The Incense Route

Exploring the desert cities in the Negev offers a glimpse into Israel’s nomadic legacy—especially if you’re riding a camel.
An Israeli Steed: Camels reclining in the Negev Desert (courtesy, Israel Ministry of Tourism)
The Incense Route
Date of Inscription: 2005
Why Go: Get a whiff of life on the Spice Road, when the Negev Desert was considered primo real estate, and frankincense and myrrh were as popular as patchouli at a Dead show.
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Centuries ago, the Incense and Spice Road was the I-80 of ancient Israel. From the third century B.C. to the second century A.D., the 1,118-mile (1,800-kilometer) route was hump-to-hump camel and caravan traffic. The trail began in southern Arabia, where the thorn trees were tapped for frankincense and myrrh; threaded through the rough-and-tough Negev Desert; and ended at the Mediterranean coast, where the Nabatean tradesmen would turn around and start all over again. Back then the scented sticks were the enviable item among the haute-stylin' Hellenists and Romans, and because of their high currency and demand, the trade route thrived. Mini-metropolises sprung up on terrain where flowers once struggled to survive.

The Nabateans, who were as surefooted as geckos on the desert turf, were industrious folk: They built towers and fortresses to protect the route from Romans itching to invade, constructed irrigation systems to keep the arid land moist and to cultivate crops, and installed bathhouses to wash off the stink of camel. For 500 years, the region was an oasis in the desert—until the Romans came and conquered Petra and the Negev went back to being undesirable real estate.

Yet traces of the route's former livelihood and prosperity still remain. The surviving sites include a quartet of towns, five fortresses, two caravanserai (an inn with a parking lot for caravans), segments of the I&S Road, and remnants of the Nabateans' agricultural inventiveness (dams, cisterns, reservoirs, etc.). For rock enthusiasts, there are also milestones (literally stones that ticked off the miles), and random piles of pebbles representing either road markers (precursors of today's "Yield" or "Danger ahead!" signs) or worship sites that have a tinge of Stonehenge mystery about them.

To hit all of the attractions, you'll need a sturdy GPS and a well-hydrated camel. (Four-wheel-drive vehicles are considered detrimental to the fragile area.) The sites lie along a 62-mile (100-kilometer) swatch that runs from Haluza in the northwest to Moa along the Jordanian border, with most of the structures tucked between Petra in Jordan and Gaza. Only one town, Mamshit, looks north to Damascus.

The protected sites fall into that archeological category called Romantic Ruins, like a Pompeii plunked in the desert. The town of Haluza, for example, plays peek-a-boo behind shifting sands; depending on the winds, you could see the wine press, theater, tower, and churches—or just a lumpy sandscape. You might conjure a better picture of Nabatean life at Mamshit, whose mosaics, town wall, private homes, and bathhouses are still standing. Or in Shivta, where the town's streets wind past two- and three-story domiciles, the governor's house, and churches with shipshape apses.

The caravanserai and fortresses have survived in kind. At the Ramon Gate Caravanserai, the soft-clay stone and fired-clay brick materials have not completely cracked under the cruel desert sun. Clues of the hostelry's former self linger in the workshops, kitchens, chambers, and washrooms. To the east, the Nabateans' engineering acumen is on display at the Nekarot Fortress, whose hidden pool complex was expertly built for holding raindrops, not for swimming laps. The reservoir still retains its walls, windows, arched-roof supports, and canal—only the water's gone dry.

Despite the sophisticated urban planning, the Nabateans also knew that sometimes a simple rock could be just as handy. In between the Makhmal Fort and the Saharonim Fort, 22 milestones pointed the traveling myrrh-men in the right direction. Without the markers, they had only their incense to light the way.


A globetrotter and travel writer, Andrea Sachs contributes frequently to the Washington Post.

Published: 8 Feb 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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