Impressive and well preserved Nabatean site, a station along the Incense and Spice route.
* Site of the Month Nov 16 *
Mo’a was a Nabatean station along the Incense and Spice route. It is the biggest, most impressive and best preserved Nabatean archaeological site in the Arava desert. First built in the 3rd century BC as a Nabatean fortress, a Khan (Caravanserai) was constructed in the 1st century AD, with another phase of construction after the Roman annexation in the beginning of the 2nd century.
Location and Map:
Entrance to the site is from highway #90, 2 KM south of Moshav Tsofar. An access road leads towards the desert hotel, but then turns south along Nahal Omer, then turns north west, approaching the site from its east side.
The ancient incense route passed from Petra on the east (right), crossing the Arava valley through Nahal Omer. It passed Mo’a on its south side. Then, westward along Nahal Qasra, via Nahal Nekarot, reaching the next station in the Makhtesh Ramon Crater.
- The Nabateans
The Nabateans originated from Arabia, where they have been nomadic tent dwellers. The name “Nabat” may have originated from the word meaning “of-Arab”, a name which is known since the 10th century BC. Their language was Aramaic and many of their words were Arabic. The Nabatean script is similar to the Moab script. Although they have not left any books, the research of their history is based on the inscriptions on tombs, and on Greek and Roman historians, such as Diodorus Siculus (half of 1st century BC) and Josephus Flavius (half of 1st century AD). The Nabateans excelled in ceramics, mastered in collecting the desert water, and were skilled merchants.
The Nabateans prospered from the operation of the Incense and Spice route, and established stations and cities along the route. This commercial enterprise started around the 5th or 4th century BC, and made these merchants rich. Their new capital city in Edom, called Petra, based on the Greek word for Rock. In the Bible it is also named ‘rock’ (Sela in Hebrew). Judges 1 36: “And the coast of the Amorites was from the going up to Akrabbim, from the rock, and upward”, Isaiah 16 1: “Send ye the lamb to the ruler of the land from Sela to the wilderness, unto the mount of the daughter of Zion.” Petra was the center of a vast Kingdom: the kingdom included the Negev and Sinai, Northern Arabia, Moab and Hauran (Houran). The Nabateans mastered the utilization of the scarce rainfall in the desert area, by collecting the surface runoff into hidden cisterns, and then used it for their water supply and the development of desert agriculture.
The Nabateans arrived to the Negev during the Persian period (about the 4th century BC). Prof A. Negev, the excavator of Avdat and other Nabatean sites, defines 3 periods in the history of the Nabateans in the Negev:
Early Nabatean period (4th-1st century BC) – the nomad period during the Persian and Hellenistic periods
Middle Nabatean period (25BC to 50/70AD) – the trade empire – during the Early Roman period
Late Nabatean period (70/80 to 150AD) – the urban agriculture period – during the Early Roman period
Incense and Spice route
Mo’a, one of the stations along the Incense & Spice route, was established by the Nabateans in the 3rd century BC (Hellenistic period). The station started from the construction of a small fort, while the khan was first built during the end of the 1st century AD. According to the findings of the Mo’a excavations, the Nabatean road station reached its zenith during the reign of the Nabatean King Aretas IV Philopatris (9 BC-40 AD).
Caravans of camels carrying the merchandise along the Incense route
The route connected the east (Yemen and Oman), through Arabia, via the Nabatean capital city Petra, to the port cities on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea – Gaza, Raphia, Rhinocorura (al Arish). The road was used by the Nabateans to export the incense and spices from southern Arabia and the Far east to the Classic world of Greece and Rome. In order to support & protect the Incense route, the Nabateans established stations and fortresses along the road. They were spaced at 35km apart – a length of one day camel travel, and offered the convoys food water and a place to stay overnight. A garrison was stationed in each station, with additional fortresses constructed along the route, providing protection against robbers and protecting the precious merchandise.
The Biblical map below shows the path of the Incense route, with the Nabatean cities marked by red stars. One of the routes passed through Mamshit, arriving from Tamara and the Scorpions Ascent, going north to Hebron and Jerusalem, or west through Beersheba to the port of Gaza. The other route passed through Mo’a, Avdat (Obobda), Shivta ,Nessana (Nitzana), Haluza (Elusa) and Rehovot.
Map of the ancient cities along the Incense/Spice route – during the Nabatean and Roman/Byzantine periods (based on Bible Mapper 3.0)
Mo’a was the first station in the Negev after crossing the Arava valley. The next station is located in the Saharonim station inside the Ramon Crater.
- Roman Annexation (106 AD)
In 106 AD the Romans annexed the Nabatean Kingdom. The Roman annexation brought a substantial religious change – from the Nabatean Semite religion to the paganism of the Roman world.
According to the survey at Mo’a, the Khan was rebuilt after the Roman annexation, at the beginning of the 2nd century AD.
The Incense route started to decline at the end of the 1st century AD, since it was replaced by other routes through the Roman empire. The Nabateans gradually switched to the development of desert agriculture and providing support to the Roman army and travelers along the desert roads.
