|4th century BC–106 AD|
The Nabataean Kingdom at its greatest extent
|4th century BC|
• Conquered by the Roman Empire
|200,000 km2 (77,000 sq mi)|
|Today part of||
The Nabataean Kingdom controlled much of the trade routes of the region, amassing a large wealth drawing the envy of its neighbors. It stretched south along the Red Sea coast into the Hejaz desert, up to as far north as Damascus, which it controlled for a short period (85–71) BC.
The Nabataeans were one among several nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert and moved with their herds to wherever they could find pasture and water. They became familiar with their area as seasons passed, and they struggled to survive during bad years when seasonal rainfall diminished. Although the Nabataeans were initially embedded in Aramaic culture, theories about them having Aramean roots are rejected by modern scholars. Instead, archaeological, religious and linguistic evidence confirm that they are a northern Arabian tribe.
The precise origin of the specific tribe of Arab nomads remains uncertain. One hypothesis locates their original homeland in today's Yemen, in the southwest of the Arabian peninsula, but their deities, language and script share nothing with those of southern Arabia. Another hypothesis argues that they came from the eastern coast of the peninsula.
The suggestion that they came from the Hejaz area is considered to be more convincing, as they share many deities with the ancient people there; nbtw, the root consonant of the tribe's name, is found in the early Semitic languages of Hejaz.
Similarities between late Nabataean Arabic dialect and the ones found in Mesopotamia during the Neo-Assyrian period, as well as a group with the name of "Nabatu" being listed by the Assyrians as one of several rebellious Arab tribes in the region, suggests a connection between the two.
The Nabataeans might have originated from there and migrated west between the 6th and 4th centuries BC into northwestern Arabia and much of what is now modern-day Jordan. Nabataeans have been falsely associated with other groups of people. A people called the "Nabaiti", who were defeated by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, were associated by some with the Nabataeans because of the temptation to link their similar names. Another misconception is their identification with the Nebaioth of the Hebrew Bible, the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's son.
Unlike the rest of the Arabian tribes, the Nabataeans later emerged as vital players in the region during their times of prosperity. However, their influence then faded, and the Nabataeans were forgotten.
Although the Nabataeans were literate, they left no lengthy historical texts. However, there are thousands of inscriptions still found today in several places where they once lived, including graffiti and on their minted coins.
Diodorus relates how the Nabataeans survive in a waterless desert and how they managed to defeat any enemies by hiding in the desert until the latter would surrender for lack of water.
The Nabataeans dug cisterns that were covered and left signs known only to themselves.
neither the Assyrians of old, nor the kings of the Medes and Persians, nor yet those of the Macedonians have been able to enslave them, and... they never brought their attempts to a successful conclusion. - Diodorus
After Alexander the Great's death in 323 BC, his empire split among his generals. During the conflict between Alexander's generals, Antigonus I conquered the Levant and this brought him to the borders of Edom, just north of Petra.
The wealthy Nabataeans became Antigonus's next target, their wealth was generated by revenues from the trade caravans that transported frankincense, myrrh and other spices from Eudaemon in today's Yemen, across the Arabian peninsula, passing through Petra and ending up in the Port of Gaza for shipment to European markets.
This wealth distinguished the Nabataeans from other Arab tribes.
According to Diodorus Siculus, when Antigonus conquered Syria and Phoenicia he sought the extension of his domain by incorporating "the land of the Arabs who are called Nabataeans". He dispatched Athenaeus for this task who had 4000 infantry and 600 cavalry under his leadership, to attack the Nabataean Arabs and take their herds and possessions as booty. Before Athenaeus advanced, he was informed that these Arabs in certain date of the year they gather for national festival, during it their women, children, and elders are left at certain place called the Rock (description that suits Petra). Arriving while the Nabataeans were away trading, Athenaeus surprised the inhabitants and managed to loot tonnes of spices and silver from Petra in 312 BC; although the year is regarded as the official start of Nabataean history, they were already wealthy.
