Travelers to the Negev Desert will see the remains of ancient agriculture, abandoned settlements, water reservoirs, and remnants of an ancient wine industry.
Wine presses are scattered throughout the area. The largest of these are located in the Nabbatean – Byzantine cities such as Avdat, Halutza, Shivta, and Rehovot or in their vicinity. There are remnants of large ancient agricultural settlements and small homesteads. Some of the larger farms have evidence of extremely sophisticated agricultural techniques and facilities for storing water.
Organized settlements existed in the area as early as five thousand years ago, and caravans of merchants passed from Etzion Gever to the Mediterranean carrying spices, perfumes, gems, and copper ore. Whoever controlled the entries to the area, the city of Etzion Gever, the routes leading to the Negev Highlands, the highlands themselves, and the Mediterranean Coast were able to collect taxes from merchants who paid for crossing, services, and protection against thieves. Most of the remains that people visit today are remnants of settlements and farms that date from the Nabbatean to the Byzantine Periods (200 B.C. to 600 A.D.) This period marked the peak of international trade in spices, perfumes, and gems.
During this period settlement and growth in the area flourished, and 240 kilometers of roads extended throughout the area. 150 – 180 kilometers of these roads were located in the Negev highlands. Guard posts, water cisterns, campsites, and cities were located along the length of the roads, and the distance between them was equal to the distance that a loaded caravan could travel in one day. The population in the area reached approximately 20,000 people and included permanent residents as well as passing travelers, soldiers, and merchants.
Agriculture developed in the arid Negev Highlands only after methods were invented for storing and utilizing the small amounts of rainwater. Storing water in cisterns and underground reservoirs for irrigating crops and for use by the residents is known as floodwater agriculture. The remains of ancient terraces that stretch along the width of riverbeds, water channels and depressions enabled water to be gathered and prevented erosion. Large areas within the riverbeds could then be cultivated and used for grazing by means of "floodwater agriculture". The main crops in the area included wheat, oats, and vineyards.
The origin of cultivation of grapes and production of wine in the Negev Highlands is shrouded in the mists of ancient times. However, an extensive infrastructure for wine production was developed from 300 B.C.E. to 700 A.D. The large wine presses from that period are evidence of the wine industry that thrived here. Wine was an essential commodity in the economics of the settlement and trade in the region for several reasons. It provided one quarter to one third of people's daily caloric intake. Wine was also used in preventive medicine, and the alcohol and polyphenols in wine were used to purify the drinking water that was drawn from cisterns throughout most of the year. Pure drinking water was essential for preserving security and order in the region and for maintaining the institutions of local settlements, and maintaining trade, commerce, and international trade.
Wines produced in the area were considered superior by people throughout the Roman and Byzantine World. They were considered high quality by Hilarion, and were known as Vinum Gazeum. These wines were transported throughout the Roman – Byzantine World. Remains of containers have been found along the length of the Adrianic Wall in Britannia, in the wine cellars of the Merovingian King Claubis in Paris, and throughout the ports of the Mediterranean.
The wine presses that were built during this period were extremely sophisticated. Grapes ripened all at once and had to be harvested within a short time, requiring wine to be produced quickly. Because of the hot climate, the fermentation process began on the crushing floor. The wine then flowed through channels into cisterns and was then bottled in ceramic flasks. These flasks were stored in niches near the press and then transported to cool cellars where the malolactic fermentation and aging process was completed.
Carmey Avdat Farm was built on the remains of a 1500 – year-old farm and the vineyards are planted on the ancient terraces. The vineyard is irrigated using a combination of ancient and modern irrigation methods.
Visitors are invited to tour the area by themselves or to take a pre-arranged guided tour.