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 first took them to Jerusalem, then on to 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?
Magi were well-known by reputation for their origins in Persia east of Judea hundreds of miles away. 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, located about 50 miles southwest of Tehran, Iran, Marco Polo wrote that he located the burial place of the “magi who came to adore Christ in Bethlehem.” He then traveled to the castle of “Palasata, which means the castle of fire-worshippers,” a same name for Magi found in the Talmud.
While Matthew’s account neither discloses the number of Magi nor that they were kings, Marco Polo wrote that he identified the Magi as three kings from Dyava, Saba and the castle of Palasata who presented “three offerings:”
“…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 had one formidable obstacle – the great Arabian Desert – one of the largest, if not the largest desert, in the world. Shortest, easiest and safest travel option to Judea was an established trade route around the northern edges of the Arabian Desert known as the northern Parthian loop.
From Seleucia near present day Baghdad, then to Jerusalem was approximately 700 miles. The journey coursed 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.
Erza 7:9 mentions how a similar journey from Babylon to Jerusalem took four months. Ezra was written after the Hebrew’s release from Babylonian captivity though still under the rule of the Persian Empire in the late 300 BC era.
Scrolling forward 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,” they were the busy interstate highways of the day dotted with trading posts making them the best practical means for land travel.
Magi wanted to go to Jerusalem and seek guidance from ruler of the land of Judea, King Herod. Trade route spurs going west to Jerusalem off the King’s Highway across the Jordan River were limited to only three.
Traveling from the north, the first two spur routes were not logical choices for a Jerusalem destination. The last crossing opportunity was to ford the Jordan just above the Dead Sea by Jericho heading west.
Jericho was also King Herod’s winter palace where he would soon travel during his final days. This crossing of the Jordan near Jericho was the same place where the Hebrews entered into land of Abraham after their wonderings in the Sinai wilderness.
Since Jerusalem was not located on the common caravan routes, the Magi’s arrival in the city was a newsworthy event where everyone seemed to be aware of it. Attention may also have been garnered by their conspicuous caravan of camels; their foreign grandiose attire; or perhaps they were even regarded as kings from Persia.
Nevertheless, it is obvious the Magi were recognized on the highest social hierarchy given that King Herod granted the Magi immediate access to his palace. After consulting with Jewish religious experts and a deal with the Magi, Herod directed them to go to Bethlehem located only 5 miles to the south of Jerusalem.
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)
Faced with a new challenge, Herod would assuredly know that the Magi were in Jerusalem if they returned home the way they came. If the Magi went around the city, they would still have to go by Jericho where undoubtedly area locals would certainly inform the King.
Another return route was possible through the Arabian Desert – the southern Parthian loop via Petra that avoided going through Jerusalem or by Jericho.
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. At around 800 miles, it was some 100 miles further.
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.
Other less traveled minor route spurs off the Central Ridge Road had trade-offs. While these routes may have shortened the southward path, they were probably more difficult passages with fewer trading posts and greater risks such as robbers, water supply, etc.
A second return route by the Magi indeed worked to avoid King Herod:
MT 2:16 “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious…”(NIV)
Do these Southern secondary trade routes options corroborate and add credibility to the Gospel account of Matthew and the Nativity of Jesus of Nazareth?
Updated November 11, 2023.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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