By Jonathan daCosta
The sun wouldn’t rise for another two hours. The sky over Eilat was clear and the second quarter-moon had set hours before. Streetlights, signs, and house lights were all shut down. Energy was no longer something to waste. The only sound on the streets was the omnipresent hum of the air conditioners which made life in the desert bearable. Shulamit was making preparations for the groups that would be heading north in search of relocation opportunities. In the end she had decided that there should be three groups. One group would head up Route 12 along the Egyptian Border and the two others would head up Route 90 along the Jordanian border. Each group would have a jeep and a supply truck. They were taking enough food, water, and fuel for a week, even though the plan was to be out for only three days. Each group consisted of two young soldiers, one older person, and one sailor from the submarine U.S.S. Louisiana. Someone in each group would need to speak fluent Arabic, and one in each group would need to have some medical training in case of emergency.
Angela chose three sailors: Sofie, Margret, and Milly. They arrived before any of the other people. Shulamit appreciated their punctuality. She had posted a jumbo-sized map on the wall. It showed every paved road, dirt road, and trail. The three sailors gathered in front of the map and began to examine their routes. Since the Hebrew speakers had not yet arrived Shulamit explained in English:
“The city of Eilat lives on tourism. Even with a severely reduced population, it can never be self-sustaining. There are several small settlements heading north which may have room for, or even need, more people. Almost all of these are along Route 90. The two groups heading in that direction will visit the kibbutzim and moshavim one at a time, and find out if they want or need more people. The other group will head up Route 12. It’s mostly desert, but may hold the possibility for a small group or two.”
As she was talking, the others arrived. Groups were formed and Milly joined the group heading north on Route 12. Shulamit introduced her to the two soldiers, Naomi and Shoam, and the old man of the group, Barah. Heading up the mountain road and into the desert, Milly was stunned. She had always lived along the coast where there were trees and grass. There were only rocks and sand here. She was in the lead jeep with a soldier about her age. He had taken mandatory English lessons in school, but had not come close to mastering the language. Milly spoke no Hebrew. Pointing to himself, he proclaimed “I Shoam.” Milly was amused by his lack of English. She thought the whole world spoke English. Pointing to herself, she proclaimed. “I Milly.”
They had been driving for almost an hour along the Israel Egyptian border when the road turned inland. Except for a few trees and a wild ibex, there had been no other signs of life. Going around a bend, they almost hit a camel that was standing in the middle of the road. Shoam started to go around it when Milly shouted “STOP!” He didn’t know the word, but he got the message. Before he could stop her, Milly hopped out of the jeep and headed towards the camel. When camels are hobbled, it usually means that its owner is nearby. That gives the limited freedom, but it can still wander around and graze. Most likely this camel’s owner was dead, and Milly intended to set it free.
As the truck behind the jeep came to a halt, everybody rushed out to warn Milly about how dangerous camels can be. They can kick with amazing aim, and they are very strong. They can be cantankerous and unpredictable. As they were about to intercede, Milly reached out and petted the camel. The camel arched its neck, asking to be scratched, and Milly quickly obliged. After a few minutes of scratching, its head came down, and the camel looked directly at Milly. She knew what it wanted. She bent down and, before Shoam could say anything, removed its hobble. The camel thanked Milly with a high-pitched bleat and started to walk down a nearby path. A few meters down the path, it stopped and turned around. Milly announced to the group, “She needs us to follow her,” then started following the camel into the desert.
Shoam pulled out his map to see where the path the camel was taking them would lead. The highly detailed topographic map from the Israeli Defense Forces showed every footpath and goat trail in the country, but the path the camel was taking was not on the map.
Barah was a well-known guide and leader of hikes. He was also more patient than Shoam. Taking the map, he double-checked their present location. The topography correlated perfectly with the map until approximately one hundred meters from their present location, and then it resumed its perfect representations about one hundred meters further. However, where the camel had headed down a path looked like the beginnings of a wadi. A wadi that didn’t exist on this or any other map.
As Milly disappeared into the wadi, Barah grabbed his pack and rifle. “Yala, nazuz,” he said (come on, let's go). The two soldiers grabbed their packs, which sloshed with water bottles. They knew enough to not set out one meter into the desert without adequate water. The wadi quickly descended into a slot canyon. Looking up they saw why this may not have been detected on an aerial survey. The top layers of stone interlocked so there was no direct view of the sky. The further they walked, the cooler it got.
Barah was in heaven. He knew he was someplace very special. The walls started to show water seepage. In the desert, water means life. On the floor of the wadi, there were signs of flint tool making. Cores and discarded imperfect points were scattered all around the path. Modern humans may not have known of this place, but ancient ones certainly did.
As they turned a corner, their shock couldn’t have been greater. A rock shelf high above turned the wadi into a cave-like structure. They were in a grotto with an active spring. Carvings on the rock wall indicated that this place had been known for eons. There were no signs of anything Egyptian, Greek, or Roman. This spot had eluded humans for the previous six thousand years.
In front of the wall, there was a pool. At first glance, they thought that the pool was a simple shallow puddle, but when they got closer they realized that its edges went straight down. Taking out a waterproof flashlight, Barah put its lens under the surface and turned it on. The small pool was alive with fish, and the bottom was nowhere in sight. The water was cold, indicating that it was coming from a great depth. The edges of the pool were made by humans, not nature, and there were the remains of a sluice gate. It was carved into the rock and had a stone wheel as its plug. On the plain in front of them were remnants of an ancient garden. There were terraces and canals for the water to flow through.
Milly seated herself at the edge of the grotto. The camel was on the ground next to her and had gone from a kneeling position to laying down on its side. The camel’s huge head was in Milly’s lap and the only way to describe their interaction was that they were cuddling.
Barah turned to Naomi and Shoam. “It looks like Milly has a way with animals. I have an idea. Let's see if we can clean out some of the sediment around that stone wheel. The wheel has holes in its edge that may have been used for inserting poles, so you can get better leverage to roll it. I want to open the gate and see if the water level keeps up with the flow. This spring provided a water source for ancient agriculture, and it is possible that it can still produce enough water for a sizable garden.”
Taking off his pack, Shoam surprised everyone when he took out a folding shovel. Laughing, he proclaimed, “Didn’t you guys get the memo to bring your own shovels?”
He went to work removing the dry silt in front of the stone while Barah and Naomi removed the wet silt on the spring side. It was a hot day, and soon the silt was not just being removed; it was being thrown at one person or another. After a half-hour of work and fun, they were ready to try rolling the stone. Barah inserted a pole and tried, but the stone refused to budge. It was then that he noticed there was a wedge in the bottom of the trench that the stone wheel rolled through. With Shoam applying pressure to close the stone gate, he was able to remove the wedge. It was not a simple stone but for now he put it aside. The focus was on opening the gate.
With the three of them applying their full weight to the pole, the round stone gate moved a few centimeters and water began to flow. The water quickly cleared out more of the silt and it became possible for one person to move the stone a few centimeters further. Over the next few minutes, as the water scoured the channel clean, they were able to open the gate further and further. They were so focused on the sluice gate that they failed to pay attention to where the water was going. Below them, a depression in the soil was filling with water. As it filled with water, the dirt on its sides started to slip away, revealing that it had plastered walls with a series of round stone sluice gates on its perimeter. One of the gates was partially open and the water was running through an irrigation canal to a single level of the terraces.
Looking down at the pool, Barah saw that Milly had taken off her boots and was dangling her feet in the water. Next to her the camel, now her camel, was drinking its fill and standing guard. Looking back at the pool, Barah now saw that the surface, which had previously been mirror smooth, showed upwelling currents. The water was being refilled as fast as it flowed out through the sluice gate.
Naomi and Shoam were carefully examining the topographical map of where they stood. The agricultural terraces were there but this was such a common feature in the Middle East that they had been easy to ignore. The wadi and grotto were not even hinted at on the map. There was no plausible explanation for how this site had remained undiscovered. Using the map and visual verification, they figured that the terraces were close to one hundred dunams. Using a calculation of five dunam per person, this area could comfortably support twenty people. It wasn’t a lot, but it was worth noting.
Barah went down to the pool to tell Milly that they needed to get back to their vehicles and continue their exploration. The morning had been full of surprises, but he was unprepared for the next one. She was surrounded by butterflies, and sitting on her shoulder was a large praying mantis. Barah sat down next to her. “Milly, we must continue our exploration. What you have found here is wonderful. It has no name, yet, so I was wondering what you would like to call it. Then we need to go.”
Milly had a smile on her face that Barah had seen before. It was his wife's smile when she first held their baby son. Milly held up her hand and blew away a small silver-blue butterfly. “This place already has a name. It is Wadi Gamal. Not just because of this one camel, but also because of Solomon’s camel.” Barah had no idea how Milly knew that the Hebrew name for a praying mantis translated into English as “Solomon’s camel.”
She continued, “You must continue on. There are more places where the people from Eilat are needed. Shoam and I are staying here.” This was confusing. Shoam did not speak English, Milly did not speak Hebrew, and to Barah's knowledge, they hadn’t said a word to each other since they started out from Eilat a mere three hours ago. Barah walked over to where Shoam was exploring the terraces. “Milly says that you are staying here with her. Did you guys agree on this?” Shoam had a funny grin on his face. “We haven’t talked, but this place has a presence that I would like to explore. Why don’t you and Naomi take the jeep and the truck and continue on? I have enough food in my pack for a couple of days. You can pick us up on your way back.”
Barah didn’t like the idea, but he thought that further exploration might reveal more resources, so he agreed. He and Naomi hiked back up Wadi Gamal to the truck and jeep. When they were about to leave, he saw the camel’s hobble lying in the road, and thought that it might be useful for Milly and Shoam to have. Naomi volunteered to take it back down to them. She was in fine physical condition and she took off at a trot.
Five minutes later she returned, hobble in hand. “I started down the wadi confident that I knew the way. In the army I was a scout and always found my way, day or night. Even blindfolded. But this wadi is not there.”
Somehow Barah was not surprised. He didn’t get out of the truck to check for himself or to question Naomi. He signaled for her to get into the jeep and said he would follow in the truck.
Looking at the camel hobble on the seat next to him, he knew. The army maps had been right all along.