The Ancient City of Ovdat
Duration of route: 1-2 hours
Recommended age of walkers: for all the family.
Preferred season: all year round.
Drinking water: at the Ovdat site, the Ovdat gas station, at Midreshet Sde Boker.
Entrance fee: at the entrance to the city of Ovdat.
Medical assistance: on Kibbutz Sde Boker, at Midreshet Sde Boker.
Nature preservation: the route passes through historic and archeological sites. Do not damage them and follow the rules of the nature reserve and environmental preservation regulations.
Follow the safety rules of the site. Do not climb on the walls of the archeological structures.
Additional information may be obtained from the Sdeh Boker Field School; Tel: 08-6532016
Area of the walking route:
Our walk begins at the ancient city of Ovdat, about 10 km. South of the Ben-Gurion Academy, near the Be'ersheva-Mitspeh Ramon road, about an hour's travel away from Be'ersheva. Those coming from Be'ersheva travel about 31 km. south along highway 40 towards Nitsana as far as the Tlalim junction. Turn left (still on highway 40) towards Mitspeh Ramon and Sdeh Boker and continue about another 13 km. To the Halukim junction. Turn south (right), pass Kibbutz Sdeh Bokker and the Ben-Gurion Academy for about another 10 km. to Ovdat.
The City of Ovdat - Geographic-Historic Background
The city of Ovdat is located on a mountain tableau which forms part of the Ovdat Heights. This is a relatively level tableau which stretches from the cliffs of the Tsin River to the northeast, to the cliffs of the White Mountain to the northwest, the Barnea Heights to the southwest and to the top of the Ramon anticline to the southeast. It slopes gently and rises from 500-600 m. in the northwest to 700-900 m. at the foot of the Ramon anticline. The strata of the relief contain chalk and lime rock from the Eocene Era, around 35-50 million years ago, and have an overall width of about 200 m.
The processes of erosion, removal and transition, which these strata have undergone for dozens of millions of years, have3 formed - and continue to form - the Ovdat Heights as a flat and horizontal tableau. These processes of erosion also create virgin soil over the area although most of the soil comprises (dust particles) loess carried and laid down by the wind and mostly swept away by rainwater to the valleys.
The gentle ascent of the heights to the Ramon anticline means that a relatively large amount of precipitation - an average of about 100 mm. Per annum - falls here compared with the desert area to the east and south which receives only about 50 mm. a year.
It is this amount of rainfall which attracted herdsmen and settlers in past eras.
Ovdat developed as a station along the desert caravan routes of the spice trade routes which led from southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf, via Eilat or Petra, and crossed Mt. Negev en route to the ports of the Mediterranean Sea (principally Gaza).
The Nabateans, a nation with Arab roots, controlled these trade routes from around the middle of the first millennium BCE and, at the beginning of the third century BCE established a way station here. Later in the Nabatean Period this stopping place developed into a small town with 500-1000 inhabitants. Together with Halutsa, Rehovot, Nitsana, Shivta and Mamshit, and dozens of villages and smaller settlements, Ovdat became part of the inhabited Nabatean territory of Mt. Negev. This area, which benefited from a relatively high level of precipitation, was used by the Nabateans to develop desert run-off water-based agriculture which was, it appears, the main basis of the local population's existence. Other means of living included breeding cattle, providing caravan services, ongoing security, crafts, administration etc.
A temple was built at the highest spot of the city, the acropolis. The remains of houses from that era were discovered at the foundations of houses built in a later period and some of the stones were used as secondary usage.
The capital of the Nabatean kingdom, which later became the capital of Provincia Arabia in Roman and Byzantine times, was Petra which served as a routing station for desert caravans.
