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A map of the Roman empire under Hadrian (ruled CE 117–138), showing the location of the Arabes Nabataei in the desert regions around the Roman province of Arabia Petraea
Related ethnic groups

The Nabataeans or Nabateans (/ˌnæbəˈtənz/; Nabataean Aramaic: 𐢕𐢃𐢋𐢈‎, NBṬW, vocalized as Nabāṭū; Arabic: ٱلْأَنْبَاط, al-ʾAnbāṭ, singular النبطي, an-Nabaṭī; compare Ancient Greek: Ναβαταῖος, romanizedNabataîos; Latin: Nabataeus) were an ancient Arab people who inhabited northern Arabia and the southern Levant.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7] Their settlements—most prominently the assumed capital city of Raqmu (present-day Petra, Jordan)[1]—gave the name Nabatene (Ancient Greek: Ναβατηνή, romanizedNabatēnḗ) to the Arabian borderland that stretched from the Euphrates to the Red Sea.

The Nabateans emerged as a distinct civilization and political entity between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE,[8] with their kingdom centered around a loosely controlled trading network that brought considerable wealth and influence across the ancient world.

Described as fiercely independent by contemporary Greco-Roman accounts, the Nabataeans were annexed into the Roman Empire by Emperor Trajan in 106 CE. Nabataeans' individual culture, easily identified by their characteristic finely potted painted ceramics, was adopted into the larger Greco-Roman culture. They converted to Christianity during the Later Roman Era. They have been described as one of the most gifted peoples of the ancient world[9][10][11] and one of the "most unjustly forgotten".[12][8]


Hellenistic period[edit]

The Nabataeans were an Arab tribe who had come under significant Babylonian-Aramaean influence.[13] The first mention of the Nabataeans dates from 312/311 BCE, when they were attacked at Sela or perhaps at Petra without success by Antigonus I's officer Athenaeus in the course of the Third War of the Diadochi; at that time Hieronymus of Cardia, a Seleucid officer, mentioned the Nabataeans in a battle report. About 50 BCE, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus cited Hieronymus in his report,[clarification needed] and added the following: "Just as the Seleucids had tried to subdue them, so the Romans made several attempts to get their hands on that lucrative trade."[citation needed]

They wrote a letter to Antigonus in Syriac letters, and Aramaic continued as the language of their coins and inscriptions when the tribe grew into a kingdom and profited by the decay of the Seleucids to extend its borders northward over the more fertile country east of the Jordan River. They occupied Hauran, and in about 85 BCE their king Aretas III became lord of Damascus and Coele-Syria.

Nabataean Kingdom[edit]

The Roman province of Arabia Petraea, created from the Nabataean kingdom
Silver drachm of Malichos II with Shaqilat II
Silver drachm of Obodas II with Hagaru

Petra was rapidly built in the 1st century BCE, and developed a population estimated at 20,000.[14]

The Nabataeans were allies of the first Hasmoneans in their struggles against the Seleucid monarchs. They then became rivals of the Judaean dynasty, and a chief element in the disorders that invited Pompey's intervention in Judea. According to popular historian Paul Johnson, many Nabataeans were forcefully converted to Judaism by Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus.[15][better source needed] It was this king who, after putting down a local rebellion, invaded and occupied the Nabataean towns of Moab and Gilead and imposed a tribute of an unknown amount. Obodas I knew that Alexander would attack, so was able to ambush Alexander's forces near Gaulane destroying the Judean army (90 BCE).[16]

The Roman military was not very successful in their campaigns against the Nabataeans. In 62 BCE, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus accepted a bribe of 300 talents to lift the siege of Petra, partly because of the difficult terrain and the fact that he had run out of supplies. Hyrcanus II, who was a friend of Aretas, was despatched by Scaurus to the King to buy peace. In so obtaining peace, King Aretas retained all his possessions, including Damascus, and became a Roman vassal.[17]

In 32 BCE, during King Malichus I's reign, Herod the Great, with the support of Cleopatra, started a war against Nabataea. The war began with Herod plundering Nabataea with a large cavalry force, and occupying Dium. After this defeat, the Nabataean forces regrouped near Canatha in Syria, but were attacked and routed. Cleopatra's general, Athenion, sent Canathans to the aid of the Nabataeans, and this force crushed Herod's army, which then fled to Ormiza. One year later, Herod's army overran Nabataea.[18]