Departing before night, Athenaeus crossed 200 stadion before his army grew weary and stopped to rest, as Athenaeus thought he was safe from any Nabataean danger. Upon hearing of the Antigonid aggression, 8000 Nabataean soldiers pursued the Antigonid army and attacked them in their camp and destroyed virtually the entire army, Diodorus described the event; "all the 4000 foot-soldiers were slain, but of the 600 horsemen about fifty escaped, and of these the larger part were wounded". And Athenaeus himself was killed. Diodorus ascribed Athenaeus failure to his incapability of predicting the swift movement of the Nabataeans. Thus did not place any scouts on his way which made him totally vulnerable. When the Nabataeans reached Petra, they made a letter to Antigonus, explaining how the responsibility of what happened is due Athenaeus assault, and they themselves did not want war. Antigonus replied that Athenaeus acted on his own without the former approval. Antigonus intended from his correspondence to take the Nabataeans off guard, and despite the Nabataeans pretence, they were extremely suspicious of Antigonus letter and made preparation for any future Antigonid attack by establishing a series of outposts on the edge of the mountains.
When Antigonus decided to avenge the defeat of Athenaeus, he sent 4000 foot-soldiers and 4000 horsemen to march into the country of the Arabs under the command of his son Demetrius, who was known to the Greeks by his epithet "the Besieger". When he reached the Nabataean territories, the scouts used smoke signals to inform the inhabitants of the advancing Antigonid's army. This time the Nabataeans were prepared to confront their enemy; they stationed a standing army in Petra to protect what they couldn't carry, and split their herds and possessions into groups with fighters that took shelter in harsh terrain such as deserts and mountain tops that was semi-invincible to subdue by Demetrius.
The Nabataeans utilized the terrain to their advantage by navigating the desert, on top of their ability to find surplus of water in various underground cisterns they've built to collect seasonal rainfall. While the Greeks stormed Petra, they were incapable of seizing it. Instead, the Arabs sent a message to Demetrius that his aggression made no sense, since their land is semi-barren and they had no desire to be their slaves. At the end Demetrius was forced to concede peace terms and withdraw, taking prisoners and gifts. He was later rebuked by his father for his peace terms with the Nabataeans, however upon hearing that his son had located important bitumen deposits, that was essential for the embalming process, he prised him for the economical benefits of his find. This encouraged Antigonus to send another expedition under Hieronymus of Cardia to gather all the bitumen that could be extracted from the lake, the Nabataeans (numbering 6000) enraged by yet another Antigonid aggression, attacked them vigorously in their ships and killed almost all of them with arrows. Antigonus therefore lost all hope to make a revenue in that manner. The event is described as the first time Middle Eastern petroleum product was the cause of warfare.
The series of wars between the Greek generals ended in a dispute over the lands of modern-day Jordan between the Ptolemies based in Egypt and the Seleucids based in Syria. The conflict enabled the Nabataeans to extend their kingdom beyond Edom.
During the late fourth century BC, the Nabataeans occupied northern Hejaz, Edom and the Negev into the Mediterranean Sea. Along with some offshore islands and a stretch of land along the coast of the Red Sea.
Diodorus mentions that the Nabataeans had attacked merchants ships belonging to the Ptolemies in Egypt but were soon targeted by a larger force and "punished as they deserved".
While it is unknown why the wealthy Nabataeans turned to piracy, one possible reason is that they felt that their trade interests were threatened by the competitive naval trade route across the Red Sea.
Dionysius, one of two Greek employees who sought an alternative career of selling women as sex slaves, was once detained by the Nabataeans for a week during one of his trades.
Considering the Nabtaean society's remarkable gender equality at that time, it is likely that they were objecting to the treatment of women in their area, which they believed they were responsible for in the course of maintaining law and order.
Around the same time, the Arab Nabataeans and the neighboring Jewish Maccabees had maintained a friendly relationship, the former had sympathized with the Maccabee who were being mistreated by the Seleucids.
The Nabataeans started to mint coins during the same century, portraying the extensive economic and political independence that they enjoyed.