The station was finally abandoned in the 3rd century AD, probably as a result of an epidemic outbreak.
Mo’a appears on the Madaba map, an ancient map of the Holy Land from the 6th century AD. The famous map appears on a mosaic floor, which was discovered in 1884 in a Byzantine church in Madaba, Jordan. The map shows the layout of the Holy Land, with dozens of illustrated sites, including Mo’a (in Greek – ΜωΑ). It appears as an icon near the site of Tamara, south of the Dead Sea. The icon shows two towers, with a gate on the left tower. As the site was already abandoned at the time the map was laid out, it is not certain that this represents the same Mo’a.
The site was identified in 1934 by A. Frank as the remains of a Roman fort, perhaps the Roman fort named Asuada. A survey of the Negev examined the ruins in 1980 by a team headed by D. Nahlieli. Excavations by Rudolph Cohen were conducted here in the years 1981-1985. A conservation project was conducted in 1995. However, most of the Khan was not yet excavated.
Mo’a is in an open nature reserve area. As one of the best historical sites in the Negev, it is highly recommended place to visit.
(a) Aerial Views:
A drone captured the site from the east side. The khan is located in between two hills. On the far (west) hill is the fortress, while the closer hill (lower side) was a garrison post.
Click on the photos to view in higher resolution…
A closer view of the fortress is in the next aerial view.
Another view, from the north side, shows the khan and the fortress.
The YouTube video shows a flight of a drone over the site, and a view of its surroundings.
(b) Access to the site:
The entrance to Mo’a is from highway #90, 8 km south of Sapir center and 2km south of Moshav Tzofar. A decorative wall reads “Incense route” with an illustration of a caravan of camels.
The wall on the other side of the entrance reads in Hebrew: “Mo’a – Nabatean Khan”.
Mo’a is located about 2km to the west of this entrance. A dirt road, which can be driven by a passenger car, leads to the site. Some sections may be rough so drive slowly and safely. It took us 30 minutes to drive the road to the ancient site, but we stopped to enjoy the desert scenery, nature and animals we met along the way.
Markers with the title “Incense route” are located around the site and along the ancient route. In 2005 UNESCO declared the desert cities of the Incense route as a world heritage place.
A view from the east shows the remains of the fortress of Mo’a.
A closer view of the fortress is seen in the next photo. It overlooks the khan which is seen here in front of the hill. On the east side of the hill, in front of the fortress, is the road that connected to the incense route.
An aerial view of the fortress is shown below.
According to the numismatic and ceramic findings of the archaeological excavations, the fortress was first built in the 3rd century BC. A second phase of construction was in the 1st century BC, while the final phase was in the 3rd century AD.
A closer view of the fortress is below. The structure of the fortress is square, covering an area of 17m by 17m. There are 10 small rooms around a central courtyard.
Let’s go up the hill and enter into the fortress…
The ascent path leads up to the north side of the hill.
The fortress is built of rough limestone slabs, set in irregular courses and different heights. The walls survived up to a height of 3m.
On the external east (left) side of the fortress are remains of additional walls.
The walls were composed of inner and outer shells, with a thin earth core. They were plastered with mud.
Amit is seen here standing on the second level (now missing) above the north eastern corner.
The roof above the rooms were made of wood logs, which were covered by a layer of earth.
The entrance to the fortress is in the north west corner.
The plan of the fortress is of a a courtyard surrounded by 10 rooms around all sides.
Another view of the central courtyard, looking towards the south, is in the next photo. The courtyard, covering an area of 7m by 8m, was unroofed. It contained several cooking installations.
An agriculture installation is located in the southern room. It served as an oil crusher for olives.
A closer view of the installation is below. This installation is known as type #3 (rolling stone crusher), where a crushing stone (the front smaller round stone) is rolled around the basin (the large raised base) to crush the olives, using a horizontal wooden handle that is pulled around the basin.
Another agriculture installation was also found in the courtyard. It was probably used to grind seeds.
A stone staircase, 2.5m by 2.5m, is located on the north eastern side, leading to the second floor which served as a tower.
The next photo is a view from the second story towards the west side.
The fortress overlooks the khan:
A panoramic view from the fortress is shown here. Pressing on this picture will pop up the panoramic viewer. Using this flash-based panoramic viewer, you can move around, zooming in and out – viewing the site in the amazing full screen mode (like you are really there). Major sites are marked on the views. It may take minutes to upload, but then its worth the waiting time.
To open the viewer, simply click on the photo, then tour the area around:
The khan (caravanserai) is a square complex, covering an area of 40m by 40m. This aerial view captured the khan from the north side.
The khan was built in two phases. The first construction was at the end of the 1st century AD, during the end of the independent Nabatean period. The second phase was during the Roman-Nabatean period, at the beginning of the second century AD.
Another view from the west (fortress) side is on the next photo.
North west side: Entrance to the Khan was through a narrow passage in the north west corner of the complex, and another passage in the northern wall. The narrow passage (1.7m in width) is flanked by two rooms, 4.5m by 4m, perhaps serving as gate towers.
