Avdat is located on a mountain ridge in the center of the Negev highlands. At this point, where the routes from Petra (in present-day Jordan) and Eilat converge and continue to the Mediterranean coast, the Nabateans established a road station for their caravans.
The little we know about the Nabateans comes from Roman historians and geographers. They were nomadic tribes from northern Arabia who wandered and traded, then established permanent settlements and finally created an independent kingdom with Petra, in the mountains of Edom, as their capital. At the climax of their power, from the first century BCE to the first century CE, the Nabatean kings ruled regions that today belong to Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Their contact with the Hellenistic world had great influence on their material culture, uniquely manifest in their architecture.
The Nabateans accumulated great wealth from their trade in costly perfumes and spices from East Africa and Arabia which they transported by camel caravans to the southern Mediterranean coast, with Gaza serving as the main depot and port. The Negev was the direct overland link to the Mediterranean coast, and the Nabatean way stations at the main crossroads in the Negev, developed into cities. In this inhospitable desert region, the Nabateans developed an agriculture based on terraces built on the hillsides. To capture flood waters, they constructed dams in the valleys; to collect rain water, they cut cisterns in the rock. These measures, initiated by the Nabatean central administration, established their control over the Negev and guaranteed the caravans safe passage.
The Nabatean kingdom was conquered by the Romans in 106 CE and annexed to the Roman Empire. Devoid of its caravan trade, Avdat fell into decline. In the third century it became a short-lived settlement which was destroyed in the earthquake of 363. In the sixth century, under Byzantine rule, a citadel and a monastery with two churches were built on the acropolis and residential quarters were established on the slopes. This city was destroyed, probably by earthquake, and abandoned in the seventh century.
The main excavations at Avdat were carried out between 1958 and 1961. From then and until 1993, further limited excavations were conducted, which resulted in the discovery of many artifacts, including tens of inscriptions which greatly contribute to our knowledge of the citys history and culture during the different phases of its existence.
Avdat was founded in the 1st century BCE and named after the Nabatean King Obodas who was revered as a deity and, according to tradition, was buried there. His name is preserved in the citys Arabic name, Abdah.
On the acropolis of Avdat, the Nabateans built a temple complex and public buildings which were visible from afar and served as a landmark to the caravaneers. Atop the spur east of the acropolis, Nabatean Avdat also included a residential quarter, a military camp and various pens in which camels, sheep and goats were kept, and horses which became famous as racehorses were bred.
The early temple of Obodas was built at the end of the first century BCE, on the southern side of the acropolis. Its dimensions were 14 x 11 m. and it was partly preserved under the southwestern tower of the Byzantine fort. It consisted of a porch, a hall and an adyton at its northern end. The latter was divided into two rooms, in which the two main Nabatean dieties, Dushara and Allat were worshipped.
A new temple was built on the acropolis towards the end of the 1st century CE, of which only the podium, constructed of three strong retaining walls which surrounded the edge of the cliff, remain. An elaborate entranceway (10 x 6 m.) was built at the lower southwestern corner of the podium from which one acscended to the temple via a spiral staircase that wound around a thick central pier. In the debris of the entranceway numerous inscriptions were found, including some mentioning the Nabatean King Haretat (Aretas). Many column sections bearing masons marks which were found in secondary use in later buildings, apparently belonged to the columns of the temples exedra, of which only some stone pavement on the podium has been preserved.
Northeast of the acropolis was a military camp which housed the riders of the camel corps units which protected the caravan routes. The camp measured 100 x 100 m. and was surrounded by a wall with corner towers and a gate.