Recently my family and I went on a trip to the south, to the Negev. Or, to Sde Boker, to be more precise, where we spent some days of relaxation at the beautiful Hotel Kedma. We needed it, to get away and get some distance from the everyday stress.
Sde Boker is a relatively unassuming kibbutz in the center of the Negev. Hadn’t it been for David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, the kibbutz probably wouldn’t have been as known as is the case today. Not that there’s anything wrong with the kibbutz, it is a beautiful place, an oasis in the middle of the desert, but it is, as mentioned, unassuming.
Not far from Sde Boker there is another less unassuming, yet abandoned city. Namely the ancient city of Avdat, named after King Obodas I, the Nabatean king ruling his people from 96 BCE to 85 BCE, during a reign where he among other events managed to defeat the second Hasmonean king, Alexander Jannaeus, after a prolonged conflict between the Nabateans and the Jews.
Avdat wasn’t the main city of the Nabateans, that credit goes to Petra, the famed desert-rock city found in modern-day Jordan. But Avdat did play an important role as a major city on the Nabatean trade route from Gaza to Petra, and it managed to flourish for centuries, being ruled by the Nabateans, the Romans, the Byzantines, and finally the Muslims, before it was abandoned at some point during the first three centuries of Islamic rule.
The city itself was established at some point during the 3rd century BCE, but different elements of the city were added at later stages, allowing us to see how both the Romans and the Byzantines added elements to the city. Originally the population worshipped tribal Arab deities, as well as the aforementioned King Obodas, but later Christianity was accepted and two churches were added to the city, while the temple for Obodas was left intact. After the Islamic conquest of the area, the population most likely converted to Islam, before finally abandoning the city.
Time for a confession. While I did focus on the area of modern-day Israel and Palestine, or what has been known as “the Holy Land”, the Nabateans have never received any particular attention from me. Not that I considered them irrelevant or didn’t care about them, but my focus was more specifically on the history of the three monotheist religions of the land (that is, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and how they were practiced and experienced. The Nabateans were, for all intent and purpose, peripherical in this context, following Arab tribal religion until the time when they would accept Christianity, and later after the Islamic conquest, Islam.
That said, I have come to the realization that I need to spend time studying the Nabateans and their history. Not because they have some final influence on any particular historical event, or had a defining say on how events would unfold down the line. But rather because they intermixed with the various great powers and religions, and the influence of historical events can be analyzed and understood better through the lens of the Nabatean eyes.
Standing in the ruins of Avdat I saw both a pre-Christianity temple and two Byzantine churches. The Romans built there, the Byzantines built there, and you see the impact of it on the city. So if we want to get an understanding of how the various transitioning powers and cultures affected the land, the study of the Nabateans is crucial. Not only of the Nabateans but also. Often, I feel, we get so focused on the big picture, that we forget to zoom in on the details to better understand the various parts of the bigger picture. And I believe that Avdat is one of those details, which we need to zoom in on a little.
I will be focusing more on the Nabateans and Avdat in the future. I hope I will be free and able to spend more time documenting the city, the next time I will visit it. I don’t know when it will be for sure, but it will be. For now, I know that I need to read up on the Nabateans and their history in the region. That is definitely going to be both interesting and eye-opening.