In 106 CE Emperor Troianus put an end to the Nabateans as a national entity and annexed their kingdom to the Roman empire. During this era Ovdat was mainly populated around the acropolis and a khan was built to the east for desert caravans. The city began to spill out to the slopes of the tableau with caves being cut out of the chalk rock for storage and burial purposes. Its inhabitants continued to develop agriculture, dealt with trade and crafts and, probably, filled security posts as part of the Roman "limes", to provide protection against the desert tribes, accompanying caravans etc.
During the Byzantine Era Ovdat reached its zenith and had about 3,000 inhabitants. It expanded and the western slopes were densely populated with many more storage caves quarried and these were integrated with residential buildings. The inhabitants were probably mostly Nabateans who converted to Christianity, cleared the acropolis of its pagan temple remnants and constructed two churches and a monastery. Alongside these the inhabitants established a large citadel to serve as a place of refuge and to protect themselves against the desert tribes who attacked with increasing frequency. Ovdat is mentioned as Eboda in Nitsana papyrus no. 39 which contains names of settlements and the amounts of taxes paid. The papyrus also contains the name of Mamshit - Mampsis, Halutsa - Elusa, and Be'ersheva - Birosaba.
It is possible that the Persians, who conquered Israel and ruled it between 628-614 CE, destroyed the Byzantine city of Ovdat. The city suffered considerable damage and did not recover even after the Byzantines regained control of Israel. Another approach states that Ovdat was destroyed in one of the first attacks of the Muslims around 632 CE. The inhabitants of Ovdat gradually left the city as the Negev fortunes worsened following the Muslim conquest in 636 CE.
Remnants of Ovdat were discovered by explorers at the end of the 19th century and were correctly identified in 1870 by Palmer from England. At the beginning of the 20th century (1902) the Czech explorer Musil conducted important research at Ovdat, as did Josin, Saviniac and Wanson from France in 1904, Wally and Lawrence from England in 1914 and Wigand from Germany in 1916. Between 1958-61, M. Avi-Yonah conducted extensive excavations and restoration work, as did A. Negev in ??.
- Station no. 1 - the Star Cave
This is a burial cave cut out of the rock.
This cave reflects the prototype shape of caves used for habitation along the slopes of Ovdat.
An inscription was found in the cave with the following message: ? Orlia Molhah the daughter of Avdomenhos… lived 81 years and died on the 4tyh of Av in the year 136.
The dating of the inscription is based on the assumption that the calendar mentioned is the "Provincia Arabia" calendar which began in 106 CE, in other words: 136+106 = 242 CE.
The source of the month of Av is Babylonian and was used by the Nabateans. Its inclusion in this inscription attests to the continuity of their culture into the Roman period.
The signs on the lintel are probably pagan (Nabatean or Roman).
Note the burial niches inside the cave, the grooves on their sides, and the number of flagstones which survived inside in their original state.
- Station no. 2 - the Wealthy People's House (Beit Ha'amidim)
This is a a residential structure based on an architectural design which was popular in the Middle East and contained an inner yard surrounded by rooms. The staircase attests to the probability that part of the building was two-story, or that the residents used the flat roof for a shaded area, for drying seeds etc. Part of the yard was covered by a tiled roof supported by posts along the front of the rooms (J) - (K) - (L).
The roofing of the rooms was based on desert-type construction, with arches and flagstones. Capacity of the pit (H) - about 91 cu.m.
Its collection system included:
the paved area of the yard and the roofs; The pit was well plastered.
- Station no. 3 - the Roman Tower
This is a structure from the late Roman Era, from 294 CE (106+188).
Its designated purpose is unclear - probably a public or security building.
There is a similar structure at Mamshit.
The method construction of the ceiling (assumed, after construction of the walls:
Stage A: hewing of the stones and matching them with the terrain.
Stage B: construction of arched wooden scaffolding, placement of stones on the scaffolding from the sides to the middle and, finally, insertion of the keystone.
Stage C: Careful removal of the scaffolding.
Stage D: Filling of the lateral spaces and placement of the flagstones.
This method of construction probably derived from the environmental conditions, in other words, the absence of trees for roofing.
