The King’s Highway

October 22 2008

The passage below is part of a survey of imperial communications.

A footnote refers us to maps 11 (South-West Asia, Egypt, and the Aegean in the 18th cent. B.C.: Successor-States of the Third Dynasty of Ur at the Beginning of Hammurabi’s Reign at Babylon, 1792 or 1728 B.C.), 14 (The New Empire and its Neighbours after Thothmes III’s Campaign in the Thirty-third Year of his Reign, ? 1458 B.C.), 20 (The Achaemenian Empire: Communications and Taxation Districts on the Eve of Xerxes’ Invasion of Continental European Greece in 480 B.C.) and 21A (The Syrian “Roundabout”) in the eleventh volume.

This Wikimedia Commons map shows the King’s Highway c 1300 BC in red. The Via Maris is shown in purple, other routes in brown.

There was [a] famous road, “the King’s Highway”, [footnote: Num. xx. 17 and xxi. 22. See Wright, V. E., and Filson, F. V.: The Westminster Historical Atlas of the Bible (London 1946, Student Christian Movement Press), p. 40, fig. 25, for an aerial photograph of a section of this road in Transjordan.] which […] played an historic part in the life of one empire after another. This thoroughfare ran north and south, along the border between Syria and the Syrian Desert, from the crossings of the Euphrates, at the point where the river bends nearest to the Mediterranean [the Wikimedia map has it starting south of this point], through Damascus and Transjordan to the head of the Gulf of ’Aqabah, where the road branched westwards across the Desert of Sinai towards Egypt and south-eastwards into Arabia. This King’s Highway had served successively the Empire of Sumer and Akkad, “the New Empire” of Egypt, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and the Achaemenian Empire. After the shattering of the Achaemenian Peace by Alexander, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, holding opposite ends of the thoroughfare, had contended with one another for possession of the whole of it, and the Seleucids had won the contest only to give place to Rome – till the King’s Highway had changed hands again from the Roman Empire to the Arab Caliphate and thereafter, in its southern sector, from the ‘Abbasids’ Fātimid successor-state to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In the course of its long and chequered history the King’s Highway has been used, not only by its official masters of the moment, but by rebels, raiders, and rival Powers. The Elamite and Babylonian warlords who had twice taken this road in the eighteenth century B.C. in order to reimpose the long dormant authority of an Empire of Sumer and Akkad on the princelings of Syria had been pursued along their own highway on their return march, and been relieved of their booty, by an untamed band of Hebrew Nomads. [Footnote: See Gen. xiv. The historical events which here loom through a mist of tradition may perhaps be dated some time between the annexation of the Sumerian Empire of lsin by the Elamite State of Larsa circa 1799-1793 or 1735-1729 B.C. and the annexation of Larsa by the Amorite State of Babylon in 1762 or 1698 B.C. […]. The account in Gen. xiv. 13-24 of Abraham’s audacious but successful surprise attack on the plunder-laden army of the retreating [Elamite] imperialists is reminiscent of the attack by the [Thracian] Brygi on an Achaemenian army marching along the coast road from the Hellespont to European Greece circa 492 B.C. (Herodotus, Book VI, chap. 45) and of the similar attack by Thracians on a Roman army following the same route in 188 B.C. (Livy, Book XXXVIII, chap. 40).] In the eighteenth or seventeenth century B.C. the King’s Highway had carried a Palestinian barbarian Hyksos war-band to the north-eastern corner of Egypt, and perhaps also an advance guard of the Eurasian Nomad Mitanni to the northwestern corner of Arabia, on the last stage of their long trek from the south-western shore of the great Eurasian Steppe. In the fourteenth or thirteenth century B.C. the Children of Israel had been refused a passage along the southernmost section of the King’s Highway by the Edomite successor-state of “the New Empire” of Egypt, [footnote: Num. xx. 14-22 and xxi. 4.] and had forced a passage along another section in the teeth of opposition from an Amorite successor-state in the Peraea, [footnote: Num. xxi. 21-32.] on their way to carve out a domain for themselves on the western side of Jordan. In the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries B.C. the independent principalities of Syria that had emerged from a dark age following the collapse of “the New Empire” of Egypt and the overthrow of “the thalassocracy of Minos” had fallen victims to Assyrian aggressors following on Chedorlaomer’s track [Chedorlaomer was the Elamite whom Abraham attacked]; and when the downfall of Assyria had seemed to promise them relief they had been cheated of it by the immediate substitution of Babylonian for Assyrian rule. On the eve of the overthrow of the Neo-Babylonian Empire by Cyrus the Achaemenid, the King’s Highway had once again come to the fore in the play of international politics, and a would-be leader of an anti-Babylonian movement among the remnant of Judah had exhorted his countrymen to recondition this historic route in order to expedite the passage of Cyrus’s liberating armies.

“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” [Footnote: Isa. xl. 3-4. […]]

[…]

At the break-up of the Achaemenian Empire’s Seleucid successor-state, Nabataean intruders from Arabia, treading in the footsteps of the Children of Israel, had followed the King’s Highway, without turning off it to pass over Jordan, till they had reached and occupied Damascus; and at the break-up of the Roman Empire the Primitive Muslim Arabs – taking the same war-path, and avenging, in a decisive victory at the passage of the Yarmuk, their discomfiture at Mu’tah in their first encounter with the Roman veterans of the last and greatest Romano-Persian War – had not only captured Damascus but had established there the capital of an empire whose boundaries they had pushed out, within the next hundred years, to Farghānah on the one side and to the Atlantic coasts of Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula on the other. At the break-up of the Arab Caliphate the Crusaders, bursting into Syria through the Cilician Gates and by sea, had forced the passage of the Jordan in the reverse direction to that of the Israelites’ trek, and had pushed their way southwards, down the southernmost stretch of the King’s Highway, till they had reached the head of the Gulf of ‘Aqabah and had thereby momentarily cut the land communications between the African and Asiatic domains of Dār-al-Islām.

This history of the King’s Highway over a period of some three thousand years might look like a monotonous repetition of contests between successive universal states claiming legitimate sovereignty over the thoroughfare and outsiders disputing their title by force of arms. Yet the historic importance of the King’s Highway lay in none of these episodes. This long-fought-over thoroughfare was to find its destiny at last as an Islamic Pilgrims’ Way on which, year by year, a peaceful multitude of Muslims – converging from the far-flung outposts of Dār-al-Islām in Fez and Sarayevo and Vilna and Qāzān and Kāshghar – would make the Hajj, at first on foot or camel-back and latterly by train, [footnote: The building of the Hijāz railway southwards from Damascus along the route of the King’s Highway was begun in A.D. 1900 and was completed as far as Medina in A.D. 1908. Put out of action in the war of 1914-18, the Hijāz Railway remained derelict thereafter from Ma’ān southwards.] to the Holy Cities of the Hijāz.

I’ll post a synopsis of the history of all the ancient near-eastern empires in due course.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

2 Responses to “The King’s Highway”


  1. […] then around Tibet, along roads which had been unwittingly prepared for it by empire-builders. The King’s Highway had a similar destiny: a road built for armies and trade came to serve a […]


  2. […] route from the Euphrates to Damascus and then south, “the King’s Highway”, is described here (old post). At the Gulf of Aqaba, the Highway would branch westwards across Sinai and […]


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