azazmeh Bedouin tribe. After the War of Independence, an Engineering Corps base named Camp Independence was erected. In 1953, the company Even VeSid Industries, founded by members of Kibbutz Sde Boker, began quarrying gypsum from the Ramon Crater, while the company Harsit VeHol Zach began to dig clay mortar. In the same year, Road 40 was built, which ran from Be’er Sheva to Eilat and the winding Ma’aleh Ha’atzmaut road was hacked out to lead down into the crater. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, met residents of Sde Boker on his way to the opening of the new road. This event might have planted the seed in his mind, which made him move to Kibbutz Sde Boker in later life. On the edge of the cliff, tents were erected for the quarry workers and road builders.
Later on, the members of Sde Boker purchased Machaneh Haatzmaut (Independence Camp) and turned it into a Nabatean inn, which provided lodging for tourists and meals to employees.
In 1956, Hagai Avriel, one of the founders of Sde Boker, fulfilled his dream of establishing an urban cooperative. He left the Kibbutz, brought together families and individuals from around the country and together they formed the group of agricultural-cooperative workers of Mitzpe Ramon, as a cooperative society. Their aim was to establish a permanent residential settlement, whose livelihood was based on the quarries of the crater combined with agriculture and tourism. The move was made possible by the government’s decision to establish Mitzpe Ramon as a town. On 26th of May 1956, 12 members of the association came to Mitzpe Ramon. The Housing Ministry built a water source, some huts, a clinic, a school and a grocery store in the small town. In April 1957, Mitzpe Ramon had 40 residential units. The members of the cooperative society occupied about half of them and the rest was for the quarry workers and Mekorot water company employees.
The isolation of the town and the lack of government support led to financial difficulties and many disagreements between the settlers. In 1957, the cooperative association disbanded, and the town was handed over to the government and its institutions.
Mitzpe Ramon became a municipal town, which the government and namely the Ministry of Defense were now in charge of developing.
Development of the town
In the early 60s, immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe were sent to Mitzpe Ramon. During this period, the cultural center, a grocery store and a youth hostel were built. The Clalit Health Services agreed to send a doctor to live in the community, on condition that half of his salary was funded (this was finally made possible thanks to the Ministry of Defense). Mekorot National Water Company also connected the town to the national water system.
The community bulletin from 1961 describes 115 wage earners, members of the Histadrut trade union, most of whom were employed by Even VeSid Industries or Harsit VeHol Zach (today Negev Industrial Minerals) who went down each day to work in a crater. At the same time, the town attracted other communities, such as the large group of young pilots from the center of the country, who tried, unsuccessfully, to establish another urban cooperative.
Most of the income was based on travelers on their way south to Eilat, but the building of the new Arava Highway diverted traffic and severely damaged the economy of the town.
Asides from those who depended on the quarries for work, there were those who found in Mitzpe Ramon an artistic place of inspiration. In 1962, the sculptor Kosso Eloul gathered together various sculptors on the crater’s ridge in an international symposium, announcing the establishment of the Desert Sculpture Park. In the mid-80s, an additional wave of artists, led by artist Ezra Orion added their works to the park, and the Sculpture Park was officially established.
In the ‘70s Mitzpe Ramon numbered 1,500 residents. In the early 80s, with the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, many IDF bases were transferred to the Negev, and the Defense Ministry built accommodation in Mitzpe Ramon for families of professional soldiers serving in the region.
On the edge of the crater, The Ramon Park Complex was built, with the assistance of the Nature and Parks Authority, which included the visitors’ center, the Bio Ramon animal reserve and the Ramon Science Center.
Development of tourism continued in the late 80s, and the town’s population doubled to approximately 3,000 residents. The influx of immigrants from the former U.S.S.R in the 90s brought many new residents to Mitzpe Ramon, and the religious population also grew: the ‘Garin Torani’ (Zionist religious group) based itself in the town and new members joined. Tourism was reinforced with the establishment of lone farms surrounding the area and the construction of the Spice Route Quarter began, along with various other tourism initiatives.
Mitzpe Ramon in the year 2000
Over the years, the way Mitzpe Ramon is perceived has changed, and people began to see it not as a development town but as an inspiring workspace, a place for personal development and sustainable living. Most of the Makhtesh and territories around Mitzpe Ramon were declared nature reserves, and residents helped to conserve nature and protect the community’s unique character as a meeting point between nature and urban space.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Mitzpe Ramon has about 5,500 inhabitants of diverse communities: secular, religious, new immigrants and veteran Israelis, Bedouin and the African Hebrew community members. The industrial sector diminished and made way for galleries and workshops owned by local entrepreneurs. Cooperative purchase groups such as the ”Agala” (Wagon cooperative) have been established and are role models to communities across the country. Businesses with social agendas have also chosen to establish themselves in the community.
Mitzpe Ramon of the new millennium is a developing tourist area. The luxury Beresheet hotel was built on the edge of the crater, the quarries have almost disappeared from the landscape and the areas is undergoing massive rehabilitation. The local council, residents and green organizations promote unique projects, such as turning Mitzpe Ramon into a Dark Sky Reserve Park and the announcement of the crater as a World Heritage Site. The Spice Route Quarter is developing, and tourists can find a variety of galleries, boutique stores, workshops, entertainment venues and accommodation around town. Farms have sprouted up around Mitzpe Ramon as part of the “Sfat Midbar” (Edge of the Desert) initiative, combining tourism and desert agriculture. And thus, like in the Byzantine period when the region’s agriculture flourished, there are olive groves and vineyards around Mitzpe Ramon again, an olive oil press has been built and a boutique winery is also planned.
Tourism and attractions in Mitzpe Ramon
Mitzpe Ramon Visitors’ Center
The National Parks Association Visitor’s Center has undergone extensive renovation in recent years and the new center offers a taste of the unique natural world of the Ramon crater alongside the legacy of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the crash of the space shuttle Columbia.
Walking along the promenade, one overlooks the spectacular view of the crater. At the end of one side there is a short climb up Camel Hill, a beautiful vantage hill shaped like a sitting camel. At the foot of the mount, there is a small, fascinating ancient village, which is about 5,000 years old.
The farms around Mitzpe Ramon are an integral part of the town and each is unique in its own right. Desert Shade with its winery, towers over the stunning view of the crater, the one-of-its kind Alpaca Farm, the Carmey Har HaNegev olive press, the Noam Bamidbar farm, the Nana wine farm, the Shezaf wine farm with its house carved out of stone, and more. Most farms offer accommodation in guesthouses or tents.
In Mitzpe Ramon, you can find all kinds of desert tourist activities: rappelling, jeep tours, stargazing and hiking in the crater or up the Ramon mountain, and more. Additional information can be found on the Negev Highlands tourist website www.negevtour.co.il.
Spice Route Quarter
A special tourist district at the northern entrance to Mitzpe Ramon where you will find cafes, restaurants, galleries, wood and ceramics workshops, special accommodation complexes, a tour guiding center, a local radio station and a Caucasian heritage museum. It is recommended to visit the quarter and get to know the variety of fascinating people from the local community.
And of course, there is the Desert Sculpture Park.
Written by Efrat Kedem-Silbert