Most OT travel in Pal. was by land; only occasionally was water travel used. Land travel was normally by path or road. If there was little travel, then a narrow path or track was sufficient. When there was volume travel, the track simply widened out into a road. These OT roads, however, did not approximate even the poorest roads that autos use today. Rather, they are to be compared to those roads that the American pioneers made when they first crossed the mountains and plains en route westward. In hilly country a road normally had two branches, one for slow climbing up a hill and the other for fast downhill travel. In the mountains, rocks and trees had to be removed, esp. after the time of David when the camel became the hauler of heavy freight. The donkeys, which preceded them and which always carried light loads, were much more sure-footed, even more so than men. Horses were only for the army until Pers. times. The mule was for royalty and the rich. On level ground when the old road became too rough, the caravans simply moved over a few feet. Autos and trucks do the same today in the desert.

The difference between a path and a road was gauged primarily by the number of people who used it. This is seen in the confusing Heb. vocabulary. דֶּ֫רֶכְ, H2006, is commonly tr. “road,” but at times it is only a track. Literally, it means “footsteps.” אֹ֫רַח, H784, and נָתִיב, H5985, are more often tr. “track” or “path” but the context may show them to be a road.

Any major engineering on the roads occurred only on special occasions, as when royalty traveled or when large armies were on the march. On such occasions better grades were made in the mountains, and fills were put in on troublesome terrain, such as swamps. Isaiah 40:3b, 4 describes the work:

Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

An elevated road, i.e. one made with a fill, is called מְסִלָּה, H5019.

Because of the poor conditions of the roads, vehicles were rare in OT times. The chariot was primarily a weapon of war, for use on level or slightly rolling ground. The engineers often prepared ground for them. The wagon for heavy freight was more common than a carriage or other light vehicle for persons. The latter, however, is referred to in the Joseph story when Pharaoh suggested sending wagons for Jacob and the wives and children of his sons (Gen 45:19-27). The heavy wagon or ox cart was used to transport the heavy materials of the Tabernacle (Num 7:3ff.). A wagon or cart was used by the Philistines when they returned the Ark to Israel, but it was drawn by cows unbroken to harness (1 Sam 6:3ff.). David, however, later moved that Ark by ox cart (1 Chron 13:7ff.). Amos 2:13 refers to an ox cart used as a hay wagon. This reflects the days of big farms. Most pictures of wagons or carts show solid wooden wheels, which are still useful in parts of Turkey today. The Assyrians used spoke-wheel wagons at times in their baggage trains. The two-wheel cart was much more common than the four-wheel wagon.

Travel was slow, for both men and animals walked; the length of the day’s march depended upon the urgency of the trip. Even Paul, who was under orders from the high priest, walked to Damascus (Acts 9:8). Average travel for men would be about fifteen m. a day. Donkey caravans tried to make twenty m. a day. The ordinary camel caravan of freight, with each animal carrying between 500 and 600 lbs., traveled approximately three m. an hour on a six hour day. A swift dromedary, on the other hand, could carry a rider on long journeys at seventy m. a day. The camel was, of course, the ideal animal to use in the desert, and often the only animal available.

The more common caravan before and after David’s reign was the donkey caravan. The largest of these donkey trains ranged from 1,000 to 3,000 animals. Abraham is the most famous “caravaneer.” The best etymology yet found for the word “Hebrew” is “caravaneer.” The donkey was an ideal carrier for passengers or freight, an animal with surprising power and endurance, and the most sure-footed of all animals used, which rode comfortably and was inexpensive.

In passages such as Judges 5:6 where the “caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways,” the references are to political unrest, where brigands and robbers made travel dangerous and unprofitable. The best and fastest travel service in OT times was the “pony express,” horse travel between relay stations, used by the Pers. government for diplomatic correspondence (cf. Esth 8:10).

