Deserts have always seemed mysterious and exotic to me. Growing up I devoured stories of exploration, exotic caravans, and women wearing gauzy belly dancing outfits. I drooled over the idea of having my own camel to take care of as my Bedouin family stops for the night and pitches their sprawling tent with luxurious carpets and pillows piled all over the floor.
Therefore it was a foregone conclusion that when we traveled to Israel we knew right away that we would have to explore some of the ancient cities that used to line the incense and spice route. Since we were driving, we didn’t think it would be that out of the way. In this we were wrong. The spice route through Israel is around 150 kilometers long, and it’s quite a distance from the other main Israeli sights. That didn’t stop us, though, since we love a good road trip and getting out into the back country always affords us the opportunity to see farms, sheep and goat herders, and the Bedouins who still roam the dunes to this day.
We had already visited and loved the Nabatean capital of Petra where we hiked up to the monastery and talked with the people who still live in the park. So, visiting some of the four UNESCO inscribed Negev towns filled us with anticipation. We only had time to visit two of them, so we chose Mamshit and Shivta. They were completely different from each other and surprisingly intact. Luckily there weren’t many tourists around which gave us the opportunity to wander, shoot plenty of photographs, chase geckos, and imagine what it would have been like to arrive at these oases in the desert after hours and hours of slow-paced camel walking.
The towns and caravanserais were spaced out so that each stop was one-day’s journey and were equipped to house and feed the whole party as well as keep them safe from marauders and thieves that stalked the rich caravans. Frankincense and myrrh are only found in one region of the world, modern day southern Arabia, and were worth more than their weight in gold. Many religions used the incense to burn the prayers up to the heavens, while the royalty and wealthy rich ladies used them for their scents and perfumes.
Because of the riches that these two resins brought to the Nabateans, they completely transformed the culture from what was traditionally an agricultural and pastoral people to a more mercantile economy. The four Israeli towns that were part of the 2,000 kilometer route still show how they were able to conquer the desert. Shivta, for example, had a great underground cistern to hold potable water. Today, you can still go down and see how it worked.
Even though we didn’t get to experience the belly dancing, we did hear the tinkling of bells and see a farmer feeding his camels. We did feast on some desert-bred beef in a great farm restaurant, and we loved seeing the night sky sprinkled with millions of stars at night. We absolutely adored our visit to the incense and spice cities of the Negev!
If you are looking for more things to do in this part of Israel, you might want to head to Ramon Crater and do some amazing hiking.