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Archaeology in Israel: Avdat

Avdat is located on a mountain ridge in the center of the Negev highlands. At this point, where the routes from Petra (in present-day Jordan) and Eilat converge and continue to the Mediterranean coast, the Nabateans established a road station for their caravans.

The little we know about the Nabateans comes from Roman historians and geographers. They were nomadic tribes from northern Arabia who wandered and traded, then established permanent settlements and finally created an independent kingdom with Petra, in the mountains of Edom, as their capital. At the climax of their power, from the first century BCE to the first century CE, the Nabatean kings ruled regions that today belong to Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Their contact with the Hellenistic world had great influence on their material culture, uniquely manifest in their architecture.

The Nabateans accumulated great wealth from their trade in costly perfumes and spices from East Africa and Arabia which they transported by camel caravans to the southern Mediterranean coast, with Gaza serving as the main depot and port. The Negev was the direct overland link to the Mediterranean coast, and the Nabatean way stations at the main crossroads in the Negev, developed into cities. In this inhospitable desert region, the Nabateans developed an agriculture based on terraces built on the hillsides. To capture flood waters, they constructed dams in the valleys; to collect rain water, they cut cisterns in the rock. These measures, initiated by the Nabatean central administration, established their control over the Negev and guaranteed the caravans’ safe passage.

The Nabatean kingdom was conquered by the Romans in 106 CE and annexed to the Roman Empire. Devoid of its caravan trade, Avdat fell into decline. In the third century it became a short-lived settlement which was destroyed in the earthquake of 363. In the sixth century, under Byzantine rule, a citadel and a monastery with two churches were built on the acropolis and residential quarters were established on the slopes. This city was destroyed, probably by earthquake, and abandoned in the seventh century.

The main excavations at Avdat were carried out between 1958 and 1961. From then and until 1993, further limited excavations were conducted, which resulted in the discovery of many artifacts, including tens of inscriptions which greatly contribute to our knowledge of the city’s history and culture during the different phases of its existence.

Nabatean Avdat

Avdat was founded in the 1st century BCE and named after the Nabatean King Obodas who was revered as a deity and, according to tradition, was buried there. His name is preserved in the city’s Arabic name, Abdah.

On the acropolis of Avdat, the Nabateans built a temple complex and public buildings which were visible from afar and served as a landmark to the caravaneers. Atop the spur east of the acropolis, Nabatean Avdat also included a residential quarter, a military camp and various pens in which camels, sheep and goats were kept, and horses – which became famous as racehorses – were bred.

The early temple of Obodas was built at the end of the first century BCE, on the southern side of the acropolis. It’s dimensions were 14 x 11 m. and it was partly preserved under the southwestern tower of the Byzantine fort. It consisted of a porch, a hall and an adyton at its northern end. The latter was divided into two rooms, in which the two main Nabatean dieties, Dushara and Allat were worshipped.

A new temple was built on the acropolis towards the end of the 1st century CE, of which only the podium, constructed of three strong retaining walls which surrounded the edge of the cliff, remain. An elaborate entranceway (10 x 6 m.) was built at the lower southwestern corner of the podium from which one acscended to the temple via a spiral staircase that wound around a thick central pier. In the debris of the entranceway numerous inscriptions were found, including some mentioning the Nabatean King Haretat (Aretas). Many column sections bearing masons’ marks which were found in secondary use in later buildings, apparently belonged to the columns of the temple’s exedra, of which only some stone pavement on the podium has been preserved.

Northeast of the acropolis was a military camp which housed the riders of the camel corps units which protected the caravan routes. The camp measured 100 x 100 m. and was surrounded by a wall with corner towers and a gate.

A unique find of the Nabataean period is the pottery workshop at Avdat. This building covered 140 sq.m. and included a room for preparing the clay and a room with a potter’s wheel and a kiln for firing. An abundance of pottery, including Nabatean painted ware, delicately decorated with reddishbrown floral patterns, was found here.

Roman Avdat

In the middle of the 3rd century, Avdat was resettled as part of the southern defense system of Roman Palestine. It became an important military outpost and permanent settlement of nomads of Arabian origin was encouraged. On the acropolis, a temple to Zeus Oboda (Zeus of the city of Oboda) was erected in 267-8 which, like the previous Nabatean temple, was dismantled and its stones used in Byzantine buildings.

The residential quarter of the Roman city included several dozen dwellings on the spur southeast of the acropolis. These were courtyard-type houses, built along narrow, intersecting streets. The rooms were roofed in an interesting fashion: two, three or four arches supported roofing of long, flat stone slabs, the length of which determined the distance between the arches – a creative solution to the absence of local wood!

Byzantine Avdat

Avdat reached the peak of its prosperity during the 6th century. The city had an estimated population of 3,000 and continued to serve as an outpost in the defense of the Negev. An effort was also made to renew the Arab caravan trade and new agricultural crops were grown; several winepresses which have been excavated, indicate intensive vine cultivation in the region.

The acropolis area was completely rebuilt, destroying and burying the remains of the temples and buildings of the Nabatean and Roman periods. The acropolis was divided into a religious area – the monastery – in the west and a citadel in the east.

Two churches and service buildings were constructed in the acropolis monastery. The northern church, in basilical style, was reached through an atrium with a cistern and had a single apse. Behind it, to the west, was a baptismal font in cruciform shape and a smaller font for baptizing infants.

The more important southern church had three apses on the eastern side. In the floor are reliquaries for the remains of local saints. In the floor of the prayer hall of the church are the tombs of clerical dignitaries.

Inscriptions on stone slabs covering the tombs, dating from 542 to 618, provide information regarding the Byzantine Christian community of Avdat. One of the inscriptions records the name of the church: the Martyrion of St. Theodorus. Theodorus, also known from other inscriptions, served as abbot of the monastery at Avdat and was buried in the southern church.

On the eastern side of the acropolis, a citadel was built at the beginning of the Byzantine period, for protection against marauding nomads. The fortress (60 x 40 m.) was surrounded by a wall with three towers on each side and a gate connecting it with the monastery. A large cistern was cut into the rock in the center of the citadel courtyard. On its northern side was a small chapel for the use of the soldiers garrisoned here.

In the renewed excavations during the 1990s, a long section of a massive stone wall along the eastern edge of the site, not protected by cliffs, was found. The wall was 1.20 m. thick and had a well-built gate.

The Byzantine residential quarter included numerous buildings on the slopes below the acropolis. They were erected on several terraces and included, behind the buildings, caves cut into the soft limestone of the hillside. The structures excavated included courtyards and rooms roofed with arches covered over with stone slabs. In the caves, storage spaces were cut and even a winepress was found in one of them. Some of the caves were decorated with carved bulls’ heads. Also found were inscriptions in red paint including a cross. One inscription is a request to St. Theodorus, patron of the city, for protection against the evil eye.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry