Approximately 50km from the development town of Dimona named after the Biblical city of the same name mentioned in Joshua 15:21-22 are two examples of makhteshim or erosion cirques, unique to the Negev and Sinai deserts. So far geologists have only identified 7 makhteshim, Makhtesh Ramon, Makhtesh HaGadol, Makhtesh HaKatan and two even smaller ones on Har Harif in the Negev; there are two in the Sinai. One of the special things about the Makhtesh HaKatan is that because of its small size you can view it in its entirety, a 5km by 7km oval shaped bowl with steep walls of resistant rock, in this case limestone and dolomite that covered a softer layer of chalk and Nubian sandstone that comes in colors of pink, purple, yellow and green.
There are two access points into the makhtesh, Maale Hatzera on the northern wall is more gentle, an ancient camel pass and Maale Eli. We started our hike from Maale Eli a route originally discovered by local Bedouin that traverses the steep limestone (from the Cenomanian epoch 100 million years ago) walls of the makhtesh connecting the floor of the makhtesh with Hatzera Ridge. I’ve heard various reasons for the name – Eli means upper from the same root as ascend; Eli means pestle to the bowl-shaped mortar of the makhtesh. In fact, it is named after Eli Ben Zvi, son of Rahel Yanait and Yitzhak Ben Zvi who was the second president of Israel. Eli was wounded during a training exercise with the Palmach in the makhtesh in the 1940s and this ascent was discovered in evacuating him to the nearest road joining Beersheva to Maale Aqrabim, the Scorpion Ascent built by the British. Like Masada the Makhtesh HaKatan became a symbol of knowing the desert and the land of Israel by a people who had come home after 2000 years of exile.
We descended the steep walls of the makhtesh on a serpentine trail with the aid of rungs and railings, 400 meters to the floor of the makhtesh. From there we followed the red trail east (also marked as part of the Israel trail) passing hills and cliffs of colored sandstone to the mouth/exit of the makhtesh. The colors are produced by iron oxides, the sand from erosion of the Arabo-Nubian Massif carried all the way here by riverbeds. The hike is suitable for good hikers and should take about 4 hours.
By the paved road that leads to the exit is an electricity tower and piled at various levels are branches that look like the nest of some large bird – they were deposited there in 1994 and 2004 when there were torrential rains and the water reached that high.
For those looking for a long day hike you can follow the Israel trail starting at the Tamar fortress and descending into the makhtesh at Maale Hatzera. You walk south on the blue trail to the mouth of the makhtesh and when you get to the water pumping station you take the red trail west across the makhtesh climbing up at Maale Eli. Continuing another 10km to the Makhtesh HaGadol will take you past the spring of Ein Yorqeam, definitely worth a visit.
The British figured that it would be worth drilling for oil in the makhtesh, erosion has already gotten rid of the hard rock and hundreds of meters of sand. They did not find any but for the same reason it is worth drilling for water. The sand in the makhtesh acts as a large aquifer though the water is quite salty. The water is piped to a reservoir on Mount Tzafit from where it is used by industries on the Rotem Plain.