Colossal Nabataean columns stand in Bosra, Syria

After an earthquake in Judaea, the Nabateans rebelled and invaded Judea, but Herod at once crossed the Jordan river to Philadelphia (modern Amman) and both sides set up camp. The Nabataeans under Elthemus refused to give battle, so Herod forced the issue when he attacked their camp. A confused mass of Nabataeans gave battle but were defeated. Once they had retreated to their defences, Herod laid siege to the camp and over time some of the defenders surrendered. The remaining Nabataean forces offered 500 talents for peace, but this was rejected. Lacking water, the Nabataeans were forced out of their camp and battled but were defeated.[19]

Aretas, IV king of Nabatea, defeated Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, in a battle after he intended to divorce his daughter Phasaelis[20]

Roman period[edit]

An ally of the Roman Empire, the Nabataean kingdom flourished throughout the 1st century. Its power extended far into Arabia along the Red Sea to Yemen, and Petra was a cosmopolitan marketplace, though its commerce was diminished by the rise of the Eastern trade-route from Myos Hormos to Coptos on the Nile. Under the Pax Romana, the Nabataeans lost their warlike and nomadic habits and became a sober, acquisitive, orderly people, wholly intent on trade and agriculture. The kingdom was a bulwark between Rome and the wild hordes of the desert except in the time of Trajan, who reduced Petra and converted the Nabataean client state into the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.[21] Five Greek-Nabataean bilingual inscriptions are known dating to 165–169, known as the Ruwafa inscriptions. They are ascribed to an auxiliary military unit drawn the Roman-allied Thamud tribe and were built to describe the temple they were inscribed in and to recognize the authority of the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.[22][23]

By the 3rd century, the Nabataeans had stopped writing in Aramaic and begun writing in Greek instead. By the 5th century they had converted to Christianity.[24] The new Arab invaders, who soon pressed forward into their seats, found the remnants of the Nabataeans transformed into peasants. Their lands were divided between the new Qahtanite Arab tribal kingdoms of the Byzantine vassals, the Ghassanid Arabs, and the Himyarite vassals, the Kingdom of Kinda in North Arabia. The city of Petra was brought to the attention of Westerners by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.[citation needed]


Nabataean trade routes

Many examples of graffiti and inscriptions—largely of names and greetings—document the area of Nabataean culture, which extended as far north as the north end of the Dead Sea, and testify to widespread literacy; but except for a few letters[25] no Nabataean literature has survived, nor was any noted in antiquity.[26][27][28] Onomastic analysis has suggested[29] that Nabataean culture may have had multiple influences. Classical references to the Nabataeans begin with Diodorus Siculus. They suggest that the Nabataeans' trade routes and the origins of their goods were regarded as trade secrets, and disguised in tales that should have strained outsiders' credulity.[30]

Diodorus Siculus (book II) described them as a strong tribe of some 10,000 warriors, preeminent among the nomads of Arabia, eschewing agriculture, fixed houses, and the use of wine, but adding to pastoral pursuits a profitable trade with the seaports in frankincense, myrrh and spices from Arabia Felix (today's Yemen), as well as a trade with Egypt in bitumen from the Dead Sea. Their arid country was their best safeguard, for the bottle-shaped cisterns for rain-water which they excavated in the rocky or clay-rich soil were carefully concealed from invaders.[30]

Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Kitab al-Tabikh, the earliest known Arabic cookbook, contains a recipe for fermented Nabatean water bread (khubz al-ma al-nabati). The yeast-leavened bread is made with a high quality wheat flour called samidh that is finely milled and free of bran and is baked in a tandoor.[31]

Women in Nabatean culture[edit]

Based on coins, inscriptions and non-Nabatean contemporary sources, Nabataean women seem to have had many legal rights. Inscriptions on tombs demonstrate the equality of property rights between man and woman and women's rights in matters of inheritance and also their ability to make decisions about their own property.[32] That set the Nabateans apart from the attitudes on a woman's role in society by their neighbours in the region.

Queen Huldu of Nabatea depicted on a drachma

Women also participated in religious activities, and had a right to visit the temples and make sacrifices.

Archeological evidence strongly suggest that the Nabataean women had a role in the social and political life by the first century AD, which is shown by the fact that Nabatean queens were depicted on coins, both independentely and together with their spouse the king. The assumption to be made from this were that they ruled together and that the Nabatean queens and other female members were given or already had political importance and status.[33] One can surmise other Nabatean women also benefited from this by extension.[34]

Though admittedly Nabatean culture seems to have favored male succession rather than female or equal succession, it seems plausible that like their neighbouring Ptolemaic dynasty and the Seleucids, marrying a female member of the Nabatean royal family reinforced a ruler's position or one whose claim to the throne was not as strong as his wife's.[35] The Nabatean royal house like the Ptolemaic and Seleucids later adopted sibling marriage.[36][37]

Nabatean women lost many of the rights they had, when the kingdom of Nabatea came under the influence – both political and cultural – of the Roman empire and Roman law.


