Situation and characteristicsThe remains of the city of Avdat (Arabic Avda), prominently situated on a hill, lie 65km/40mi south of Beersheba, immediately to the left of the road to Elat. Now partly rebuilt, they are one of the most important sites of the Nabataean, Roman and Byzantine periods in the Negev.HistoryThe first excavations, begun in 1870, were followed from 1953 onwards by systematic archeological investigation of the site under the direction of Michael Avi-Yonah and Abraham Negev. They showed that the town was not founded, as had been thought, in the reign of the Nabataean king Obodas or Obidath II (30-9 B.C.) but dated from the third century B.C., when the nomadic Nabataeans, coming from northwestern Arabia and first recorded in 312 B.C., had taken to a settled life. Their capital of Petra, famed for its rock-cut monuments, lay to the east of the Arava depression. The Nabataeans owed their wealth to trade along the old caravan routes, and in order to protect the route from Petra to the Mediterranean port of Gaza they established a number of settlements - Nizzana, Subeita, Obodas (Avdat) and Mampsis - and a series of guard posts along the way. These settlements are among the more than 2,000 Nabataean sites identified by Nelson Glueck in southern Jordan, the Negev and Sinai. They could exist only thanks to advanced irrigation methods ("run-off" irrigation) which allowed the Nabataeans to cultivate the land in these arid areas and supply the population with water and food.Towards the end of the first century B.C. the town was given the name of king Obodas or Obidath, from which the present name Avdat is derived. Obodas was buried in the town and revered as a god. In his reign and that of his successor Aretas IV (9 B.C.-A.D. 40) Avdat enjoyed its first great period of prosperity.In A.D. 106 the Romans conquered the region of Nabatene and incorporated it in the Empire as the province of Arabia Petraea. The road which they built from Elat to Damascus bypassed Avdat, and as a result the town declined. It recovered in the late third century when a military camp was established to the north of the town and a temple of Jupiter replaced the temple dedicated to Obodas on the acropolis. In the reign of Theodosius I (379-395) the Nabataeans were Christianized. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-564) settled monks in the Negev who devoted themselves to the development of irrigation systems and agriculture. New buildings were erected, including two churches and a monastery in the old temple precinct on the acropolis, and the town enjoyed a second period of prosperity. Then the capture of Avdat by the Persians in 614 and by the Arabs in 634 led to its final decline. The site was abandoned and the irrigation system collapsed. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 the botanist Michael Evenari studied the old Nabataean and Byzantine irrigation system, reconstructed it and succeeded in creating an experimental farm, using the old methods and growing plants cultivated in Nabataean times. His success encouraged him to establish similar farms at Beersheba and Shivta.In 2005 Avdat was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Incense Route and Desert Cities in the Negev.
An access road branches off the Beersheba-Elat road and ends at a parking lot (kiosk, rest-house) on the west side of the site of the ancient city of Avdat. From here there is a road to another parking lot immediately south of the ancient city.
Half way along the road between the two parking lots at the Avdat site a footpath goes off on the right to a Nabataean tomb. It is entered through a vaulted antechamber of dressed stone. Straight ahead is a doorway, on the lintel of which is a relief depicting a horned altar flanked by the moon, with a star (left), and the sun (right) and by two columns. The door leads into the burial chamber, which in the Nabataean fashion is hewn from the rock, with numerous narrow grave recesses in the walls (five to the left, eight straight ahead, nine to the right).From in front of the tomb there is a good view of Michael Evenari's experimental "Nabataean" farm.
From the upper parking lot at the Avdat site a path leads north through a Roman residential quarter with a semicircular upper section and a rectangular lower section. Nearby is a stone with a Nabataean inscription.
After the Roman residential quarter at the Avdat site the path runs through the south gate into the rectangular Byzantine fortress. A vantage point in the southeast corner offers a view over the whole extent of the site with its (partly restored) walls and towers, a large cistern in the center of the courtyard and the remains of a Late Byzantine chapel against the north wall. A passage in the north wall gives access to the Roman military camp, which measures 90m/100yds each way.The fortress, along with the town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Adjoining the west side of the fortress at the Avdat site is another courtyard, the sacred precinct. This dates from Byzantine times and contains two churches, built on the sites of Nabataean and Roman temples.
Church of St Theodore
The church of St Theodore at Avdat is a three-aisled pillared basilica with three apses dedicated to a Greek martyr of the fourth century. The central doorway is embellished with two Nabataean horned capitals. In the floor of the lateral aisles are grave slabs with Greek inscriptions. One slab in the south aisle shows the Jewish seven-branched candlestick side by side with the Christian cross; another records that Zacharias, son of John, was buried here "in the martyrium of St Theodore". The sanctuary, in front of which, to the left, is the circular base of an ambo (reading desk), is two steps higher than the nave. It still preserves the old altar table. On the right-hand side of the principal apse and in front of the lateral apses are fragments of the templon (the low screen between the nave and the sanctuary). At the west end of the church are various conventual buildings.
At the west end of the sacred precinct of Avdat, where the ground falls steeply away, is a broad terrace with a colonnade on the inner side. It is reached through a doorway which - like the central doorway of St Theodore's Church - has Nabataean capitals. On the terrace is a cruciform baptismal font (restored).
Adjoining the terrace at Avdat is the entrance to the atrium of the North Church, the dedication of which is not known. This is also a three-aisled basilica with three apses. In the south aisle the consoles supporting the roof beams have been preserved. In front of the sanctuary, to the left, is the square base of an ambo. Two steps lead up into the sanctuary with its square altar.The return to the lower parking lot is by way of a flight of steps leading down from the terrace beside the font, from which a path continues past two tomb chambers and the so-called Saint's Tomb (named after the image of a saint with a Greek inscription) near the remains of a Byzantine house. To the west of the parking lots is a Byzantine bath-house which was still in use in Arab times.