Nabateans and the incense route in the Naqab desert

The Naqab desert is about 1200 square kilometers. That is 120,000 hectare. That’s about 60% of all of historic Palestine which means that more than half of the country is desert.

If you look at the map, you will see that the Naqab has a triangular shape. It is bordered by the Sinai peninsula and by the Jordan rift valley. The root letters of the word Naqab are nqb and refers to the dry circumstances. The rainfall in this area is on average between 75 to 100 millimeters per year. That is three to four inches per year.

But in the winter flash floods are common. The Naqab desert is quite rocky. The flesh floods that happen in the winter, created deep valleys and some craters.

Avdat, a Nabatean desert city

Avdat is a good two hours drive south of Jerusalem. It is almost an hour south of Beersheva. Avdat is an archeological site. It is one of the cities that was originally built by the Nabateans. It was built on the incense route. Since 2005 it is one of the four towns that are on the UNESCO world heritage list as the desert cities in the Naqab on the incense route, the other towns are Mamshit, Shivta and Haluza.

The incense and spices route

The incense and spices route was a very profitable trade route that started in the Eastern part of south of Arabia, the area of current day Oman and Yemen. It went over land and then partially over the Red Sea. And then again over land through the Naqab desert to the port of Gaza. From the port of Gaza the produce was transported by boat over the Mediterranean sea.

The incense route flourished between the third century BCE and the second century after BCE. The most traded products on these roads were frankincense and myrrh. Beside frankincense and myrrh they also traded in pearls from the Persian Gulf, silk from China and spices and cotton from India.

But what are frankincense and myrrh? They are both resins that are extracted from trees. Frankincense comes from the sap of the Boswellia tree and myrrh comes from the lifeblood of the Commifora. When the resin is hardened, it looks like small chunks and these chunks were burned in the temples as incense, They were used to worship the different gods, the Greek and the Roman gods in the temples. Frankincense was also used for medicinal purposes and sometimes for cosmetic purposes. It had a very nice smell and it was in a high demand. As the trees that produce this resin can only grow on the Arabian peninsula, there was a very short supply, which meant that the price was very high. It was often more expensive than gold.

Myrrh resin incense

And you may have heard about frankincense and myrrh from the story of the Bible written in the book of Matthew, the first book of the new Testament, when three wise men came to visit Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem to praise their baby Jesus. They brought gifts: frankincense, myrrh and gold.

In Palestine, the Christians refer to the three wise men as the three Maggi who were probably astrologers,  very knowledgeable about the star constellations. They recognized that this special star meant that a great event was about to happen and that a king was born.

There are also scholars who suggest that the three Maggi were Nabateans, because of the gifts that they brought. They refer to a text from the old Testament of the Bible, from the book of Isaiah chapter 60, in which we can read a prophecy from the prophet Isaiah about the future of Jerusalem.

Prophet Isaiah mentions Nabaioth / Nabateans

In the book of Isaiah chapter 60 we read the following:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
    and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
    and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
    All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
    and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
    your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
    to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
    young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
    bearing gold and incense
    and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
7 All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you,
    the rams of Nebaioth will serve you;
they will be accepted as offerings on my altar,
    and I will adorn my glorious temple.

The historian Flavius Josephus says that the Nabateans come from the Nabaioth, who were mentioned by Isaiah here. So according to Flavius Josephus the Nabateans were descendants of the sons of Ishmael. If you are familiar with the Bible you know that Ishmael was a son of Abraham and one of his slaves, Hagar. His half brother was Isaac, who was the son of Abraham and his wife Sara and who is considered one of the patriarchs in all monotheistic religions.

The meaning of the word Nabatean

According to scholars the word Nabatean comes from the root letters NBTW or ‘istinbaat’ which literally means deductive reasoning but has become to be known as water extraction or to dig for water. And that’s exactly what the Nabateans are known for. They knew where to find water in the very dry desert. They also knew how to collect and store the little rainwater that would fall in the winter. They would mark the places where the water was stored in a secret way, not known to other tribes, so that travelers trough the area HAD to rely on paying the Nabateans to pass safely through this dry desert and have access to water.

Nabateans and water in the desert

The distance that the traders had to cover on foot and with camels to reach the Mediterranean was 1800 kilometers (that’s 1118 miles) and they would be able to cover about 35 kilometers per day (21 miles) with the camels. So the whole incense route had about 65 stops. And obviously it was important that at each stop there was water.

So the Nabateans had a monopoly on the caravan trade and as the Seleucid Kingdom, the rulers in the 2nd century BC after the conquest by Alexander the Great, were becoming weaker, the Nabatean kingdom was increasing in strength. They were a nomadic Bedouin people that lived in the Arabian peninsula and they spoke Arabic, but on their coins and in inscriptions we see Aramaic writing, the same language that Jesus used to speak and that was very common in Palestine in that time. Later when the Nabateans are incorporated in the Roman Empire the inscriptions change to Greek. Which was commonly used in the time of the Roman Empire, more commonly still than Latin.

