JERUSALEM-the 50 sites you may overlook

In a historic and religious city like Jerusalem there is so much to see no matter how much you tour. When time is a limiting factor, even the most efficient tour guides have to compromise while deciding what to incorporate in the itinerary. Although it depends on the interest of the individual visitor as well, there is still a huge must-see-list in Jerusalem that cannot be avoided. At every stop so much information is thrown on a visitor that sometimes s/he tends to forget the details after leaving the place.

I remember when I first visited the Church of Holy Sepulcher, it appeared to me more like a small museum than a church. I was virtually clueless inside a dark and dull overcrowded massive complex of more than 25 chapels with several curious artifacts and antiques scattered under some dusky arches and dingy columns. It took me at least three visits with a proper map in hand to understand the Church complex. A normal visitor for instance would be satisfied with Golgotha, the ‘Stone of Unction’ and the ‘Holy Sepulcher’, but the oldest part of the complex, viz. the first century tombs inside the Syrian Orthodox Chapel could be easily missed.

In the upcoming posts I plan to upload 50 such sites from Jerusalem that I believe can be easily overlooked or go unnoticed by an average visitor. I am incorporating the following sites from my previous visits, again with no specific order of importance. I am sure that a serious traveler who loves history, traditions and the Bible has noticed or been to most of them.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Just 10 km south of our campus lies a 2100 year old world heritage site known as Avdat. Currently, part of the 518-acre Avdat National Park, this ancient city was established by a mysterious nomadic tribe of Arab origin called Nabateans on a commanding hill 1860 feet (580 m) above mean sea level. The golden period of Nabateans were from 1st Cent BC to 1st Cent AD. The Nabateans are well known for building magnificent cities deep inside lonely desert- some of them are world famous. The rock-carved rose-red city of Petra was the Nabatean capital (built ~100 BC), and one among the new Seven Wonders of the World today. The Nabateans knew the secrets of the desert: where water sources were hidden and how to preserve it, including the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. They were highly skilled water engineers, and irrigated their land with an extensive system of dams, canals and reservoirs, some of which is still practiced in modern Israel. The Nabateans were exceptionally skilled traders and held a monopoly over the spice trade through the Arabian Desert for centuries.

Nabateans were enormously rich as they controlled the famous Incense Route of ancient world. The 2,400 kilometer Incense Route brought costly incense, perfumes and spices from the Far East (India and China) to Arabia (starting from Yemen and Oman); across Petra and the Negev Desert to Gaza Port and finally to the Mediterranean ports in Europe. The journey took about six months to transfer the products from India to Europe- a long trail passing through 65 camel stops. The Israeli section of the Incense Route is only 150 kilometers including 6-7 stops viz. Moa, Mamshit, Avdat, Shivta, Haluza, Nitzana and Ein-Saharonim. One of the most impressive stretches along the Israeli Incense Route is the 65-kilometer segment connecting Moa in the Arava Desert with the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat. The road is mentioned in the Bible, stating that the "Queen of the South" traveled on the "Gold and Incense Road" to meet King Solomon in Jerusalem (I Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12). It is also mentioned in the Koran (27:40).

Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (1st Cent AD) and Church theologian St: Jerome (4th Cent AD) claim Nabateans as descendants of Ishmael’s first-born son, Nebaioth (Genesis 25:13; I Chronicles 1:29-31). Indeed Bible mentions in Genesis 37:25 a caravan of Ishmaelites, “coming from Gilead with their camels bearing gum, balm and myrrh.” Interestingly, in Bible, Nebaioth is the brother of Mahalath, one of Esau's (Edom) wives (Genesis 28:8-9; 36:2-3). It could be pure coincidence that some of the important Nabatean cities were built on the land of Edom! The "rams of Nebaioth" (Isaiah 60:7) are the gifts which these wandering tribes of the desert would consecrate to God.

The first known Nabatean King Aretas I (168-140 BC) is mentioned in II Maccabees 5:8. The city of Avdat was named after the Nabatean King Oboda I (90 BC), who was buried there. The temples of Avdat were built by Oboda II (30-9 BC). Avdat flourished during the reign of King Aretas IV (9 BC–40 AD), but was destroyed by Arab tribes in late 1st Cent BC. Aretas IV appears in New Testament (II Corinthians 11:32) and his daughter was Herod Antipas’ first wife, the same Herod who later beheaded John the Baptist. Later, the last Nabatean king, Rabbel (70–106 CE), rebuilt Avdat. In 106 CE the Roman Empire took over the region, and Avdat continued to flourish until the 7th Cent Arab conquest. Avdat was partially destroyed in the earthquake of 363. The peak of Avdat’s prosperity was during the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries A.D.) with an estimated population of 3,000. Conquests by Persians in 614 and Moslems in 636 partially destroyed the city, and in 10th century the place was finally abandoned, only to be rediscovered in 1958.

Today, impressive findings from the site include: A Pottery Workshop from 1st Cent AD; Nabatean Temples (1st Cent BC to 3rd Cent AD); Roman Tower and Burial Cave with 21 niches (3rd Cent AD); Winepresses, Fortress, Bathhouse, Storage and Dwelling Caves, Residential Quarters and Churches from Byzantine Periods (4-6th Cent AD). Two churches were built in Avdat during Byzantine era. Largest is the Church of St. Theodorus (4th Cent Martyr) to the South and the oldest in the Northern Church near the Nabatean Temples. In the floor of Southern Church are remains of local saints and inscriptions on stone slabs covering the tombs, dated from 542 to 618. Five winepresses have been found in Avdat. The ability of the Nabateans to produce such large quantities of grapes in this arid area is a remarkable testimony to their ingenuity. The 140 sq.m. pottery shop from 1-50 AD, discovered in the city indicate that the delicate thin Nabatean clay vessels may be produced here.

It is my second visit to Avdat , almost 18 months since I made my first trip. We spent around 4 hours in Avdat and the adjacent Mount Mikhya. For details regarding Mount Mikhya, you can see with the photographs uploaded. You can also search archives for the month of December in my first blog ( for my earlier visit to Avdat.

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