Nabatean Town Shivta
An Ancient Incense Route once connected Mysterious Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Roman World. This trade flourished for hundreds years and led to the development of ancient towns, forts and roadside inns, apart from the most advanced desert agricultural development.
These incenses were Frankincense and Myrrh. For over 5,000 years, starting from the earliest Pharaonic times of the Ancient Egypt, these two resins have been traditionally used to produce the best perfumes, medication and embalming ointments. In Christian tradition, the Magi (the Three Wise Men or Three Kings from the East) visited baby Jesus, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Today, it may seem strange that the demand for incenses was the main reason for such large-scale international trade across such long distances. One probably thinks of them simply as strongly smelling substances. Yet, the word “incense” means "to make someone agitated", and they have been always considered items of special value, as compared to ordinary articles of trade. Travelling these long distances becomes understandable if one considers the fact that many of the important incenses had outstanding religious, ritual and medical values.
Four towns in the Negev Desert, which flourished during the period from 300 BC to 200 AD, are linked directly with the Incense Road and spices trade routes: Avdat, Mamshit, Shivta and Halutsa. Proclaimed as being of outstanding universal value by UNESCO, these desert cities demonstrate the highly profitable trade in myrrh and frankincense. that took place from Yemen in South Arabia to the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean coast.
These towns history is connected to the desert people called Nabateans. They built beautiful cities, created highly successful international trade, became outstandingly rich, but still not much is known about them or their culture. The Nabataeans seem to refuse to write. Their temple walls are bare. Their cities contain no libraries, and archeologists have found only a few written documents.
But what do we really know about the Nabateans? It appears that a nomadic tribe known as the Nabateans began migrating gradually from Arabia during the sixth century BCE. Over time, they abandoned their nomadic ways and settled in a number of places in present days Southern Jordan, in the Negev Desert, and in northern Arabia. Their capital city was the legendary Petra, built in the best of Hellenistic influences and Roman traditions.
Semites by origin, the Nabateans initially used to speak a dialect of the Arabic, but later on switched to the Aramaic, and further on to Greek. By the 5th century CE they had converted to Christianity and started building beautiful churches in their Negev desert cities. They more and more started losing their unique identity and turned to be the Romans instead.
The Nabateans initially gain huge profits from their incorporation into the Roman trade routes and the cultural paths of the Roman Near East. However, with the time being, the international trade routes moved further to more inhabited areas at the North, and the Nabatean wealth and influence started gradually sliding down. Sometime probably during the fourth century CE, the Nabateans left their capital at Petra. No one really knows why.
In the six century a devastating earthquake reduced most of what remained of Petra to heaps of rubble. It was never rebuilt; and all written records came to an end. But, at the same time, the four Nabatean cities in Negev, turned Roman and Christian, continued their existence. They managed to survive for another few hundred years, slowly sliding into oblivion. The new Arab invaders, who soon pressed forward into Nabatean territory, found the remnants of the Nabataeans transformed into simple peasants. Their prospering Negev cities were abandoned, being slowly covered by sand, and the very trace of the great Nabatean civilization was blown away with the desert winds.
It has taken dozens years of excavations, and finally the Israeli archeologists have managed to recreate the history of the Nabateans, piece by piece, stone by stone, secret by secret. And today beautifully excavated and turned into the Israeli National parks Nabatean towns provide an outstanding insight of the ancient desert civilization and attract everyone who loves history and its mysteries.
Church at Mamshit
A Christian Saint spent long years standing on this column