Throughout the history of man the Wadi Arabah has always been more
of a bridge than a barrier. Settlement patterns on both sides and in
the Wadi itself, as well as the material culture on both sides prove
again and again that there was frequent interaction between both sides.
North-south routes have been found, as well as east-west routes. The
Wadi itself was used as a grazing ground by pastoralists, and cultivated
by farmers. Its rich sources of copper have attracted people from the
Early Bronze Age onwards.
Lower and Middle Acheulian
|450,000 - 120,000
|120,000 - 45,000
Emireh, Boqer Tahtit
|45,000 - 35,000
|Phase II: Ahmarian
Phase III-IV: Aurignacian
|35,000 - 18,000
|18,000 - 8,300
|8,300 - 5,500
||5,500 - 4,500
|4,500 - 3,300
|Early Bronze Age
|3300 - 3000
3000 - 2700
2700 - 2350
Settlement in the
Early Bronze Age
|Intermediate Bronze Age (EB IV, EB-MB)
||2350 - 1900
|Middle Bronze Age
|1900 - 1750
1750 - 1550
The Wadi Arabah
in the Middle and
|Late Bronze Age
|1550 - 1400
1400 - 1300
1300 - 1200
1000 - 900
900 - 586
Settlement and trade
in the Iron Age
| 586 - 539
||539 - 332
The Wadi Arabah in
the Persian period
|Hellenistic and Nabataean period
Early Nabat (late Hell).
Late Nabataean (Early Roman)
|332 - 167
200 - 0
0 - 200
Hellenistic and Nabataean
||132 - 324
||Nabataeans and Romans
||324 - 638
|Early Arab to Ottoman period
Abbasid and Fatimid
Crusader and Ayyubid
|638 - 750
700 - 1099
1099 - 1291
1291 - 1516
1516 - 1917
The Islamic period
Hashemite kingdom Jordan / State of Israel
|1917 - 1948
1948 - present
of the Wadi Arabah
History of the Wadi Arabah
early Neolithic settlement patterns
Compared to later periods, settlement in the Wadi Arabah in the Paleolithic
to Neolithic was relatively sparse. Surveys in the region recorded a
percentage of 25 – 50 for sites earlier than the Chalcolithic.
Within the time-frame for these respective periods, that comes down
to an extremely low settlement density for the Pleistocene and early
A break-down of the settlement pattern into different level zones shows
that the highest concentration of sites is found in the zone that lies1000-1100
meter above sea level (up to 8.1 sites per km2) whereas both the higher
and lower zones show a much lower density (ca. 1 site per km2). This
suggests that the 1000-1100 zone was optimally conditioned for settlement
in these periods. This is borne out by the finds in these sites. In
the western Wadi Hisma and Ma’an Plateau, located on the eastern
periphery of the Arabah, middle range sites showed a higher density
in cultural deposits and artifacts, and a greater variety in archaeological
features (e.g.,hearths, petroglyphs, bedrock mortars, architecture)
than the higher or lower sites, and suggest seasonal occupation by larger
groups, compared to short-term camp sites by smaller groups both in
the higher and in the lower levels. At the same time a cultural connection
could be established on the basis of the finds, suggesting a transhumance
30 Paleolithic sites have been recorded so far. 15 of these were found in the Wadi Fidan, which has been intensively surveyed by Thomas Levy and his team. Most of the remaining sites were found further to the south on the east slopes of the Wadi. Only 4 sites dated to the Paleolithic have been found in the western Wadi Arabah. All recorded sites can be dated in the middle to late Paleolithic, with the exception of one in the Petra region, which is dated to the Epipaleolithic.
The relative paucity of Paleolithic to Neolithic sites that were found in the region must partly be explained by the fact that these older surfaces are buried by Middle and Late Holocene sediments. This is certainly valid for the Southern Arabah, where sites have been found under levels of 3-6 meters of later deposits.
Paleolithic sites in the Wadi Arabah and hinterland
In the northern Arabah the concentration of late Pleistocene-Early Holocene
sites was higher than in the south, but Paleolithic sites were virtually
absent here too. Recent research of the water levels of the Dead Sea
(or Lisan Lake) has provided a possible explanation for this. The Lisan
Lake levels have fluctuated between 160 and 400 m below sea level in
the past 100.000 years, with a possible high of 160 mbsl around 15.000
bp, and the processes of deposition and erosion that are connected with
these fluctuations have had a strong impact on the older sites in the
area, either covering them up, or eroding them away.
to Chalcolithic settlement
In the eighth to fourth millennia BC the climate in the desert region,
including the wadi Arabah, was milder than it is today. Until recently,
habitation of the desert was seen as fluctuating in this period, with
relatively short periods of occupation alternating with long periods
in which the region was deserted. Recent research, and particularly
14C dating has proven this picture wrong. There are traces of continuous
habitation and settlement in the Negev, the eastern Sinai and southern
Sites are generally small, and reveal few artifacts, and the difficulties
in dating on the basis of these artifacts are great. At the same time,
14C dating not only shows a continuous settlement pattern in the region,
but also a relative longevity for individual sites. It seems that local
cultures had a long lifespan, and changes were slow, perhaps because
the region was outside the main political centres and their traditional
hinterlands, owing to its relatively harsh climate.
