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Nitzana – Spice Route Fortress

If you are looking for a unique Nabatean itinerary for touring the Negev, I highly recommend staying overnight at one of the amazing B&B’s in Ezuz or at Shivta Ranch and visiting the Nabatean cities of Nitzana, Shivta, Avdat, and Mamshit, learn about Ben Gurion at Sde Boker, visit a desert oasis at Be’erotayim and hike and get wet at Ein Avdat. First things, first. Who were the Nabateans?


These traders traveled in caravans from Arabia and made their capital Petra, in what is now southern Jordan. They eventually controlled trade in perfumes and spices and built numerous fortresses along the branch of the Spice Route in the Negev Desert.

Nabatean history begins in 586 BC, when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and exiled the Judean people to Mesopotamia for seventy years. During this time, Jerusalem and most of Judea was deserted. The emptying of Judean lands provided an opportunity for the Edomites, who were already enemies of Judea from the south to migrate from the barren hills of the Negev in the south into the rich abandoned lands of Judaea to their north.

The fall of the kingdom of Judea was followed by the rise of the Nabateans. About this time the Nabataeans migrated into Edomite territory in the Negev. The entire Nabatean Kingdom inhabited much of the territory of modern Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. The made their capital in Petra (previously Raqmu), in what is now southern Jordan. Although Petra was inhabited by the Edomites before the arrival of the Nabateans, the latter carved grandiose buildings, temples and tombs out of solid sandstone rock. The Nabateans were at first allies of the first Hasmoneans in their struggles against the Seleucid monarchs, but then became rivals of the Judean dynasty. The Kingdom was annexed by Trajan for the Roman Empire in AD 106 and renamed Arabia Petrea.

By -, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Nabatean_Kingdom_map – Source:

No Nabatean literature has survived. They spoke a dialect of Arabic and later on adopted Aramaic and eventually shifted from Aramaic to Arabic. The Arabic alphabet itself developed out of cursive variants of the Nabataean script in the 5th century. The origin of the Nabateans is still a moot question. The Nabateans devised special techniques for agriculture in a desert such as damming systems.

What is clear is that the Nabateans were exceptionally skilled traders who traveled in caravans from Arabia. They eventually controlled trade in myrrh and frankincense produced in Southern Arabia (Arabia Felix) and traded as well in spices, incense, gold, animals, iron, copper, sugar, medicines, ivory, perfumes and fabrics. The 2,400 kilometer Incense Route journey took about six months.  The Israeli section of the Incense Route covered about 150 kilometers. They built numerous fortresses along the branch of the Spice Route in the Negev Desert to the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean.

Spice Routes
Spice Routes – Source: Israel Antiquities Authority

The Spice Routes – The Incense Routes

Now that you know who the Nabateans were, you must learn a few facts about the Spice Route.

Ten sites (four towns – Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta; four fortresses – Kazra, Nekarot, Makhmal, and Grafon; and the two caravanserai of Moa and Saharonim) lie along, or near to, the main trade route from Petra, capital of the Nabatean Empire in Jordan, to the Mediterranean ports. The Negev Incense Route was designated by UNESCO in 2005 a World Heritage site as being of outstanding universal value by UNESCO in 2005. The sites are managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority

  • The Moa – Gaza Route: Moa-Avdat-Haluza-Gaza
  • The Hazeva- Gaza Route: Hazeva-Mamshit-Beer Sheva-Gaza
  • The Aqaba/Eilat – Gaza Route -Darb el-Ghaza: Aqaba/Eilat-Nitzana-Gaza – An alternative Spice Route went from Aqaba/Eilat on the Red Sea to Gaza on the Mediterranean.

Commerce for three Spice Routes became less profitable with the shift of trade routes to Palmyra and Damascus in Syria and the expansion of seaborne trade around the Arabian peninsula. Sometime during the fourth century CE, the Nabateans left their capital at Petra in an unhurried and organized process, as very few silver coins or valuable possessions have been unearthed at Petra.

Nizana Church
Nizana Church – Photo: Mark A. Wilson

Nabatean Nitzana (Nessana in Greek)- the subject of this post

Nitzana (“a flower bud” in Hebrew) was founded by the Nabateans in the 3rd century BCE as a camel caravan station on:-

  • Darb el-Ghaza: The Aqaba/Eilat-Gaza Route of the Spice Route. In the early 2nd century CE the emperor Hadrian diverted this trade from Eilat to Damascus. Despite this loss Nitzana grew under Byzantine rule. The road was used by the Nabateans to export the incense and spices from southern Arabia and the Far east to the Classic world of Greece and Rome.  In order to support & protect the Incense route, the Nabateans established stations and fortresses along the road.
  • Darb el-Shur: The North-East to South route connecting Hevron and Beersheba to Kadesh-Barnea and from there along the route of Byzantine pilgrim traffic to Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.

Shivta_Map -

Nitzana was one of six road posts that the Nabataeans established in the Negev: Nitzana, Haluza, Rehovot, Shivta, Mamshit and Avdat. Hieronymus portrayed the Nabataeans as a nation of wanderers that would neither plant a tree, nor build a house or drink wine.

