Avdat - the wall of the acropolis

The ruins of Avdat, the greatest Nabatean city in the Negev, lie on a limestone hill overlooking the desert. The remains include two impressive Bysantine churches, a wine press, and many other interesting finds. The place is under the auspices of the Avdat National Park.






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The History of Avdat

As far back as the 4th century BCE, Nabatean travelers led their caravans through the Negev along the Spice Route. Avdat (or Oboda) was established as a road station along the route in the 3rd century BCE. It was probably named after the Nabatean king Oboda I.

The diverse nature of archaeological finds from that period allows to conclude that the Avdat station was of great importance in Indo-Arabian commerce. Indeed, it was positioned at at a place where the ancient roads from Petra and Eilat converge into one and continue to the Mediterranean coast.

At the beginning of the 1st century BCE the city was abandoned, probably as a result of the conquests of Alexander Yannai, who in 103 BCE captured the Mediterranean coast and disrupted the spice trade.

Years later, the city was rebuilt by Nabatean king Oboda III. During his reign (30 to 9 BCE), the Nabateans began the transformation from traders to farmers. King Oboda was buried there and revered as a god. The Nabatean settlement reached its zenith during the rule of King Aretas IV (9 BCE - 40 CE), when the city acropolis was fortified and a large temple built within it. The pottery shop from 1-50 CE, discovered in the eastern part of the city, produced delicate, thin Nabatean pottery.

During the reign of Oboda III and Aretas IV the city became an important center for sheep, goat and camel breeding. The military camp for the camel corps guarding the caravan routes, which stood northeast to the city, may also date from that time.

By the middle of the 1st century CE the Nabatean trade diminished, and the inhabitants turned to farming. They built a system of dams to exploit the scarce rainfall for irrigation.

During the reign of Malichis II (40-70 CE) Avdat suffered destruction at the hands of pre-Islamic Arab tribes. Later, under Rabbel II (70-106 CE) agricultural projects were developed in the vicinity, as is evidenced by dedicatory inscriptions on libation altars found there.

Little change was brought by the Roman conquest of the area in 106 CE, when the Nabatean Kingdom and the rest of the Negev were annexed into roman Provincia Arabia. The second and third centuries CE were a period of great prosperity for the city, especially the middle of the 3rd century, when the Romans incorporated the former Nabatean empire into a defense chain of the southern border of their Empire. Avdat, situated on this line, became a settlement for soldiers who received land in return for guaranteed military service in times of emergency. The new settlement was founded on the southern spur of the city ridge, consisting of a number of well-built houses (villas), some of them on the ruins of Nabatean residences. A temple dedicated to the local Zeus (Zeus-Oboda) was built on the acropolis: the remaining Nabatean population borrowed the religion of Romans, and revered their king Avdat also as the Roman god Zeus. Also, a shrine to Aphrodite was built on the acropolis, apparently on the spot where a former Nabatean sanctuary had stood.

At the end of the third century CE a fortress was built on the eastern half of the acropolis hill. Part of the local population was mobilized ti serve as a militia against threatening Arab tribes. The payments from the imperial military treasures helped the city economy.

With the advent of Christianity in the Negev, by the middle of the 4th century, two churches and a monastery replaced the pagan temples. The settlement moved down to the western slopes of the mountain. People lived in houses constructed over rock-hewn caves. The agricultural areas were extended - most of the remains of agricultural works in the town vicinity belong to this period. The local economy was based, at least in part, on the cultivation of a fine variety of grapes and wine production. The agricultural areas were extended.

When the Bysantine power declined, the people of Avdat were no more able to defend themselves from nomads. Conquests by Persians in 614 and Moslems in 636 partially destroyed the city, and in 10th century the place was finally abandoned.

Modern excavations began in 1958. The place was partly restored and turned into national park. In the middle of 1990s humoresque iron silhouettes of ancient caravans entering the city were installed at the site.

The Avdat National Park

The Avdat National Park encompasses the ruins of Avdat on top of the high limestone hill and the area down the slope. There are parking lots at the base of the hill and at its top. Tours at the site usually start from the top and end at the bottom.

