The great caravan road was the very busiest road in Palestine. The publican Matthew sat here at the ‘receipt of custom’ when Jesus called him to leave that and follow Him. This road was the only international road of all those passing through Palestine. It formed one of the great highways of the world’s commerce.
At this time in history, though, there were 6 main arteries of roads which traversed across the country carrying commerce to others. The chief cities that goods were carried to were Caesarea, the military capital and Jerusalem, the religious capital. A note of interest here is the Roman mile was 1,618 yards, while the English mile is 1,760 yards. Their miles wouldn’t be quite as long as what we know today. Keep this in mind where the mileage is given between cities.
The southern road led from Jerusalem, by way of Bethlehem, Hebron, Gaza, and on into Arabia, with also a road cutting off northward to Damascus. It was probably by this road that Paul traveled after his conversion at Damascus when The Lord sent him to Arabia. The road to Hebron was probably much frequented by priests and other pilgrims to the city, and was probably the way Jesus and John the Baptist’s parents passed on their way to Jerusalem to worship. (Marked in purple on map below).
The old highway ran along the sea shore from Egypt up to Tyre. It was a straight road, but was not frequented as much as some of the others. It was mainly used as the most important military highway in the land, so the harbors could be kept free from intruders and communication could be faster. The towns that it touched were Gaza, Ascalon, Jamnia, Lydda, Diospolis, Caesarea and Ptolemais. At Lydda the road branched off for Jerusalem. It was probably by this road that the Roman escort hurried off Paul when they were trying to keep him from getting killed by the Pharisees. (Marked in red on map below).
This road led from Jerusalem by Beth-horon and Lydda to Joppa, and continued to be close to the seashore until it reached Caesarea. This was probably the road that Peter and his companions would take when they were summoned to go and preach the gospel to Cornelius. Lydda was 32 Roman miles from Jerusalem and also close by was Joppa, where Tabitha was raised from the dead. (Marked in green on map below).
This highway led from Galilee to Jerusalem and went straight through Samaria, with the road branching off at Sichem east to Damascus and west to Caesarea. The road also branched off from Jerusalem and went north to Gophna where it branched off again at Diospolis, then to Caesarea. Ordinary Jewish travelers would take the side roads even though there were many robbers that could lay in wait for them, rather than go through Samaria. (Marked in blue on map below).
This great highway led from Jerusalem, then to Bethany, then Jericho. Here the Jordan River was forded and the road went on to Gilead and then either south to Galilee or north to Peraea. Every one of these roads, whether commercial or military, were Judaean and radiated from Jerusalem. (Marked in dark blue on map below).
This road passed through Galilee and was not all Jewish, but connected the east with the west. It started from Damascus and led across the Jordan to Capernaum, Tiberias, Nain, Nazareth, and then Ptolemais. Thus from its position Nazareth was on one of the world’s greatest highways at this time. What was spoken there might be carried hundreds of miles along these highways to remote areas. (Marked in brown on map below. This is the top line on the map).
These six roads are only the principal roads in the area. There were also secondary roads that traversed the country in all directions. The Bible mentions some of them, such as “the king’s highway”. There were three types of the secondary roads: 1. a trodden, or beaten down path 2. a made or cast-up road 3. ‘the king’s highway’, which was kept up at the public’s expense. The other two were just kept up by people walking on them. Some were regular carriage roads and some had tolls to everyone except clergy. The roads to the cities of refuge were required to be always kept in good order. According to the Talmud they were to be forty eight feet wide, and provided with bridges, and with sign-posts showing how to get to them.
When the Romans were at their great heyday and owned much of the then civilized world, they paid great attention to the modes of communication throughout their country. The military roads were paved and provided with milestones, and were to be 24 feet wide; but the country roads were pretty much bridle-paths, and were to be 6 feet wide. There was no measure for the king’s highway and those roads taken by funerals.
The roads were repaired annually in the spring, in preparation for the people coming in for the great feasts. They were very careful in where they built and did not allow a road to be on top of any other structure. Also the overhanging branches of trees had to be cut down so a man on a camel could pass without running into them. Also no balconies or projections were permitted to hang out over a street. If anyone dropped anything on the road or damaged it in any way, he had to pay for it.
In the cities, the police monitored the roads very carefully. Rotten trees or walls had to be torn down, no one could pour water out onto the street, they could not leave building materials or broken glass lying around, and there were other regulations for public safety and health.
It was along such roads that the travelers passed, along with animals and carriages carrying people also. Three kinds of carriages are mention in antiquity: 1. the round carriage, like our gig (a light, two wheeled one horse carriage) 2. the elongated carriage, that had room for passengers and carrying goods in back 3. the cart, which was chiefly used to transport goods.
In those days traveling was neither comfortable or easy. The people generally journeyed in companies. If they were going a long way, such as to Jerusalem on feast occasions and were staying several days, they had to prepare for the journey almost as if they were moving. They had to take tents, cooking wares, food, and all the other personal items that were needed. In the first place, it might take several days just to get to the city they were going to. Letters were conveyed through many of these travelers by people that they knew who were journeying to different cities. The traveling hawker was welcomed warmly by the people in every district. He carried the news of the day and brought products of his own to exchange with other people for things he needed. He had heard about the latest in commerce and new things that were available to people. The people listened with great interest to someone who had come from far away. They wanted to know everything that was going on in other parts of the world.
Israel was always distinguished among others for her hospitality to strangers. Especially when the feasts were going on, they would open their houses wide to strangers who were Jews and did not consider their house as their own during these times. In Jerusalem it was said to have been the custom to hang a curtain in front of the door to indicate that there was still room for guests. If the host expected a person, he would go to meet him and accompany him for part of the way back to his house. The Rabbis attached much to being hospitable, and considered it just as great as attending their early morning learning sessions. This gives fresh meaning to the verse in the Bible addressed to the Hebrews (13:2). “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” The Talmud itself counts hospitality among the things of which the reward is received alike in this life and in that which is to come.
The Rabbis treated hospitality with the utmost of respect. They believed in it so much that they wrote details as to how a guest should be treated. Each person knew about these details and expected hospitality accordingly. The host was to look pleased when entertaining his guests, to wait upon them himself, to promise little and give much, etc. They were to consider all men as if they were robbers, but treat them as if each were Rabbi Gamaliel himself.
On the other hand, there were also rules of politeness and gratitude that were equally laid down for the guests. The guest was to appreciate immensely the trouble his host had gone to for him and his family. They were to inquire for the welfare of the family, not to leave the hospitality of one house for what they thought could be better at another house, they were to eat what was set before them without complaining, and finally to part with a blessing for the host. In essence they were to “not throw a stone into the spring at which they had drunk”.
The map below is drawn by me only as approximate, just so you can see how some of the main roads crisscross through the country of Palestine. There were many other roads which were smaller that connected to the bigger roads at different places. Hopefully this will help you to get a more visual picture of their travel system in Bible times.