Sunday, March 6, 2011


Imagine, once upon a time, almost 2500 years ago, a tribe from Arabia began wandering the desert. The nomads knew they could not rely on natural occurrence of water. Being very clever people, known today as Nabateans, they started their future commercial success with building series of well hidden, plastered, covered and protected cisterns, never depending on sources of water of rare springs and occasional rain, herewith establishing a thriving culture in the sandy and stony plains and hills of the desert which lasted 700 years. They started to trade spices. 
The camel was domesticated already long before, and so they organized big caravans on a route that stretched from Oman and Yemen to Jordan, and from there via the Negev desert to the port in Gaza on the Mediterranean shore. They brought pepper, cardamon, cinnamon, saffron and ginger, spices that came from India in big ships via the ocean to Arabia. And they bought frankincense and myrrh in Yemen, two resins, which release their characteristic scent when burned. Both incenses were very essential in the religious rites of the ancient people. You remember the three Wise Men from the East, who brought to the newborn Jesus a present of frankincense and myrrh? Till today frankincense is widely used in Christianity. In Gaza they sold those precious products of the Orient for enormous sums and made huge profit. Then those goods got transported to Europe, to Greece and Rom. The Incense Road was born, and it flourished from the third century BCE to the fourth century CE.
The mountainous Negev desert is a harsh territory, the journey through it was very difficult, threatened often by sandstorms. Rest stops were needed and created, which, first being very modest, developed over time into fortresses and then into Nabatean cities, with Petra in Jordan being their legendary necropolis.  As their wealth constantly increased the Nabateans eventually settled down, and through contact with many different people they adapted elements of their cultures. Greek and Roman influences were evident in religion, language and architecture. The Incense Route had many stations. I wrote about one of the six major ones in the Negev, Shivta, in a previous post. Another very important one was Avdat, or Obodat, named after a Nabatean king, who is buried there. The city was inhabited by Nabateans, Romans and Byzantines.
So last Thursday my husband took leave from work and we went with my niece for a day long adventure to the desert to visit Avdat, which is located off Route 40 between Kibbutz Sde Boker and Mitzpe Ramon, about 15 minutes drive from Sde Boker in the Negev highlands, where the old routes from Petra and Eilat meet and continue to the Mediterranean coast. The ancient caravan station evolved into a large desert city. It lays on a hilltop, about 80 meters high, and is completely surrounded by a wall.
On the plain around Avdat traces of ancient agriculture are visible, with foundation walls indicating farms, and detectable lines on the grounds, suggesting boundaries of fields and gardens. The Nabateans developed sophisticated techniques to irrigate the desert and channel the water from floods. Many modern farmers and winegrowers terrace their land after Nabatean patterns. Just now almond trees are blooming there.
On the way up to the city we saw many caves, carved out of the sandstone in the flanks of the hill, which were used for storage.

The ruins we see today are the foundations of the caravansary, the city fortress, the living quarters of a roman army camp, two churches from Byzantine times, with a basin in form of a cross for baptism, built over a Nabatean temple, a pottery workshop, a Byzantine house, a very well preserved structure of a Roman villa, a bath house, as well as several wine presses from Byzantine time and of course walls and walls and walls, many fallen down, of housing. 
We found two marble slabs, covering graves, on the floor with Greek inscriptions, and one has a Jewish Menorah on it, we could not find out what the text says.
Great treasure is still buried under the ground and while we visited there a crew was working to uncover more. 
The city was destroyed by earthquake in the 7th century and stayed deserted, but evidence of ancient life and economics is everywhere to be seen. Cisterns are present and fenced in, many vaults and arches have been preserved over the centuries, and walls and columns were reconstructed to give a better understanding of the place.

Strolling through the ruins is easy and very fascinating. The hours we spent there were filled with excitement, wonder and discussions about the life of the different people during all the centuries.
What did they wear? How was their food?  Was their wine good? Where did they cook and bake and what? How did their earthenware look? Did they grow sheep? What was the place of women in their society? Who worked the gardens and fields? What did the children play? What about education? Leisure? 
It was fun to imagine, to assume and to dream. The weather was pleasing, sunny, with a little wind blowing in our faces. The view of the desert all around is beautiful. We had a great day of history, nature and companionship!
The photographs were taken by all three of us.


zsazsazsu said...

thanks for sharing this interesting information. By reading it felt like I was joining you all !

