The remains of the Nabatean city of Avdat, a 12-acre acropolis, looms on a hilltop over the spice route between Petra and Gaza. The Nabateans were seminomadic pagans who came here from northern Arabia in the 3rd century BC. With their prosperous caravan routes connecting the desert hinterland to the port city of Gaza, on the Mediterranean coast, they soon rose to glory with a vast kingdom whose capital was Petra (in present-day Jordan). Strongholds to protect the caravans were established along these routes, usually a day's journey apart.
The name Avdat is the Hebrew version of Oboda (30 BC–9 BC), a deified Nabatean king who may have been buried here. Another king of Avdat, Aretes, is mentioned in the New Testament. The prominent local dynasty intermarried with the family of Herod the Great, and in AD 106 the Romans finally abolished the Nabatean kingdom. The Nabatean temple on Avdat's acropolis left almost no remains, but its magnificence can be imagined from its restored gateway. Most of the remains on the acropolis date from the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries—the Christian Byzantine period. The city continued to flourish until it was sacked by the Persians in AD 620 and was rediscovered only in the 20th century.
Start at the visitor center, where you can learn about the Nabateans in a 10-minute video, see examples of what these ancient traders actually transported across the desert, and examine archaeological artifacts found in the excavations. Be sure to pick up the Israel Nature and Parks Authority's excellent explanatory brochure and map of the site. Drive up the road (save your energy for walking around the site itself), stopping first at the sign for the Roman burial cave. Park, and walk the 300 feet for a quick peek. The 21 double catacombs cut into the rock date from the 3rd century BC.
Back in your car, drive up to the lookout point at the restored Roman building (note the watchtower with an inscription dating to the late 3rd century). The cultivated fields below were re-created in 1959 in order to see if the ancient Nabatean and Byzantine methods of conserving the meager rainfall (measured in millimeters) for desert farming would still work. The proof is in the cultivated crops and orchards before you.
Using the Israel Nature and Parks Authority's map, you can trace the lifestyle of these former locals at sites that include a reconstructed three-story Roman tower, a rare Nabatean pottery workshop, a Byzantine winepress, cisterns, two Byzantine churches, and a large baptismal font (to accommodate the converted). Near the baptismal font, you can walk down the steps to see 6th-century AD Byzantine dwellings, each consisting of a cave (possibly used as a wine cellar) with a stone house in front of it. At the bottom of the hill, north of the gas station, is a Byzantine bathhouse. There is an eatery that serves light meals at the visitor center.