The armies of the kings of the East used this royal road2 when they ravished the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and took Lot captive. A thousand years later, at the time of Christ, the highway recorded its heaviest traffic as the Nabataeans, canny merchants and caravan suppliers of the rock fortress of Petra, exacted heavy tribute from users of the road. Through the centuries and millennia, exotic, costly merchandise from Afghanistan, India, and China passed over the road on its way to the homes of the wealthy in Greece, Rome, and Asia Minor.
No one knew who built the road; it has been there as long as human memory.3 In the time of Christ the great road builders of the Roman Empire paved it for long stretches,4 and called it Trajan's Road.
Anciently the route of the "king's high way" began at Eilat, now a modern Israeli resort city on the Gulf of Aqabah, and then passed through Edom, Moab, Heshbon, Rabbat Ammon (modern Amman), to end at Damascus, the current capital city of Syria. 5 Eventually other important roads linked with the highway. To the south were Arabian roads such as the one over which the Queen of Sheba traveled from Marib toward Jerusalem. From Edom in the east secondary roads led to Egypt, anciently an important commercial country, and to the port of Gaza6 from which goods were shipped throughout the Mediterranean world. At Gaza connecting roads issuing from the king's highway" also joined with another famous highway called the Via Maris, the highway of the sea, which followed along the Mediterranean coastline north from Egypt through the Philistine country and Canaan.
It is obvious, from this historic high way system, that the land of Israel was situated at the vital crossroads of the world during all of its history. As innumerable caravans and multitudes of people traveled through Israel and mingled freely with its inhabitants, God provided His people with a unique opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of His government of love.
Solomon was one of the few rulers of Israel who recognized and took advantage of the strategic position of his country on the "king's high way." Israel not only profited handsomely from its trade during this time but Solomon him self became one of the greatest merchants of the ancient world. His trade routes extended at least as far as Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria, South Arabia, India, and Africa. One of his principal export products was copper and the tools and weapons fashioned from it, which he traded for gold, silver, incense, spices, ivory, myrrh, animals, and other consumer goods from many nations. The gifts brought to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba are an example of this trade (1 Kings 10:11, 12). Many archeologists believe that the Biblically stated reason for the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon may not have been her only motivation. In addition to curiosity, her visit may have been prompted by a desire to protect her own extensive trade routes and to strengthen her economic alliance with Solomon. 7
Thievery, piracy, looting, and physical assault are not products of our time only; they were rampant in antiquity, as well, and police protection added substantially to travel expenses on the "king's high way." In order to cope with this problem nations built fortresses along the high way,8 sometimes within smoke-signaling distance from each other.
Not only did protective measures have to be provided but reliable water, food, forage, and shelter had to be available to caravans. Consequently water cisterns and caravanseries dotted the highway, some of which are still in existence.
Nations providing these essential services and facilities charged toll fees to passing caravans.9 The Edomites and later the Nabataeans were among those engaging in this lucrative practice. The profits earned through these services and the rigid control of strategic highways was a source of unending conflict among nations of antiquity. 10
Cities, such as Jericho, that were on or near caravan routes became very prosperous. 11 "Many caravans . . . passed through Jericho. Their arrival was always a festive season. ... It was a center of traffic, and Roman officials and soldiers, with strangers from different quarters, were found there, while the collection of customs made it the home of many publicans." 12
Construction of highways in the desert might seem to be a simple matter, but unstable soil, shifting sands, and torrential rains causing washouts, were but a few of the problems faced by ancient road construction engineers. Occasional flash floods in the desert may turn a usually dry valley into a rampaging river obliterating a road in its path within a few hours. Engineers also had the problem of cutting a road through rocky mountainsides without the sophisticated machinery now available. Using simple tools and hand labor as much as four meters of rock were sometimes cut from the side of a cliff.
However, the "king's high way" was probably so called not because of its great commercial importance, but more important, because kings and queens occasionally traveled over it. Isaiah uses the analogy of road preparation in his lyrical prophecy of the coming King of kings: "Listen! I hear the voice of someone shouting, 'Make a road for the Lord through the wilderness; make him a straight, smooth road through the desert. Fill the valleys; level the hills; straighten out the crooked paths and smooth off the rough spots in the road' " (Isa. 40:3, 4, T.L.B.).
1 Efraim Orni and Elisha Efrat, Geography of Israel, p. 137.
2 Nelson Glueck, Exploration in Eastern Palestine, HI. The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, vols. XVIII-XIX for 1937-1939, pp. 142, 143.
3 Glueck, Explorations in Eastern Palestine, II. The Annual of ASOR, vol. XV for 1934, 1935.
4 G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology, p. 72.
5 Efraim Orni, op. cit., p. 249.
6 op. cit., Wright, p. 229.
7 Brian Doe, Southern Arabia, pp. 60, 75.
8 Glueck, Explorations in Eastern Palestine, III. The Annual of ASOR, vols. XVIII, XIX for 1937-1939, p. 62. 3 Oxford Bible Atlas, p. 66.
10 Dennis Baly and A. D. Tushingham, Atlas of the Biblical World, pp. 118, 119.
11 Emmanuel Anati, "Prehistoric Trade and the Puzzle of Jericho," Bulletin of ASOR, no. 167 (Oct., 1962).
12 E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 552.