A jewel in the desert

The extraordinary ancient town of Mamshit, located in the northern Negev, holds the secrets of religion, economy and conquest in Eretz Israel.

negev88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Israel has some of the oldest and most interesting archaeological cities and sites in the world. Apart from the popular tourist destinations such as Jerusalem, Masada, Acre and Megiddo, the country has hundreds of other sites and museums that reflect the fact that it is the home of the world's three great monotheistic religions. The traditional guidebook description of "worth a detour" can be applied to many sites. Some are real treasures waiting quietly to be discovered, each one having the merit of that "wow" factor when seen for the first time. Such a place is Mamshit, a 2,000-year-old city situated in the northern part of the Negev Desert, seven kilometers east of Dimona. Mamshit - Kurnub as it is known to Arabs, or Mampsis to the Greeks - is reached by a one-kilometer well paved and maintained road leading off from the main Arava road to Eilat. It would take a little over two hours to drive there from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The site is carefully maintained by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and a modest entrance fee gains entrance to a 40-dunam (10-acre) walled city set in a 1,500-dunam (370-acre) national park which incorporates the streams and dams that made it viable to live there two thousand years ago. The setting of Mamshit, against the soft desert hills and azure sky, is spectacular. Although there is still a lot to be done to reconstruct fallen buildings, there are enough houses, shops and public buildings to give the visitor a good idea of what the city looked like in the first century CE, when it was established. Mamshit is built on a hill; therefore it is easy to see - from various points on its higher elevation - the streams and remains of the dams that enabled the citizens of the ancient city to collect and store enough water in the rainy season to tide them over in the dry, hot summer months. The city's history has three main periods. The first, in the first and second centuries CE, was the Nabataean period. Mamshit was strategically located on the Nabataean trade routes, making it a very important city. Most of the buildings seen today were built in the later part of this period, including the largest house discovered in the city. The house is an impressive 1,600 square meters in area, with its courtyards, stairways and stables clearly indicating that it was owned by a wealthy individual. It was in this house that archaeologists discovered some 10,500 silver coins struck between 222 and 275 CE. The next residents of Mamshit were the Romans, who built the present wall around the city and remained until the end of the fourth century CE. The fifth to seventh centuries CE were the city's Byzantine period. Two churches were built in the city and used until the Arab conquest in the seventh century. At about this time the city fell into disrepair and virtually ceased to exist. In 1936 the British Mandatory government established the Desert Mounted Police with the aim of supervising the movement of Beduins and Jews in the northern Negev. The British built a police station over the ruins of an ancient Nabataean building on one of the highest parts of the city. As was to be expected from a trading people like the Nabataeans, the city has a main street full of shops and stores which must have provided a good living to the owners from passing trade, as well as supplying local residents. Both the Nabataeans and the Romans made good use of the water surging down the steep gorge running along the south-west of the city during the rainy season. Today the remains of a pool and bathhouse testify to the ingenuity of the city's previous inhabitants. As with other national treasures, the Parks Authority - in this case in partnership with archaeologists from the Hebrew University - is slowly rebuilding the city to how they think it looked two thousand years ago. Groups come from all over Israel to stay in simple, adequate overnight accommodation just outside the walls to watch a sound-and-light show and take a guided tour at night with an experienced guide through the city's streets, with each visitor holding a lantern supplied by the guide. The ancient city of Mamshit has certainly been brought back to life and rightly deserves the traditional tour guide book accolade of "worth a detour." International recognition In June 2005, Mamshit was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage site, together with the desert cities of Haluza, Avdat and Shivta which were also part of the ancient incense and spice routes, and the biblical archaeological sites of Tel Megiddo, Hazor and Beersheba. They joined the other three Israeli world heritage sites: Masada and the Old City of Acre, which were chosen in 2001, and the White City-Bauhaus and modern movement of Tel Aviv that made it onto the list in 2003.