Evidence for west-east connections between the Negev and the Jordanian Plateau existed
during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Green secondary copper ores from the
Wadi Arabah, as well as turquoise from the Sinai Peninsula (‘greenstones’),
have been found among the beads in settlements such as Ain Ghazal, Basta
Rothenberg has defined two cultures in the Wadi Arabah: the Eilatian
Culture, which is defined by a continuation of Paleolithic traditions,
including Levallois technique, and the Timnian culture, defined by a
finer toolkit, containing tabular scrapers, adzes, knives, but no Levallois
technique. Some characteristics were shared by both, perhaps an indication
of cultural contact. Both cultures flourished contemporaneously from
the sixth to the third millennium. A subdivision, by Rothenberg, into
an Early, Middle and Late phase is not generally accepted.
Although it does not seem very useful to group together the entire Neolithic and Early Bronze Age into one settlement pattern map, given the present nature of the evidence we have no choice. Of the 357 sites, 163 are located in the western Arabah dating generally between the sixth and third millennia BC. As it is not possible to be more specific about their dating, we are forced to consider the entire Neolithic and Early Bronze Age together.
The pattern on the map reflects the current state of our knowledge; the gaps are survey gaps, not (necessarily) settlement gaps. So, in the north-east Arabah, the density of sites reflects the intensive surveys in the southern Ghors and north-east Arabah and the Jabal Hamrat Fidan, while in the western Arabah the density reflects the sites surveyed and recorded by Avner.
Neolithic to Early Bronze Age sites in the Wadi Arabah and hinterland
in the Early Bronze Age
The Early Bronze Age in the Negev and adjacent regions is usually linked
to the heyday of the town of Arad, in EB II. The general picture is
that of Arad as a desert polity, controlling the copper industry in
the region, colonizing the south, and causing a sudden upsurge of settlements
in the region. The demise of Arad induced a deterioration in the settlement
pattern in the desert and a gap in occupation after EB II.
However, recent research, including 14C dates of these sites, shows
that they had a much longer lifespan, starting in the Chalcolithic and
continuing into EB IV. The Feinan copper industry
was flourishing in EB III, a period in which settlement in the Sinai and Negev also
flourished, according to the 14Cdates. It seems that the material culture
that is generally identified with EB II, notably the use of the holemouth
cooking pot and the tabular scraper, had a much longer timespan, starting
in the Late Chalcolithic, and continuing into EB III and perhaps EB
The Wadi al-Hasa Archaeological Survey and the Southern Ghors and Northeast
Arabah Archaeological Survey have revealed 43 sites with EB I material,
as well as sites dated to the Chalco-EB I and EB I-III. Two major sites
near ‘Aqaba, Tall Maqass, and Tall Hujeirat el-Ghuzlan, were probably
established in the Late Chalcolithic but were mainly occupied during
the EB I, and were permanent settlements, existing on a mixed economy
of agriculture, pastoralism, copper working and manufacture of seashell
In most of the Early Bronze Age the Wadi Arabah and its hinterland,
certainly to the west, was a ‘metallurgical province’. Copper
from Timna was exported to settlements near Aqaba, and from there possibly
to the Nile Delta. Copper from Faynan was exported to sites in the Beersheba
basin from the Late Chalcolithic and during the developed EBA. In contrast,
there is no evidence yet for the distribution of copper from the Arabah
to the east. Therefore it seems that, at least for the copper ore and
metal from Faynan and Timna, the actual barrier was not the desert landscape
of the Wadi Arabah, but much more the steep ascent to the Jordanian
Wadi Arabah in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages
||There is little evidence for a Middle or Late Bronze Age presence in the Wadi Arabah. With only 20 sites currently attributed to the Middle-Late Bronze Ages, this is the lowest incidence for any period, including the Palaeolithic (although the incidence of sites is relative, since the ‘periods’ are all of different length). On the west side the copper mines of Timna were exploited by the Egyptian empire during the Late Bronze Age. Midianite sherds (otherwise known as Qurayyah Painted Ware) have been found in Timna, and on several sites in the Wadi and in the Negev, suggesting contacts between the Arabian Peninsula and the Negev, through the Wadi. Domestication of the camel in this period certainly made long-distance trade between east and west an option for the first time. On the other hand, there is evidence that Midianite pottery remained in use until well into the Iron Age. On the east side, three sites have been identified with a few possible Late Bronze sherds: Tell es-Safi, Khanazir and a site in the wadi Fidan. So it seems that only for the site of Timna is there firm evidence for settlement in the Late Bronze Age.