The upper parking lot is at the edge of a Roman 3rd century quarter. A short distance back from the lot, there is a reconstructed Roman villa. This private house was built around a square courtyard with a water cistern at its center.

The tour trail returns to the parking lot and goes up the hill. At the edge of the city stands a 12 m. high Roman tower - probably an observation tower. Although built at the time of the Roman settlement, it was constructed by an architect from the local Nabatean population who contrived every possible device to protect the building from earthquakes. The perfect state of preservation of its lower story and roof testifies to his skill. The tower is the latest dated specimen of a Nabatean tower.

The trail continues through the streets of the quarter built by Romans in the 3rd century and inhabited during the Bysantine period as well. The elaborate drainage system was uncovered on the streets, consisting of covered conduits for collecting the rainwater into family cisterns or maybe a central cistern.

Further on there is a unique landmark of Avdat - a beautiful winepress of Byzantine period. Around the press itself are several compartments. Each farmer would place his grapes in baskets in the "waiting room" until it was his turn to pour them into the vat and tread on them to extract the grape juice that became wine. The juice drained through a hole into a vat below. Remaining pits and peels were squeezed with the screw press to create other products: fertilizer out of the peels and dye from the pits.

So far, five wine vats have been uncovered in Avdat, and more have been found in other Nabatean cities. The hot desert sun was excellent for ripening the grapes, and the juice was stored in underground caves in controlled, cool temperatures. Since wine is prohibited to Moslems, Nabatean wine manufacture apparently ceased after the Moslem conquest of Israel.

The Avdat winepress overlooking the desert

The path continues to the acropolis - the high portion of the city, which contained both a Roman fortress surrounded by a wall and an area of worship. The fort had its own system of collecting and stockpiling rainwater - in an enormous cistern with a capacity of some 200 cubic meters, carved out of stone. A pillar holds up the ceiling of the cistern, and the ancient plaster inside can yet be seen.

The acropolis includes two large Byzantine churches standing in close proximity. The Southern church is named after the martyred Saint Theodore There are remnants of the columns about half the height they were during the Byzantine era. Next to one of the pillars is a round decorative stone, the "preaching stone" from which church fathers delivered their sermons. On each side of the apse is a separate room. One was a dressing room; in the other priests prepared the bread and wine.

The bones of holy fathers were considered sacrosanct and buried inside the church. The marble covers on the floor with Bysantine inscriptions mark their graves.

The nearby Northern church was build at the site of a pagan Nabatean temple. The gate of the temple and the sacrificial stone still remain on their place before the entrance to the church.

It is likely that the region's bishop officiated in the Northern church. Three stairs in the apse were the base of a special chair for the bishop. The priests sat in a semicircle behind him.

The are two baptismal fonts in the Northern church: a large cross-shaped font was for adults, and a smaller round one with was for babies.

The stairs lead to the lower city, the main dwelling place during the Bysantine period. What remains of it today is hundreds of caves along the slope, some of them residential, others used as storerooms, and some as burial caves. It is estimated that several thousand people once lived in the city. Avdat was very crowded and the caves were terraced up and down about eight floors, so that space could be used efficiently. People first dug their caves, then the better-off added porches or built stone houses above.

A splendid Roman bathhouse is located the bottom the hill. To get water for this bathhouse, a well over 60 meters deep was constructed. Near the bathhouse, at the lower parking lot, there is a Nabatean information center where the visitors can see a film about Nabateans and view archaeological finds from the site.

Across the road from the cliff of Avdat there is an experimental farm for the research of ancient agriculture methods. It was established in 1959 by Hebrew University in 1960. The farm is based on 2000-year old irrigation techniques widely used by Nabateans. The farm used ancient installations that have remained to the present.

Getting There

The arrival is by Road 40 from Beer-Sheva, some 50 km to the south. The road sign shows the left turn to the Avdat National Park.

Encyclopedia Judaica
Editor Ephraim Shtern, The New Encyclopedia of Archeological Excavations in the Holy Land
Aviva Bar-Am, Israel Shalem, "Israel's Southern Landscapes"

Related Links



Rosh Ha-Niqra -- Banyas -- Gamla -- Qumran -- The Western Wall

Masada -- Ein-Avdat -- Avdat -- Ramon Crater -- Eilat