The south side (photo below) and the north side (above) included 5 rooms each, built around a central courtyard.
West side: The south west corner is seen below.
Along the west side was a bathhouse, which was fed by an aqueduct from a pool to the north of the site.
The complex was built by hewn limestone blocks.
The walls are based on inner and outer limestone shells, with a core of soil and rubble. The inner side of the walls were covered by colorful plaster. In one of the five southern rooms the wall was painted with a pattern of black, yellow and red stripes.
The following photo shows the south eastern side of the khan. The walls survived a height of ~1m.
Inside each of the rooms were pillars which supported arches, on which the roof slabs were once laid out.
A view of the south east corner is in the following photo.
(e) Garrison stronghold:
Above the east side of Mo’a, on top of the hill, is a garrison stronghold. The aerial view shows the hill on the left side, overlooking the khan and fortress.
Another view from the west (fortress) side is in the next photo. The garrison was stationed on the hill behind the Khan.
A closer view of the hill is in the following photo.
Notice the military cargo plane passing on the east side. A landing strip is located nearby, and the plane was performing multiple take off and landing exercises, which was probably part of the Air Force school drills.
Another view of the hill is from the east side. A trail leads up along the eastern foothills.
On the summit are bases of structures of the garrison stronghold.
Another view of the structure:
Along the ascending path are caves:
An inner view of the cave:
(e) Around the site:
Remains of other structure can be found around the site. Nabatean era agriculture terraces are located around the site, where fresh vegetables were grown.
A pool is located on the north side of the fortress, on the foothills above the north side of the Wadi. The pool (11 x 9m) is sank in the ground and is built of limestone. It was fed by an underground spring, and was the main source of water. The ground water at this location are close to the surface level, enough to sustain life in this dry desert area with ~100mm annual precipitation. The existence of water in this oasis may have given the name of the site, perhaps meaning “water” (as in its Arabic name, Mo’iat Awad).
However, we couldn’t find the pool…
An aqueduct conveyed the pool’s water to the bathhouse complex in the Khan. Its ruins are seen here as a line of stones stretching towards the khan, in the base of the valley.
Among the ruins are remains of the period, such as pottery.
A mountain bike route passes the site. The biking route section, 40km long, is part of the Israeli national hiking route, and was prepared to support biking. This section starts from Be’erot parking in the Makhtesh Ramon Crater, ending here in Mo’a.
A marker dedicates the biking route to the memory of First Staff Sergeant Amit Yeori, an IDF soldier of the Engineering corps, who died in the “protective edge” operation in 2014 near the Gaza strip. Amit was Israel’s national downhill bicycle champion in 2011.
Along the access road and the area around the site are interesting sights, unique to the desert area.
The thorny Acacia Raddiana is a common desert tree. It forms a base for birds to nest, and a habitat for mammals and insects. On the tree branches clings a parasitic plant – the Loranthus Acacia. It is seen here growing on the left and right side of the Acacia tree. The plant tangles around the branches, drills its roots into the Acacia tree, and sucks out minerals and waters from the tree.
The Loranthus Acacia (Hebrew: “Harnug Hashittim”) flowers most of the year, especially from January thru August. The densely pressed plant with its red flowers and fruits attracts the Tzofit tropical bird (aka: Honey sucker, Palestine sunbird) to its nectar and juicy fruits. The bird picks up the pollen from the stamens of the flowers to nearby Acacia trees, and pollinate the Loranthus plants. The sticky seeds cling to the bird, which removes them by rubbing the seeds against the branches and trunk of the Acacia. The seeds then root into the tree branches.
We visited the site after one of the rare winter rain storms. A pink flower, Khum’ah Verudah (Rumex Cyprius) adds color to the dull dry soil.
Another example of the colorful flower:
Large lizards can also be spotted in the desert.
Camels were used to convey the goods over the long distances of the Incense Route. A family of camels were seen along the access road. These camels have straps around their front legs in order to prevent their escape.
Notice this cute young camel calf:
A number of Rock Hyrax (Hebrew: Shafan Sela) are seen climbing up the hills of the Omer ridge. They dwell in the rock holes, and feed on the plants and insects growing in the Wadi.
Etymology (behind the name):
* Names of the area:
- Mo’a – ancient name. Appears on the Byzantine Madaba map.
- Mo’iat Awad – the site’s Arabic name. Awad – a private name; Mo’ia – water
Links and References:
* External links:
- UNESCO lists the Incense route as World Heritage place
- Incense route – desert cities (pdf)
- Ancient roads in the Arava (pdf, Hebrew)
- Israel Bike trail – Ramon-Mo’a section
- Amit Yeori – in memory of the fallen soldier
- Rumex Cyprius – wild flower
* Internal links:
- The Nabateans – info page
- Map of Nabatean sites in Israel
- Drone Aerial views – collection of Biblical sites from the air
- BibleWalks YouTube channel (join!)
- Oil presses – oil production installations
BibleWalks.com – On the footsteps of the early man in ancient Levant
This page was last updated on Apr 17, 2023 (add link)