|Middle to Late Bronze Age sites in the Wadi Arabah and hinterland
On the other hand, there is textual evidence showing that non-settled,
or partly settled groups roamed the area on both sides of the Wadi.
Egyptian sources from the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the Late
Bronze Age mention the presence in the area of Shasu. Shasu were not
a settled people, and are described as wandering pastoralists, and raiders
of caravans. The sources seem to imply that their home territory was
east of the Wadi Arabah, in the Edom highlands, where they had strongholds.
But there are also indications that they were found on the west side,
in the Negev and Sinai. Papyrus Anastasi IV, a letter from the time
of Merneptah mentions the passage of the Shasu-tribes from Edom to the
pastures of Per Atom in Tjekku in order to feed their flocks, suggesting
that they crossed the Wadi on a regular basis.
and trade in the Iron Age
At the beginning of the Iron Age, the mining site of Timna was deserted
by the Egyptians. Smelting site 30 continued into the 12th century,
and was briefly reoccupied in the 10th century.
On the east side some Iron Age I sherds have been found at Telah, at
Khanazir and at Safi, in the Ghor es-Safi, just south of the Dead Sea.
Apart from that, the earliest evidence of occupation on the east side
dates to the 10th century: the Wadi Fidan 40 cemetery, which may have
belonged to a local nomadic group. Recent investigations in the Wadi
Feinan, such as Khirbet en-Nahas and Barqa el-Hetiye, suggest a more
intensive exploitation of the region, including small settlements, starting
at the end of Iron Age I or the beginning of Iron Age II.
In the Negev intensification of settlement started in Iron Age I with
the settlement of Tel Masos, followed by several 11th century settlements
in the Beersheba valley. Whether this early settlement was related to
the United Monarchy, and later the Kingdom of Judah, or whether it was
the result of intensification of mining activities in Feinan, and/or
the Arabian trade, is still a matter of debate. The eighth to sixth
centuries saw a further intensification of settlement on both sides
of the Wadi Arabah, and the material culture indicates contact between
the two sides. However, there was still little settlement in the Wadi
itself, as the settlement patterns show. This does not mean that there
was no activity. The Arabian trade route crossed the Wadi on its way
to Gaza and Egypt, and mining activities in the Wadi Feinan peaked in
the Iron Age II, exporting copper to the west. The fortress and shrine
at En Haseva in the western Wadi Arabah may well have been a way station
for the trade route, and the mixed character of the pottery repertoires
of the Beersheba valley and of Tell Kheleifeh sites suggest international
contacts on a regular basis. The economic basis of the kingdom of Edom
may well have been a combination of international trade and copper production.
The Assyrian empire (and perhaps later the Neo Babylonian) demanded
tribute from Edom, as a vassal state, but there is no indication that
either empire was actively involved in the economy of Edom.
Again, due to the difficulty of dating Persian period sites (see below) the Iron Age and Persion period sites have been plotted together on one map. These 121 sites reflect the pattern of surveys rather than a genuine settlement pattern. In the north-east is a considerable density of sites recorded by intensive surveys in the north-east Arabah and Jabal Hamrat Fidan; opposite, on the western side, are En Hazeva and a line of Iron II sites surveyed by Cohen along the known Iron Age route towards the Beersheba Valley. To the south on the eastern side of the Arabah is virtually nothing except the known Iron II sites in the Petra region and Tall al-Khalifa on the Gulf of Aqaba .
The south-western side is quite different: all of the currently recorded sites are Iron I, including the fort at Yotvata, and copper-smelting sites and associated installations at Timna and Nahal Amram. Curiously, no Iron II sites are apparently recorded so far from this region.
Iron Age to Persian period sites in the Wadi Arabah and hinterland.
Only three sites in southern Jordan have revealed clear evidence of
Persian material: Busayra, Tawilan and Tell el-Khelayfe. On the other
hand, recent research is making it more and more clear that the local
pottery repertoires from the late Iron Age II continued well into the
Persian period virtually unchanged. It is therefore likely that settlement
in the Persian period was more extensive than has hitherto been assumed.
