Saturday, June 14, 2008

THE NABATEAN SPICE ROUTE is the subject of a long Travel piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. Excerpt:
Dr Tsvika Tsuk, the chief archaeologist of the Israel Parks and Nature Authority, says the government has invested $US6 million ($6.4 million) in the past 10 years in the spice route, predominantly to preserve the Nabataean ruins. "There are no Nabataean documents but we know about them from the Roman historians, and the Negev is littered with archaeological clues," he says. "They numbered about 10,000 in the third and fourth centuries BCE [Before Common Era or BC], although at their peak, in the first century CE [AD], they grew to 25,000."

The next day we continue west towards Gaza. Soon, the desert gives way to greener pastures. Atlantic pistachio trees appear. European bee-eaters abound; a lilac-breasted roller flits by.

The beware-of-the-camels signs disappear and in their place are signs to Sderot, the Israeli town often the target of Kassam missiles from Gaza.

Gaza, the heartland of Hamas extremists, is a no-go zone. Instead, I'm perched on a ridge just above Kibbutz Nir-Oz, peering through binoculars. Although the Mediterranean is barely visible, I imagine ships full of cargo gently edging their way across the horizon, redolent with perfume, incense and spices.

So why did the kings of the desert who ruled the spice route for 500 years disappear, leaving only astounding archaeological relics? What happened to these ingenious nomads who built "the rose red city half as old as time", as Petra was described by British scholar John Burgon in 1845?

The Romans began to discover sea routes, rendering the overland spice route obsolete. In 106 AD, they annexed the Nabataean kingdom. Soon the nomads began planting crops, including vines, which they harvested on terraces that are now being reinvented by Eyal Izrael and a clutch of Israeli viticulturists. Laying down roots on the land ensured the Nabataeans' assimilation into Roman culture.

"We knew about the Nabataeans growing grapes," says Izrael, who owns Carmey Avdat Winery. "We took their concept and planted the vines exactly on the same spot, taking advantage of the same irrigation systems."

Gazing at the fertile valley below, I realise the rock I am standing on is not what it seems. It is the crossroads of antiquity and modernity.
There are in fact Nabatean documents and I'm sure the reporter misunderstood whatever Dr. Tsuk said. There are some substantial texts in the Babatha archive and there are also thousands of brief rock inscriptions.