I wrote a post back in September last year (2022) about a visit to the Nabataean settlement Avdat. This wasn’t my last visit to the place, since then I’ve been there three times more, the last time a little more than a week ago.

Avdat woke something in me. I wouldn’t call it a revelation, more a realization. As a Jew these lands, what we today call Israel or Palestine depending on where our sympathies lie, are important to me, even holy. Not necessarily in the religious way of understanding the idea of a “holy land”, and definitely not in a nationalistic sense that otherwise is being promoted by many today, whether for the Israelis or the Palestinians. For me, the place is holy in a more holistic sense of the word, and it’s a holiness which isn’t secluded to one group or people or one understanding of the word. It can be many things to many people, but in all cases it emphasizes a centrality and crucial importance of the land, the history, and the future of the place.

I wasn’t really aware of how I felt about the place here until I visited Avdat. But this site of ruins made me realize that history, even in a place like the Negev, belongs to many people, cultures, and religions. 

The Nabataeans, who had their capital in Petra, present-day Jordan, most likely originated in the northern Arab peninsula and southern Syria. The Negev was the periphery of their initial civilization, being home to the Edomites living there until the Babylonian conquest. With that conquest, room was made for the Nabataeans to come into existence as a people and to move into areas they didn’t have access to before.

Being initially a people focused on trade and caravans, the Negev became crucial to them in their travels from Petra to Gaza, where they would ship off their goods, and Avdat was built initially as a settlement for them to rest there, on their way to Gaza or back. But eventually Avdat became more than that, it became more permanent and crucial enough that a temple would be erected in honor of a deified king, Obada II. He, with their pantheon of pre-Islamic gods, Dushara, Allat, Uzzaya, Manawat and others, would be worshiped there in the height of the classical era of the Nabataean civilization. An era that would have the Nabataean both being allied with the Jews, against the Seleucid empire, and at times in war with each other.

Later the Roman would enter the stage, and with them the Nabataenas became more focused on agriculture, particularly after the Roman annexation of the Nabataeans in 106 CE. Also the gods would be affected by Western influence, being connected to the Greek pantheon, which we see in Avdat as well with the burial cave for women, probably connected to the cult of Aphrodite, or with Allat or Uzzaya in their similar role.

The Roman Empire would eventually fall and in its place, the Byzantine Empire would rise. Also, the Roman and Hellenized religions would fall, to give room for Christianity instead. Avdat attests to this as well with its two Byzantine churches, both of them right next to the Temple of Obada. Again the function of Avdat would change, being focused on the production of wine with a communal winepress in the center of the settlement. At this time, during the Byzantine empires control over Palestine, Avdat flourished and grew to its largest with thousands of residents. Impressive for the time and the place. But even that came to an end, first with an earthquake that destroyed most of the city and then with the Muslim conquest and invasion of Palestine. As is always the case, the city didn’t die from one day to another, but the purpose of Avdat was no longer relevant and the place was abandoned.

The years would go by and Avdat would be rediscovered in the 19th century by Western colonialist archaeologists, later the area would fall under British rule and eventually it would become part of the modern state of Israel. No matter what one might feel about this, it should be acknowledged that that allowed the archaeological study of the place to flourish. While there is still a lot to find out about the place, the last decades of research and studies have given us a lot of crucial and important knowledge, not only about the Nabataeans, but also about the region as a whole.

This fact, that history has been happening, forgotten or hidden, and then rediscovered, and that there has been such a diverse cultural and religious landscape, even within the same civilization, made me think differently about this place. Also, as the Negev was the periphery of the Nabataean civilization, it was also the periphery of the Jewish civilization. A meeting point, a place where people could meet. But the place could only function if the people living there respected it, but then they could make the place blossom, as was the case with the Nabataeans, an-Nabatu, the well-diggers, as they called themselves. Such is the case today, where Israelis are rediscovering the methods of the Nabataeans and making the desert blossom once again.

These lands are holy, but not only to Jews. Also Christians and Muslims have invested great spiritual and cultural capital in these lands, and before all of us a diverse group of people and civilizations did the same. The Edomites or the Nabataeans just to mention some. Only by acknowledging this, by respecting our shared destiny, can we create something amazing here. And this is what Avdat has become to me, a monument of a better and more positive future, a future shared by all people in the acknowledgement of what blessing our diversity can become, if just we allow it to exist and be something positive, constructive, rather than a cause for conflict and destruction.