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Mamshit National Park – Desert Traders’ Rich Enclave

Mamshit National Park – Desert Traders’ Rich Enclave

Mamshit National Park

Shadow pattern. Stables. Nabatu House. Mamshit National Park
Light and shadow pattern at indoor stables, Nabatu House, Mamshit National Park

Mamshit National Park - The Setting

The Desert

Cloud shadows on desert.

Cloud shadows over desert, en route to Mamshit National Park

Outside view of Mamshit

View of Mamshit from the outside.

Stark desert view from Mamshit

The starkness of the desert surrounding Mamshit 

The drive to Mamshit National Park took me from my camping site at Mizpe Ramon northward to route 40, and then the 204. I stopped on the way to photograph the vista of clouds playing with the light and shadow over the low Negev hills.

Entrance to Mamshit National Park

Welcome entrance to Mamshit National Park. 

When one gets the first glimpse of Mamshit from the road, the sense is of a magical place frozen in time, fatamorgana-like. This phantom-like sense captivates the visitor with an awareness of time standing still, halfway between sand and sky, where imagination and reality mix and one’s spirit can easily take wings.

It's all About the Water

Living by the grace of the flash floods

Nature

It’s all about the water. Nothing can survive in this extreme desert without the occasional grace from the sky. Average annual waterfall measured in the area of Mamshit is about 100mm (4 in.) today. Could have been slightly more 2000 years ago, but was still desert.

The natural fauna and flora of the Negev depend exclusively on haphazard seasonal flashfloods. Those can be extremely intense and spectacular, but are usually short-lived. Wadis never run year-round or even season-round. Plants grow in crevices and along wadi beds and ravines.

There are a few outsanding exceptions, where water from the mountains is stored underground thanks to unique geological constellations and then bubbles out as springs. [I refer you to my post about Ein Avdat National Park].

Human influence

True for today, most of the floodwater that runs in the Negev wadis still goes to waste, either through evaporation or by flowing to the sea. Only a small portion seeps into the ground and helps to replenish the over-pumped aquifers.

That said, below I elaborate on new projects and water philosophies now being developed and implemented by the KKL-JNF to harvest floodwater.

However, nobody has yet surpassed the Nabateans for their ability and knowledge in the field of flash flood water harvesting. 

The Nabateans – masters of flash flood water harvesting

As the pictures below and the video clip above show, the inhabitants of ancient Mamshit dammed the wadi which runs behind their settlement.

The dams at Wadi Mamshit, Negev

View over dams and waterworks. MamshitAncient dams on Nahal (wadi ) Mamshit on the southern side of the city

Damming was only a part of the whole picture.

As the excellent site nabatea.net elaborates: 

The Nabataeans greatest accomplishment was probably their system of water management. They developed a system to collect rainwater using water channels, pipes, and underground cisterns.

They also used strong, waterproof durable cement and sophisticated ceramic pipelines and reservoirs. Stone circles and terraces retained runoff to preserve valuable topsoil for agriculture.

The Nabateans’ abilites were well-known around the ancient world. Herodotus believed they could find water anywhere in the desert. Diodorus tells us about their ability to hide their secret reservoirs and water sources from prying eyes.

In the city itself, drainage canals run alongside the houses. The idea was to collect every single drop of rainwater from rooftops and streets for storage in the city’s reservoirs.

When you combine Nabatean technology with Roman extravagance…

…you get bathhouses in the middle of the desert…

Click to see the gallery below:

And their legacy lives

In Jordan

Some ancient Nabatean water collection systems have been reconstructed or upgraded by modern-day Jordan and are in operation today.

In Israel

The KKL-JNF is now dedicated, among other things, to expand Israel’s water sources by building floodwater reservoirs in the Negev. A floodwater reservoir is built with a spillway, due to the sometimes overwhelming amounts of water coming through. The water thus accumulated serves for crop irrigation. The reservoris also confer great beauty to the scenery and provide a habitat for birds and fish, as well as tourist attractions.