Construction was on two levels, the continuation of the staircase indicates the existence of a complete or partial third story, or access to the roof of the second story (for observation purposes?).
Nitsana Papyrus no. 22: "…thus, the most loyal ?? … will have two adjoining rooms on the north side with three plastered and roofed arches allocated to him…"
This method of construction was, it seems, an original development of the Nabateans. It is known from all the cities in the Negev, trans-Jordan and at Horan. This method was also used in the Roman-Byzantine Era.
Note the signs of use of the door in the threshold.
Note the inscription above the lintel arch.
The Greek inscription (Greek was the official language during the Roman-Byzantine Era) said: "Zeus Oboda remember the builder Oranius who built this tower with goodwill in the year 188 by Vallus of Petra and Avtichus."
Researchers date the inscription to 294 CE.
- Station no. 4 - Water Collection System
The average rainfall in this region is about 100 mm. a year.
Surfaces for collection of rainwater in desert cities included:
Flat roofs or tiled roofs;
paved streets and squares.
The constructed area mainly comprised households made of rooms built around courtyards.
The water drained off the roofs via drainpipes made of stone or clay to paved yards. Most yards had a private pit. When the private pits were full the surplus water was channeled via stone aqueducts to the streets and squares from where it was collected into public pits or pools.
This system required community organization.
An example of a private pit can be found at the Wealthy People's House (Station no. 2).
Examples of public pits: the pit at this station; the pit at station no. 6, the water pits in the churches.
At the foot of the city, next to the bathhouse, excavators found a quarried pit of about 60m. in depth with a gentle slope.
Distant evidence - life in the Sephardic quarter of Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century:
"…every street had a water pit, from which water was drawn during the summer months. The officers of the quarter allocated tickets with the stamp of the quarter. Each family received, for payment, a number tickets in accordance with the number of family members. The money was used to repair the pipes and drains and to clean the pits. All the (locked) pits were opened and water was given out from them until the pits were emptied. After that, water was bought and brought in canteens from outside the quarter and sold for a high price…". (from "Childhood in Old Jerusalem", by Yaakov Yehoshua, 1971).
- Station no. 5 - The Wine Press
The cells (A) in the sketch were, it seems, unloading tanks with plastered sides into which the yield from each vine was unloaded.
(B) was, probably, a treading surface.
Most of the must drained through an opening (which did not survive) to (D) which was also coated with plaster and which had a capacity of about 5.6 cu.m.
(C) probably served for final squeezing of the grapeskin and this also drained into the basin via a subterranean pipe.
The division into cells was probably linked to the method of land division in the Byzantine Era when most farms were privately owned. A large number of farms were apparently owned by the church based on tenancy contracts.
Four such wine presses were found at Ovdat and the surrounding area. As Byzantine scriptures mention "Gaza wines" it is likely that the wines made in Ovdat were included in this category. It is also possible that the Negev settlements also sold raisins.
The crushing stone near here is in situ. It provides clear evidence of the existence of a at least one olive oil press in the city and, of course, of the cultivation of olives in the area.
On the right hand side, about 40 meters along the street which leaves the wine press in a northeasterly direction, parallel with the wall of the citadel, there is a room containing remnants of a basalt grinder. This is evidence of cereal grinding in Ovdat. There is a similar find at Mamshit.
- Station no. 6 - The Citadel and Acropolis
Was built in the late Roman Era, at the end of the third century CE when the emperors Diocletinus and Constantinus invested considerable resources in re-establishing the empire after a period of recession and relative instability. The citadel at Nitsana and the wall at Mamshit were constructed in the same period.
Some the stones used for construction of the citadel were taken from the wall of the Nabatean military camp located around 200 m. from here to the northeast. The top layers were built at the beginning of the Byzantine Era and clear evidence of this is indicated by the cross (C) in the Acropolis sketch.
