A section of the ancient Incense Route, stretching seven kilometers and marked with weather-beaten Roman-era milestones, has been discovered in the barren heart of Israel’s Negev desert.
The path of the trading route has been known all along, mainly from remnants rather than well-preserved tracks and signage. The exception was the section in the Negev – it was assumed that it had been destroyed by modern development. It turns out this was not the case. Surveyors now realize they had been looking for it in the wrong place.
International business has flourished around the Mediterranean Sea, along the European coast and northern Scandinavia, and around the Indian Ocean for thousands of years.
The section of the Incense Route, also known as the Perfume Route, that passes through the Negev was part of a vast overland network more than 2,000 kilometers long, stretching overland from the southern tip of Arabia Felix – modern-day Yemen – hugging the Arabian coast of the Red Sea as far as Petra in Jordan and then crossing overland to the Gaza Strip.
From Gaza, goods could be transported to other parts of the Levant and Europe by ship.
The frankincense route
The overland Incense Route was plied by the Nabateans, who were initially disorganized nomadic tribes roaming northern Arabia and the southern Levant and later became a slightly more organized kingdom, which never had clear boundaries.
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From around the 3rd century B.C.E. to the 2nd century C.E., Nabatean traders, often on camels, transported incense from Arabia to the Mediterranean Sea coast, and returned with other merchandise.
Myrrh and frankincense, which are made using sap from trees native to North Africa and southern Arabia, were widely used in pagan Greek and Roman rites after being imported northward, and later, in Christian rituals as well.
Other common articles of trade included spices, gems, fine textiles, pelts and metal ingots.
(Nabatean tribes are believed to have operated the so-called King Solomon’s copper mines in the Negev 3,000 years ago, though who controlled the mines at different times remains controversial.)
The Roman author Pliny the Elder, who lived in the 1st century C.E., wrote that traversing the Incense Route took about 62 days. He described the ancient mania for frankincense in great detail, and wrote at length about the similarity of frankincense drops to genitalia. He explained the painstaking manner of frankincense production, the rules of trade and how to avoid being taken in by fakes. You can still buy counterfeit frankincense and myrrh in local Middle Eastern markets and online.
When the Nabatean kingdom became a province of Rome in the early 2nd century C.E., under Emperor Trajan (who ruled from 98 to 117 C.E.), the Romans upgraded parts of the Incense Route for their armies. They didn’t pave the road with stone – this was windswept desert, after all – but widened the path from 1.5 meters, which was convenient for camels, to about 4 to 4.5 meters to accommodate Roman garrisons.
Along the route were about 65 reinforced rest stops, Pliny writes, four of which developed into major, wealthy Nabatean cities: Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta. The hunger for Arabian incense helps explain how these cities prospered in the inhospitable rocky desert.
Almost 2,000 years later, only two sections of the ancient route through the Negev, at Makhtesh Ramon and Avdat, have been preserved. The newly found section connects those two preserved parts of the road.
The unknown stretch of the Nabatean trading route was discovered northeast of Makhtesh Ramon by an Israeli-Jordanian survey and research team armed at least part of the time with two camels. Led by Shuka Ravek, 86, the team spent five days trekking on foot from Petra to Avdat – about 100 kilometers – in order to survey the remaining signs of the ancient road. They found the missing stretch during their trek, succeeding where dozens of previous surveys had failed.
Ravek says that on earlier treks, researchers had been captive to their own preconceptions and had insistently followed a different route, seeking signs they never found. They now know that the missing section was further west than they thought, explains Prof. Chaim Ben David, historian of the Kinneret Academic College, who was also on the trek.
The study was jointly organized by the Sde Boker Field School, the Hevel Eilot regional council and the Dead Sea and Arava Research Institute.
One of the Roman milestones still bears all-but-indecipherable writing, which seems to be in Latin or Greek. Ben David believes that the milestones date back to the 2nd or 3rd century C.E.
The origins of the Nabateans remain shrouded in the fog of time. They are considered ethnically Arab and their kingdom may have arisen from an alliance of unrelated tribes rather than a single one. The Nabateans are first mentioned in a battle report from the 3rd century B.C.E., but eventually fade from the annals of history. Many of them converted to Christianity.