These were fair weather roads in the OT, and only the most important business was carried on during the rainy season. War was seldom pursued in rain or snow or during flood seasons. The heaviest rains fell from November into February, with lighter rains earlier and later, with none usually during the long hot summer. The winter storms often compelled the use of alternate roads. The plain of Sharon, for example, was a summer road; in winter a new road farther E followed the higher land at the foot of the hills. Much of the plain of Esdraelon was a swamp in the winter during Bible times. The roads were modified by the geology of the terrain through which they passed.

The halting places had plenty of water and food for the animals and men. Such caravan sites often became commercial centers; at strategic points fortresses were built to protect the commerce.

Major roads in Palestine.

The most important N-S road in Pal. was known as “the way of the Sea,” or the Great Trunk road. It was a continuation of the great road from Egypt that had followed the Mediterranean coast from near the present Suez Canal to Gaza, which through all of history has been the bridgehead to Egypt. From Gaza the road ran just E of the sand dunes of the Mediterranean close to Joppa, where it moved to the E edge of the Plain of Sharon until it could cut through the pass at Megiddo and then climb across Galilee to the key road junction at Hazor. It then crossed the Jordan River just below Lake Huleh. At this point it climbed out of the Jordan valley and up to the Syrian plateau and direct to Damascus. This was the fastest route.

Caravans carrying heavy baggage took an easier grade. At Megiddo they turned E across the Plain of Esdraelon and down the Vale of Jezreel to Beth-shan. They then turned N up the Jordan Valley near the Sea of Galilee, where they climbed out of the Jordan Valley to the Syrian plateau, and then directly to Damascus.

A second N-S road handled mostly local Palestinian traffic rather than international commerce. It began at Beer-sheba and reached the central ridge of W Pal. at Hebron; it continued through Jerusalem, Bethel, Shechem, Samaria, and Dothan to Engannim at the edge of the Plain of Esdraelon. Traffic could continue on the international route to Damascus, or take an alternate course to the Mediterranean coast at Acco and then N to Phoenicia.

A second international trade route in Pal., on the high plateau E of the Jordan River, was known as the King's Highway|King’s Highway. It picked up Arabian commerce at Ezion-geber or Ma’an. (In intertestamental and NT times Petra replaced Ma’an.) The road then moved N about equi-distant between the desert and the cliffs dropping off into the Jordan Valley. The major towns on the route were Kir of Moab, Dibon, Medeba, Heshbon, Rabbath Ammon, Edrei, and Damascus. On the stele of Mesha, (see Moabite Stone) the Moabite king praised himself for making a highway in the Arnon Valley. If one has seen a picture of that valley he will appreciate the task. It is c. two and a half m. from rim to rim and c. 2300 ft. deep. After David’s era the Wadi Sirhan became an alternate trade route from Arabia to Rabbath Ammon. By that time camels were plentiful, and they could be used on this shorter but poorly watered route.

There were two main E-W routes in Pal., each following an ideal water grade. One left the Mediterranean at Joppa and moved NW to the pass between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, where Shechem was located. It then continued down a valley to the Jordan River which it crossed at Adam. In Trans-Jordan it ascended the Jabbok Valley through the Gilead district where it met the King’s Highway going N to Damascus.

The other key E-W road left the Mediterranean at Acco and went SE through the plains of Acre, Esdraelon, and Jezreel to the Jordan River at Beth-shan. Here it crossed the river and ascended a pass to the great wheat-growing plateau to Irbid and on to Edrei, where it met the King’s Highway going N to Damascus.

Minor roads in Palestine.

A short but important road along the Mediterranean ran from Acco (NT Ptolemais) to Tyre and Sidon and other Phoen. cities. Most scholars doubt if there was a coastal road through the Plain of Sharon, since most of the shore area was swampy.

