Researchers at the Israel Antiquities Authority are currently processing finds from archaeological excavations at sites located along the “Incense Road” in the Negev that were previously excavated by Dr. Rudolph Cohen of the Department of Antiquities. One of the sites that were excavated was Horvat Ma'agurah, which is located on a ridge, c. 3.4 kilometers west of the Sede Boqer region. The site is situated at a strategic point that overlooks Nahal Besor where the famous “Incense Road” ran, which connected Petra with Gaza. It was along this road that the Nabataeans transported precious goods such as myrrh and frankincense to the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt.
An analysis of the finds has revealed that after Gaza was conquered in 99 BCE, King Alexander Jannaeus – the great-grandson of Matityahu the High Priest – built a fortress with four towers inside an earlier Nabataean caravanserai. With the aid of this fortress he was able to halt any Nabataean activity along the Incense Road and in effect force them out of the Negev.
It was because of the fortress’ shape that archaeologist, Dr. Rudolph Cohen assumed at the time it was a stronghold from the Roman period (end of the third century CE). But a new analysis of the artifacts which were discovered inside the fortress, and the architectural features of the fortress itself, has led to the unequivocal conclusion that the fortress is Hasmonean.
According to Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who is the scientific editor of the excavation, “We are talking about a revolutionary discovery that will redraw the maps of the region which describe that era and greatly increase the territory governed by the Hasmoneans into the heart of the Negev Highlands as we know it. This is an important discovery from an archaeological and historical standpoint. Despite the evidence of the historian Josephus, according to which King Alexander Jannaeus conquered the southern coast of the Land of Israel and the harbor in Gaza (which was of paramount importance to the Nabataeans) and even further south, no clear archaeological proof of this has been found in the field. And it was because of this lack of proof that historians were inclined to dismiss the possibility that the Hasmoneans did indeed control the Negev.”
It is now clear that the Hasmoneans kept hold of the fortress located on the Nabataeans’ principal trade route until the year 66 BCE, and by means of it, prevented any movement by their Nabataean enemies along the road between Halutza and Northern Sinai. Such a move cut off the trade route between Petra and the ports and in fact commerce in the region received a fatal blow that halted trade through the Negev for several decades.
The discovery also reinforces the claim that another Nabataean site – Nessana, where a multitude of coins of Alexander Jannaeus were discovered, was ruled by him. “Another interesting fact,” says Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “is that the army that Alexander Jannaeus engaged was for the most part a mercenary force that was composed of non-Jewish soldiers. We were able to confirm this based on the imported vessels that were found alongside the Jewish vessels there, and from the wine that was brought there from abroad. Apparently Alexander Jannaeus and his widow Queen Salome Alexandra could not depend on Jewish soldiers because of the sharp political divisions that existed among the people.”
Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs