Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Travel in Biblical Times
Reading through the Bible, one often gets the impression that those who
people it spend a great deal of time moving about
In the Old Testament, Abraham moves from Ur in the Chaldees to the land of
Canaan (a journey of six hundred miles). Jacob takes a trip to Haran to find a wife. His
sons wend their way into Egypt not once but several times. The Israelites eventually leave
Egypt and start a forty-year journey through the Sinai desert. Joshua gives details of
their reconnoitering the land, then crossing the Jordan and marching through the country.
Judges recounts Samsons journey to court a woman in Timnah. Absalom moves from Jerusalem
to Geshur. A queen comes all the way up from Ethiopia in Africa to visit Solomon. There
is constant mention of visiting foreign dignitaries, going on business trips, or making
pilgrimages for religious purposes.
In the New Testament, Mary travels from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea.
Joseph and Mary take the baby Jesus through the hot desert into Egypt and then back again.
Luke records that the parents of Jesus went every year to Jerusalem for Passover. Jesus
journeys east to the Decapolis and north to Tyre and Sidon before he sets out for Jerusalem.
And his last commission to his disciples is to Go teach all nations, a message
the disciples took to heart as we know from the book of Acts. Paul trudged thousands of
miles and sailed even more.
Whatever these people were and however varied their lives and fortunes through
the centuries, we can say for sure that they were not inclined to stay put.
A certain amount of travel was essential. Merchants had to carry their goods
across deserts and mountains to exchange with far-off neighbors. The pious wanted to make
pilgrimages to holy places. Ambassadors needed to carry messages. Soldiers were required
to march to war. And so roads had to be built.
A network connecting one place with another seems to have followed soon upon
civilization itself. At first, these roads would have been mere tracks lined
with gravel or sand, measuring perhaps six feet across. We know that the Egyptians lined
their roads with trees so that wayfarers would not lose their way, but we do not hear of
this happening in other places. A traveler would sometimes put a pile of stones along the
road as a marker to find his way home again.
Later, stations were positioned at regular distances along the way. Shulgi,
the King of Ur in the late 20th century B.C.E., claimed: I built along the highways
big houses, planted gardens alongside to them, established resting places, settled there
friendly folks so that who came from below or who came from above might refresh themselves
in its cool shade.
Shulgis houses however, would have been nothing more than
four plain walls encompassing a field, which would have been placed twenty miles apart
(a days journey). The main purpose was to protect from wild animals at night.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word
beth means house. Did some of these houses eventually
develop into villages or towns (Bethlehem, Bethel, Bethany) along these routes?
The Greek historian Herodotus says that the famous royal road of the Persians
had inns and waystations for the royalty and well-to-do stationed at intervals of ten to
fifteen miles, depending on the terrain.
By the time of Jesus, roads had greatly improved. The Romans were builders
and roads were their passion. Using large stones for paving came in with Emperor Augustus.
Roman commerce and the military depended on this infrastructure, and paved roads leading
out from the forum in Rome connected every major city.
Julius Caesar, at the beginning of his career, was appointed Curator of Roads,
a very responsible position. Curators were accountable for keeping the roads in good repair,
seeing to the building of bridges and the establishment of staging posts. Local communities
could be called upon to carry out the repairs. And while public money was available, many
curators paid out of their own pockets to ingratiate themselves to the people. Milestones
were inscribed with the services the curator had done. So the traveler was grateful to
(or mad at) the curator.
The remains of many of these roads can still be seen today: The Via Appia
led out of Rome itself; the great road between Aleppo and Antioch was nearly twenty feet
wide with cut blocks of hard limestone; the Via Egnatia near Philippi where Paul and his
companions often traveled; the road, partly cut through solid rock, between Damascus and
Modern archaeologists can find the road by finding the milestones. But what
conveyances traveled along these roads?
Chariots were in use from about 1200 B.C.E. They are mentioned one hundred
and sixty times in the Old Testament.
Chariots were mainly used for war and we have several pictures of Assyrian
chariots, which they engraved on their wall in Nineveh. Chariots were drawn by horses.
These vehicles had one great disadvantage: They could get stuck in the mud. The Exodus
story tells us that the horses and chariots of Pharaohs army got stuck in the mud
as the Red Sea flowed back over them.
