A sphinx-shaped rock at Timna Park A sphinx-shaped rock at Timna Park A massive rock "sphinx" towers over other formations in the park. (Photo: Sergei25 / Shutterstock)

Explore the odd formations of Timna Valley

Near Eilat, sandstone rocks have formed curious shapes over millions of years.

One of Israel's most ancient attractions has a human history that dates back thousands of years, and a geological history that goes back millions of years. In the Timna Valley, just 18 miles from the southern city of Eilat, strange sandstone structures mark a valuable archaeological site. 

Dawn at Timna ParkDawn breaks at Timna Park, visible through the giant sandstone arches. (Photo: Sergei25/Shutterstock)

"The Timna Valley is one of the very few untouched regions left in the deserts of Israel," Erez Ben-Yosef, an archaeology professor at Tel Aviv University (TAU), told From The Grapevine. "With its colorful rock formations and dramatic landscape, it has a stunning beauty that has captivated visitors for more than two centuries. In addition to the natural attractions, the area is dotted with dozens of archaeological sites, revealing an impressive story of human efforts to exploit copper minerals for millennia." 

Panoramic view of Timna ParkA panoramic view of Timna Valley. (Photo: Sergei25/Shutterstock)

This rocky landscape is reminiscent of the Badlands and Arches national parks in the U.S., and there's a reason for that. They all have similar erosion, Andrew Newman, a geophysics professor at Georgia Tech, told From The Grapevine. The visible  layers of these rocks contain sandstone that has been around for at least 66 million years, when it formed underwater during the Cretaceous period. And for tens of thousands of years, erosion has been chipping away the rocks.

Mushroom rock in Timna Park The "Mushroom" is a hoodoo that's been formed over millions of years. (Photo: Sergei25/Shutterstock)

So what caused the erosion in Timna Valley? Newman said it was a combination of wind and rain over a very, very long period of time. This leaves some very peculiarly shaped rocks, like one of the most prominent structures at Timna Park, The Mushroom. These funky looking formations are actually called hoodoos.

"The formation of hoodoos and spires come from the erosion of weakly consolidated soft rocks, such as some sandstones," Newman explained. "The vertical features remain because some portion of the above rock is stronger, and acts to protect the below rocks from erosion." 

Golden hour in TimnaThe golden hour highlights the depth of the layers of sandstone rocks at Timna. (Photo: Sergei25/Shutterstock)

Amazing as the rocky formations are, Ben-Yosef said what really makes the Timna Valley special are its well-preserved ancient copper mines. According to the park's website, Timna Valley hosts the world's first copper mine with thousands of mining shafts. 

"The copper ore deposits were exploited by people for at least 6 millennia, and the archaeological sites are unharmed by modern mining activities, and are clearly visible in the arid landscape," Ben-Yosef said. In fact, Ben-Yosef said the site encouraged the late Professor Beno Rothenberg to establish an entirely new scientific discipline here: archaeometallurgy, or "the study of ancient metals, metal production and their role in ancient societies," as he puts it. 

In the Timna Valley, minerals include not just copper but iron and manganese as well.

Tunnels through sandstone rockTunnels within the sandstone rocks. (Photo: Evgeny Eremeev/Shutterstock)

Ben-Yosef has led a TAU research team to the site for the past two years, focusing on the copper production sites there. They've dated the sites back to the 10th century BCE, rather than the previously estimated 13th century BCE. 

"This changes completely the way we see the mines," Ben-Yosef said. "The copper here might have been one of the sources of richness of Jerusalem at this period." 

Solomon's PillarsSolomon's Pillars is perhaps the most recognizable formation at the park. (Photo: Sergei25/Shutterstock)

Though it contains a wealth of knowledge for discovery, Timna Valley isn't just a place for archaeologists and geologists. Visitors are welcome to explore the area and hike through trails. The park offers an inn and even camping sites in addition to activities like paddle-boating in Lake Timna and filling keepsake bottles with sand. 

Blue sky peeks through opening in a sandstone formationVisitors can climb on the rocks and catch a glimpse of the bright blue sky through openings and archways. (Photo: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

Thrill-seekers can entertain themselves with rappelling, zip-lining and mountain bike tours

Visitors also can catch a glimpse of Ancient Egypt here, with ancient rock drawings that show Egyptian chariots and other fascinating illustrations. 

Mountain goat on rocks at sunsetA lone mountain goat looks out from one of the tall rock formations at Timna Park at sunset. (Photo: Protasov AN/Shutterstock)

In the evening, torches light up the park for a twilight dinner, complete with a musical performance.

Though it's centered within the desert and miles away from the bustling Eilat Bay, Timna Valley is a beautiful, compelling attraction for any world traveler.

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