Photo Credit: University of Haifa
Fabrics dating to the 7th century CE discovered in the Araba desert.

Has an Israeli Silk Road to the Far East been discovered? A recent excavation at the Nahal Omer site in the Araba revealed a wealth of artifacts imported from the East dating from the early Islamic period, about 1,300 years ago. The findings include cotton and silk fabrics that most likely originated from India and China.

The excavation was conducted by the University of Haifa in collaboration with Dr. Roi Galili from Ben Gurion University, Dr. Orit Shamir from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Dr. Britt Hildebrandt from the University of Gottingen in Germany, and Dr. Nofer Shamir from the University of Haifa.


“Our findings are apparently the first evidence that there was an Israeli Silk Road that was used by merchants as part of the international trade routes,” said Prof. Guy Bar-Oz from the School of Archeology and Maritime Cultures at the University of Haifa, who is leading the excavation. “This road, which diverged from the traditional road, passed from the north of Israel along the Perfume Road, crossed the Araba desert, and connected to the north-to-south roads in the Land of Israel as well as to the Mediterranean ports.”

The Silk Road was the main overland trade route for the transfer of goods from China, through India, Egypt, and the Middle East to Europe. Its main offshoots passed through Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, today’s Istanbul.

Red fabric dating to the 7th century CE discovered in the Araba desert. / University of Haifa

“The models of the transportation of goods and the ranges of trade testify to the processes of globalization that the Middle East experienced at the end of the first millennium,” explained Prof. Bar-Oz and Dr. Galili. “Until now, the academic debate of the ancient trade was based mainly on historical sources. An archaeological find such as this, which allows you to physically touch the material, was rare.”

The researchers follow the changes that occurred along the timeline employing an analysis of garbage piles in sites along the roads to learn about the daily life of ancient caravan guides and search for the exotic materials they transported. The researchers examined garbage heaps in the Nahal Omer site in the Araba that date back to the 7th century CE, around the beginning of the Islamic period in the region.

To their surprise, the researchers discovered an organic treasure trove of findings that outline in detail the material culture and daily life of the ancient desert dwellers: textiles, clothing items, many hygiene items such as antiquated Q-tips and bandages, leather straps, belt segments, socks, shoe soles, combs, and more. The abundance of organic items made it possible to carry out an accurate dating using carbon 14, and they were dated between the 7th and 8th centuries CE.

“The findings include a large number of imported materials, including textiles with typical decorative patterns originating from India, and silk items from China dating to this period that until now have not been discovered in Israel,” Dr. Shamir, a textile expert, explained. “The richness and abundance of the findings indicate the great demand for luxury products from the East.”

A rope dating to the 7th century CE discovered in the Araba desert. / University of Haifa

The researchers estimate that the cotton fabrics probably came from India and Nubia (a region in Sudan) – two major cotton production centers known from that period; and the silk fabric found offers significant evidence proving trade that originated in China.

So far, Nahal Omer is the most important archaeological site in Israel in terms of its textile finds. The findings there show a leap forward in technological development: the dig discovered a large number of cotton textiles, some decorated with an Ikat pattern. This required a technique involving crisscross dying where the horizontal thread is dyed before the vertical. So far, Ikat-patterned cotton fabrics have been discovered in only a small number of sites in the Middle East. However, in wall paintings in the caves of Ajanta, India, dating to the 6th century CE, figures are seen dressed in clothes decorated with patterns similar to those found in Nahal Omar.

The fabrics also offer greetings from Iran: textiles made of white cotton and colored wool woven together in a complex weave were discovered at the site. They were used to make rugs and are still produced in a similar way in different regions of Iran and other countries in Central Asia.

According to the researchers, the colors of the fabrics have been well preserved, with a variety of colors and shapes in shades of blue made from indigo, red from Rubia tinctorum, brown and more.

“The findings from the excavation reflect unique connections on a global scale with textile production sources in the Far East and add new information regarding the importance of the road in the regional and global aspect for the transfer of goods, people, technologies, and ideas,” said Prof. Bar-Oz.


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