Mamshit National Park - The Nabatean Marvel

The Nabatean Kingdom

Petra, the Red Rock, from my trip 2007

Petra, The Red Rock. Photograph was taken on my trip to Jordan with my daughter in 2007. Petra featured in early Israeli history as a place so desirable by adventurers that several fine men and women died trying to sneak into what was then enemy country just to see the marvel.

The Nabateans were a nomadic people of Arab origin, whose caravans transported precious perfumes and spices from Northen Arabia to the Mediterranean ports to be shipped over the sea. The caravans crossed Transjordan, where Petra, the kingdom’s capital, was later established, and the Negev desert. 

Former waystations along the route transformed into flourishing cities like Petra, Avdat, Shivta and Mamshit. 

Globalization Nabatean-style

Initially, the Nabateans, a desert tribe, reached their power and wealth through commerce alone, keeping very low key vis-à-vis the powers of the day. Later on, they built a kingdom.

Greek writers ascribe Nabatean wealth and successes as traders and merchants to their amazing abilities at managing water resources in the desert and to their uncanny talents at conealing and camouflaging these water sources and treasures. 

As a result, they succeeded where other failed, making empires and kings dependent on them for importing sought-for and high-value goods from the East to the Mediterranean basin and vice versa. They used both terrestrial and maritime routes, but mostly kept their activities quiet, without getting into military entanglements. (for more details see Appendix- This and That Nabatean).

Independence, assimilation and identity

The Nabateans proudly kept their identity and their freedoms for hundreds of years, first as nomads living on the edge of the settled societies, then in their own proper kingdom (see appendix and nabatea.net).

In the earilier days, they would tell kings and emperors that they’d rather live as “beasts of the wild” than give up their freedoms. Money and goods, then and now, speak loud, and for the most part, gifting the right people earned the Nabateans several more decades of autonomous existence.

Nabateans succeeded at maintaining their identity vis-à-vis Assyria, Babilonia, Egypt, the Greeks and other ancient powers, but the Romans and everything that followed proved to be a hard nut to crack.

Romans and earthquakes

The Nabatean kingdom was annexed to Rome in 106 CE. As their Armaic-Nabatean language gave way to Romanisation, and their Pagan religion to Chritianity, so did they gradually lose their distinct identity and eventually blended into the local populations. As can be seen in Mamshit, they took on Christianity, as they were administratively merged into Bizantium, the Eastern Roman Empire.

All in all, the Nabateans succeeded to survive up until the 6th century CE, an admirable feat for the times, considering all the odds.

Contributing to their demise were a series of earthquakes which devastated Petra, their capital in the Transjordan.

Another factor contributing to their deterioration was that the Romans took over and paved some of the ancient trading routes, making it easier for them to transport troops and merchandise unassisted.

Oh,those stubborn Jews…

Notoriously, that merging and asimilation did not happen to us, Jews, who stubbornly resisted external pressures, even though the danger was always lurking in the background. After 2000 years of relentless suffering and hardships in 70 diasporas, we came back to The Land and are now excavating and preserving those ancient cities in the Negev.

About the intereting interactions between Nabateans and the ancient Jews see nabatea.net

In the Appendix, I quote a few more fascinating points about the Nabateans from that extraordinary website.

Mamshit National Park - The Gate

Shade and light pattern at gate to ancient city. Mamshit National Park
Entry room in gate to ancient Nabatean city of Mamshit

The entry to Mamshit is through a magnificent gate, which was built during the Roman times. By then, for security, the city was surrounded by a fortified wall, but during Nabatean times the gate served only to delineate the city boundary to visitors. 

The gate consisted of two towers and a passage, supported by arches. 

It was burned and destroyed in the seventh century CE. The gate features in the famous Madaba Map in Jordan as the symbol of the city. (You can see a copy of the Madaba Map on an old military building at the Lido Junction. See my post: Einot Tzukim Nature Reserve.)

Mamshit National Park - The Nabatean City

500-sqm houses and hoards hidden in walls

Mamshit was a rich city despite its seemingly out-of-the-way location. It was located at an important crossroad along trade routes leading towards the Dead Sea and the Arava and was cooler and more livable than either, thanks to its elevation.

