The remains of the Nabatean city of Avdat looms on a hilltop over the old 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, 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.
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. Drive up the road (save your energy for walking around the site), stopping first at the sign for the Roman burial cave, which is well worth 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 would still work. The proof is in the lush greenery before you.
Using the Israel Nature and Parks Authority's excellent map, you can trace the lifestyle of the original inhabitants at sites that include a reconstructed three-story Roman tower, a rare Nabatean pottery workshop, a Byzantine-era wine press, two Byzantine churches, and a large baptismal font built to accommodate the converted. Near the baptismal font, you can walk down the steps to see 6th-century Byzantine dwellings, each consisting of a cave (possibly used as a wine cellar) behind a stone house. At the bottom of the hill, north of the gas station, is a Byzantine bathhouse. There is a rest area with food and drinks near the visitor's center.