A city on the Nabatean Spice Route
Although Avdat today appears to be in the middle of the bare, inhospitable wilderness of the Negev Desert, 2,000 years ago it was a thriving market town in the midst of an intensely cultivated agricultural area. The secret was a method of “water harvesting” developed, some believe, by the ancient Nabateans.
Water harvesting is an ingenious system of collecting every drop of winter rain that falls onto the impenetrable desert ground. Man-made channels cross kilometres of the bare hillsides, carrying water to reservoirs cut into the living rock. Alternatively the channels lead the water to a long series of small dams in the valleys so that it can slowly permeate into the earth giving sustenance to crops throughout a short growing season. By these methods huge tracts of land were cultivated and the Negev remained a thriving economic and highly populated region for several hundred years.
The Nabateans were a nomadic people who appeared on the map of history around the 6th century BC, in the deserts of northern Arabia in what is now the Kingdom of Jordan. They considered themselves the descendants of one of the twelve sons of Ishmael – the son of Abraham and Hagar, and the father of all the Arab nations, Genesis 16:15.
The first to harness the power of the camel for long-range commerce, the Nabateans quickly came to dominate the course of trade known as the Spice Route. This was the route that brought incense and spices from the East to the great civilizations that developed around the Mediterranean Sea – Egypt, then Greece and later Rome.
Known collectively as the Perfumes of Arabia, these precious commodities were in such high demand in the temples and palaces of antiquity that the camel caravans often comprised over a thousand animals – each one carrying up to half a ton of goods on its back!
To protect this valuable merchandise from marauding bandits, the Nabateans built a series of stations along the route from their capital of Petra through to the Mediterranean port-city of Gaza. Much like the stations of the Pony Express in the Wild West, these caravanserai were a days ride apart, and provided a bath and a bed for the night for the caravan masters, and water and fodder for their beasts. Avdat is one of the oldest of the stations, and grew to be one of the largest, along with the settlements of Halutza, Mamshit, Nizana and Shifta.
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