Caravan trading routes in the ancient Near East (Genesis 37)

According to Genesis 37 Joseph found his brothers near Dothan. Overcome by jealousy based on their father’s favouritism of this younger brother, they seized him and eventually sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites bound for Egypt. Such a caravan probably was headed toward the “Way of the Sea” (Via Maris”), an ancient roadway that began in Egypt, hugged the Mediteranean coast of Canaan as it meandered north, then passed just west of Dothan and on to Megiddo. From there Travelers could continue north beyond the coastal areas of Phoenicia or veer to the northeast toward Damascus and on to Mesopotamia. The King’s Highway, another great roadway during the Old Testament times, allowed people to travel from north to south through the Transjordan and connected Damascus to the Gulf of Aqaba.

During ancient times merchants usually travelled in caravans, seeking protection in numbers on account of the many dangers and the lack of accommodations along the way. Caravans tended to be quite large (a column with three hundred donkeys was not extraordinary) and often included armed guards. Ancient texts from the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites often refer to the hardships of travel. Wild animals, including lions, were a source of danger, and a lone merchant transporting his wares was a tempting target for bandits. Extreme weather conditions, from draught to snow, also made travel hazardous.

The Romans’ elaborate road system (exemplified by the celebrated Appian Way) did not yet exist during Old Testament times. Roads were unpaved, often little more than dirt tracks from earlier caravans. Indeed, for many years scholars could only sumise the precise locations of these paths, making assumptions from the shape of the terrain and drawing from references to routes found in ancient documents. Recently, however, satellite photography has proven to be a useful tool for locating these beaten paths. Understandably, merchants transported their goods by the sea or on navigable rivers whenever possible.

Despite all these difficulties merchants traded over great distances in the ancient Near East; goods found their way to the land of Israel from as far away as India and southern Arabia.

%d bloggers like this: