The bearded stranger wrote his name and address willingly and confidently in the barracks’ visiting book before he left. He looked more than a little shaken when he came back a few hours later.
He had travelled the 30km from Beersheva to the route 211 turn-off in the post office van, and then my officer had brought him the 20k here, to our Israeli army barracks. He was the first tourist I had seen this year trying to reach the Nabatean ruins at Shivta. You can usually quantify visitors at sites in Israel by the number of sunflower seeds spat out: Shivta had none at that time. What it did have was ruins. The stranger compared them to Pompeii: ruins where you can walk up the stairs of first-century houses. Ruins of 6th century Byzantine churches, of recognisable but empty marketplaces, camel corrals, reservoirs, wine-presses, arches.
So when he came to register his name I gave him three reasons why he shouldn’t walk the 4km to the site from the barracks. “First its going to get a lot hotter, second you don’t have enough water and, third, anyone might arrest you as it’s a military area”. This last point was fairly obvious, as the 4km of road was littered with broken tank treads and empty ammunition shells. It didn’t stop him: off he went. Maybe I should have been clearer, and warned him with the truth: as he was walking back from the ruins the artillery started its daily practice, lobbing explosive shells from one side of the road into the hillside on the other side.