The Nabatean towns in the Negev 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. The remains of towns, forts, caravanserai and sophisticated agricultural systems along the Incense route demonstrate an outstanding response to a hostile environment and one that flourished for five centuries.
The towns, fortresses, caravanserai and fossilised agricultural landscapes that reflect the prosperity of the Nabatean spice trade over 500 years from the 3rd century BC, stretch out across a 100 km section of the desert from Haluza in the north-west to Moa in the east on the Jordanian border. They were part of a network of trading routes which transported frankincense and myrrh, extracted from thorn trees in what are now Oman, Yemen and Somalia, to the Mediterranean and North Africa. From the 3rd century BC until the 2nd century AD, the Nabateans transported frankincense and myrrh across the desert to the Mediterranean coast, a distance of some 1,800 km. This trade was fostered by demands for luxury goods in the Hellenistic and Roman world. It was made possible by the knowledge of the desert-dwelling Nabateans, who were able to bridge the 'impassable' desert and travel into the southern Arabian Peninsula, a world unknown to the Romans and those living along the coast of the Mediterranean.
The Nabateans moved into the Negev area in the 6th century BC after the Edomites had abandoned their country and invaded the Judaean plains. The Nabateans grew rich on the profits of the spice trade. The Romans consistently tried to take over the trade, and their hostile influence meant that the Nabateans had to follow routes to the south of Roman territory and thus traverse and secure some of the most difficult terrain in the Negev. They developed towns and forts to defend the route and caravanserais to provide it for travellers. To support their own population and those of the merchant caravans, they were compelled to colonize the harshest of dry, rocky deserts. By the 2nd century AD all the Nabatean towns had been annexed to the Province of Arabia after the Roman conquest of Petra. The heyday of Nabatean control of the routes was at an end. Although Roman control heralded two centuries of prosperity for the towns as they became incorporated into the defence system of the Roman Empire under Diocletian, it meant a decline of the trade routes as the Romans diverted trade through Egypt. Most of the towns were finally abandoned after the Arab conquest of AD 636 and have lain largely undisturbed since.
Frankincense was used in enormous quantities in the Hellenistic and Roman world, as incense for temples and for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. Such was the demand that its price was at times higher than gold. The demand prompted elaborate measures for its supply. In the Negev, its trade fostered the development of substantial towns and for 500 years their livelihood largely depended on continuous supply.
The World Heritage property consists of sites that represent the rise of Nabatean control of the incense route in the Negev, following the domestication of the camel in the 3rd century BC, and then its subsequent decline in the 2nd century AD with the Roman occupation of Petra. The sites have been preserved due to their almost total abandonment in the 7th century AD. The property is in four sections: the landscape and a 50 km section of the route from Petra to Gaza between Avdat and Moa; the town of Haluza further north along the same route; the town of Shivta, just west of this route; and the town of Manshit on the route from Petra to Damascus.