Human occupation in the Negev can be traced back as far as the early Pleistocene and the first wave of migrations out of Africa. In many ways this is a period regarded as the dawn of what will later become the men’s domination of the world.
In general, the archaeological record is rich and can be characterized as a sequence of periods of social and demographic florescence and decline.
On the Negev highland notable pre-historical sites can be found on Mt Arkov, Mt Michia and near Lipa Gal outlook. These sites feature incredible amounts of petroglyphs, the earliest date back to the 4th century BC and the latest to last month’s vandals.
You are welcome to speculate over the intentions of these ancient graffiti artists and interpretate their art as you will.
Hunter-gatherers, herder-gatherers and finaly mobile pastorals are assumed to be the Negev’s dwellers all the way to the Iron age. Settlements from before this period were simply not found.
On the south-western slope of Mt Halukim, by the access road to Merhav Am, the Hazaza ruins tell the story of early pioneers and the first attempts to bring agriculture to the Negev. As in most cases, the more obvious and recognizable constructions are related to later arrivals or to periods of greater knowledge, normaly resulting in the modification of the earlier ones.
In that sense, if you walk unguided through the ruins there’s a good chance you’d find it hard to distinguish which is a Nabatean waterhole and which is a Byzantine fortification.
This is also true in the case of the rock art and the outcome of such confusions often give birth to very original narratives. Use your imagination, or your illusions, or whatever you feel like using to extract the story from the remains left by ancestors long gone.
A major development had a huge impact on the Negev in the following centuries – the domestication of the camel.
The Nabateans are assumed to have been roaming in the region for many years and have been mentioned in different sources as early as in the Persian time. They used to bring frankincense and myrrh by boats from Yemen and Somalia to Greece and with the help of the now pretty obedient camel – “the ship of the desert” – they became caravan masters and began to significantly prosper.
Thanks to their experience and knowledge of the desert they could sustain and cater the legendary Incense Route and trade reached its peak in Roman times.
Soon after the Roman arrival Nabateans cities and stations sprouted over an area stretching between Syria and Egypt.
The Nabateans were not an empire in the classical sense of the word. Their culture have enjoyed drastic changes under the different influences along the route and they mixed into existing populations, gradually changing their language and religious tendencies.
Almost every ruin along the Negev highland trail bares evidence of the Nabateans. The most impressive one is certainly the ancient city of Ovdat. declared a world heritage site in 2005, this glorious site comprises the remains of temples, markets and the city walls.
To truly appreciate the Nabatean patrimony, though, you shouldn’t satisfy with a visit only to the city and should head out to some of the smaller sites as the Saharonim Inn and the Makhmal fortress.
The Nabateans have eventualy been annexed to the Roman empire to whom they were tributaries earlier. In the next 200 years or so the Incense Route gradually declined and by the time the Eastern Roman empire rised and Christianity was spreading, they were already integrated in the agrarian society and all that was left for them was to convert and become completely absorbed in the Byzantine culture.
An important factor running parallel to the region’s political and religious game of thrones is the maturing of run-off irrigation-based agriculture.
Throughout the Byzantine period massive farms, such as the one situated on the slope across from the Ovdat river, were using new and advanced technics to cultivate the desert. Terraces, canals and dams were built on many hillsides and gave plenty of crops, eventually shifting the Negev’s economy from commerce and service to agriculture-based.
Byzantine’s policy in Israel had everything to do with it being the holy land. It may or not have been an orchestrated strategy, but right after the completion of the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem, churches were built all over the place according to the presumed whereabouts of biblical landmarks.
Each case needs to be judged on its own merits, but the overall pattern is that where there was some local tradition prior to Constantine, the Byzantine identification may be regarded as fairly reliable
In the Negev highland ruins from the Byzantine period are often further extensions to exisiting villages, Nabateans or others, and you can learn much about the sophistication of their water systems. In Ovdat, the remains of an extraordinary chapel can be visited. Such chapels can also be found in other parts of the Negev, notably Kurnub and Shivta and in greater numbers around Beer Sheva in the northern part of the Negev.
In 638, following a protracted siege, the residents of Jerusalem surrendered to the Caliph Omar ibn Khattib. though the Byzantine capital of the region was Caesaria and it would still be a while before it is conquered, this is seen as the end of the Byzantine period.
Within less than 20 years the Arabs took over every bit of today’s Israel and were entering in large numbers to Egypt and the rest of North Africa.
The Arabs didn’t exile anyone except for the Byzantine elites and forces, and though their takeover is classically described as a brutal imposing on the existing population, all evidence on the ground point out that this assumption is wrong.
What seems to be the case is that life sort of just went on under the new ruler that brought in some new rules and a new religion. This is always yesterday’s news in the Middle-East.
These days its accepted to think that the Islamisation of the whole area took about 300 years to complete.
If you visit the “Lost City”, a nickname given to the ruins of a village of the early Arab period, situated not far from HaRoe recreational area, you won’t be able to ignore the fact that a mosque was built here not far from a pagan temple. That alone gives way to speculations over the nature of the muslims at the time and a clear indication of their tolerance.
Unlike the Byzantines, the Arabs saw no particular holliness in the Negev. The region started its new way as a district but soon enough was integrated into the district called Philastin, supposedly because there was no sense in spending an extra buck to govern yet another desert. The countryside saw a bit of a population boost with the settling of Arabic tribes and the establishment of new villages but its golden age was clearly over and it was slowly sinking into marginality and oblivion.
By the time the house of Abbas moved its capital to Bagdhad, the Negev was already a far away part of a far away district and from that time on it will stay as such until the establishment of the state of Israel, over than a thousand years later.
In these thousand years the Negev saw mostly Bedouins. Some crossed through and some stayed for a while. Some allied with this power or the other and others concentrated on themselves and their tribes. They often grew very powerfull and generally managed to keep the ruler at bay and going about their buisness.
The Bedouins residing in the Negev today are thought to have arrived 200-300 years ago from the Arabian penisula though its quite possible that some have other roots.