The main ridge road from Shechem to the plain of Esdraelon had one route via Samaria, already mentioned. It was on the W side of the ridge. Before Samaria came to prominence, the main road prob. ran E of the ridge through the earlier Israelite capital of Tirzah. This same main ridge road had a less important road that went S from Beer-sheba via Kadesh-barnea to Egypt. It was important only in the period of the Patriarchs, esp. Abraham, and after Jehoshaphat’s time. A minor N-S road followed up each side of the Jordan valley from Jericho to Capernaum. In Trans-Jordan, a minor N-S road paralleled the King’s Highway, but it skirted the edge of the desert.

The most important E-W road S of Shechem pass left the Mediterranean at Joppa and climbed up the valley of Aijalon to the central ridge. One branch turned S and in a few m. came to Jerusalem. This was the only military road from the Philistine plain to Jerusalem. The other fork went N a few m. to Bethel and then descended to the Jordan River, passing through Jericho. It then crossed over that stream and climbed up to Rabbath Ammon.

Another short but important E-W road went from Acco via a depression called Sahl Battuf to the Sea of Galilee. A minor E-W road much farther S led from the seaport of Ashkelon to Hebron. From there a track led down to the Dead Sea at Engedi. Another road stretched from nearby Gaza to Beer-sheba and on to the edge of the Jordan depression, where a track led down to the Arabah.

A look at a contour map of Pal. will show how rugged most of the country is, which necessitated a great number of still smaller roads to connect the various minor trade centers. These played a large part in local history but are seldom mentioned in the major historical accounts of Israel. David’s flights from Saul, however, used these minor tracks, which he had learned as a shepherd lad working out of Bethlehem.

International travel through Palestine.

Breasted’s term the “fertile crescent” is the best introduction to understanding OT travel, for it denotes the belt of arable land extending northward up the E coast of the Mediterranean to the headwaters of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and then SE along the river valleys to the Persian Gulf. The great Arabian desert and the Syrian steppes N of them made E-W travel across them almost impossible until one reached the first good E-W commercial center at Palmyra (OT Tadmor). One of the few important crossings of the southern desert was made by Nebuchadnezzar who used that route from the Mediterranean to shake hands with the god Nebo on New Year’s day at Babylon, and thus validate his right to continue as king of Babylon.

There were two major world civilization centers in OT times: Egypt and Babylonia (originally Sumeria). Persia and Greece came into international importance only toward the end of the OT period. The Hittites of Asia Minor made their greatest contributions to Near E cultures as miners and workers of metals during OT times. Phoenicia, after David’s time, was to the ancient Mediterranean world what Great Britain was in her greatest maritime days. Assyria was primarily a military machine but she also modified Babylonian civilization. These countries dominated OT travel.

The traveler from Egypt to Pal. left Egypt near where the Suez Canal is today, and then normally traveled along the Mediterranean coast keeping inland behind the sand dunes. The road ended at Gaza, which was the bridgehead for Egypt. The only alternative route was the one Abraham used: from Goshen in Egypt to Kadesh-barnea at the N end of the Sinai desert and then to Beer-sheba. This route, however, was little used after his time until Solomon’s reign. The only other travel alternative was to go by sea.

The various travel routes N-S in Pal. have been listed. In Galilee, several important roads left Pal. for Phoenicia or Syria. Phoenicia is a NT word. In the OT that area was actually a part of Canaan and was so called at times; in the OT it is usually referred to by its cities, esp. Tyre and Sidon. Some commerce came overland into Phoenicia via the sources of the Jordan River above Lake Huleh, and then crossed the border into the Litany River valley of Phoenicia. Additional commerce traveled along the Mediterranean coast road from Acco to Tyre and Sidon. Still more commerce went by sea.

Syria, or Aram as it was more often called, consisted of two fertile grain areas separated by the Anti-Lebanon mountains. Just E of the Lebanon mountains lies the fertile Litany Valley. This river rises at Baalbek and flows S to the Mediterranean near Tyre. At Baalbek the Orontes River also has its source, but it flows N and enters the Mediterranean near NT Antioch. This was a large fertile valley, a major breadbasket in the ancient world. It lay between the Nosairiyeh Mountains along the Mediterranean and the Anti-Lebanon range. East of the Anti-Lebanons was another grain area; as the rainfall becomes less eastward, the land turns to what some call the desert; but more accurately it is the steppes, and beyond that is the desert proper. One road followed the Litany Valley from Pal. N to Baalbek and then paralleled the Orontes River to the Mediterranean. Another road branched off from the Orontes at Hamath, going northeastward to Carchemish on the Euphrates.