Not much is known for certain about the fashions of ancient Nabateans and before the Hellenization and Romanization of the region but based on extant clothes and textiles found in graves and tombs on Nabatean territory, the clothing worn by the Nabateans during the first and second century were not unlike their neighbour Judaeans.[38] Its hard to say with any certainty what the Nabateans wore in more ancient times since their art before this period was non-figurative.

That is based on finds of similar clothing and textiles being found in both places. Among the most common colors were yellow made from saffron and a bright red produced from madder.[34] Blue textiles were also found.[34]

When it comes to the types of clothing and what can be surmised from these finds are that Nabatean men wore a tunic and a mantle both made of wool.The tunic in a Roman style (sleeveless) and with the mantle cut in a Greek style. This, as stated before, reflects a popular style rather than an ethnic style exclusive to the Nabateans.[39]

Nabataean women wore long tunics along with scarves and mantles. These scarves were loosely woven and sported fringes at the bottom.

Aretas IV and Shaqilath II

The upper class of Nabataean society, what can be seen on coins, show an even stronger Greek and Roman influence. The kings are depicted clean-shaven with long curled hair while queens are depicted wearing headcoverings with curled hair and long tunics and highnecked garments. Purple cloth seems to have been associated with the king based on Strabo's account of Nabatean men going outside "without tunics girdles about their loins, and with slippers on their feet – even the kings, though in their case the colour is purple."[40]


Historians such as Irfan Shahîd,[41] Warwick Ball,[42] Robert G. Hoyland,[43] Michael C. A. Macdonald,[44] and others[45] believe Nabataeans spoke Arabic as their native language. John F. Healy states that "Nabataeans normally spoke a form of Arabic, while, like the Persians etc., they used Aramaic for formal purposes and especially for inscriptions."[46] Proper names on their inscriptions suggest that they were ethnically Arabs who had come under Aramaic influence, and the Nabataeans had already some trace of Aramaic culture when they first appear in history. Some of the authors of Safaitic inscriptions identified themselves as Nabataeans.[47]


An eagle on the tomb facade that represents the guardianship of Dushara against intruders at Mada'in Saleh, Hejaz, Saudi Arabia

The extent of Nabataean trade resulted in cross-cultural influences that reached as far as the Red Sea coast of southern Arabia. The major gods worshiped at Petra were notably Dushara and Al-‘Uzzá. Dushara was the supreme deity of the Nabataean Arabs, and was the official god of the Nabataean Kingdom who enjoyed special royal patronage.[48] His official position is reflected in multiple inscriptions that render him as "The god of our lord" (The King).[49]

The name Dushara is from the Arabic "Dhu ash-Shara": which simply means "the one of Shara", a mountain range south-east of Petra also known as Mount Seir.[48] Therefore, from a Nabataean perspective, Dhushara was probably associated with the heavens. However, one theory which connects Dushara with the forest gives a different idea of the god.[50] The eagle was one of the symbols of Dushara.[51] It was widely used in Hegra as a source of protection for the tombs against thievery.[52]

Nabataean inscriptions from Hegra suggest that Dushara was linked either with the sun, or with Mercury, with which Ruda, another Arabian god, was identified.[49] "His throne" was frequently mentioned in inscriptions, certain interpretations of the text consider it as a reference for Dhushara's wife, goddess Harisha. She was probably a solar deity.[50]

Nabatean baetyl (possibly a replica of the actual artifact) at the Jordan Archaeological Museum

Dusharas consort at Petra is considered to have been al-Uzza and the goddess has been associated with Temple of Winged Lions on the basis that if the divine couple of Petra was Dushara and al-Uzza and the Qasr al Binti temple was dedicated to Dushara then the other major temple must have been al-Uzzas.[53] This is just a theory however, based on conjecture, and it can only be said that the temple is likely dedicated to the supreme goddess figure of the Nabateans, but the exact identity of this goddess is uncertain. Excavated from The Temple of the Winged Lions was the "Eye Baetyl" or "Eye-Idol".

A Nabatean sculpture of Atargatis

Numerous Nabatean bas-relief busts of the Northern Syrian goddess Atargatis were identified by Nelson Glueck at Khirbet et-Tannû. Atargatis was amalgated into the worship of Al-‘Uzzá.

