by Patrick O'Donnell (Summer 2000 Field School)

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Jerome Murphy-OíConnor describes Avdat as "the most impressive of [the] desert cities" (Murphy-OíConnor, 1999: 170).  Deep in the arid Negev desert, one will be impressed with the mystique inherent in the remains of the cityís brick laden walls.  The Nabateans first established Avdat in the 4th century BCE as a place of rest and protection for traders travelling along the "Spice Route." (Asaf, 1999).  The Spice Route was a cross-terranean path that bisected the Negev desert.  Despite the difficulty of crossing the Negev, the dry desert was less dangerous than the strong winds of the Red Sea (Murphy-OíConnor, 1999:368).  Positioned directly between Asia and the Mediterranean Sea, at a site where the Spice Route forked into several different paths, Avdatís location was perfect for travelers to take a short respite, a leisurely repose or a commercial exchange.  Because the Nabateans were a nomadic people, there is no surprise when we examine the archeological evidence that the Avdat settlement was initially comprised of tents for housing, imported pottery, and imported coins (Meyers, 1997: 236).  Clearly, Avdat was first occupied by travelling merchants.

By the first century BCE, a permanent settlement was established, and Avdat became a major religious, military, and commercial center within the Negev (Meyer, 1997: 236).  However, around 100 BCE, the Nabateans lost control of Gaza to Alexander Jannaeus, and Avdat subsequently dwindled as a major settlement.  Avdatís success resumed when King Oboda II, revered as a god, was buried at Avdat, causing a major influx of interest and increase in settlement.  Gaza was reopened in 4 BCE with Herod the Greatís death, and Avdat again flourished.

The Roman Empire annexed the city in 106 CE.  During the Roman occupation, from the second to the fourth century CE, Roman garrisons provided military protection.  Because agriculture began to replace trade at this time, the Roman soldiers were compensated with land in exchange for their defenses (OíConnor, 1999: 170).  During this time, a watchtower, a villa, and a new residential area were constructed.

The transition from the Late Roman to the Byzantine period was relatively smooth.  The Byzantine occupation marked Avdatís greatest affluence.  The Emperor Justinian encouraged settlement of the Negev by monks who were interested in agriculture.  First introduced back in the early settlement by the Nabateans, the Byzantine occupants perfected the desert agricultural system.

Right: Central aspe of the southern church at Avdat.

The hallmark of desert agriculture involves collecting excess runoff water. The compact desert soil will absorb a very limited amount of rainwater.  Any excess rain will run from a high area to a lower area, as dictated by gravity.  The Avdat farmers ingeniously invented a system of collecting, channeling, and storing the excess rain.  To give some indication of the effectiveness of this irrigation method, the average annual rainfall in the Negev is only 100 mm.  Yet, utilizing desert agriculture allowed farmers to multiply the amount of effective rain to 300-500 mm per year.  Botanist Michael Evanari studied the agricultural method employed at Avdat and successfully reconstructed this technique at Shivta (Baedeker-Redaktion, 1993: 119).

In addition to perfecting desert agriculture at Avdat, the Byzantine period marked a period of incredible growth and construction.  Stones from the dismantled Nabatean military camp were used to construct a Byzantine Citadel.  In addition, two churches and one chapel were constructed.  The North Church was built early in the Byzantine occupation.  The Church was built with a single apse, altars for containers with relics, and a cruciform marble Baptistry to the south.  Built approximately one hundred years later, the South Church was dedicated to the martyr St. Theodore. This church housed what might have been a monastery.  In the sixth century, the South Church was used as a burial ground.  We know that about this time, perhaps due to the two new churches, the population of Avdat grew to 2000-3000 individuals.
 For shelter, the Byzantine occupants lived in houses and caves built into the western slope of the acropolis.  Literally hundreds of these units have been found, and many of them contain Christian crosses etched into the stone walls and ceiling.  Other Byzantine remains include wine presses, a farmhouse, and an impressive bathhouse similar to the one at Beth Sheían.  The inhabitants of Avdat certainly enjoyed a life of luxury.

Right: Bapistry, preserved chancel screen, and grave in left aspe of the southern church at Avdat.

Some scholars present a strong argument that Avdat actually served as a monastery during the Byzantine period.  Krautheimer (1989) suggests that Avdat was synchronously both a monastery and a fortified garrison.  Evidence of Avdatís monastic community is seen primarily in the architecture and inscriptions of the Byzantine period.  One epitaph calls the South Church "The Martyrium of St. Theodore."  Figueras (1995) suggests that Avdat could have been the coenobium to which the laura of Ein Avdat was associated.  Another epitaph includes the word "father" (ABBAC), which might have been used to refer to the superior of a monastery.  There are several other pieces of evidence that support the presence of a monastery at Avdat.

Scholars disagree as to how Avdat eventually declined.  Persians undoubtedly attacked Avdat in 620.  Like Meyers (1997), some scholars conclude that Arabs ultimately destroyed the city in the 630s.  Others, like Shick (1995), argue that the scars found at Avdat are not indicative of an Arab invasion.  He concludes that a much more likely scenario would have been that the earthquake of 633 CE caused massive destruction through fire.
Avdat currently exists as an Israeli National Park.  Relative to other historical sites, it is very impressive.  Visitors will see a main acropolis, the supposed tomb of King Oboda II, cave houses, and a strikingly well preserved cruciform baptismal font.  The majority of the current ruins date  to the Byzantine period.

Left: Summer 2000 group in bapistry in southern church at Avdat.


Suggested Readings:

ASAF, M. (1999).  Avdat National Park.  The Israel Nature and National Parks Protection   Authority

BAEDEKER-REDAKTION, E. (1993). Baedekerís Israel. 1st ed.  Italy: Prentice Hall.

FIGUERAS, P. (1995).  "Monks and Monasteries in the Negev Desert."  Liber Annus.  Vol. 45

KRAUTHEIMER, R. (1989). Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture.  4th edition.  Great   Britain:  Penguin Books

MEYERS, EM. (1997). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East.  Vol 1.    New York: Oxford University Press.

MURPHY-O'CONNOR, J. (1999). The Holy Land.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

SCHICK, R. (1995). The Christian Communities of Palestine From Byxantine to Islamic Rule:  A Historical and Archaeological Study.  Princeton, New Jersey: The Darwin   Press, Inc.

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