The Syrian route, mentioned more often in the OT, led through Damascus and continued N to Hamath on the Orontes, or farther on to Carchemish on the Euphrates. Faster traffic heading for Mesopotamia left Damascus and cut NE for Palmyra (OT Tadmor); from there it went E to the great city of Mari on the Euphrates.

Carchemish and Haran (of Abraham’s time) were at the top of the fertile crescent. At this junction the Syrian roads ended, and here, of vital importance, roads from Asia Minor converged. From central Anatolia and its famous Hitt. population one route went through the Taurus Mountains S to Tarsus and then turned E across the passes of the Amanus Mountains to Carchemish. Another route went farther E on the great central Anatolian plateau and then turned sharply S to Carchemish and Haran. From these key geographic cities a traveler could go SE to Babylonia or E to Assyria. Persia lay E of both of them.

From Carchemish the road followed the Euphrates River past Mari, on to Babylon, Ur, the Persian Gulf, and points S via the sea to Arabia. Babylonia was the successor of Sumeria, where writing—the world’s greatest invention—had its beginning. In this land, civilization in antiquity always seemed to be at home. East of Babylon, beyond one of the rare good passes in the Zagros Mountains, lay Elam and what later became Persia.

To reach Assyria from Carchemish a route went E past Haran along the fertile foothills of the Armenian mountains through the lands of the Horites and Mitanni to the Tigris River and the capital city of Nineveh. From here, passes reached into Persia, but the traveling was rough.

Water travel.

The Hebrews did little water travel, in contrast to the maritime economy of the Phoenicians. When Solomon sent his ships down the Red Sea to Ophir, and when Jehoshaphat planned a similar expedition, Phoen. mariners were asked to conduct the adventures. Jonah was the Jew’s one famous sailor of the OT. His intended voyage was passage from Joppa to Tarshish, which was prob. on the Atlantic coast of Spain near the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. This was one of the longest commercial trips made in OT times. The only longer sailings were made to the British Isles for tin.

Coastal traffic of OT Pal. was in Philistine hands, between Gaza and Joppa. Later, the coastal towns became independent under Assyria. Joppa was not always considered a Philistine city (see Joppa). The only port on the plain of Sharon was Dor, which belonged to the Tjeker, another “Sea People” allied to the Philistines. Acco was allotted to the tribe of Asher but was never conquered by the Israelites. It was either an independent city or allied with Tyre in the N (for Phoen. cities see Phoenicia).

The other coastal water of Pal. was the Gulf of Aqabah with its two seaports—Ezion-geber (the more important) for Trans-Jordan, and Elath for W Jordan. Solomon’s fleet used Ezion-geber as its home port (for a description of boats see section 7 of this article “NT water travel”).

NT land travel.

Travel in Pal. in NT times was very similar to OT times. There were no major changes except that a larger population meant more travel and therefore better roads. It is doubtful, however, if Pal. had any Rom.-constructed roads in the days of Christ and Paul.

Certain OT cities acquired new names before the NT period: Acco became Ptolemais; Rabbath Ammon, Philadelphia; and Samaria, Sebaste. Two important new cities, Caesarea and Jericho, were built by Herod the Great. The latter city was not a rebuilding of OT Jericho, but a new city on a new site nearby the OT site.

