Nabateans: A Semitic people who thrived in the Negev between the third century BCE and the seventh century CE. They accumulated great wealth by transporting spices across the desert and built six cites in the Negev.
Unlike Israel’s five other Nabatean cities, Mamshit was situated well away from the famous Spice Trail – an arduous route that extended over 2,000 kilometers from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite its seemingly out-of-the-way location, however, its inhabitants were extraordinarily wealthy. One house at Mamshit was over 1,500 square meters in size — and even the poorest family could boast a dwelling of at least 500 meters. Some people were so filthy rich they apparently “forgot” where they hid their money: archeologists found an incredible hoard of over 10,500 silver coins in one of the homes.
The city may have been off the Spice Trail, but the people of Mamshit dealt in commerce just like their fellow Nabateans. Mamshit was an important crossroad along trade routes leading towards the Dead Sea and the Arava. It was too hot to live in the Dead Sea valley and no cooler in the Arava, so Nabatean merchants built their homes at a comfortable location several hundred meters above sea level.
Today Mamshit is a well-organized National Park, where a path within the once-booming city leads through churches, a bathhouse and exquisite villas decorated with mosaics and frescos.
Not far from the entrance to the park stand the stone remains of an ancient inn where camels and their drivers once spent the night. Mamshit and other cities profited from tourists, but preferred to have them, and their animals, outside of the city.
Camels drink enormous quantities of water and there are very few water sources around Mamshit. The Nabateans solved this problem by building dams along the adjacent river bed: one reservoir held some 10,000 cubic meters of water. The caravansary and a Roman-style bath house are clear evidence that the people of Mamshit were able to provide abundant supplies of water in the desert.
Modern metal and wooden lintels are scattered throughout the city. That’s because archeologists may reconstruct ancient sites only when they are absolutely certain as to their original appearance. Mamshit was apparently destroyed during the Moslem conquest in the seventh century and abandoned for the next 1,300 years; moreover, the Ottoman Turks used stones from the city to construct modern Beersheba.
Therefore no one really knows what Mamshit looked like and archeologists used iron and wood, instead of stone, to remind us that this reconstruction is only an educated guess.
Entrance to Mamshit is through the gate in the city walls, intended not for defense but merely to separate inhabitants from the nomads who wandered around outside. Still visible on the ground are grooves in the rock, cut by ancient wheeled vehicles.
In another break from the traditional pattern, Mamshit began with a scattering of lavish houses, large villas built by rich traders. Stables within some of the houses had exactly the same function as the two-car garages of today. Floors were covered with wooden panels brought from afar, indicating that trade was well developed.
A cistern carved into the road in front of the palace remains from the original Nabatean city. Drainage canals run alongside the houses. They were meant to collect every possible drop of rainwater from rooftops and streets for storage in reservoirs throughout Mamshit.
Mamshit’s houses were one to two stories tall, and each contained a side tower with staircase in a form unique to Nabatean architecture. Visitors can climb many of the staircase towers, but the one with the best view is located just behind the palace and belongs to the large building that probably housed the local governor. If you stand on the top you will have a panoramic look at Mamshit, which was spread out along the hills.
When residents converted to Christianity in the fourth century, they had to find room for churches in a city that was already bursting at the seams. There were no pagan temples to transform into churches, and one inhabitant had to tear down part of his home to make room for this Christian house of worship. Consequently the entrance does not face due west, as is common in Byzantine churches.
It took a lot of money to create an elegant house of worship and mosaic floors are very rare in the Negev churches. Yet this church, named for a donor called Nilus, included a mosaic floor decorated with representations of birds, baskets of fruit and geometric designs. Enormous wooden beams were imported from other countries, as was the decorative Italian marble. Two rooms flanked the apse. In one priests prepared the wafers; in the other they donned their vestments.
A second Christian house of prayer is called the Church of Saints and Martyrs. In the rubble, archeologists found two containers filled with the bones of saints. To make room for this church, Mamshit residents filled in part of the riverbed. Again, topographical considerations rendered it impossible for the entrance to face the west. The baptistery here is unusual, and was probably used at first for converts. Shaped like a cross, it had a deep section for adults and a smaller recess on the side for infants.
Part of the marble partition in front of the apse has remained as it was for almost 2,000 years. Crosses were commonly carved into church floors but, in 427, church leaders decided it was not proper to step on a cross and forbade the practice. Apparently this church was built before the ruling. We don’t know for certain, however, as not all communities abided by the new law.
Near Mamshit’s largest private dwelling there is a sign that reads “The House of the Frescos.” This is where Mamshit’s most exciting finds were made, among them an enormous hoard of Roman coins from the third century that was hidden beneath a stairwell. A pair of roundish Nabatean capitals in one room boasts one human face and one bull’s face. Inside the house is a large stable, complete with troughs. Perhaps horses were so expensive that people preferred to keep them safely in their homes.
Private indoor plumbing was rare in Israel at this period and one unique aspect of this house is a bathroom and changing room supplied with water from a special pool. In a Talmudic source which talks about a “good” discovery, some rabbis suggested that the “good” discovery is a nice house, while others contended it means a good wife. But the rabbis who wrote the dissertation concluded otherwise. They decided it meant having a bathroom close to your house.
Sukkot activities: If you are in Israel over the Sukkot holiday, you can wander along Market Street in Ancient Mamshit and enjoy a “Nabatean” bazaar, with music, dancing, arts and crafts. Activities from 10:00 until 17:00 on October 9-14, and until 22:00 on October 13. For more information call 08-6556478.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.