An article in The Times of Israel is titled: “In Mamshit, even the poorest family had a 500 m home” (a wet dream for most Israelis today…), and goes on to say that “some people were so filthy rich they apparently “forgot where they hid their money”. An incredible hoard of over 10,500 silver coins was discovered behind a stariwell in one of the homes.  

The two most outstanding houses are called “The Wealthy House” and “The Nabatu House”. 

The so-called Nabatu house was about 2000 sqm in size, including in-door stables. Floors were overlayed with imported wooden panels brought from afar and the walls were covered with colorful frescoes.

Building Mamshit - The Craftmanship

Perfectly cut stones in a house wall at Mamshit city. Toolmarks are clearly visible.

I was impressed by the level of finish and precision of construction at the desert town of Mamshit. Local stones were used, including colorful sandstone, but arches were built to perfection. Corners were meticulously matched. Stone laying was clearly done by highly-skilled workmen.

   Corner perfectly shaped. Mamshit National Park, Negev           Beauty of stone craftmanship. Mamshit National Park, NegevPrecise worksmanship showcased in details from construction at Mamshit

    Colorful sandstone utilized in construction. Mamshit National Park     Broken pillars with elaborate workmanship. Mamshit National Park     Niche for lock. Nabatu House, Mamshit National ParkExamples of craftmanship in Mamshit well-to-do homes

Mamshit National Park - The Watchtower

360 degree view over Mamshit National Patk, the dams and surroundings from the watchtower.

Guarding the water

The watchtower was originally three stories tall. The view from the second story, accessed by an impressive stairwell, is magnificent, as can be seen in the clip above. 

The tower itself, built in the second century CE was part of the administrative center of the town. Some scholars believe that the governor actually lived there. There are remnants of wooden beams and plaster on the walls.

Outer wall of watch tower. Mamshit National ParkAn outer view of the square watchtower

It was of primary importance for the desert city inhabitants to protect their settlement, and especially the water system and dams. Those were clearly overseen from the tower’s top.

Probably store room inside watchtower. Mamshit Natioanal ParkArched room at ground floor of tower, perhaps storage

The ground floor is presumed to have been used as storage and perhaps a workshop.

Treasure hunting

Today, the park management installed a treasure hunt station in the watchtower for kids. The hunt is based in real stories about hidden treasures. The biggest hoard of treasure ever found in Israel was discovered in Mamshit: 10,500 silver coins, a 72Kg lead ingot with its foundry markings, a collection of ancient Greek texts on papyrus, and other objects indicative of wealth.

The mission for the treasure hunters was to light a candle at this spot, but I could not figure out why, since when I was there, a family with several kids was busy with the task and I did not want to interfere. We were all wearing masks and keeping the required corona social distance.

There were several such stations spread around Mamshit National Park. 

Peep into the lower stories of watchtower. Mamshit National ParkA peep into the deep

Flour mill from basaltic rock. Mamshit National Park      Flour mill. Mamshit National Park . Top view

The flour mill, operated by animal or human muscles

Nearby was a flour mill made of granite stones, probably brought in from Egypt. The presence of a flour mill is another indication that the territory around the town was farmable. It was operated by animal and human power.

Mamshit National Park - The City Wall

In the Bible, two types of cities are decribed: walled and un-walled. A special Biblical word decribes an unwalled city: prazot (פרזות). Nabatean Mamshit was such a city, despite its wealth. Perhaps in those days, the dangers in the open desert were less acute than after the Roman conquest, or perhaps the Nabateans had a different concept of defense.

The city got its wall by the end of the third century CE during the Roman times. 

The southern city wall. Mamshit

Southern city wall. MamshitSouthern City Wall, Mamshit National Park

On the other side of the city walls, the stark desert is in full force. It takes some imagination to visualize how in Nabatean times crops were actually grown there, just as Israeli settlements in the area do today.

Mamshit National Park - The Market

The shaded street, flanked on both sides with shops and workshops, served as a colorful and lively market on holidays.