NT travel is apparent in the trips taken by Christ and Paul (see Jesus Christ and Paul for details of their travels). When Paul branched out from Syrian Antioch on his missionary journeys through Asia Minor and points W, he used some of the famous Rom. roads (see Roads). With good roads came more carriages for people and more wagons for freight. Carriages could make twenty-five m. a day on a good Rom. road. Government business and army orders could travel fifty m. a day by a horseman. Government orders could travel from Rome to Caesarea, the capital of NT Pal. in fifty to sixty-five days in good weather. Commercial business would prob. have taken longer, up to a hundred days or more. The world of the NT, a saga of international travel, reached from Germany to China, and from Scandinavia and Russia to central Africa. Nero sent army engineers to search for the sources of the Nile River, and they went as far S as the Sobat River.

The major reason for travel was business, which included any saleable items from the vast land areas described above. An abridged list of commerce from the Far E and the Near E is given in Revelation 18:11-13.

NT water travel.

The major cities that trans-shipped the Near E commerce to Rome and other points W were Alexandria and Antioch on the Orontes. The various efficient ways of handling cargo across the Isthmus of Corinth greatly expedited E-W shipping. The Isthmus was less than five m. wide, but saved 200 m. of sailing around Cape Malea, which was a graveyard for ships. In ancient times, clearing that cape was like clearing Cape Horn in the days of the clipper ships. Emperor Nero dug a part of the canal that now cuts through the isthmus. He would doubtless have finished it if political problems had not driven him to suicide. The canal was completed near the close of the 19th cent., using Nero’s survey.

Nautical travel in OT and NT times used ships of various types. They ranged in size from very small to very large. The larger ones were decked over. They were normally

powered by sail only, although on important business auxiliary oar power was used in calm weather. The ship would carry a large mainmast and small foremast, both using square sails. Great oars mounted over the stern served as rudders.

We can only conjecture the size of Jonah’s ship, but the best geographers estimate it about 250 tons. The flagship of Columbus was only 100 tons and Magellan’s only slightly larger. Vasco de Gama used a ship of 200 tons. A day’s sail in antiquity would probably be about 55 nautical miles. These ships were well built and could stand the bad Mediterranean storms as is shown by the experience of the ship in which Paul sailed. Ezekiel 27:3-9 gives an excellent description of a ship used by the royalty of Tyre. Phoenician cargoes are listed in verses 12-25 of the same chapter.

Almost 250 years after Jonah the Phoenicians probably circumnavigated Africa. This cannot be demonstrated but if they sailed from east to west there are no special oceanography problems against them. An old dry-dock 130 ft. long at Athens demonstrated the size of the Greek war vessels, which were smaller than cargo ships. Lucian mentions a large Alexandrian grain ship 180 ft. long....It would have a capacity of about 1200 tons. Paul’s ship was also an Alexandrian one and carried 276 in its crew and passenger list. Josephus was in a shipwreck when there were 600 persons on board. Underwater archaeology is a fascinating new field of research. French divers have studied the old stone docks at the city of Tyre which are now all under water. A Mycenaean ship loaded with copper has been studied in detail on the ocean floor off the coast of Turkey. One of the ships found off the Mediterranean coast of France of New Testament times was probably 100 feet long. (Kelso, p. 121f.)

Reasons for travel in NT times.

The most important reason for travel in NT times was commerce, but this involved far more than the shipment of goods. There were commercial traveling men of all categories, and tradesmen changing their places of employment, as Aquila and Priscilla had done (Acts 18:2), whose original home was on the Black Sea. Banking and the insurance of cargoes were big business, and their agents were always on the move. There were Rom. military and naval men of every category, on special duties for the government, such as the procuring of supplies. Rome often shifted large units of her military forces. Vespasian, who was in charge of Rome’s war with the Jews, was on duty in Britain when he was called to his new command.

Also in NT times, people traveled on religious pilgrimages. Jerusalem attracted the faithful Israelites, from Rome to Arabia (Acts 2:5-11). Among the most famous pagan shrines were those at Ephesus, Athens, and Eleusis, but minor ones were located throughout the empire and all of them attracted pilgrims. New temples were erected everywhere, which necessitated travel for the craftsmen employed and transportation for the material used in construction. Many of the temples were famous for their healing miracles, and the sick traveled from temple to temple. People also traveled to hot springs, which were usually considered medicinal. Capernaum was near two famous hot springs, which may be one of the reasons why so many sick people came to Christ in that city.

Athletes traveled the length of the Mediterranean for the “Olympian games,” which were held in contests from Spain to Antioch. They were well scheduled so that the best professional athletes could make the rounds of all the important games. Crowds flocked to these games in large numbers, as today. The modern football stadium is a modified Rom. amphitheater. Professors and scholars traveled widely; most of the population with money sought an education for their sons, which involved foreign travel. Tarsus ranked just a little below Athens on the university circuit. Jewish scholars finished their studies at Jerusalem (cf. Paul). Scientists, too, traveled everywhere. Alexander the Great started this movement when he took many varieties of scientists with him on his world conquest.

In NT times, tourists traveled everywhere to see the famous sights. By the next cent., Pausanius was writing excellent guide books. The ancient world, however, could not solve the problem of winter. Sea travel could obtain favorable insurance rates only between May 26 and Sept. 14. The sea was normally considered closed to traffic from Nov. 10 to March 10. Emergency voyages were occasionally made in the closed season. The ship that took Paul to Rome tried to beat the season, but was shipwrecked. Fairly good sea charts and land maps however, were available.

The greatest seasonal handicaps to land travel were snow and floods, which when at their worst in Asia Minor, the roads might be blocked for weeks. There were few good inns throughout the whole empire, but whereever possible travelers stayed with business friends or with a friend of a friend.

Another mode of travel both in the OT and the NT has not yet been stressed, namely mass travel. The army of an empire is a prime example. Of OT history the Assyrians perfected the organized marching of a huge army, although they also used the chariot and cavalry. The Persians placed a greater emphasis on horses; with expert infantry and cavalry, they doubled the size of their world empire and controlled an area from the Balkans on the W to the Punjab River in India on the E. Persia carried government mail over this area at a speed greater than at any other prior time.

Alexander’s empire lasted only during his lifetime, but Rome’s army ruled the Mediterranean world for centuries. Persia and Rome were responsible for the two extended periods of peace in the ancient world over great geographic areas. World commerce and world travel prospered greatly under those empires. Their efficiency was never excelled until modern times.

One of the by-products of the Assyrian military strategy was the mass transportation of captive populations. The deportations of the populations of Samaria and Jerusalem are examples. The cities of Samaria were, in turn, repopulated by deportees from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sephar-vaim (2 Kings 17:24).

Another example of mass travel was the mass migration of people. An outstanding example was Israel’s long forty-year journey from Egypt to Canaan via the Sinai desert. Later occurred the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, in two waves. The Philistines, driven out of their homelands, were a migrating nation who, along with several other “sea peoples,” looked for a new homeland, which they found in Pal. Since they settled in the area that had been allotted to the tribe of Dan, and since they were vastly superior to that tribe in military strength, the tribe of Dan was forced to migrate. It found a new home in Galilee under Mt. Hermon (some episodes of the migration are given in Judges 18:1-31).

The last form of travel might be termed “vicarious traveling” and is represented at best both by the letter and by the courier who carried the letter. Paul was not only the Bible’s widest traveler in person, but he also traveled vicariously in the letters he wrote. The Book of Acts presents Paul the traveler; in addition, he “traveled” to various congregations and fellow-ministers by means of letters. These letters were usually carried by personal friends of Paul.


A. C. Bouquet, Everyday Life in NT Times, ch. V (1955); R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology vol. II, 126-183 (1955); G. E. Wright and F. V. Filson, The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (rev. 1956); L. H. Grollenberg, Atlas of the Bible (1957); D. Baly, The Geography of the Bible (1957); J. Kelso, Archaeology and Our Old Testament Contemporaries (1966).

See also

  • Trade and Travel