What is the Incense Route?

Brendan McGuigan

The Incense Route, also known as the Desert Cities in the Negev, are a collection of ancient cities in present-day Israel. The Incense Route is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 2005. The four cities included in the Incense Route are Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat, and Shivta. In addition to the Desert Cities in the Negev, another important UNESCO site which falls along the historical trade route is the Frankincense trail, located in modern-day Oman.

Frankincense, which was traded on the incense route.
Frankincense, which was traded on the incense route.

The full Incense Route was an extensive collection of routes passing from Egypt through the Middle East and into India. Beginning in about the 3rd century BCE, a robust trade sprang up between the Middle East, India, East Africa, and the Mediterranean. The Incense Route acted as the lifeline connecting Indian silks and spices with African woods and gold and Arabian myrrh and frankincense.

Myrrh was one of the goods traded along the incense route.
Myrrh was one of the goods traded along the incense route.

The Incense Route flourished until sometime in the 2nd century, when it began to be used less and less frequently. This was a result not of a reduction in trade, but rather by an increased desire on the part of the Greeks and Romans to have direct trade with India. This led to a reopening of an ancient sea route during the reign of Ptolemy II, and a gradual decrease in the land route, although it remained in use for the next few centuries.

The four cities that are part of the UNESCO Incense Route are all fascinating ruins because of the sophistication evident in their design and construction. The cities were built to control the desert, and the massive wealth that passed through them siphoned down to create ornate irrigation systems, beautiful architecture and tiling, and impressive defensive forts.

The largest treasure uncovered in Israel was found in Mamshit, one of the four cities of the Incense Route. It consisted of more than 10,000 silver coins, and was found along with a large body of papyrus texts.

The Desert Cities in the Negev are located in the Negev Heights of Israel, and are fairly sparsely interspersed. Bus travel is possible between the settlements, but many people find that they only have the energy to visit one or two of the sites. Shivta, also known as Sobata, is one of the most well-preserved of the sites, and contains ruins of a number of different buildings, including three distinct Byzantine churches. An old wine press is also a highlight of Shivta.

Avdat, although not as well-preserved, it a much larger site than Shivta. It is on the top of a hill, offering an excellent view of the surrounding country. There is a house of the Nabatean style that has been reconstructed to offer a view of what it would have looked like historically.

In addition to the sites of the Incense Route, the Negev Heights offer a number of other excellent places to visit. There are some interesting historical oases, such as Ein Zik, a sizable portion of the relatively new wine route, and the Ramon Craters. Overall, although out of the way, the Incense Route offers a great opportunity to see fairly well-preserved desert ruins.

The Incense Route passed through the Middle East to India.
The Incense Route passed through the Middle East to India.

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