Israel Restores Ancient City

Israel, Avdat
The government of Israel has just completed a $2 million restoration of the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat, The Jewish Press reports.

Avdat is in the Negev Desert and was one of the westernmost points on an extensive incense trade network the Nabateans built stretching as far as the southern Saudi peninsula that flourished from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. Incense was important in rituals for many civilizations, especially for Roman funerals. The trade network began to wither when Romans converted to Christianity and stopped needing incense to cover up the stink of their cremations.

The extensive ruins include houses and an acropolis with a Nabatean temple. Avdat later became part of the Roman and then Byzantine Empire. Remains of a Roman military camp and a Byzantine church can be seen there. The church has a floor made up of marble tombstones with still legible epitaphs. Like in the more famous Nabatean city of Petra, a sophisticated irrigation system allowed for agriculture and even vineyards in the harsh desert region. The residents even had enough water to make themselves a bathhouse.

The city was destroyed by an earthquake in the 5th century and was rebuilt. Another earthquake in the 7th century finished it off.

The site, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, suffered vandalism in 2009. The vandals pulled down columns, smashed stones and wrote graffiti over parts of the site. They were never caught. Now Avdat has been completely restored and the local archaeologists boast that it’s better than it was before.

Avdat hit the news last year when it was discussed in historian Tom Holland’s book “In the Shadow of the Sword,” in which he suggests that Muhammad was from Avdat and not Mecca. He also calls into question much of the Muslim tradition for its own origins. The book was criticized by scholars and Holland even received death threats, presumably not from scholars.

The site is in Avdat National Park, so a visit to the ruins can also include hiking and wildlife photography. Check out the gallery for some images of this amazing site. If it looks a familiar, that’s because it was the site for the filming of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

[Photo courtesy Urij]

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A Pre-Islamic Civilization In Saudi Arabia

Pre-Islamic Civilization, Saudi Arabia
The ancient past of one of the world’s most closed countries is beginning to be revealed.

Mada’in Saleh, about 200 miles north of Medina in northwestern Saudi Arabia, is an impressive remnant of the Nabataean civilization, the same people who built Petra in Jordan 2,000 years ago. Massive tombs carved out of cliffs tower over the desert. Some are decorated with carvings or bear ancient inscriptions dedicated to the dead who lie within. Around the tombs are the ruins of a once-thriving city at a key node of an extensive trade network.

The Nabataean Kingdom stretched from its capital Petra in what is now Jordan deep into the Arabian Peninsula. It grew wealthy from trading in incense from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean. Incense was used in religious rituals and burials and was vitally important for many cultures, including the Romans. The Nabataeans had a powerful kingdom from 168 B.C. until the Roman Empire annexed it in 106 A.D.

Mada’in Saleh was near the southern edge of Nabataean territory, perfectly poised to control the trade route. Even though it’s in the middle of a desert, there are good wells at the site and the Nabataeans managed to cultivate sizable tracts of land.

The most visible remains are the 131 rock-cut tombs with carved facades of a style similar to those in Petra 300 miles to the northwest. There are less grandiose attractions too. Here and there on the sandstone outcroppings are little niches that once held statues of pagan gods. Other stones have carved designs of animals dating from before the kingdom, back to an earlier people called the Lihyanites.

%Gallery-167884%Despite being alongside one of the main pilgrimage routes for the Hajj, the ruins of Mada’in Saleh were ignored for years by Saudi authorities who had no interest in civilizations before the advent of Islam. Now that’s changing, AFP reports. Saudi Arabia is slowly opening up to tourism and the site is drawing an increasing number of tourists. Last year Mada’in Saleh attracted 40,000 visitors and site managers want to double that figure this year. Most visitors are curious Saudis, but the country’s tourism office is encouraging foreigners to visit as well.

There are two museums on the site, although neither is about the Nabataean civilization. One is about the nearby pilgrimage route and another is dedicated to the Hejaz railway opened by the Ottomans in the early 20th century.

French archaeologists are currently excavating the site so hopefully more information about this southern outpost of the Nabataean civilization will come to light.

[Photo courtesy Flickr user Sammy Six]

Archaeologists Discover Key To An Ancient City’s Wealth

archaeologists, Petra, Jordan
A couple of months ago we reported on how archaeologists discovered how the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria thrived in the desert. A complex system of canals and cisterns trapped the sparse but regular rainfall.

Residents of another ancient city, Petra in Jordan, appear to have taken advantage of desert water to support their civilization too. Jordanian and Dutch archaeologists have discovered that an area 15 kilometers east of the city used to be a large oasis. The ancients tapped into it with an extensive network of aqueducts, reservoirs and underground canals cut out of the rock to water their fields.

Petra, capital of the Nabatean Kingdom, was a major trading center in the deserts of what is now Jordan and grew rich off of trading luxury items such as frankincense and myrrh.

The Udhruh Archaeological Project, named after the site, has found evidence that the irrigation system dates back at least 2,000 years. The area was in use for several centuries and the team has also found what may be the best-preserved Roman fort in the world. You can take a virtual tour of that fort here. The tour will show you not only the fort, but also a Byzantine church and a satellite view of the entire site.

[Photo of Petra courtesy Chris Yunker]