2 B's World said...

Liebe Yael,
gerade eben habe ich deine letzten Posts verfolgt und ich bin total begeistert von den schönen Bildern und Eindrücken, die Du mit uns teilst. Leider komme ich zur Zeit nicht dazu die Bloggerwelt so regelmäßig zu besuchen, wie ich es gerne möchte. Umsomehr genieße ich es nun, deine wunderschönen Beiträge nachzulesen.
Du bringst mir damit ein Stück Erholung, Lebensfreude, sonnige Momente und viel gute Laune ins Haus. Dankeschön!

Viele liebe Grüße von Birgit

steinschmuckdesign said...

Really impressing,
can you believe I was never in the Dessert?
Maybe one Day I manage!!!!

Bernstein said...

Halllo Yael,
ich finde es schier unglaublich, was Ihr in den paar Tagen alles miteinander erlebt habt. Da ist wirklich von allem etwas dabei. Danke, dass wir auch dabei sein durften. Ich finde das sehr spannend, kontrastreich, erheiternd, lehrreich und ganz einfach schön.
Begeisterte grüße
PS: So eine Ziege, einen Esel oder ein Kamel samt Treiber würde ich mir sofort in meinen Garten stellen. Ich lieb solch rostige Eisenfiguren :o)))

Annuk said...

Yael dear, I just have to tell you your blog is ever wonderful and amazing!!!!! And this post is just so beautiful... a wondrous trip through history, legend, myth, time, space and beauty!!! Those mythical names I am reading... Negev, Petra, the Incense Route... and so many peoples leaving their signs through the centuries... I am totally fascinated! The photos are incredibly beautiful too!
You know, Yael, I have a "thing" for archaeology (took an exam in Egyptology during my studies at University) and for the Middle East... there's so much history and myth in the Eastern Mediterranean, and your wonderful posts are really a feast for the eyes and and a joy for the heart!!! THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!

glazedOver Pottery said...

This is like a college course complete with slideshow and footnotes for further reading! I remember learning briefly about the Nabateans in grad school. Sadly, not a lot of time was devoted to the topic since the Nabateans didn't leave a textual record of any great significance and our focus was on the written record. Still, what an impressive and well oiled machine they were, and under such odds too.

Such a high quality blog you maintain, Yael. Thank you for the constant enrichment.

Eva said...

Was für ein informierendes und unterhaltendes Posting! Ja, es lohnt sich immer wieder, Deinen Blog zu verfolgen. Sehr amüsant sind die Metallfiguren, sicher von einem bekannten Künstler, vermute ich. Und diese Steinbögen sind magisch.

wanda miller said...

AMAAAAAzing!!! thank you for bringing us along in this beautiful beautiful part of your world! xo

Yael said...

It is so true to your artists heart Eva that you mention the creator of the iron cut outs! The truth is I tried to find out about him and so far was not successful. His (or her?) name is not mentioned everywhere. I will call at the place itself and eventually I will find out, then I will give him credit and put his name in the post!

I LOVED those figures, they add so much to the story and they are just lovely and full of humor!

veroque said...

יעל, אני נפעמת מהפוסט. התיאורים שלך גורמים לי לראות את אורח החיים של הנבטים ממש מול עיני ואני מרגישה שממש אבל ממש בא לי להיות שם.
את ואורי פשוט צוות מנצח הכתיבה והצילומים פשוט נהדרים בעיני!!!
שולחת לכם חיבוק גדול.

Hilde said...

Oh, I loved the post, Yael, very interesting! Thank you for the tour and for the information about this place, and for the great photos.
The iron cut out art is just brilliant :) And the blooming almond trees are beautiful.

Handmade in Israel said...

What a great day out! Another one to add to the list. You have given your niece an amazing vacation!

Anonymous said...

oh man, da wars so schön und jetzt bin ich wieder zurück bei -4°C :((
Vielen Dank für die tolle Woche!!! HEL, Judith.

Objekte-aus-Ton said...

Vielen Dank für diesen schönen Ausflug!
Liebe Grüße

Dawn of LaTouchables said...

Yael, every time I come into your blog I am amazed by something new and exciting. This looks like a most wonderful day!

Chris Gray said...

Thank you so much for this posting!

...I really wish I could visit such an incredible place....

...but your blog puts me there anyway ...(almost :-)

Pesky Cat Designs said...

Thanks for sharing your wonderful trip with us! At first I did not realize that those were sculptures in the first photos. Amazing! The modern iron works looks quite surreal among all the ancient ruins.

Wishing you and your family a wonderful weekend Yael. :)