Nabatean Contol of the Incense and Spice Route

Caravans From Arabia with Goods for the Roman and Hellenistic World

From the 3rd century BCE until the 2nd century CE great camel caravans made the trip from the southern shores of the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean port of Gaza.

The Incense and Spice Route, as it became known, saw huge quantities of precious frankincense and myrrh, destined for the avaricious Roman and Hellenistic empires, transported across 1,800 km of the most inhospitable country.

Frankincense and to a lesser extent myrrh were, the main commercial commodities, in great demand for use as incense for burning in temples and for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. Such was the demand for frankincense that at times its price was greater than that of gold.

As the route developed, spices like pepper, cinnamon and ginger were among the many other goods, which arrived at southern Arabian ports from India and China for onward transportation by camel caravan.

Nabatean Trade

At the heart of this great trading enterprise were the Nabateans who, acting as middlemen grew rich on the profits. Constantly defending the lucrative trade from the Romans they build many of the towns and forts en route as a means of protection. The town of Petra in what is now southern Jordan was used as a major staging centre.

Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) allows a glimpse into life on the Incense Route. In particular the necessity to pay ‘tax’ as the great camel caravans made their way north.

“ After frankincense is collected, it is conveyed by camel to Sabota and one of the gates of the city is opened to receive the merchandise. The kings enacted a permanent law that it is a serious crime for a camel bearing frankincense to divert from the main road. In Sabota, the priests levy a tithe for a god know as Sabin… From there the frankincense may be conveyed through the land of the Gebbanites only and therefore tax must be paid…” It was a journey according to Pliny that consisted of sixty-five stages divided by halts for camels.

Negev Desert

The final stages of the route were through the Negev Desert in what is now Israel where archaeologists have uncovered the remains of towns, forts and caravanserai that reflect the economic prosperity of the Nabatean trade.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

These important sites within the Negev Desert are now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

UNESCO Criterion III says: “ The Nabatean towns and their trade routes bear eloquent testimony to the economic, social and cultural importance of frankincense to the Hellenistic-Roman world. The routes also provided a means of passage not only for frankincense and other trade goods but also for people and ideas.”

Nabatean control of the routes was brought to an end by the second century CE after the Romans finally gained the upper hand in the Negev and diverted the route through Egypt.

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