Sunday, 15 March 2015


The ancient archaeological site of Shivta, located in the north of the Negev, close to the border with Egypt, reminded us very much of our visit to Pompeii. A Nabataean city that was first settled in the Early Roman period, in the 1st century BCE, Shivta grew prosperous in the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries CE). The city was part of the Nabataean Spice Route, transporting frankincense, myrrh and other spices from Oman and Yemen, crossing Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and ending at the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean, for export to the Classic world of Greece and Rome. Along the way are forts, caravansaries, springs, cisterns and milestones, as well as the ancient cities of Mamshit, Avdat, Haluza and Shivta, built in order to support and protect the Spice Route.
Shivta was abandoned following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century CE but, unlike most cities in the Negev, it was not destroyed, possibly because it was too far away to be pillaged. Over time many of the structures have collapsed and have been restored by archaeologists. Walking through the ruins really gave us the feeling of walking through what was once a real live city.
Shivta differs from the other Nabataean cities in the Negev in that it is not located on a main commercial route. It was also unwalled, and so may be regarded as a large farming village. Two magnificent churches dating from the 4th century CE, when most of the residents adopted Christianity, can be seen in the village, as well as residential areas, large courtyards and public squares, oil presses, wine presses, water cisterns and impressive water collection pools. A mosque was added in the 8th or 9th century CE. The construction of the mosque was carried out with care not to damage the church's baptistery, and so it seems that both communities of Christians majority and the Muslim minority lived peacefully together.
Since Shivta has no natural water sources, its residents, who were mainly farmers, carefully collected every rare drop of rain. The streets leading from the northern part of the city drain into large collection pools in which "notes" written on pieces of pottery were found, with confirmations as to the cleaning of the pools, which was part of the city’s residents responsibility. No water was wasted amid the harsh desert conditions.
It was not until the 20th century that archaeologists rediscovered Shivta and began excavating. An attraction in the national park is the Colt house, used by the team of archaeologists led by H. Colt (son of the famous American gun manufacturer), who dug at Shivta from 1933 to 1934. Over the entrance is an inscription in ancient Greek which translates, "With good luck. Colt built (this house) with his own money."
Studies and restoration of Shivta began in 1958, but seem not to have been completed. Signs identify the main buildings, but wandering through the deserted city I was fascinated but honestly a little bit clueless about what I was seeing until I did some further reading at home.
In 2005 Shivta was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In an unusual arrangement, a family now lives in the Colt house. They operate a unique restaurant preparing typical desert fare, as well as a guest house. They can also provide visitors with information about the site and about human life in the desert in the past and present, though we did not know this on the day we visited. A modern-day orchard north of the site utilises ancient methods to grow various fruits.


VeggieMummy said...

Such a fascinating post. My family and I love archaeological sites and are often found nosing around them on holiday. Thank you for sharing this one. x

Alison said...

What an interesting place to visit and I loved reading about it, Lisa. Thanks for your lovely comment on my blog, I have enjoyed visiting yours! xx

TexWisGirl said...

how interesting to have a family reside in the house and run a restaurant, but it is kind of a nice addition to the ruins. i cannot imagine the villagers gathering rain water and hoping it will be enough to sustain life.

Miss Val's Creations said...

Amazing ruins to stroll through! The thought of living in an ancient town like this fascinates me.