As can be seen in the video above, I was mesmerized by the movement of the wind in the palm fronds. It is easy to envision ancient people who probably, likewise, sat on the steps leading to the market and watched nature playing with the thatching…

The market. Mamshit National ParkThe shaded market street. Mamshit National Park

The market space is beautifully reconstructed, so when you walk down the road you can go back in time to see and hear the vibrant mercantile hub, probably not much different than the Arab Markets of Jerusalem or Jaffa. Some things in the Middle East never change.

History Keeps On Marching...

...And Next Came Christianity

The Eastern Church. Mamshit National Park
The Eastern Church, Mamshit National Park

As history unfolded, once you became Roman, you eventually became Christian.

Yet none of that affected the raison d’etre for the existence of Mamshit: the trade routes. However, amendments had to be made to accomodate churches into the once-pagan city. Since no temples existed inside the Nabatean town, some inhabitants had to sacrifice parts of their home spaces to create the houses of worship.

The so-called Nilus church had a mosaic floor decorated with figures of birds, baskets of fruit and geometric designs. Materials, including enormous wooden beams were imported from elsewhere, as was the Italian marble installed in the apse.

In 427 CE, church leaders decreed against having crosses on churches floors. From then on it was considered sacrilegious to step on a cross. That fact aided archeologists with dating the church to an earlier time. 

Christian symbols by Eastern Church. Mamshit National ParkChristian symbols, Mamshit National Park

Make yourself comfortable. Ancient seat at Mamshit National ParkAnd if you wanted to sit outside the church…

Personally, I did not make it to the Nilus Church due to coronavirus time constrains, but you can see nice pictures of this church and other Christian artefacts here

Then Came the Persians and the Arabs...

And, as things developed elsewhere in this part of the world, next came the Persian invasion (614 CE), followed closely by the Arab Muslim conquest in 636 CE.

The Persian invasion, which most people aren’t even aware of, is still considered by Orthodox Christian monks around the Holy Land to be the greatest disaster to have ever occured to them. I have heard this in person from a monk in St. George Monastery, Wadi Kelt.

...And the City was Left to the Elements for Exactly 1300 Years...

Why, oh, why? 

Your guess is as good as mine, but one can surmise that the occupiers did not want to work hard, and held the conquered in little regard, as conquerers go. They were not into meticulously preserving desert cisterns and aquaducts, so they probably destroyed what they could, raped and stole what they could, perhaps enslaved some, and moved on.

That much for the magnificent Nabatean city of Mamshit…

And if all that devastation was not enough, the Ottomans did not shy from stealing stones from the ancient ruins to be reused in the construction of modern Beersheva.

...And Then, Out of the Blue, Came the British and Built a Police Station

In 1936 the British Mandate forces built a police station for its camel-back desert patrols to monitor the Bedouin and prevent Jews from traveling the area with an eye to settling it.” (from the park’s brochure).

Oh…

That much for British benevolence. Plus, what were they doing here anyway?

Today - Mamshit is an Israeli National Park and a World Heritage Site

Now is our turn…

In 1966, Israel declared the site a national park. In 2005, UNESCO wrote it in as a World Heritage Site, part of the larger program:”The Incense Route – Desert Cities in the Negev”.

Mamshit site was surveyed and mapped extensively. Large-scale excavations were carried out by research teams from the Hebrew University, the National Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority.  

I hope We, Israel, are here to stay for a very long run, but…

Nothing is Forever...

Click on any picture below to see in gallery lightbox view.

I walked past the watchtower and into the desert beyond, where I could get a view of the dams over Nahal Mamshit and the area outside the city walls. Many ruins were strewn around, silent clues to past, busy lives engaged in their own stories. Inside the reconstructed city itself, many buildings are now home to desert plants that are slowly taking over and superceding our human efforts.

Nothing, indeed, is forever, not even our megalopolises. That might be a scary – or a consoling thought – depending on one’s view and state of mind. For me, something about Mamshit had a “mamashut” (reality in Hebrew) of another dimension.

