Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mamshit National Park

In mid July, we picked up our friend Haim and went to Mamshit, an Israel national park heritage site where Nabateans once lived.  We were lucky to visit Mamshit on a cloudy day, as in the summer, this Negev desert site can be very hot.  Other Nabatean cities in Israel include Avdat (which we have is spectacular, high above the Negev valley below), Shivta, Rehovot, Halutza, and Nitzana. 

(For more information on Nabateans, go to:

Mamshit is the Nabatean city of Memphis/Mampsis.   It was built in the 1st center BCE as a trading post on the way from Petra to Gaza.  In the Nabatean period, Mamshit is situated on one of the important branches of the Incense Route – it sat on the route from the Idumean Mountains to the Arava, which passed through Ma’ale Akrabim and continued on to Beersheva or to Hebron and Jerusalem.
This city too was declared a world heritage site--in 2005.

 The city covers ten acres and is the smallest but best restored city in the Negev Desert. The once-luxurious houses have unusual architecture not found in any other Nabatean city.  It also was an agricultural town. 

From afar
The city reached the height of its prosperity form the first to sixth centuries CE durin the Roman-Byzantine period.  In the first century, the town was built as a weigh station on the road leading up from the Arava.  At that time, a wall surrounding the city, mansions, and public buildings were erected, and a sophiusticated water-supply system was installed.  The wall was built in the 4th century to protect from attacks by nomads.  It was 860 meters long and enclosed an area of 4 acres.   Mamshit was the only walled city in the Negev. 

City Wall

Artist picture of wall and one gate

That wall and gate today

Thick gate up close
A large military force was based in Mamshit, guarding the main roads linking the Negev with southern Transjordan and leading from Jerusalem to Alia (Aqaba).  In the early 2nd century, during the reign of Emperor Trajan, the road known as the Via Nova Traiana was built in Transjordan.  They city flourished at that time. 

 When trade in Mamshit waned with the Roman occupation, the occupants made a living by raising Arabian horses, bringing great wealth to their city. During the Byzantine period Mamshit also received support from the authorities for being a frontier city. When this funding dried up, at the time of Justinian, and the city was attacked by Nomads in the 6th century, it died a natural death and was never again inhabited.

The reconstructed city gives the visitor a sense of how Mamshit once looked. Entire streets have survived intact, and there are also large groups of Nabataean buildings with open rooms, courtyards, and terraces.

Mamshit in Byzantine period
The marketplace flourished in ancient times. It offered goods from other settlements and surplus agricultural projects from the farmlands around the city.  The structure had 3 rows of rooms, most of which were built by the Byzantine period.  Pottery and the remains of  clay cooking stoves  were found in many of the rooms, and indication that the rooms were also used as residences too.  Several times during the year, the marketplace is recreated, and Israelis flock to visit the area. 

The morning that we visited, we were the only ones there except for two workers. 

In fact, no one was there to collect an entry fee, so we saved 20 shekels each.  Haim would have had a discount as an Israeli senior citizen.
Artist rendition of marketplace

Entry to Marketplace with Haim and Howard in the photo

Center of the marketplace
 The stones are carefully chiseled and the arches that support the ceiling are remarkably well constructed.

Arch in Nabatean house
Two churches were built in the town in the 4th century.   The Eastern church was the larger of the two. The cross on the floor was either built before a decree in 427 prohibiting the use of crosses as floor decorations or else the decree was ignored.

Church floor mosaic

Nave ? of church--see cross on the floor
Water was very important, and a cistern near the church collected rain water
Cistern next to church
.Mamshit had a very complex system of water collection and also an amazing bathhouse.  The main source of water was the town reservoir right next to the town bathhouse.  The capacity of the reservoir was 550 cubic meters, while only 200 cu. meters were needed to operate the bathhouse.  The filling of the reservoir and others cisterns in town depended greatly on the flooding of the Mamshit steam nearby during the rainy season.

Water supply and the bathhouse
Bathhouse users entered it through the apodyterium (the changing room) #1 and then moved on to the frigidarium #2 (the cold water room).  From there they moved on to #3 the tempidarium (the warm room), around whose walls benches were built.  There bathers would lay their clothes and rest a bit before entering the caldarium #4 (the hot room).  This room was heated from #5, the praefurnium (the furnace room), next to it.  The caldarium usually had a refreshing cool pool.  Signs of such a pool were discovered during excavations near the northern wall.   The floor of the caldarium was supported by pillars below.  The hot air circulated among the pillars and rose into the room through small pipes in the walls, heating its floors and walls.
Byzantine Bathhouse

Bathhouse from afar--Howard the speck in the middle

Cool Room??

Channel connecting reservoir to bathhouse
One huge home, called the Nabato House, was extremely well preserved.  It was built in the second century CE and was the largest and most elaborate house built in the town.

It was two stories tall and 1600 square meters in size, which is more than 17,200 square feet.  It had two wings, the residential quarters and another area which included stables for horse breeding which could hold up to 20 horses.
Location of the house in the town
Artist rendition of Nabato House
Room in Nabato House
Large room in that home
Capitals on columns in the home
Staircase to second floor
Overview of several rooms
Artist rendition of stable area
Actual stable area
Nabato House column collection

The biggest treasure ever found in Israel was exposed in Mamshit - 10500 silver coins, 158 pounds of plumbum tonque with foundry signs and a papyrus cluster with Greek ancient texts.  The coins were found under the stairs of the residential wing of the Nabato House, probably the savings of the owners of the house, collected over 120 years and mysteriously left there unclaimed.
The place was fascinating, much more complex than I had expected. 

You can find more amazing pictures of the site at:
Isn't the internet wonderful!!!

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