Spice Route

Water in the Negev

Ein Saharonim is the only water source for Machtesh Ramon, the largest natural crater in Israel. The Nabateans were the only ones who were able to cross the Arabian desert. They knew the secrets of the desert: where the secret water spots were hidden, and they knew how better to preserve water, including the use of dams, plastered cisterns, and water conduits. Because they knew these secrets, they held a monopoly over the spice trade for centuries.

Khan Saharonim

Near Ein Saharonim are the remains of a Nabatean caravanserai, indicating that this was one of their stops on the Spice Route. Military camps and forts like this one served as a stopping point on their journey and as protection from highway robbers along the way. They had many camps like this one, in addition to various cities, the most important of which were Avdat (Oboda), Nessana (Nitzana), and Elusa (Halutzah). Others included Soubaita (Shivta), Mampsis(Mamshit), and Rehovot-in-the-Negev.

The Nabateans

The Nabateans were a group of Arab commercial nomads from the Arabian Peninsula. First mentioned in Ashurbanipal’s list of enemies in 647 B.C., they appeared in the Negev in the 4th century B.C. and pushed the Edomites (Idumeans) north into southern Judah. Originally they were a pastoralist people, but as traders they grew wealthy, holding a monopoly of the market because they knew the secrets of the desert. They reached their greatest prosperity under Aretas III (9 B.C.-40 A.D.), but were already beginning to settle down in cities. The Nabateans are best known for their damming systems, vineyards, horse breeding, and stone cutting.

The Spice Route

The route the Nabateans took across the Negev with their camel trains was called the Spice Route; it stretched from the Persian Gulf (Arabia) to the ports of Gaza, passing through Petra (their capital) and Avdat. Their constant travel made for a transitory life. They did not live in houses, but they did built elaborate tombs for their dead, especially at Petra and Egra. Self-denial was a way of life, and they would not touch alcohol, which they saw as a sign of settling down.

Items of Trade

The Nabateans traded items coming from the Far East (especially what is today India, Thailand, China, and Korea) and Southern Arabia. Many of the items were brought to Arabia by sea, and when they reached Gaza, they were shipped off to Rome. Spices were the most common of these items, giving the desert route its name. Other products included perfumes, herbs, wood, gems, silks, medicines, and metals. The Nabateans were the mediators of these products and goods; they even sold asphalt from theDead Sea to Egypt for use in mummification, coffin-sealing, and glue.

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Related Websites

The Spice Route (Central Arava Regional Council) Provides a detailed description of the Spice Route through Nahal Nekarot and Nahal Katzra. Also provides instructions on following the route in a four-wheel drive vehicle. This website also offers a map of the Spice Route here.

The Spice Route (StateOfIsrael.com)  Introduces the Spice Route, describing part of its course and the things that will be encountered on it today.

Nabataean Trade Routes (Nabataea.net) Lengthy discussion of all of the Nabataean trade routes. Provides a helpful map.

Textiles Found Along the Spice Route (Textile Society of America) Abstract of a paper presented at a textile symposium. It discusses textiles that archaeologists have discovered at sites such as Moa. Includes bibliography.

The Maps (Exodus Project, The Academy of Fine Arts in Prague) Provides a satellite image of the region and a modern map showing the route through Nahal Nekarot.