There were two main highways in ancient times between Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the lower Arabian Peninsula: the King’s Highway and the Way of the Sea. The King’s Highway largely skirted the desert and served desert peoples. It ran from Damascus to the Gulf of Aqabah, and from there it forked into a route that crossed the Sinai to Egypt and a route that ran the eastern coast of the Red Sea into the Hejaz, or western Arabic coastal region. While the term appears often in historical records, it may have originally meant simply “royal road” or “principal highway,” with no connection to a particular king or kingdom.
The King’s Highway has always been an important road for pilgrims, traders, and conquerors. The Bible records it as the route that Moses and the “children of Israel” might well have taken after they fled from ancient Egypt. Most likely it was the path that Abraham used to pursue the desert kings who had taken his nephew Lot as hostage. Throughout later history the King’s Highway was a crucial resource for kings and generals. On this highway David and Solomon secured trade and leverage over their eastern neighbors, Moab and Edom. When the Aramaeans arose under Ben-Hadad I and Hazael, they expanded southward by controlling this highway. The people of Assyria took Damascus and the Transjordan by means of it, and centuries later the Nabataeans used the King’s Highway to ship their spices and luxury goods from their hideaway refuge in Petra to the markets of Damascus and beyond.
Around the turn of the millennium Rome entered the area and subjugated Nabatea a century later. The Romans made the King’s Highway a part of their imperial road system, especially using it as a means of transport through the forbidding Arab deserts. They called it the Via Nova Traiana (Trajan’s New Way) because of Trajan’s sponsorship. Its strategic value did not end when the area was traded off between Byzantines, Arabs, Persians, and Muslims. Because of the requirement for pilgrimage (hajj), the road became even more important for Bedouins and northern Arab Muslims for travel to Mecca and Medina. Only in the 16th century did the Ottomans develop an alternate route. The crusaders fortified the highway at the turn of the next millennium, and their castles are still imposing landmarks in the modern Jordanian villages along the way. Today the route is called Tariq es-Sultani (Way of the Sultan).
Ancient road builders left traces along the highway, from the Roman milestones to the crusader castles. Even today villages of the modern state of Jordan mark its path. The King’s Highway follows the highlands and ridges east of the Jordan and the Dead Sea, and some of the most spectacular desert scenery in the Middle East greets travelers. Freshwater springs flow at various places and so explain the popularity of the King’s Highway.
The Way of the Sea was the principal coastal highway and the one most chosen by traffickers between Mesopotamia and Egypt. The reasons are simple: It was close to water, food sources, and towns and avoided the highlands. Damascus was the northern junction, and the path went from there to the Sea of Galilee, then through Jezreel Valley and Megiddo, reaching the Mediterranean coast and following it until Zoan in northern Egypt.
Various parties controlled the Way of the Sea. At first it fell under the influence of the Egyptians (and was called the Way of Horus in ancient sources), then under the Philistines (called the Way of the Land of the Philistines in the Bible), and finally under the Romans (who called it Via Maris, Way of the Sea). There were three main sites of strategic importance along the Way of the Sea: Gezer along the southern section of the road in the area contested by the Egyptians and the Philistines; Megiddo in the central section guarding the fertile Jezreel Valley, and Hazor in the north, where the road forked toward the city-states of the Phoenicians in the northwest or toward Damascus in the northeast.
- James, G. P. The King’s Highway. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004;
- Rollin, Sue, and Jane Streetly. Jordan: Blue Guide. London: A and C Black, 1998.