Petra was included in a list of major cities in the Mediterranean area to be visited by a notable from Priene, a sign of the significance of Nabataea in the ancient world. Petra was included with Alexandria, which was considered to be a supreme city in the civilized world.
Nabataeans and Hasmoneans
The Nabataeans were allies of the Maccabees during their struggles against the Seleucid monarchs. They then became rivals of their successors, the Judaean Hasmonean dynasty, and a chief element in the disorders which invited Pompey's intervention in Judea. The Port of Gaza was the last stop for spices that were carried by trade caravans before shipment to European markets, and so the Nabataeans had considerable influence over the Gazans.
The Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus, besieged the city of Gaza around 100 BC, on the grounds that the Gazans had favoured the Ptolemies over the Judaeans in their recent battles. Gaza was occupied and its inhabitants put to the sword by Jannaeus.
The Hasmoneans, under Jannaeus, launched a campaign that captured several territories in Transjordan north of Nabataea, along the road to Damascus, including northern Moab and Gilead. The territorial acquisitions threatened Nabataean trade interests, both to Gaza and to the Seleucids in Damascus. The Nabataean King, Obodas I fought to restore the areas. Obodas managed to defeat Jannaeus in the Battle of Gadara around 93 BC, when he ambushed him and his forces in a steep valley where Jannaeus "was lucky to escape alive".
After the Nabataean victory over the Judaeans, the former were now at odds with the Seleucids, who were not impressed with the increasing influence of the Nabataeans to the south of their territories. The Nabataeans were again victorious over the Greeks, and this time over the Seleucids. During the Battle of Cana, the Seleucid king Antiochus XII waged war against the Nabataeans and the king himself was slain during combat. His demoralized army fled and perished in the desert from starvation. After Obodas's victories over the Judaeans and the Greeks, he became the first Nabataean king to be worshipped as a god by his people.
During the reign of Aretas III (87 to 62 BC) the kingdom seems to have reached its territorial zenith, but it was defeated by a Roman army under the command of Marcus Aemilius Scaurus. Scaurus' army even besieged Petra, but eventually a compromise was negotiated. Paying a tribute, Aretas III received the formal recognition by the Roman Republic.
The Nabataean kingdom saw itself slowly surrounded by the expanding Roman Empire, which conquered Egypt and annexed Hasmonean Judea. While the Nabataean kingdom managed to preserve its formal independence, it became a client kingdom under the influence of Rome.
In 106 AD, during the reign of Roman emperor Trajan, the last king of the Nabataean kingdom Rabbel II Soter died. That might have prompted the official annexation of Nabatea to the Roman Empire, but the formal reasons and the exact manner of annexation are unknown. Some epigraphic evidence suggests a military campaign, commanded by Cornelius Palma, the governor of Syria. Roman forces seem to have come from Syria and also from Egypt. It is clear that by 107 AD Roman legions were stationed in the area around Petra and Bostra, as is shown by a papyrus found in Egypt. The kingdom was annexed by the empire to become the province of Arabia Petraea. Trade seems to have largely continued thanks to the Nabataeans' undiminished talent for trading. Under Hadrian, the limes Arabicus ignored most of the Nabatæan territory and ran northeast from Aila (modern Aqaba) at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. A century later, during the reign of Alexander Severus, the local issue of coinage came to an end. There was no more building of sumptuous tombs, apparently because of a sudden change in political ways, such as an invasion by the neo-Persian power under the Sassanid Empire.
It was between the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian Peninsula. Its northern neighbour was the kingdom of Judea, and its south western neighbour was Ptolemaic Egypt. Its capital was the city of Raqmu in Jordan, and it included the towns of Bostra, Mada'in Saleh (Hegra), and Nitzana.
Raqmu, now called Petra, was a wealthy trading town, located at a convergence of several important trade routes. One of them was the Incense Route which was based around the production of both myrrh and frankincense in southern Arabia, and ran through Mada'in Saleh to Petra. From there, aromatics were distributed throughout the Mediterranean region.
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- A map of the VIA NOVA TRAIANA showing the outposts that made up Hadrian's limes