Getting around by road in Israel is easy – provided you manage to avoid the ubiquitous traffic jams. The modern highways allow us to commute easily between the major cities – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Haifa – while the new toll road “Road 6” has speeded up the journey from the center of the country to the North immensely. Even getting down to the “far south” of Eilat can be a few hours of easy driving.
It wasn’t always like that. The main route through the northern Negev to the southern Arava was not built until 1958; and of course there was no direct access from Jerusalem to the Arava until after 1967. Until road 40, connecting Beersheba with the Arava, was built, the road to Eilat went eastward from Beersheba, past Dimona, then descended into the Arava via a precipitous series of hair pin bends known as the “Scorpions’ Ascent”. People have been using the Scorpions’ Ascent for nearly 2000 years – and you can still drive it today.
When the Romans consolidated their hold on the Middle East at the end of the first century CE, they set about building a series of roads to facilitate their control. Not for them the circuitous caravan routes that meandered between desert oases; the Roman way was to remove, rather than go around, the obstacles that nature put in their path. So they built the Scorpions’ Ascent, rising from the bed of Zin wadi – the Bible’s “wilderness of Zin” – up to the highlands of the northern Negev near present day Yeruham. When, eighteen hundred years later, the British arrived in Palestine, they rebuilt the ascent slightly to the north of the Roman road. This was the road that the Israeli Army Corps of Engineers repaved in 1950, and which for seven years served as the main road to Eilat.
The road is well maintained – it was last repaved in 2004 – fortunately you don’t see much traffic as you drive up or down the ascent. It is only wide enough for one vehicle at a time, but at several of the hairpins there is a pull-off, where you can negotiate any oncoming vehicle, and – more importantly – get out to take in the spectacular views and stunning silence of the desert landscape. You can still see the remains of the old Roman ascent, and a short walk at the top of the ascent takes you to the fortress built to guard it.