Past glory in desert. MamshitStanding against the elements. Ancient Mamshit.

Post script: A new archaeological study on preponderance of grape seeds vs. grain seeds in the Negev reveals that the outlying settlements of the Byzantian Empire started to decline even before the Islamic invasion of the 7th century due to a combination of climatic change and a pandemic…

A complicating factor was dependence on outside markets, and gambling for exports rather than production for local uses.

I am leaving it to the reader to draw conclusions and analogies…

Appendix

This and That Nabatean

For extra interest about Nabateans, readers are invited to the superb and unique website on the topic:

nabatea.net

The history of this mega-site and its authors is almost as interesting as the subject matter itself…

Below are selected interesting facts from the their historical introductory post, and there is much much more:

  • At At the height of its power, Nabatea stretched from Damascus into northern Arabia. It was bordered on the west by the Roman-held lands of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, Paraea, the Decapolis and by Egypt. The Nabataeans’ eastern border, being in the desert, was undefined but could be said to have stretched to the borders of Parthia. 
  • Even Nabateans sheperds could read and write, as can be seen from rock graffity, but there are little written histories. Ancient historians of Greece and Rome recorded amazing tall tales that the Nabataeans invented to hide their history, trade routes, and the sources of their goods.
  • Even the magnificent city of Petra was hidden away in a cleft in the rocks with sole access through a narrow crevice.
  • Following the expulsion of the Jews to Babylon, the Edomites moved north into their land. The Nabateans, who customarily were living at the outskirts of settled societies, now became prominent in Edomite lands. 
  • In their early history they quietly carried goods from one place to another, but never establishing diplomatic ties with the big historical powers. Even though, or perhaps because, they lived on the margins of society, people left them alone, while by and by they grew richer and richer. 
  • Josephus identified the Nabataeans with Ishmael’s eldest son and claimed that the Nabataeans territory extended from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Apparently during his lifetime the words “Arabs” and “Nabataeans” became synonymous. 
  •  Others think they had a Mesopotamian origin. According to Assyrian sources, the Quedarites, Hagaranu and the Nabatu  tribes fled from their attacks into the desert, and could not be conquered.
  • The Nabataeans referred to themselves simply as Nabatu, meaning ‘people who draw water’
  • Later Arab literature distinguished between Nabat al-‘Irak (Iraqi Nabataeans) and Nabat al-Sham, or Nabataeans of Damascus. This distinction can help explain how the Yezidis of Iraq and Turkey could claim connections with Nabataean. 
  • Some Nabatu were pirates who sailed the Red Sea plundering trading vessels. Later they established bases in a number of seaports, including the port city of Aila (modern day Aqaba/Eilat). 
  • Herod the Great’s father was an Idumaean and his mother a Nabataean.
  • During Hellenistic times, the Nabataeans succeeded to become one of the most successful commercial societies in the Middle East. They managed to take their caravans through the desert, unaffected by the local tribes who controlled wells and grazing land. Nabatea.net believes they developed a method of transporting goods in the desert by using hidden water collection systems, without needing to use local water wells. 
  • For centuries, the Nabataeans never constructed a single house or temple. When they chose the site of Petra to build their magnificent city, it was a barren canyon, and possibly a place were they buried their dead.
  • Petra, or Rekem as it was called, gained fame from China to Rome and set a trading empire that surpassed anything seen before on the face of the earth.
  • They sold spices, animals, iron, oil, copper, sugar, medicines, ivory, perfumes, pearls, cotton, ginger, cinnamon, silk, frankincense, myrrh and gold to Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They exported henna, storax, frankincense, asbestos, cloth, silk, glass, gold and silver to India and China.
  • The Nabateans also served a role in transferring ideas and inventions between the great eastern and western civilizations.
  • According to Diodorus, the early Nabateans, whom he called ‘Arabs’, had a law against sowing corn or fruit bearing plants, using wine or building houses. They pastureed sheep and camels.
