As far back as the 4th century BCE, Nabatean travelers led their caravans through the Negev along the Spice Route. Avdat (or Oboda) was established as a road station along the route in the 3rd century BCE. It was probably named after the Nabatean king Avdat (Oboda) I.
The diverse nature of archaeological finds from that period allows to conclude that the Avdat station was of great importance in Indo-Arabian commerce. Indeed, it was positioned at at a place where the ancient roads from Petra and Eilat converge into one and continue to the Mediterranean coast.
At the beginning of the 1st century BCE the city was abandoned, probably as a result of the conquests of Alexander Yannai, who in 103 BCE captured the Mediterranean coast and disrupted the spice trade.
Years later, the city was rebuilt by Nabatean King Avdat (Oboda) II. During his reign (30 to 9 BCE), the Nabateans began the transformation from traders to farmers. The king was buried there and revered as a god. The Nabatean settlement reached its zenith during the rule of King Aretas IV (9 BCE - 40 CE), when the city acropolis was fortified and a large temple built within it. The pottery shop from 1-50 CE, discovered in the eastern part of the city, produced delicate, thin Nabatean pottery.
By the middle of the 1st century CE the Nabatean trade diminished, and the inhabitants turned to farming. They built a system of dams to exploit the scarce rainfall for irrigation.
The Roman conquest of the area in 106 CE brought little change. Around 126 CE the city was destroyed by Thamudic and Safaitic nomadic tribes, and remained in ruins for more than a century.
In the middle of the 3rd century the Romans incorporated the former Nabatean empire into a defense chain of the southern border of their Empire. Avdat, situated on this line, became a settlement for soldiers who received land in return for guaranteed military service in times of emergency. The new settlement was founded on the southern end of the Avdat hill, consisting of a number of well-built houses (villas). A temple dedicated to Zeus-Avdat was built on the acropolis (the remaining Nabatean population borrowed the religion of Romans, and revered their king Avdat also as the Roman god Zeus). The Roman settlement apparently was short-lived, and lasted only for some half a century.
Avdat was resettled in the Bysantine Period, in the beginning of the 6th century CE. Its population accepted Christianity, and the city prospered. On the acropolis a large citadel, two churches and a monastery were built. The settlement moved down to the western slopes of the mountain. People lived in houses constructed over rock-hewn caves. Intricate water-supply system was constructed, and wine was produced at several wine presses. The agricultural areas were extended.
When the Bysantine power declined, the people of Avdat were no more able to defend themselves from nomads. Conquests by Persians in 614 and Moslems in 634 partially destroyed the city, and in 10th century the place was finally abandoned.
Modern excavations began in 1958. The place was partly restored and turned into national park. In the middle of 1990s humoresque iron silhouettes of ancient caravans entering the city were installed at the site.
The Avdat National Park encompasses the ruins of Avdat on top of the high limestone hill and the area down the slope. There are parking lots at the base of the hill and at its top. Tours at the site usually start from the top and end at the bottom.
The upper parking lot is at the edge of a Roman 3rd century quarter. A short distance back from the lot, there is a reconstructed Roman villa. This private house was built around a square courtyard with a water cistern at its center.
The tour trail returns to the parking lot and goes up the hill. At the edge of the city stands a 12 m. high Roman tower - probably a watchtower. Stone arches were used there instead of wooden beams, and the construction was "dry", built without any cement. In fear of earthquakes, the inhabitants inserted pieces of wood into the cracks in the wall, hoping to make the construction more elastic. Some of this wood can be seen today.
The trail continues through the streets of the quarter built by Romans in the 3rd century and inhabited during the Byzantine period as well. The elaborate drainage system was uncovered on the streets, consisting of covered conduits for collecting the rainwater into family cisterns or maybe a central cistern.
Further on there is a unique landmark of Avdat - a beautiful wine press of Byzantine period. Around the press itself are several compartments. Each farmer would place his grapes in baskets in the "waiting room" until it was his turn to pour them into the vat and tread on them to extract the grape juice that became wine. The juice drained through a hole into a vat below. Remaining pits and peels were squeezed with the screw press to create other products: fertilizer out of the peels and dye from the pits.
So far, five wine vats have been uncovered in Avdat, and more have been found in other Nabatean cities. The hot desert sun was excellent for ripening the grapes, and the juice was stored in underground caves in controlled, cool temperatures. Since wine is prohibited to Moslems, Nabatean wine manufacture apparently ceased after the Moslem conquest of Israel.
The path continues to the acropolis - the high portion of the city, which contained both a Roman fortress surrounded by a wall and an area of worship. The fort had its own system of collecting and stockpiling rainwater - in an enormous cistern with a capacity of some 200 cubic meters, carved out of stone. A pillar holds up the ceiling of the cistern, and the ancient plaster inside can yet be seen.
The acropolis includes two large Byzantine churches standing in close proximity. The Southern church is named after the martyred Saint Theodore There are remnants of the columns about half the height they were during the Byzantine era. Next to one of the pillars is a round decorative stone, the "preaching stone" from which church fathers delivered their sermons. On each side of the apse is a separate room. One was a dressing room; in the other priests prepared the bread and wine.
The bones of holy fathers were considered sacrosanct and buried inside the church. The marble covers on the floor with Byzantine inscriptions mark their graves.
The nearby Northern church was build at the site of a pagan Nabatean temple. The gate of the temple and the sacrificial stone still remain on their place before the entrance to the church.
It is likely that the region's bishop officiated in the Northern church. Three stairs in the apse were the base of a special chair for the bishop. The priests sat in a semicircle behind him.
The are two baptismal fonts in the Northern church: a large cross-shaped font was for adults, and a smaller round one with was for babies.
The stairs lead to the lower city, the main dwelling place during the Byzantine period. What remains of it today is hundreds of caves along the slope, some of them residential, others used as storerooms, and some as burial caves. It is estimated that several thousand people once lived in the city. Avdat was very crowded and the caves were terraced up and down about eight floors, so that space could be used efficiently. People first dug their caves, then the better-off added porches or built stone houses above.
A splendid Roman bathhouse is located the bottom the hill. To get water for this bathhouse, a well over 60 meters deep was constructed. Near the bathhouse, at the lower parking lot, there is a Nabatean information center where the visitors can see a film about Nabateans and view archaeological finds from the site.
Across the road from the cliff of Avdat there is an experimental farm for the research of ancient agriculture methods. It was established in 1959 by Hebrew University in 1960. The farm is based on 2000-year old irrigation techniques widely used by Nabateans. The farm used ancient installations that have remained to the present.
The arrival is by Road 40 from Beer-Sheva, some 50 km to the south. The road sign shows the left turn to the Avdat National Park.
Sources: The Israeli Mosaic