The Arabian Desert – Two Routes to Bethlehem?
Matthew’s Nativity account of the wise men, the Magi, reveals their quest to find the newborn King of the Jews took them first to Jerusalem, then on the Bethlehem. After being warned not to return home the way they came, the Magi took a different route back to their homeland – was there a second route?
Marco Polo, famed thirteenth century explorer, wrote in 1298 of his travels to the Province of Persia searching for information about the Magi. Writing of a city called Saba, Polo wrote that he first visited the burial place of the “magi who came to adore Christ in Bethlehem.”
Today the city is known as Saveh located about 50 miles southwest of Tehran, Iran. From Saba, Marco Polo’s pursuit to find the location where the Magi had lived took him on a 3-day trek to the castle of “Palasata, which means the castle of fire-worshippers,” a same name for Magi found in the Talmud.
Visiting with the residents of the Palasata castle, they told the story of three renowned Magi whose home towns were given as Dyava, Saba and the castle of Palasata. While Matthew’s account neither discloses the number of Magi nor that they were kings, Marco Polo recounts being told of “three offerings” made by three kings:
“…anciently, three kings of that country went to adore a certain king who was newly born, and carried with them three offerings, namely, gold, frankincense, and myrrh: gold, that they might know if he were an earthly king; frankincense, that they might know if he were God; and myrrh, that they might know if he were a mortal man.”– Maro Polo 
Travel from Persia to Judea offered only two realistic route choices when confronted with the Arabian Desert, one of the largest, if not the largest desert in the world. One option was a route around the northern edges of the Arabian Desert. The other option was the longer southern route through the desert by way of Petra south of the Dead Sea.
Shorter of the two trade routes to Jerusalem, the initial destination of the Magi, was approximately 700 miles. The route coursed from Seleucia near present day Baghdad; north through the populous area east of the Euphrates River; on to Edessa in southeast Turkey; turned west to Damascus, Syria; then turned south following the ancient King’s Highway paralleling the east side of the Jordan River.
Trade route spurs West off the King’s Highway across the Jordan River were limited to only three. When traveling from the North, the first two were not logical choices for a Jerusalem destination. The last crossing opportunity was to ford the Jordan just above the Dead Sea heading west by Jericho, then onward to Jerusalem.
King Herod’s winter palace was located in Jericho where he would soon travel during his final days. The crossing point of the Jordan near Jericho was the same place where the Israelites entered into land of Abraham after their wonderings in the Sinai wilderness.
Erza 7:9 mentions how a similar journey from Babylon to Jerusalem took four months. On the timeline of history, Ezra was written after the Hebrew’s release from Babylonian captivity thought still under the rule of the Persian Empire in the late 300 BC era.
Scrolling forward a century to the last quarter of the 200s BC, trade routes had been established by the Parthian Empire making travel relatively much faster. Commonly referred to as “caravan routes,” these trade routes were busy – the interstate highways of the day dotted with trading posts making them the best practical means for land travel.
First, the Magi traveled to Jerusalem where they sought guidance from ruler of the land, King Herod. Jerusalem was not located on the common caravan routes making it a newsworthy event where everyone seemed to be aware of their arrival in the city .
Aside from their unusual arrival, perhaps attention was also garnered by their conspicuous caravan of camels; their foreign grandiose attire; or that they were regarded as kings from Persia. Nevertheless, it is obvious the Magi were recognized on the highest social hierarchy as King Herod who granted the Magi immediate access to his palace.
After consulting with Jewish religious experts, Herod directed the Magi to go to Bethlehem in exchange for revealing the exact location of the child after they found him. Bethlehem was only 5 miles to the south of Jerusalem accessible directly by a north-south road. Matthew’s account then provides a key detail:
MT 2:12 “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” (NIV)
Consensus agreement to avoid King Herod presented a costly logistical challenge requiring full agreement of the Magi. Herod would assuredly know if the Magi were back in the City of Jerusalem and undoubtedly he would know if they were passing by the much smaller Jericho where area local contacts of the King’s winter palace were certain to inform him.
A return route back to Persia avoiding Jerusalem and Jericho left only one other option across the Arabian Desert – the southern Parthian loop. It was a much longer trek, some 100 miles longer at around 800 miles.
South of the Dead (Salt) Sea, the King’s Highway routed to Petra, then East on the southern Parthian route across the Arabian Desert to central Persia. The catch was how to reach it from Bethlehem.
Access to the southern Parthian trade route was literally at the doorstep of the Magi. The Central Ridge route ran south out of Bethlehem to Hebron; connected to the Spice Route which passed under the Dead Sea; and then joined the King’s Highway south to Petra. The other less traveled minor route spurs off the Central Ridge Road may have shortened the southward path with the trade-off being a more difficult passage, fewer trading posts, and greater risks.
Many secular historical accounts confirm the origins of the Magi – who they were, their reputation, from where they came. Two well-known geographically established caravan trade routes involving the Arabian Desert existed from Persia to Judea.
Do these historical accounts corroborate and add credibility to Gospel account of Matthew and the Nativity of Jesus of Nazareth?
Updated September 4, 2022.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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