  • According to Christian sources, once the Nabataeans became a wealthy urban nation, they seemed to have dropped these ascetic prohibitions, while the Rechabites, a tribe mentioned in the Bible, who upheld a similar law, continued to maintain them. 
  • The site mentions that these ascetic cultural aspects did not make the Nabataeans righteous in any sense of the word. Like Bedouins today, some made their living trafficking slave-girl prostitutes. 
  • Nabateans tried to use diplomacy in their dealings with imperious powers like the Greeks. They would fight only as a last resort. When they did, their knowledge of the desert played to their advantage. They would argue to kings and emperor that they preferred to live as “beasts of the field” rather than be enslaved, and would trade them gifts in exchange for their freedom.
  • Gradually, Nabateans expanded their sphere of influence west into the Negev, Wadi al-Arish and beyond into Egypt, where they maintained an outpost in Wadi Tumilat. As the Seleucid Kingdom disintegrated they also pushed north.
  • Around 86 BC, Obodas, the Nabatean leader, won a battle with the Seleucids, though he died in battle. He was buried in the Negev, at a place renamed in his honor: Obodat (modern Avdat), now another Israeli national park. His son, Aretas, pushed even further, into Damascus. (2 Corinthians 11:32-33) 
  • By 85 BC, the Nabateans started a process of Hellenization in language and customs, and became urban. King Aretas tried to change his image to fit that of an urban king. 
  • The Nabatean king Aretas supported Hyrcanus for high priesthood in Jerusalem against Aristobulus, but withdrew his support at a certain point due to Roman pressure. Aristobulus pursued the retreating Nabataeans and defeated them with a loss of 600 lives.
  • Cleopatra requested from Anthony to give her Judea (a dependency ruled by Herod the Great) and the still-independent kingdom of the Nabataeans, as a gift. The Nabateans were then considered allies of Rome, and Anthony turned down her request. Following the couple’s suicide, the Nabateans succeeded to maintain their independence.
  • Nabateans had few slaves, and even the rulers were served by their families or even by themselves. They held communal meals with girls singing to amuse the diners. According to Strabo, “The ruler is so democratic that, in addition to serving himself, he sometimes even serves the others in his turn. He often renders an account of his leadership in the popular assembly, and sometimes his method of life is examined.” He adds that the natives never had any dispute amongst themselves, and lived together in perfect harmony… A great part of the country is fertile”
  • Nabateans provided the Romans with incense they used abundantly for their religious rites at the temples, and even monopolized this lucrative trade. The Romans tried to force the Nabateans to divulge their source, but the Nabateans succeeded to trick and decieve them by leading them into a trap. Syllaeus, the expedition leader, managed to peacefully get away from the Romans and return to Petra a hero. 
  • After many skirmishes, the Romans gave Herod permission to invade Nabataea, which he accomplished successfully.
  • The Romans considered the Nabataeans allies and perhaps subjects of Rome. The Nabataeans considered themselves subject to no one.
  • Nabataean women, unlike many of their contemporaries, enjoyed a high status. They inherited and owned property in their own right. Queens featured on coins side-by-side with their husbands. 
  • Herod, son of a Nabatean woman, had complex relations with the Nabateans. The Romans actually protected Herod Antipas from the Nabateans. Malichus II, the Nabatean ruler, sent Emperor Titus 1000 cavalry and 5000 infantry which took part in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
  • In 106 CE, the Romans annexed the Nabataean kingdom on behalf of the Emperor Trajan, and incorporated it as the new Province of Arabia. The Nabataeans still continued as a distinct people within the Empire and even enjoyed a period of economic prosperity in the later Byzantine era, as can be seen in Mamshit. Coins were minted referring to “Arabia adquista’, acquired but not conquered.
  • The Romans eventually paved a road over the old caravan route from Bostra to Aila. Now troops as well as items of trade could be moved speedily from one place to another. That contributed to Nabatean decline.
  • Petra was destroyed by several devastating earthquakes and deserted in the 6th century.

This post belongs in a post series about Israeli Nature Reserves and Parks, under the general category of  Israel’s Best at Planet’s Daughter Website.

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