Ask Hagit Gal why 2011 was the year historic Timna Park got earmarked for a multimillion-dollar facelift, and she chuckles.
The park’s story began 6,000 years ago, when the world’s first copper mines were dug here. In the early 1980s, the Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), the Eilot Regional Council and the Ministry of Tourism established a tourist park at this unique UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is rich in both history and natural beauty.
It’s become modestly successful, attracting some 150,000 visitors per year — 20,000 of them Israeli schoolchildren – but clearly it is not nearly as well known as its closest neighbor to the south, the Red Sea resort city of Eilat. Hoping to give this unique site its due, the KKL-JNF unveiled major improvements financed by donors in the United States and Germany.
“We have learned what Timna needs, like a teenager that now has to know what to do when it grows up,” says Gal. “We put a lot of money in upgrading the electricity and water systems and bike paths. We changed all the signage.”
Hundreds of shade trees and pergolas are up to shield tourists from the hot desert sun.
In 2016, a new visitors center was opened, located just inside the park entrance, providing tourists and history buffs with interactive overviews and explanations of the historic copper mines scattered throughout the park, and will also serve as an event hall for special occasions.
“There is nothing like Timna in the world,” says Gal. “The copper mines that the [ancient] Egyptians dug here is the story of Timna.”
Archeologists first began investigating the horseshoe-shaped Timna Valley in 1845, discovering evidence of copper refining operations that had come and gone over thousands of years. At first it was believed that most of the mining and smelting was done in the 10th century BCE during the reign of the Israelite King Solomon.
Although the copper used in the Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem probably did not come from this area, and later research showed that the initial estimation was off a bit, the site became known as King Solomon’s Mines, and the natural red rock columns along the walls of the cliffs are still known as Solomon’s Pillars.
These pillars are actually the oldest sedimentary rocks found in Timna, deposited as long as 530 million years ago. If you look closely, you can see the individual grains of sand that make up the texture of the rock. In the cracks, you can see different sizes and colors of sand in the various layers of sandstone.
The valley is bordered by dramatic purple and pink cliffs, punctuated by Mount Timna rising up at its center and colorful mushroom-shaped sandstone formations all around.
Along with the pillars and mushrooms, Timna has about 10,000 “saucers” — unused mine shafts that had filled up with sand and rocks over many years.
Tourists can explore the “Open Mine,” a shaft that goes down as deep as a 12-story building. You can still see the niches carved into the sides of the shaft for climbing, along with diagonal chisel marks made by the dull stone tools of miners long ago.
The Miners’ Temple, originally a sanctuary to Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of mining, is another popular stop along the visitors’ trail. Ancient Midianites later transformed the space into their own sanctuary. The two peoples left behind clay vessels, votive offerings made of stone and alabaster, faience beads, seals and scarabs bearing the names of the pharaohs who sent delegations to Timna, as well as tablets and figurines of Hathor, copper animal figurines, jewelry and shells from the Red Sea.
Bike it, with 100 new cycles
Timna Park has 25 hiking routes, and four new bike paths built by KKL-JNF. KKL-JNF in Germany donated 100 new bicycles for visitors. Paved paths lead to the main seven sites, including ancient smelting furnaces and work camps for Egyptian copper miners and loggers who prepared acacia wood for charcoal fuel. The trees still provide shelter and nutrition to the resident ibexes and gazelles.
The manmade Timna Oasis Lake, the recreation area of Timna Valley, draws from the groundwater found in the layers of sandstone below. You can rent a pedal boat and picnic at shaded tables and benches – even stay overnight at a nearby camping site.
Timna’s Challenge Site, at the foot of the red sandstone cliffs, offers rappelling, a climbing wall, archery, children’s creative activities and even a “treatment tent” where you can get a massage or do tai chi.
Gal is optimistic that these efforts will continue to increase traffic to Timna Park, as will the new Ramon Airport, which is being built just a few minutes down the road from the entrance to Timna, as an example of the promise of growth in the area. “The airport will be bringing in many tourists, and our hope is that they’ll choose to stay in the valley or in the park before heading straight to Eilat,” Gal said.
“The future is very bright for Timna Park and this entire region. We are just getting started,” added Gal.
Originally posted at Israel21c.