Nabatean forts and stations on the incense route

The Nabateans realized that it was lucrative to set up places for the traders on the incense route and they developed forts and towns to defend the route and to provide support for the travelers. And of course also support for their own population. Nabateans themselves also became part of the trade and they were good at it. They used to send from their own people to live in the towns on the trade route and to buy goods when they were at a cheap price and store them until other Nabatean traders would pass by on the route and they could buy the goods cheap from them and sell them later at good prices.

Strong sense of community among Nabateans

These Nabateans, although they were scattered around the Arabian peninsula, some of them working on the trade route, others established in towns on the route, others working as guides in the desert, whatever they did they used to come together in annual events or festivals to worship their ancestors. If a Nabatean died far from their capital Petra, they would not bury them where they had died, but rather lay the body on wooden branches over a hole, let the body dissolve and then pick up the bones to bury the bones in the graves in Petra where they would go yearly. This gave a strong sense of community to the Nabateans despite the fact that they were scattered around the area.

When the Romans entered the scene they tried to take over the incense route and the Nabateans moved the route more south into more difficult terrain.

Eventually in the 2nd century the Romans under Trajan conquered Petra, the capital of the Nabateans and they annexed the Nabatean towns in the Naqab desert to the Roman province of Arabia, as they called it. The Nabatean towns became part of the Roman defense system. And the Romans changed the spices and incense trade route to go through Egypt. So now the traders would cross the Red Sea into Egypt and go further over land in Egypt. This was the end of the incense route through the Naqab.

The Nabateans and desert agriculture

But the Nabateans were very smart and innovative and they managed, with their knowledge of rainwater collection, to start something quite intriguing, namely desert agriculture.

When we read about how Israel made the desert bloom, well, that’s nothing new, the Nabateans already made the desert bloom but in a much more natural and sustainable way, they did not divert water from the north to the south, nor did they plant any trees that were not native to the environment, they actually had the knowledge on how to collect the rainwater in their cities through a system of roof top water collection and street water collection in channels that would bring the water to a big cistern for this runoff water.

They also made hug cisterns in the valleys to be able to collect flash flood water. Sometimes in the winter it rained a lot and from higher parts the water would start coming down in big streams and by digging a cistern down in the valley the water would be collected there and then it could be taken up into the city by donkeys and water carriers.

Wine press in Nabatean city Avdat

The Nabateans and wine production

In the Byzantine time the Nabateans converted to Christianity and in the different excavated sites we can find a number of churches including beautiful baptism fonts with the shape of a cross.

The Nabateans started to grow grapes and produce wine and they sold the wine to the Roman soldiers who were stationed in the area.

Avdat a Nabatean desert city

I visited Avdat and I will try to describe it. It is a national park so you have to pay an entrance fee. It is really in the middle of the desert and you have to drive up to the top where you can park and have a magnificent view over the area. Avdat was named after the Nabatean King Obodas III. On the Peutinger map, which is a 13th copy of an older map of the Roman empire and their road system, the town is mentioned as Obo da.

Avdat used to have temples for the worship of local gods, but these were converted into churches and there are two churches well preserved, despite the earthquake of 630 that led to the abandonment of the city. In the southern church you can still recognize the four rows of columns and the main apse in the middle with a stone altar and two apses on each side. There are some tombs inside the church with inscriptions in Greek. And in the northern church is the large Byzantine baptistery with the cross shape. The same were found in two other desert cities, Shivta and Mamshit.

Cross shaped baptism font in the Nabatean city Avdat

Besides the ruins of a lot of residential houses we can see a well preserved Byzantine bath house from the 4th century that has been partially reconstructed, a bit down the slope of the hill. It was fed from a water channel that led the collected rain water to the bath house.

In the middle of Avdat on the top is a Byzantine city fortress with a wide open court. In the middle of the court is a large deep cistern and you can still see the water channel that used to feed the rainwater into the cistern.

They found five wine presses in the city, which shows how important wine making was in that time.

The Nabateans used to build their houses in front of or on top of natural caves and used them as a storage. A great place where it remained naturally cool to store wine and wheat and dried fruits and so on.

Remains of a house in Avdat built in front of a natural cave that was used for storage of wine

The Nabateans defeat Herod Antipas

Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, the one who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist, was married to the daughter of the Nabatean King Aretas IV and he divorced her to marry Herodias, the wife of his half brother Herod Philippi. Because John the Baptist had criticized Herod Antipas and Herodias, she wanted her husband to kill John.

Meanwhile the Nabateans also wanted their revenge and in the year 39 AD the Nabateans defeated Herod Antipas. At least historian Josephus explains this as divine vengeance for killing John the Baptist.