Avdat, in the heart of the Negev highlands, is a great destination to add to your itinerary if you happen to be visiting Israel in the winter. If the weather in Jerusalem suddenly turns rainy (or even snowy) at a moment's notice, you can swap out a cold and wet day in the capital to bask in the nearly winter-long warmth of the Negev, while taking a fascinating tour of the ruins of one of the area's most famous ancient cities.
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Avdat National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the sites on the Incense Route, featuring desert cities in the Negev, which includes the ruins of three other cities besides Avdat – Haluza, Mamshit and Shivta. These were established by the masters of the desert, the Nabateans, in the 3rd century BCE. The Nabateans' camel caravans trudged across some 2,000 kilometers to bring aromatic spices and incense out of Arabia. Their bounty included the famed frankincense and myrrh – a famous part of the Christmas story – which they carried via Petra and across the Negev to the Mediterranean port of Gaza.
When you tour Avdat, situated on a plateau rising dramatically above the wilderness, you’ll discover the secrets of a city that morphed from a Nabatean wayside station to a key Roman city en route to what is now Eilat to a Christian pilgrimage center.
At the Avdat visitors' center, you can watch a short film about the Nabataeans. Their method of bringing the desert alive by “water-harvesting” inspired Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to believe that this dry region could be an agricultural wonderland. The park ranger on duty at the visitors' center can also advise you on how to tour Avdat’s ruins. You’ll walk an ancient street, marvel at the remains of a temple dedicated to the Nabatean god Oboda, which became a church (one of two on site) when Avdat and other Negev cities became Christian pilgrimage destinations by the 5th century.
You can also explore a courtyard house, featuring a cross, bulls and clusters of grapes carved into its ceiling. (The grapes indicate that the owner may have been a wine merchant as evidenced by Avdat’s wine press.) Round out your Avdat day with a visit to the boutique winery at Kibbutz Sde Boker, David and Paula Ben-Gurion’s tomb or, if you're feeling up to it, a nearby easy hike to En Avdat (the park ranger can provide information about a combination ticket including Avdat and En Avdat).
Avdat National Park
April-September 8 A.M. – 5 P.M.
October-March 8 A.M. – 4 P.M.
Fridays and holiday eve, the site closes one hour earlier.
Tel. (08) 655-1551