The legendary Incense Route is a 2,000 year old commercial success story.
At the time, without transportation, roads or maps, long caravans of camels traversed difficult trails navigating among robbers, looters, obstacles and narrow-minded rulers. Valuable goods traveled the route, which started in Yemen to the East, crossed Saudi Arabia and Jordan to end in Israel in the Gaza port, where they were loaded onto merchant ships bound for Europe. There the women of the Roman Empire could enjoy the perfumes of the frankincense and myrrh, the flavors of the eastern spices, and the useful salts for cooking and preserving foods.
The 2,400 kilometer Incense Route journey took about six months. The camel caravans including thousands of individuals, moved at a sluggish pace, passing through 56 stops, where they stopped, rested, took care of the animals and gathered strength for the day to come.
The Israeli section of the Incense Route covered about 150 kilometers. Across the Negev desert there are still ruins of the route, and many travelers set out to follow them in exploring the desert and try to experience the lifestyle of the masters of the desert. Several of the rest stops remain starting with the Arava's Moa on the Jordanian border, where the ruins of an inn, a guard post, agriculture, caves, storerooms, and an aqueduct are still evident. From here, the route continues northwest to Mamshit, a large city whose impressive ruins include an inn, churches, a bathhouse, rainwater collecting pools and other structures.
The next stop was the city of Ovdat, located high on a hill. Here too are ruins of a fortress, churches, an oil press, a ceramics workshop, homes, a bathhouse and even burial caves.
The caravan continued from Ovdat to Shivta, a small town with a well developed water system, pools, oil presses and a few churches. The next to last and northernmost stop was Halutsa, of which there remains the ruins of a theater and church, and from where the caravans headed straight to Gaza. A few minor stations were added along the way – Kasra, Nekarot, Makhmal and Grafon – as well as an additional inn, Ein-Saharonim, of which there is still a courtyard surrounded by workshops and a bath.
Along the route, there are reservoirs, guard towers, ritual sites, bathing facilities and milestones that marked the route.
Moa, Mamshit, Ovdat, Shivta and Haluza, as well as Ein-Saharonim, are all accessible with any vehicle. The route itself, through the desert is passable only in jeeps, although bicyclists and pedestrians can also enjoy the fascinating path. In 2005, UNESCO declared the Incense Route a world heritage site, and Israel invites you to the Negev and Arava to follow the footsteps of nomads and enjoy the impressive stories and splendid history that left behind a silent witness to a stormy age.
Photos taken by photographer: Dafna Tal