Camel Caravan Travelling Through Desert

     Travel in Bible times was very difficult. It was never a pleasure. When people travelled it was either for government affairs, business, or necessity. Traveller on government business were protected (Acts 23:31), and the wealthy businessmen who could afford it sent others in a caravan on their behalf. They had to take calculated

risk as to whether or not their goods would arrive and return safely. Paul summarizes (2 Corinthians 11:26-27) the problems he had when travelling, “I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea.”

Things were so difficult that people settled their affairs before setting out on a journey. It was safer to stay at home, or if travel was absolutely necessary, to travel in a group. Jesus’ own group of twelve disciples was not simply a matter of a fellowship for teaching; it was a necessity. the same could be said for the pilgrim group that travelled to and from Jerusalem when  Jesus was twelve years old, a group large enough to prevent Mary and Joseph from spotting him during the day (Luke 2:44).

Israel had no natural harbours on the Mediterranean coast except north of Mount Carmel, where Haifa stands today, and the Red Sea outlet was not always in Israelite hands. The Jews therefore made poor sailors, and need Phoenician help (1 Kings 9:27-28). When the Jews went it alone, their fleet was wrecked in port in a storm (1 Kings 22:48).

Even when better ships were built were built in Greek and Roman times and the lighthouse was established at Alexandria, voyages were very difficult. Passengers were extras to the goods that were being carried. They had to take their own food and seek lodgings ashore each night, since there was no accommodation on board (see Acts 21:3,7,8.) At certain times of the year no ships sailed at all. Roman law forbade sailings between November 10 and March 10. The only “safe” period was from May 26 until September 14. The periods between were regarded as dangerous. A sailing might be made in an emergence or if a trader was willing to take a chance. Acts 27:9 refers to “the fast” day  when travel was dangerous-November 10; Acts 28:11 refers to a boat that had been at sea when it was overtaken by the danger period. It had wintered at Malta.

How risky sea travel could be can be seen from the example of what happened to Paul. He was travelling on an Alexandrian grain ship, loaded and on its way to Rome (Acts 27:6). The boat was caught in a northeasterly storm wind, and in order to try to save the boat the crew lowered the mainsail and used a small sail at the bow, there the grain overboard, ran a cable from the prow to the stern to help to prevent the ship from breaking its back, and finally passed another cable over and under the ship for its length to keep the timbers together.

Grain ships were of no small size. They were two hundred feet (seventy metres) long and had a displacement of twelve hundred tons. The faster boats, men-of-war, that were propelled by rowers, were much lighter and could not survive a storm.

Even after the Romans had dispersed the feared pirates, sea travel was still far from safe. Paul had to be very careful when he took the famine collection money to Jerusalem. He started off on a Jewish pilgrim boat making for Jerusalem for the festival Passover. It was then that he discovered that a plot to kill him and take the money had been hatched (Acts 20:3), and therefore he spent the festival of Passover at Philippi (Acts 20:6). It was easy of anyone to disappear over the side (Jonah 1). In all, sea travel was so unpleasant that it must have been a relief for early Christians to read of a new heaven and a new earth where there would be no more sea (Revelation 21:1).


clip_image001_thumb Sea travel was dangerous. Even in New Testament times, boats would scarcely have been called “ocean-going,” and there were neither charts nor even primitive compasses until about this period. The Egyptians had developed craft for use on the river Nile. The current bore the boats northwards to the delta, and a single large sail took advantage of the prevailing north wind to take them south again. It is true that boats made of papyrus entered the Mediterranean and at least one actually crossed the Atlantic, but the developement of boats was primarily as river craft and for use in a flood plain, not for trading


115086-004-E261ABCA  If travel by sea was dangerous, travel by land was a little better. There were many reasons that it was good not to travel. In the first place, the roads themselves were poor for the ordinary traveller. The roadway was either so faint it was difficult to make out (Psalm 107:4-7 tells of a group that lost its way, prayed to God for help, and were led by him to a city,) or the surface was uncomfortably bumpy. The wheel had been invented in Mesopotamia. It was a small, heavy disc of wood, and it replaced the runner on a sledge. The development of the wheel led to the need for roads so that the wheels would not disintegrated on large stones or in deep hollows, for wheels could not pick their way around obstacles in the way that animals feet could. But even with the need for good roads, there was little development in road building. Initially a road was simply a track where the stones had been removed, the bumps flattened, and the holes filled in. When an important person was to arrive, it was the practice to “prepare the way for the Lord.” All the mountains (bumps) were made low, and the valleys (ruts and holes in the road) were exalted (Isaiah 40:3-4; Matthew 11:10).

It was the Persians who first developed a good road system, because without it they could not maintain communications and government throughout their empire. But even though the roads they made were broad, fairly level tracks and even though there were staging posts with fresh horses so that important messages could be got through, it still took three months to cover the 1,600 miles (2,576 kilometers) from Sardis to Susa.


untitled Wealthy people were carried in a litter on slaves’ shoulders.



Leave a Reply