In the Negev the main sites with Persian-period material are on the
desert routes: Arad, Tel Ira and Tel Sheva in the Beersheba valley,
and a number of possible fortresses on the road from Arad to Kadesh-Barnea
and Egypt. Some sites, notably Arad, Tel Sheva and Tell el-Khelayfe
produced large numbers of ostraca, mentioning personal names and quantities
of goods, such as wheat and wine, possibly provisions, or trade goods.
The ostraca are generally dated to the 4th century, and the personal
names indicate a mixed population with a large Edomite element, suggesting
that in this period there was free and frequent interaction between
both sides of the Wadi Arabah.
Hellenistic and Nabataean sites
110 sites of the early Nabatean and Hellenistic period have been recorded, with the highest concentration in the northeast Arabah. Again, this reflects the areas of intense survey, rather than actual settlement patterns. Clusters of Nabatean sites have also been found in the Petra region, and along the connecting Wadis into the Arabah.
Hellenistic and Nabatean sites in the Wadi Arabah and hinterland
The Nabataeans are first mentioned by Diodorus Siculus in the first
century BC, quoting an earlier work by Hieronymus of Cardia dated to
the fourth century BC. They were a wealthy Arab tribe that transported
valuable products such as frankincense and myrrh from Arabia ‘down
to the sea’ at Gaza. Gaza was accessed by overland routes leading
from Petra to the north-west, through the Wadi Arabah, across the Negev
Highlands and down into the coastal plain. There is archaeological evidence
of the presence of Nabataeans in the Late Hellenistic period at Petra
and several sites in the Negev, such as Elusa, Nessana and Oboda.
Hilltop forts have been found in the central Wadi Arabah, the southern
edge of the Dead Sea and the central Negev, dated to this earliest phase
of Nabataean activity. They were located at Moa (Moyat Awad), north-west
of Petra on the western side of the Wadi Arabah, ‘En Tamar next
to the Dead Sea, and ‘En Ziq in the Nahal Zin basin. Next to the
springs of ‘En Erga and ‘En Rahel two more forts have been
excavated. They were defensive, with a clear view of the surrounding
area and roads.
The capture of Gaza by the Hasmonaean king of Judah Alexander Jannaeus
shortly after 100 BC put a temporary stop to the Nabataean trade, and
the trade routes were abandoned.
Nabataeans and Romans
Towards the end of the first century BC the Nabataeans returned to the
Negev, this time permanently. Their activities in this period were focused
on building a network of roads and caravan stops, first at the sites
abandoned since the beginning of the first century BC and eventually
at new places along secondary roads. By the middle of the first century
AD traffic along the route appears to have increased considerably and
two large caravanserais were constructed at Moa and Sha’ar Ramon.
Caravanserais have also been found in the southern Wadi Arabah at Dafit,
a Nabataean site located north of Aqaba, and at Rujm Taba on the eastern
side of the Wadi Arabah opposite Yotvata.
The Roman annexation of Nabataea in 106 may well have been aimed at
taking over the profitable trade routes. Trade continued uninterrupted,
and the material culture found at many of the Negev sites shows that
the Nabataeans were still involved in the trade.
After the collapse of international trade in the third century the Nabataeans
turned to agriculture and the trade in agricultural products, particularly
wine, as their primary means of subsistence. It is probable that this
development was prompted by the increased presence of Roman forces in
the region from the Diocletianic period, when the Tenth Legion was transferred
from Jerusalem to Aila on the Gulf of Aqaba. Roman military activity
intensified at ‘En Hazeva in the central Wadi Arabah with the
construction of a fort, a cavalry camp and bathhouse at the site. The
focus of military activity in the Negev and southern Jordan in this
period probably bolstered relations between the populations in these
Roman texts, as well as the presence of a number of milestones in the
Wadi show that there was a road running from Jerusalem, through the
Wadi Arabah to Aila, probably constructed by the Romans in the late
Ceramic assemblages found at Negev sites in this period, and particularly
those sealed by the earthquake destruction of AD 363, point to continued
ties with Petra and southern Jordan. Only in the fifth century would
these finally disintegrate.
233 Late Roman and Byzantine sites have been recorded in the Wadi Arabah and hinterland so far, making this the second most intensive period of use for the Wadi, after the Neolithic - Early Bronze period.
