The Nabatean Kingdom, with its capital in Petra in Jordan, was a major trading power in the Levant from about the 3rd century BCE until the 4th century CE (the last few under the largely benevolent yoke of the Roman Empire). The Nabateans carried their incense trade to the Mediterranean ports via routes through the Negev desert, building a number of towns and way stations along the way. Four of those towns are inscribed together as a serial World Heritage property as reflections of the wealth and prosperity brought by the profitable trade in the region. My itinerary allowed me to visit two of them.
Unlike the Biblical Tels, the archaeological sites of the Nabatean towns offer enough of standing remains to help imagine what the places looked like at the height of their prosperity. Large portions of the sites are still shapeless piles of rocks, but there are also high walls, defined interior spaces, and some structures that survived in reasonable shape.
Here are the main gates of Mamshit and a few structures beyond.
Where the arches survive, they are definitely among the most eye-catching details.
And the temples are usually the places where you can find the best surviving decorative details, such as floor mosaics or columns.
Avdat sits on top of a high hill overlooking the desert.
The remains of a Roman villa at the southern tip of the archaeologic site provide for the most stunning visuals.
Views over the desert from different vantage points of Avdat are nothing short of spectacular.
The streets and buildings of the Byzantine Quarter outside of the original town walls are younger than the rest of Avdat, settled from the 4th century CE onward until the time the town was abandoned in the 7th century.
Also outside the town walls are the remains of the winepress dating from the late Roman/early Byzantine period.
A number of iron sculptures depict what I assume are scenes from the lives of Nabateans.
The southern city gates and a couple of fragments inside the town walls.
As elsewhere, the best decorative details are preserved at the sites of temples, some of it undoubtedly recently reconstructed.
A model helps you visualize the grand temple that stood on this spot.
Mamshit is just over an hour away from Tel Aviv by car, while Avdat is another half an hour further south on one of the main routes towards Eilat and the Red Sea. I was one of just a handful of visitors at either one on different mornings. The brochures found at the reception provide all of the information you need, so while I saw people come with a guide I feel like guidance is optional; at Avdat, you can watch a short orientation movie at the visitor center, which will further help a self-guided visitor. An hour is more or less sufficient to explore each site, although Avdat has more points of interest that may entice less casual visitor to spend more time there. It should also be noted that the visitor center in Avdat is located at the foot of the hill far below the town remains; you can ascend to the site on foot if you so desire – or ask for a parking ticket for the upper lot, included in the price, which will allow you to drive up the hill and park right by the site.