Inscriptions, milestones shed light on ‘lost’ part of Negev trade route

Inscriptions, milestones shed light on ‘lost’ part of Negev trade route


An Ibex stands on a cliff-edge above the Ramon Crater in southern Israel’s Negev desert March 5, 2012.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Several recently discovered milestones, some carrying inscriptions, have offered new insights into the incense route that crossed the Negev during antiquity, connecting the southern part of the Arabic peninsula to Gaza via Petra.

As explained in a paper published last month in the journal Palestine Exploration Quarterly, most scholars believed for many decades that the road and its structures, including some milestones,  were to be associated with the Nabateans, a people who emerged in the last centuries of the first millennia BCE and settled, among other areas, in the Negev Desert.

However, the Latin inscriptions uncovered in the recently identified “lost section” of the route were found to be from the later Roman period to the rule of emperors Pertinax (second century CE) and Severus (late second to early third centuries CE).

The authors of the paper, Dr. Chaim Ben David from Kinneret Kinne College’s Land of Israel Studies Department and Prof. Benjamin Isaac from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Classics, said even before the latest discoveries, “milestones are known only from the Roman period, and in the entire Nabataean realm, from Arabia through southern Jordan, not a single stretch of wide, built road with milestones is known in a Nabataean context – i.e., pre-106 CE.”

Only three milestones from before that year were found in Jordan and Israel, they wrote.

Ben David had already suggested that “the milestones in the desert areas of the Negev and southern Jordan, including those along the Petra-Gaza were erected on the initiative of the Roman provincial governor, using the labor of army units, without involving the local population at least for maintenance as was usual in the more densely populated parts of the province.”

Until two years ago, while most of the route had been identified, scholars had not been able to locate a portion of it in the middle Negev.

The previously unknown section of the incense route was unearthed in 2018 west of the eastern range of Mount Grafon. Two milestones were found along it on the occasion, and several others were uncovered in later surveys of the itinerary.

“To the emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius/Severus Pius Pertinax/Augustus, victor over Arabia, Adiabene, Parthia/and to Marcus Aurelius/Antoninus, son of our Augustus/by (Lucius) Marius Perpetus, Envoy of the Emperor, acting praetor (i.e. governor),”reads the inscription on one of the stones, as deciphered by Isaac.

Another, mentioning Pertinax and his son, marked 40 miles from the city of Elusa, which was located near present-day Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh.

“Together with the information provided by the number XXXX, which appears on the milestone of 193-194 CE, it is now clear that Elusa served as caput viae of this road even though this was essentially a road from Gaza to Petra,” Ben David and Isaac wrote. Caput viae literally designates the “head of the road.”

“According to Ptolemy the geographer, in the second century, Elusa was regarded as belonging to Idumaea, itself part of ‘Palaestina or Judaea.’ This is refuted by the present milestones, which mention a governor of Arabia,” they wrote. “It is also further confirmation that this part of the Negev belonged to the province of Arabia in the late second century, as indicated also by at least one inscription from Avdat (Oboda).”

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