One factor stands out in comparison to current evidence from other periods: the multiplicity of clear routes in different directions (to be considered alongside the construction of the Via Nova Traiana to the east of the Arabah in the early second century AD). To the north-west of the Faynan region, heavily settled and exploited in these periods, is a line of Roman sites reflecting the known route to Gaza through Ma’aleh ‘Aqrabbim, the so-called Scorpions’ Ascent.
West of Petra is the Roman-period continuation of the Petra-Gaza road, which continued at least as late as the third century AD. South of Gharandal, along the bottom of the wadi, are portions of a north-south paved road, and concentrations of Late Roman milestones presumably marking a north-south-road.
Roman and Byzantine sites in the Wadi Arabah and hinterland
The Islamic period
Although currently 146 Islamic-period sites are recorded, it must be acknowledged that the data are not very useful for an overall picture:
Islamic-period sites in the
Wadi Arabah and hinterland
The Islamic period covers a chronological span of more than a thousand years, but much of the survey data is quite blunt, often recording material as simply ‘Islamic’ with no further chronological subdivision. However, the survey data from the Southern Ghors and Northeast ‘Arabah Archaeological Survey does attempt, where possible, to refine the dating according to the Islamic dynasties. This evidence indicates that during the Early and Middle Islamic periods the north-east Arabah was a fertile region for the growing and processing of sugar cane and indigo. The Peutinger map, a thirteenth-century copy of a Roman world map shows a road from Zoar (Islamic Sughar, modern Safi), round the southern end of the Dead Sea, down to En Hazeva. This is probably also the route used by Baldwin I’s expedition in 1100, when the crusaders marched from Hebron, crossed the Wadi Arabah near Zoar, then marched down to Petra. Baldwin IV also used this route when he went to relieve Karak in 1183. There is also ceramic and historical evidence for activity in the north-east Arabah in the Late Islamic (Ottoman) period, although the archaeological evidence suggests a decrease in population, with human presence confined to sherd scatters which represent potbusts and possibly camps, perhaps reflecting a largely pastoral nomadic population.
Notwithstanding the comments above, virtually all the ‘Islamic’ sites in the western Arabah are dated to the Early Islamic period. In the south-west Arabah, the data reflects the pattern analysed by Avner and Magness (1998), while the group of sites in the north-west, apparently along the route towards the Beersheba Valley and Gaza, reflects identification of Early Islamic pottery on Roman sites. Early Islamic settlements in the hinterland of Ayla were involved in large-scale agriculture, copper and gold mining and production, stone quarrying, and the development of a road network used by merchants and pilgrims.
The central Arabah is still suspiciously empty of recorded Islamic sites, with the result that it is still possible to accept King’s 1989 hypothesis that routes across the central Arabah declined from the Early Islamic period because of a new pattern of communications. This would support the views of Avner and Magness (1998) and Whitcomb (2006) that sites in the southern and northern Arabah functioned as a resource hinterland for Ayla and Sughar/Zoar/Safi respectively, providing agriculture, sugar, mining and metallurgy. While this picture may turn out to be correct, it is worth remembering the limitations of the evidence. The central Arabah is still to be intensively surveyed and, although the wadi is not specifically mentioned, we might expect slightly more activity there given the agricultural importance of adjacent areas as recorded by early Islamic geographers, e.g. al-Muqaddasi, writing in c. AD 985. For the Late Islamic period, too, we must take into account the evidence of bedouin relations and activity across the Wadi Arabah (see below).
In recent centuries the Wadi Arabah was the stage for interaction between
the bedouin and other tribes that lived on both sides of the rift. On
the east side were the Howeitat, Sa’idiyin, Umran, Beni Atiyeh,
Masa’id, Beni Okba, Bili and Hajaja. On the west side, roaming
the Negev and the Sinai, were the Tarabin, `Azazma, Tiyaha, Aheiwat,
Wuheidat, and Zullam. Three of these tribes also had grazing grounds
in the Wadi itself: the Aheiwat, the Umran and the Sa’idiyin.
Because of the weakness of the Ottoman government in this period, these
tribes were practically independent and controlled the social relations
and the economy of the region. There were main markets in Gaza and Cairo,
which were visited by tribesmen from east of the Wadi on a regular basis,
in order to sell and buy. On the east side the main market was in Ma’an,
which was a major stop for the annual Hajj pilgrims, and where a family
could earn enough in four days to sustain it for the rest of the year.
The Howeitat were great camel breeders, and controlled most of the trade
across the Wadi.
Raids were also conducted on both sides of the Wadi. Oral traditions
among the Negev tribes recount stories of eastern tribes invading the
desert, raiding camels or looking for pasture. Nineteenth-century travellers
on the Kerak Plateau describe raids by the western tribes on the eastern