Avdat the Nabatean City in the Negev Desert, Israel

“Even the wilderness and desert will be glad in those days. The wasteland will rejoice and blossom with spring crocuses. Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! The deserts will become as green as the mountains of Lebanon, as lovely as Mount Carmel or the plain of Sharon. There the Lord will display his glory, the splendor of our God. With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have weak knees.” (Isaiah 35:1-3)

The Negev Desert covers over half of Israel’s land and is located in Israel’s southern region. It’s desert characteristics lends it to be sparsely populated but for those that venture to travel to the Negev they will see historical treasures dating back hundreds of centuries. Agriculture, sheep herding and trade were the economic base for life of the people who inhabited the Negev, peoples such as Canaanites, Philistines, Israelites, Edomites, Byzantines, Nabataeans, and Ottomans.
The Nabataeans’ infamous trade routes and the origins of their goods were regarded as trade secrets. It is estimated that the Nabataeans had 10,000 warriors which were used to strengthen their established trade routes of camel caravans that traversed from Yemen in the East to the port city of Gaza to the Dead Sea carrying spices such as frankincense and myrrh, perfumes and salt. These trade routes are known as the “Incense Trade Route”, commonly known as the “Spice Route”, and is where antiquity can be seen and touched amidst the desert sands of the Negev.

The Nabataean trade caravans of camels began traveling the Negev during the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites that began in 586 BCE where it opened a minor power vacuum in Judah. Prior to the Israelites return from captivity, the Edomites had begun moving into open Judean grazing lands while Nabataean inscriptions began to be appear among the Edomites occupied grazing lands. The Nabataean trade routes traveled throughout the Negev Desert and required they build rest stations. The homes shelters built into the rock hill for shelter utilized an ancient form of air conditioning.

Avdat was one of the most important and strategic locations in the Negev, as it was a natural acropolis, sitting high upon a hilltop plateau in the central Negev highlands along the trade route. The Nabataeans’ built the rest station during the first century BCE and developed Avdat into a city starting in the 3rd Century BCE. It continued and flourished well into the Roman period where it became a part of the defense and transportation systems used by the Roman Empire. From atop the acropolis the view of a 100 square meter Roman fortress can be seen from the northern side of Avdat. The fortress was built after the Romans annexed Nabataea. The Romans built a tower and a bathhouse and supplied it with water from a well tunneling some 70 meters through bedrock.

Different religious groups inhabited Avdat as evidenced by altars and baptism pools still in place. Saint Theodore’s Church, a Byzantine relic, was built in Avdat and has marble tombstones inserted into the floor with Greek inscriptions. Nearby are the remains of a monastery bearing decorative architectural carvings of lions marking its entrance. Standing at the Nabataean temple looking through its restored gateway the view covers all the vast Avdat highlands and surrounding desert, including the farm below where Byzantine-era agricultural techniques developed by the Nabataeans are reconstructed. Inside the main fortress ruins, one can find many buildings, wells and the remains of the Roman bathhouse and watchtower and man-made caves that house burial niches, cisterns, tombs, storerooms and a Byzantine winepress that is still used sometimes to reconstruct ancient wine-production techniques. After an earthquake in the 7th century, Avdat was destroyed and it has remained virtually uninhabited.

Today cutout camels and animals mark the “Spice Route” and they can be seen throughout the desert as you follow the ancient path. In Avdat, these cutouts are placed to welcome the traveling visitor and they show where animals drank, where the traders carried out their trade and where the wine was stored inside the cool shelter of the homes.

Located along Road 40 fifteen minutes south of SdeBoker, you come to the Avdat National Park which encompasses all the remains of Avdat. UNESCO has listed Avdat as a World Heritage site as one of four sites listed in the 1,500-mile long Incense Trade Route nestled throughout the Negev Desert. A church from the 4th century displays antiquities, shows a short film on the Incense Trade Route and the story of frankincense, myrrh and other costly spices that were carried along the famous route.

Avdat reflects the profitable trade in frankincense and myrrh from South Arabia to the Mediterranean as it flourished between 3rd BC until the 2nd century AD. The antiquities that have been found bear witness to how a harsh environment can be inhabited to sustain profitable trade and agriculture bringing the desert to life through irrigation systems, inner city constructions, forts and roadside lodgings for weary travelers.

Avdat is a hilltop to rest upon during your journey through the Holy Land of Israel.