The tiny olive grove sits atop a dry canyon in the middle of the Negev desert, surrounded by barren hills and a few wisps of withering vegetation. Despite the parched setting, the ancient, gnarled trees are alive, their branches heavy with green leaves and ready to bear fruit.The Nomadic, pagan Nabateans (Nabataeans) converted to Christianity and settled down to become farmers in the desert. Then a few centuries later they disappeared.
Researchers believe these few trees, located a handful of kilometers outside the ruins of the ancient Byzantine settlement of Shivta, grew there through no fluke of nature. They may be among the last living witnesses to a complex civilization that built prosperous towns and farmed the Negev during the Byzantine period, more than 15 centuries before Zionists started imagining they could make Israel’s desert bloom.
Fresh research is shedding new light on these Byzantine desert dwellers – who were they? How did they shape their environment to such an extent? And why they ultimately, and quite mysteriously, abandon the lands they had fought for so hard?
Researchers say these questions are key not just for historians but for any society, including modern Israel, that wishes to develop and grow sustainably in an extreme environment like the desert.
“This was a complex society, so this question is very relevant to us, because the next time that the Negev was so densely settled was with Zionism and the creation of Israel,” says Haifa University archeologist Guy Bar-Oz. “It is very relevant for us to understand how they did it and what went wrong.”
The regional capital, Halutza – once the seat of a bishop, public baths, churches and a theater – has largely been left buried under the sand, mostly due to lack of funds and frequent looting by local Bedouins.Read the whole article before it goes behind the subscription wall. Cross-file under Nabatean Watch (Nabataean Watch). Background here.
The second largest Byzantine town in the area – Ruheibe, also known as "Rehovot in the Negev" – has been partially excavated. But it is difficult to access, including because it is surrounded by an Israeli army firing zone.
Still, archaeologists have managed to glean some information about the people who lived there, says Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who in January published an article on research in Ruheibe in the Israeli journal Kadmoniot.
Tribal population of Nabateans
The inhabitants worshipped in churches and wrote in Greek, the Byzantine empire’s official language. But the architecture of towns like Ruheibe – clusters of small houses and tight winding alleys to keep the sand out and provide shade – point to a local, tribal population, Dahari says.