The Highways of the King
By Timothy S. Wilkinson
Ancient Hebrew has two primary words for transportation routes: messilah, meaning “highway,” and derekh meaning “road.” From earliest times trade routes linked cities and kingdoms throughout the Middle East. The most important and well-traveled routes were the Via Maris (Way of the Sea) that followed the coast almost from Egypt all the way to Lebanon, and the King’s Road, running up central Palestine, paralleling the Jordan. Maintaining these roads was important for religious, as well as economic, reasons. Since all Israelites worshipped at a central location, travel was constant and required by the Torah. The maintenance of the roads to the Cities of Refuge was even more crucial.
It is very difficult to get a clear picture of where roads and highways were once located, but a great deal of effort has been put into doing so. The Bible provides us with very little information regarding either their locations or description, but does contain a few allusions to their construction and maintenance. Isaiah talks about hills being leveled; Josephus wrote of Solomon paving the roads to Jerusalem with black stone. Archival texts, itineraries and military annals collected from the Biblical period throughout the Middle and Near East allow us to make a reasonably accurate estimate of how far one could travel in a day: about 17 to 23 miles, whether by land or by sea.
To the modern reader, references to “highways” conjures up a very different picture than the Iron Age reality. Late in the 13th century B.C.E. (during the time of the Judges), an Egyptian official was sent on a trip through Palestine. Fortunately for us, he kept a detailed record of his journey—and he spared no details when describing the condition of the roads:
“…the sky is darkened by day [because the road] is overgrown with cypresses and oaks and cedars which reach the heavens. Lions are more numerous than leopards or bears [and it is] surrounded by Bedouin on [every] side of it…Behold, ambushers wait in a ravine 2000 cubits deep, filled with boulders and pebbles…the narrow valley is dangerous with Bedouin hidden under the bushes. Some of them are four or five cubits from their noses to the heel, and fierce of face. Their hearts are not mild, and they do not listen to wheedling. You are alone; there is no messenger with you, no army host behind you. You find no scout, that he might make you a way of crossing. You come to a decision to go forward, although you do not know the road. Shuddering seizes you, [the hair of] your head stands up, and your soul lies in your hand. Your path is filled with boulders and pebbles, without a toe hold for passing by, overgrown with reeds, thorns, brambles and ‘wolf’s-paws’. The ravine is on one side of you, and the mountain rises on the other. You go on jolting, with your chariot on its side, afraid to press your horse too hard.”
When Pharoah Thutmosis III traveled the “highway” sometime between 1490 and 1436 B.C.E. (the time of the Israelite conquest of Canaan or shortly thereafter), he reported that parts of it were so narrow that his horses had to walk single file—a singularly dangerous formation for an army. The passage of three and a half centuries didn’t see much improvement: in around 1100 B.C.E. (about the time of the birth of David), Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I wrote that he had to send engineers ahead of his army with copper pickaxes to make the road passable for his chariots. There were portions of the road that proved too rough—charioteers and cavalry were forced to dismount and pick their way through on foot.
When we imagine the travels of people in the time of David, then, we should include in that mental picture a sense of just how difficult travel was. Wealthier people may have ridden on donkeys or used them to carry their burdens. Many sojourners likely took a siesta to avoid traveling in the oppressive heat of the Mediterranean day; night travel also served as an additional way to avoid detection by highwaymen. They crossed the miles on narrow, winding paths, choked with mud after winter rains, heavily rutted throughout the summer. They tried to avoid the deep canyons cut by rivers that raged during rainstorms, as well as the disease-infested swamps, barren deserts and broad badlands of sharp, hardened volcanic stone. Mountain roads took them up steep slops broken by twisting gorges; the ranges could be crossed only at well-traveled passes. They sought safety in numbers, traveling whenever possible in caravans.
While writing The Eternal Throne Chronicles, one of the challenges is that I continually discover new details about the biblical world as the project continues. I gratefully incorporate them into future novels but—alas—there is nothing I can do about those already published. The state of roads in Israel is one of those details. I look forward, though, to traveling those roads with fresh eyes in the near future as I write the first chapters of Hero of Israel.
For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.