Avdat of the Nabateans
The prospect of long drives through the hot, dusty desert discourages many people from visiting the Negev. But the marvelous ruins of great civilizations make the trip more than worth the effort.
Consider the Nabateans. A mysterious Arab people of unknown origin, they are first mentioned in a document from 312 B.C.E. In time, they came to dominate Transjordan, the Negev and, most important of all, the spice routes connecting Arabia with the Mediterranean. When the apostle Paul traveled to Damascus, it was the Nabateans who controlled the city (2 Corinthians 11:32).
A Desert Kingdom
Great cities dotted the routes controlled by the Nabateans: Petra, Shivta, Nizzana, Halutza, Mamshit. All are easily accessible today by good roads from Beersheba and all are astonishing. The most impressive of all the Negev cities is Avdat (also known as Oboda), which looms above the main desert road—from Petra to Gaza—perched on a cliff 2,000 feet above sea level.
When the Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai captured Gaza in 96 B.C.E., the Nabateans lost their outlet to the Mediterranean; as a consequence, control over inland trade routes mattered little. So the Nabateans turned their attention to farming. But only 33 years later, the Roman general Pompey seized control of Syria and Judea, wrested the coastal cities (and much else) from the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty and returned the cities to their previous rulers (as Roman vassals, of course). The Nabateans were back in business!
But control over the spice routes of Arabia was too great a prize to be ignored for long; Emperor Trajan conquered the 069kingdom in 106 C.E., and the land of the Nabateans became the Roman province of Arabia. The people and their trade flourished under Roman and, subsequently, Byzantine rule. Flourished indeed: Farming and trade in the Negev reached proportions amazing even by modern standards. By the time of the Persian invasion of 614 C.E., between 80,000 and 100,000 people lived in the Negev!
That would prove to be the peak. With the Muslim invasions of the seventh century, the east was cut off from European markets. The Negev withered economically, and Avdat and the other Nabatean cities fell into ruin.
A Tour of the City
When visiting Avdat today, drive up to the top of the hill and begin by taking a path to the right that leads to a Roman burial cave. There one learns the first lesson of living in the desert: head for the caves. It’s cool in there. That’s why many of the Avdat houses included caves.
The Nabatean acropolis dominates Avdat; over the centuries, it was much modified by the Romans and Byzantines. Just beyond the acropolis sits a large Byzantine winepress; next to it is a ring of stone “lockers” (actually small storage rooms) for supplies of grapes, and a treading area that leads to a collecting vat for the juice. Alongside the winepress is the huge crushing stone of an olive press. In the middle of the trackless desert, it takes a vigorous imagination to remember that a millennium and a half ago, people really did grow grapes and olives here.
The acropolis is divided in half by a high wall. The western half holds the remains of two Byzantine-era churches, the smaller of which is dedicated to St. Theodore, patron saint of Avdat. Several grave markers are set in the floor, each bearing the names and dates of the monks buried underneath.
The eastern part of the acropolis apparently served as a fortress. The corner tower provides a grand view of the empty desert.
Ruined porticos and houses, stairways, stores and homes from various eras still dot the acropolis. They help us imagine the busy town that once stood here. Before leaving the acropolis, walk out the back, to the east, to where the Nabateans manufactured their pottery. Nobody who has ever seen and felt Nabatean pottery will ever forget the experience. It was beautifully formed and a deep brownish maroon in color. But most astonishing, it is egg-shell thin and feather light! To the best of my knowledge, no potter has ever succeeded in duplicating that pottery.
Farming the Negev
How did the Nabateans pursue agriculture in so inhospitable an environment? The Negev is “blessed” with an annual average rainfall of about 3 inches. A little more than 8 inches of rain per year is thought to be the minimum necessary for survival, and experts figure you need double that to farm. It is hard to imagine that the Nabateans, who were probably from Arabia, knew much about agriculture before they got to the Negev, but they certainly learned.
The Nabateans had mastered the four secrets of farming in the desert. First, they knew where to farm: always in a valley surrounded by hills that could collect water over an area 20 times the size of the plot they were farming. Second, they manicured the landscape so that every drop of rain went where they wanted it. The Nabatean cities of the Negev contain remarkable systems of terraces, sluices, gates, dams, blocks, channels, piles and aqueducts.
Third, they understood the nature of the soil. Windblown loess—a soil rich in clay—covers the Negev. It absorbs the first rain and then forms a crust to keep the water from evaporating. Thanks to the crust, subsequent rain doesn’t all sink in but creates a runoff of about 30 percent (the usual rate of runoff is 5–10 percent). And this runoff was directed into the terraces, sluices, etc., listed in secret number two.
So can we now make Las Vegas bloom? No, because we have not mentioned the fourth secret: The Nabateans knew that the loess soil must be at least 10 feet deep in order to hold enough water to keep plants alive through the desert summer.
Next to the ruins of Avdat, an experimental farm, founded in 1959 by Hebrew University professor Michael Evenari, is replicating Nabatean farming methods. They work!
Avdat is about 30 miles south of Beersheba, an easy hour’s drive on route 40 (bus service is infrequent). Accommodations can be had at the new Hilton hotel in Beersheba (011–972-7–640-5444) or at the Ramon Inn (011–972-7–658-8822) at Mitzpeh Ramon (a huge crater that is a spectacular site in itself). To visit the farm, call Hebrew University’s department of agriculture at 011–972-8–948-1211.
Avdat of the Nabateans The prospect of long drives through the hot, dusty desert discourages many people from visiting the Negev. But the marvelous ruins of great civilizations make the trip more than worth the effort. Consider the Nabateans. A mysterious Arab people of unknown origin, they are first mentioned in a document from 312 B.C.E. In time, they came to dominate Transjordan, the Negev and, most important of all, the spice routes connecting Arabia with the Mediterranean. When the apostle Paul traveled to Damascus, it was the Nabateans who controlled the city (2 Corinthians 11:32). A Desert Kingdom […]