Around the 4th century BC several Arabian tribes began crossing the desert on camels, looking for trade routes. Athens was a growing power and demand for Moore, Frankincense and Persimmon was rising in its temples and among the rich Greek elite. Incense and other items like asphalt was also in demand, mainly in Egypt. The Nabataeans were able to locate areas in the Arabian peninsula where these incenses were growing wild and started routing them all the way from todays Eden, through the Arabian desert, crossing the Negev desert to the ports of El Arish and from there, on boats to Athens and later to Rome.
Withing 200 years, these trade routes became the basis, on top of which one of the richest ancient empires was born. The Nabataeans were able to do what others have tried and failed:
locate water on the desert
navigate the desert
By doing so they became a monopoly on trading the commodities of highest demand in ancient time. They became so rich that they had built a secret 'treasury' in Petra to hide their wealth. They also used that wealth to take control of the desert and build Khans and cities all across the Negev. Today we count 7 Nabataeans cities in the Negev and several other overnight lodges called Khan. Those cities sit on what we call today the "Incense road" - a UNESCO heritage sites. Several of these cities became national parks in Israel and can be visited to learn about Nabataeans traditions, rituals, burial and day to day.
in 106 AD the Romans signed an agreement with the Nabataeans, which turned them into farmers. The incense route changed from camels walking the desert to ships sailing the Red Sea. The Nabataeans slowly merged into the Roman empire and their cities inhabited pilgrims who came to the holy land. The Nabataeans ruled the desert for centuries. Roman historians write that they were the richest empire that ever existed, but since they were not good writers, they did not document themselves and their story was lost for thousands of years. 20th century researchers brought them back to the spotlight and today there is a farm that grows grapes in the desert, using the same irrigation methods used by the ancient Nabataeans.
Here are some pictures of their beautiful cities:
We visit Nabataeans cities in our 7 and 14 day tours.