Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon) is one of the most spectacular sites in the country and is unique in the world. The huge pit, about 14 km wide and 40 km long, was formed over hundreds of millions of years in a fascinating process. The crater shows off incredible rock layers and unique magmatic ancient volcanic sites, water springs, cisterns and many testimonies to human life in the region over a period of thousands of years.
How the Ramon Crater was formed
There are five craters in the Negev, each different and unique: the Small Crater, the Big Crater, Ramon Crater (the largest one) and two small craters on Mount Arif, in the center of the Negev. These craters were not created by meteors, but by the process of erosion, in a fascinating geomorphological process.
In the distant past, the central Negev was on the coast of the vast Tethys Sea. Evidence of this is the wide variety of marine animal fossils found throughout the eastern Negev. About 90 to 100 million years ago, the sea flooded the area and deposited thick layers of hard limestone rock. This structure, layers of soft sand trapped under layers of hard rock, is the foundation for the formation of the erosional makhtesh (crater).
About 80 million years ago, a geological event with a huge impact on Israel and on its surroundings occurred. Africa collided with the Eurasian continent, resulting in a vast geological folding, and the formation of mountains from Egypt to present-day Syria. The folds that were created are part of a system called the “Syrian Arc” and include the Negev, Judean and Galilee Hills.
A large fault displaced the layers of rock thus forming the highest mountain range in the Negev, the Mahmal (Ramon) Range. Most of this mountain was submerged beneath the Tethys Sea, but its summit formed an island. About 60 to 70 million years ago, this island was exposed to weathering processes and the topmost layer of hard rock began the long process of natural erosion. After the hard rock layers were removed, the soft sandstone beneath was exposed. The layers of sand remained surrounded by cliffs, creating a makhtesh where an ancient mountain once stood.
40 to 50 million years ago, the Tethys Sea once again flooded the area. 30 million years ago, another tectonic event occurred in North Africa, again causing regional uplifting of the Negev. Part of this process formed the Dead Sea Transform, which is part of the “Great Rift Valley”. The rifting caused the Negev to tilt towards the lower Arava Valley. The Ramon Ridge also tilted, and for millions of years and throughout countless rainfalls the layers of soft sandstone were removed. Gradually, the Ramon Crater grew and the ancient rock layers of its depths were exposed.
Discovery of Israel’s craters
The makhtesh formations were named in the early 1940s, when the first group of scouts, the “Desert Sweepers”, explored the Negev. Members of the group reached the Small Makhtesh during their travels and gave it its name, based on its resemblance to a mortar (makhtesh in Hebrew) and pestle. Later, the Large Maktesh was discovered. The Ramon area still remained a terra incognita, controlled by the Bedouin tribe of Al-Azazmeh.
In 1945, The Ramon Makhtesh was discovered by a second group of scouts who wanted to cross the Central Negev for the first time, from Revivim to Um Rashrash (modern-day Eilat). The group consisted of 14 young scouts accompanied by two Bedouin with camels. One of the scouts was Shimon Persky (later Shimon Peres, may he rest in peace).
After seeing Makhtesh Ramon for the first time Peres wrote in his diary, “A large wadi, resembles a lake without water … the colors seem unreal. The rugged mountains are sharp and triangular, the rocks: flaming to pale red, ultramarine to soft blue, gray and drab, rise to a great height, each in its own way. Some detached and others stand together. Some with broad shoulders and a narrow head, others lean to one side as if, God forbid, they may fall or roll from side to side. And below, on the ground is fair sand, seemingly moist and soft. And notice the pitch-black gravel hills within. One of the hills is similar in size and shape to the Tabor … but is pitch black, as if it has no global regulation… A world so closed and tightly packed with fanciful shapes, allowing the sun’s rays to play wonderful color games.”
From the Land of Minerals to the Land of Craters
In the early fifties, mining was an existential need of the young State of Israel. The Ramon Crater quarried minerals such as gypsum, kaolin and other clays. Over the years the concept changed, the quarrying diminished and the makhtesh began to be recognized as a natural wonder and as a tourist attraction. In the seventies, Prof. Emanuel Mazor, a geologist and environmental scientist, initiated study camps throughout the country, including the Ramon Camp. Mazor was the first to define the makhtesh as a nature reserve.
Due to his initiative, the government came to the decision that: “The region of the Negev makhtesh – Ramon, Large, Small and Arif – contains unique natural treasures on a national and international scale, and measures must be taken to conserve their natural state and to prevent any damage to them, planning and development must be for tourism and outdoor recreation purposes”.
Today, most of the area of the Ramon Crater is a nature reserve and as part of an extensive project of the National Parks Authority, in cooperation with the Foundation for the Rehabilitation of Quarries. The old quarry areas are undergoing eco-geomorphological rehabilitation that aims to reveal the beauty of the rock layers, to recreate a variety of habitats, and to transform the damaged areas into a national park.
Examples from a variety of the craters
The combination of the high desert mountain and the natural exposure of ancient rock layers at the bottom of the makhtesh offer insights to unique geological, zoological and botanical treasures. Ancient but well preserved volcanic structures are found in Makhtesh Ramon, such as basalt prisms, Giv’at Ga’ash and Mount Arod. Magmatic phenomena such as dykes that cut across rock layers (the most impressive ones can be seen in Ardon River), Shen Ramon and the Gavnun. Fascinating fossils from various periods can be found throughout the makhtesh. One extraordinary example is the Ammonite Wall, part of the southern cliff of the makhtesh, where one can see a wall of fossilized ammonites, marine animals that lived in the ancient Tethys Sea (fossils are a protected natural resource, one must not collect them or detach them from rock walls).
The crater rim is the borderline between a variety of vegetation zones of desert plants, including desert broom, tamarisk, caper, and more. Here you can find an endemic caper, unique to Makhtesh Ramon that only grows on a gypsum layer that are about 250 million years old! North of the makhtesh, in the Har Hanegev Reserve, huge Pistacia atlantica trees around one thousand years old grow, which are the southernmost in Israel. The amazing richness of blooming spring flowers attracts fans from Israel and abroad to Lotz Cisterns, in the western part of the Har Hanegev Reserve. Many desert animals make their home in and around the makhtesh, such as hyenas, fox and sand rats, as well as the rare caracal cat, herds of wild asses and even oryx that were reintroduced to nature.
An impressive Nabatean Khan located on the ancient Incense route on which Nabateans brought spices and perfumes from Arabia to Europe through the port of Gaza.
A small spring under Khan Saharonim. The spring creates several pools that water vegetation, tamarisks, reeds and Juncus.
Water, Wind and Stone (The Colored Sands)
A restored mining site with clays and colored sands from around the crater. In winter and spring there is a small pool filled with rainwater in the old quarry. Recommended for family visits.
The Saw Mill
A hill of baked sandstone. Due to the heating and cooling process, affected by magmatic processes, the sandstone converted into quartzite with remarkable prisms (hexagonal and pentagonal, similar to the hexagonal basalt found in the Golan Heights).
Nahal Ardon Dikes
Exposed, upright stone columns made of magmatic seepage that penetrated a crack and split the colorful rock layers.
Ramon Colors Route
A route marked in blue lined with balconies and observation points to view the quarry pits, where one can see the colored layers in the rock walls.
The old factory (the soil dryer)
The soil dryer used to fire clay, especially rock-like clay, which is petrified laterite, which was formed about 180 million years ago, at the beginning of the Jurassic period. The clay was fired on the spot and transported for the fire bricks industry. In the future, the soil dryer will be used to document the process of production and the history of the quarries in the area.
Written by Efrat Kedem-Silbert