In addition to the chariots, people also used carts, both two- and four-wheeled.
We have pictures of some of these, courtesy of the Assyrians. We know from the Acts of
the Apostles of an Ethiopian who traveled to Israel by such a conveyance.
These carriages would have been used for the transportation of baggage and
foodstuffs, and we have a picture, now housed in the British Museum, of one carrying human
cargo as the spoils of war. Farmers and fisherman used such carts to transport their grain
and fish to markets.
Owning a carriage was an investment; laws existed to protect their owners.
Beasts of Burden
We first hear of camels in the twelfth century B.C.E. They were domesticated
by the Midianites, a fierce people who lived in the desert.
Every so often their camel-mounted warriors would swoop down on Israelite
towns, steal their crops and make off again before anyone knew what was happening.
they came like locusts; both they and their camels could not
be numbered, so that they wasted the land as they came in (Judges 6:5).
From that time on, caravans of camels trekked across the Middle East laden
down with luxuries being traded from one people to another. Camels could carry a load of
half a ton, travel twenty-five miles a day without food or watervery useful in desert
conditions. The Magi coming from the east at the birth of Jesus would presumably have been
mounted on camels.
Oxen were used to pull wagons and carriages. David used oxen to take the
ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:6). Elisha was plowing with oxen when Elijah
found him (I Kings 19:19) Amos asks glibly if one can plough the sea with an ox.
Mules are often mentioned in the Bible. Davids sons fled on mules
from the place of Amnons assassination. Absalom was riding a mule when his hair got
caught in a tree and he was run through by Joab. Mules moved at about three miles and hour
with a little bit of prodding.
Horses were used by the army and rarely by the ordinary traveler since they
could be commandeered by any soldier.
The donkey was the main mode of transportation. These sturdy little animals
could climb hills with ease and walk on rough stony ground. Abraham saddled his donkey
to go to the land of Moriah. The sons of Jacob traveled on donkeys from Egypt to Israel
(Genesis 42:27). Balaam journeyed on a donkey. In the New Testament, Jesus rides a donkey
into Jerusalem, the usual way that a king approached his kingdom (John 12:15).
Donkeys were also used to draw grain mills. But donkeys could be stubborn
and refuse to move when tired or hungry. Laws regulated the amount of weight that a donkey
could carry and the quality of his food.
Travel in biblical times was fraught with difficulty and danger. There was
the threat of heat and exhaustion, cold and hunger, peril from wild animals (lions and
wild boars were still found in this part of the world at the time of the Crusades). Bandits
and brigands were a constant hazard.
People did not journey alone. Caravans were organized by individuals or
agencies that made the arrangements. And few would have traveled for pleasure. Going to
Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feasts would have been the nearest one came to a vacation.
Carriages would have transported some of the pilgrims. The owners of such
conveyances rented them out along with a guide. Donkeys, too, were rented for such journeys.
Passengers carried only what they needed for the journey: a bag to hold money,
a walking staff, a second pair of shoes (Jesus tells his apostles not to take a spare pair)
and a cloak. The cloak would be used as a blanket and most travelers slept on the ground.
One would also carry a flask to draw water from wells during the journey.
Traveling by Ship
Travel by sea was even more precarious, but a little faster. It would have
taken four weeks to travel from Antioch in Syria to Rome. But only the hardiest could tolerate
the ships conditions (no love boat these).
One had to bring everything one would require, including food, water, bedding
and an overcoat. Pompey, the great Roman general, rid the Mediterranean of pirates, but
he could not rid ships of rats. Passengers had to beat off these creatures to keep them
from attacking their food.
Commercial ships carried passengers and prisoners and were often overcrowded.
Josephus tells us of one ship that carried over six hundred passengers, but he also notes
that it sank!
Travel always carried risks. It was never done with ease and always done
with apprehension. But travel they did and in doing so, sowed the seeds of our religious
Next time you set out on a journey, remember how it used to be, and be thankful
that all you are likely to meet with is a few delays and ramped-up security at airports.
It beats dealing with a recalcitrant donkey, battling with a rat on a ship, or meeting
Next: Ezra and Nehemiah (By Dianne Bergant, C.S.A.)
I want to order
print copies of this
Scripture from Scratch.
Bulk discounts available!
View the Scripture from Scratch reprint
at our catalog site.