Tel Nitzana is 279m above sea level, towering 30m above its area and the Nitzana stream (Wadi Ḥafīr) on its east and Nachal Ezuz (Wadi ‘Azeizi) on the west side. The ancient city was divided in two sections –  the “upper city” on top of the hill,  and the “lower city” in the eastern plain and foothills.   The Nachal Nitzana curves around the hill from south to north, separating the two sections of the city.

Tel Nitzana is now Nitzana National Park. How to get there?: Drive west on Route 211 from Telalim Junction. Turn south (leftward toward Ezuz and Be’erotayim) to Route 2022 near modern Nitzana and continue to Nitzana National Park at Nitzana Junction. Free parking, no entrance fee, no toilets. No accessibility for special needs. Nearby is the IDF Memorial Monument for Khativa 8.

Archaeologists have uncovered in Nitzana a large fort with round towers ,late 3rd century CE stables for horses and camels, a 4th century a church with a mosaic floor dedicated to Soldier Saints Sergius and Bacchus, and a 7th century church with a mosaic floor dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and a flight of steps connecting the town with the acropolis. Following the arrival of Islam the town went into a slow decline and by the 8th century it had ceased to exist.

Nitzana papyri

An extensive excavation was led by the archaeologist Dunscombe Colt  (1936-1937). Their major finding was the “Nessana Papyri” a major cache of 195 amazing 6th and 7th century papyri documents in Greek and Arabic -13 books and fragments of books of classical and ecclesiastical literature as well as various personal and legal documents. The papyri were discovered in two store rooms in the ruined Church of Mary Mother of God and the Church of  Soldier Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The papyri reveal much information about day-to-day life in Nabatean society between 505 and 689 CE, the last phase of Byzantine administration and the earliest phase of Arabic Islam. These papyri make this the best-documented of all the old Nabataean sites in the Negev. In addition numerous ostracons were uncovered inscribed in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic, and Coptic.

Ottoman Nitzana

During the Ottoman period a number of structures were built on top of Tel Nizana, including Government house and a German hospital, which caused severe damages to the historic site. A guest house was constructed in the lower city of Nitzana, almost wiping out the entire ruins.

Ancient Nitzana became identified with ʿAuja al-Hafir (عوجة الحفير in Arabic) during Ottoman rule.

How to drive to Auja al Hafir?: After visiting Tel Nitzana, turn back to the road and turn south (leftward) toward Ezuz and Be’erotayim [two wells] for 1 km till you see a Turkish water-tower. This reservoir served the Ottoman railway system that aimed to connect the Suez Cannel with Palestine.

In Auja al Hafir, the Ottomans constructed a Police station, an army base and a telegraph office in 1912 and established a large administrative centre and an administrators apartment building. Auja was located on the border with the British controlled Egypt. The Ottomans had the German engineer Heinrich August Meisner build an extension to the western branch of the Hejaz Railway first to Beer Sheva in 1915 and later reaching Nitzana in 1916. In January, 1915, a Turkish Army force of 20,000 entered Sinai by way of El Auja on an unsuccessful expedition against the Suez Canal.

The British Mandate authorities used Auja as a concentration camp for arrested Palestinian Arab and Jewish leaders.

According to the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, the area was designated as part of the Arab state. In the Israeli Independence war (1948) the Egyptian army captured the town, and held it from May until December. It became a demilitarized zone during the years 1949-1956, and is under Israeli control since then.

Railway map
Railway map

German Ottoman Hospital Nizana

The Ottomans built a number of structures on top of the Nitzana acropolis, including Government house and a German hospital, which caused severe damages to the historic site. An Ottoman guest house was constructed in the lower city, almost wiping out the entire ruins. The Ottoman soldiers dug defense holes in Nitzana, further ruining the site.

Nitzana German-Ottoman Hospital (1906-1917) built on ruins of Byzantine fort at Nizana. Note battle damage.
Nitzana German-Ottoman Hospital (1906-1917) built on ruins of Byzantine fort at Nizana. Note battle damage. – Photo: Shmuel Browns

Nitzana Floods

Here you can witness the strength of nature.

Nitzana Educational Community

Nitzana is an educational youth village and communal settlement in the western Negev desert, in the heart of Pitchat Nitzana, situated between the border with Egypt and Tel Nitzana National Park. The village was established by the Jewish Agency  in 1987. It is named for the nearby Nabataean city of Nitzana and gives its name to the Nitzana Border Crossing, formerly Auja al-Hafir. This settlement was founded in 1986 by Aryeh Lova Eliav, a former member of the Knesset, author, peace activist and winner of the Israel Award for contribution to society. The Nitzana Community provides education, absorption of new immigrants, accommodations, and  agricultural projects. The youth village has evolved including an Ulpan that teaches Hebrew to new immigrants, seminars, environmental and science studies.

Nizana Village
Nizana Village – Photo: Mark A. Wilson

And if you have a sense of humor:

  • Topographic Map Number: 16 – Negev Desert Hights

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Cameling in the holy land since forever
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