Dimensions of the citadel: about 60m. x 40m.
Thickness of the walls: about 1.60-2.00 m.
Height of the walls: about 3.5 m.
Dimensions of the water pit in the center of the citadel: about 7x7x4 = 196 cu.m.
- Stations 7-8 - the South Church and North Church
The design of churches in Israel in the Byzantine Era is based on the basilica which was accepted design for public structure throughout the Roman world.
The marble used in the church was probably imported from Italy. Nabatean pillar capitals are also used in church buildings. The shell of the church roof was built using long timber beams, around 5 meters long on average, on which clay or lead tiles were placed. The beams were probably made of cedar wood brought from Lebanon.
The inclusion of marble, timber beams and clay or lead tiles, imported from afar, indicate the economic strength of the Ovdat community and the importance the community attached to these buildings.
Sets of rooms adjoin the churches which were probably used as monasteries.
Each church-monastery had its own water collection system: roofs, drains, paved courtyard and lined pit.
The South Church (station no. 7) is associated with Saint Theodoros according to a grave inscription found in the church: "Zacharias the son of Johannes who was buried in the Martyrion of Saint Theodoros (: a group church, memorial church).
Note the four marble flagstones in the church floor. These are graves. The flagstone to the right of the altar bears a Greek inscription, which reads: "Geramanos the son of Alexander the Blessed lived 17 years and seven months and died unmarried… in the year 445."
Most of the marble flagstones of the baptism basin (I) are not original.
The North Church (station no. 8), the excavators of Ovdat discovered a think layer of ashes on the floor. Note the baptism basin bear the west wall of the north church (I in the sketch). In later churches only a small baptism basin for babies was found near the church. The discovery of a large basin apparently indicates the practice of baptism rituals for adults as part of a process of conversion to Christianity from paganism.
Most Negev cities had more than one church:
2 in Ovdat, 2 in Mamshit, 3 in Shivta and 3 in Nitsana.
This might be due to the gradual growth of the number of people converting to Christianity in each community.
- Station no. 9 - Adult Residence and Storage System
This is a unit comprising a building and a cave typical of the type used as a dwelling along the city slopes. This type of dwelling was first used in the Nabatean Era and was most popular during the Byzantine Era.
If you look at the drawing of the building you will see that the dark area is a cross section of the complex of caves cut out of the rock.
This method of construction is probably originally a Nabatean development which was also used during the Roman-Byzantine Era. It is found in all Negev cities and even in trans-Jordan.
The inhabitants of Ovdat learned to utilize the easily quarried chalkstone and over the generations formed a honeycomb-like construction of caves-storerooms and residential dwelling at the cave mouths on the slopes.
This type of structure is typical of dwellings in this city. The method of roofing, using arches and flagstones, is apparently characteristic of the adaptation of human beings to the arid climatic conditions and the lack of timber for roofing. The sign of the cross to the right of the threshold of the left hand room, which contains remains of arches, attests to the use of the room during the Byzantine Era. It is possible that the structure was established during the Roman Era.
The depth of the cave, including the area of debris, is about 36 m. The use of caves and the process of quarrying them probably continued throughout all the periods in which Ovdat was inhabited. At Ovdat's peak there were about 400 dwelling caves in use there.
The Greek inscription to the left of the cave mouth (its brown-red remains are still visible) also mentions Saint Theodoros, the patron saint of the South Church: "Saint Theodoros! Save Apton and Abcantos. Save your house!"
The caves at Ovdat were probably used as dried and preserved food storerooms, for kernels, seeds, fig cakes, raisins, flour, salted meat, olive oil etc.
The ability to preserve food is essential to the existence of human habitation in desert regions.
The Czech explorer A Mussil, who surveyed Ovdat in 1902, reports that he found about 400 quarried caves on the city slopes and that there were remains of buildings at the opening of most of the caves. Most of the caves collapsed, probably following an earthquake which occurred at a later date.