However, when the Romans annexed the Nabataean Kingdom, Dushara still had an important role despite losing his former royal privilege. The greatest testimony to the status of the god after the fall of the Nabataean Kingdom was during the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Rome where Dushara was celebrated in Bostra by striking coins in his name, Actia Dusaria (linking the god with Augustus victory at Actium). He was venerated in his Arabian name with a Greek fashion in the reign of an Arabian emperor, Philip.[49]

Other gods worshipped in Nabatea during this period were Isis, Balshamin and Obodat[53]

Sacrifices of animals were common, and Porphyry's De Abstenentia, written in the 3rd century, states that in Dūmah, a boy was sacrificed annually and was buried underneath an altar. Some scholars have extrapolated this practice to the rest of the Nabataeans, but this view is contested due to the lack of evidence.[54]

The Nabataeans used to represent their gods as featureless pillars or blocks. Their most common monuments to the gods, commonly known as "god blocks", involved cutting away the whole top of a hill or cliff face so as to leave only a block behind. However, over time the Nabataeans were influenced by Greece and Rome and their Gods became anthropomorphic and were represented with human features.[55]


Qasr al-Farid, the largest tomb at Mada'in Saleh

The Nabataeans spoke an Arabic dialect but, for their inscriptions, used a form of Aramaic that was heavily influenced by Arabic forms and words.[56] When communicating with other Middle Eastern peoples, they, like their neighbors, used Aramaic, the region's lingua franca.[49] Therefore, Aramaic was used for commercial and official purposes across the Nabataean political sphere.[57]

The Nabataean alphabet itself also developed out of the Aramaic alphabet, but it used a distinctive cursive script from which the Arabic alphabet emerged. There are different opinions concerning the development of the Arabic script. J. Starcky considers the Lakhmids' Syriac form script as a probable candidate.[58] However, John F. Healey states that: "The Nabataean origin of the Arabic script is now almost universally accepted".[58]

In surviving Nabataean documents, Aramaic legal terms are followed by their equivalents in Arabic. That could suggest that the Nabataeans used Arabic in their legal proceedings but recorded them in Aramaic.[59][60]

The name may be derived from the same root as Akkadian nabatu, to shine brightly.[61]


Nabataean farming, capturing 50 acres of run-off water for one acre of crops
Remains of a Nabataean cistern north of Makhtesh Ramon, southern Israel

Although not as dry as at present, the area occupied by the Nabataeans was still a desert and required special techniques for agriculture. One was to contour an area of land into a shallow funnel and to plant a single fruit tree in the middle. Before the 'rainy season', which could easily consist of only one or two rain events, the area around the tree was broken up. When the rain came, all the water that collected in the funnel would flow down toward the fruit tree and sink into the ground. The ground, which was largely loess, would seal up when it got wet and retain the water.

In the mid-1950s, a research team headed by Michael Evenari set up a research station near Avdat (Evenari, Shenan and Tadmor 1971). He focused on the relevance of runoff rainwater management in explaining the mechanism of the ancient agricultural features, such as terraced wadis, channels for collecting runoff rainwater, and the enigmatic phenomenon of "Tuleilat el-Anab". Evenari showed that the runoff rainwater collection systems concentrate water from an area that is five times larger than the area in which the water actually drains.[62]

Another study was conducted by Y. Kedar[who?] in 1957, which also focused on the mechanism[vague] of the agriculture systems, but he studied soil management, and claimed that the ancient agriculture systems were intended to increase the accumulation of loess in wadis and create an infrastructure for agricultural activity. This theory has also been explored by E. Mazor,[who?] of the Weizmann Institute of Science.[citation needed]

Architects and stonemasons[edit]

  • Apollodorus of Damascus - Greek-Nabataean architect and engineer from Damascus, Roman Syria, who flourished during the 2nd century CE. his massive architectural output gained him immense popularity during his time. He is one of the few architects whose name survives from antiquity, and is credited with introducing several Eastern innovations to the Roman Imperial style, such as making the dome a standard.[63]
  • Wahb'allahi - a first century stonemason who worked in the city of Hegra.[64] Wahb'allahi was the brother of the stonemason 'Abdharetat and the father of 'Abd'obodat. He is named in an inscription as the responsible stonemason on the oldest datable grave in Hegra in the ninth year of the Nabataean king Aretas IV (1 BCE-CE).[65]
  • 'Abd'obodat son of Wahballahi - a 1st-century Nabatean Stonemason who worked in the city of Hegra.[66] He is named by inscriptions on five of the grave facades typical of Hegra as the executing craftsman. On the basis of the inscriptions, four of the facades can be dated to the reigns of kings Aretas IV and Malichus II. 'Abd'obodat was evidently a successful craftsman. He succeeded his father Wahb'allahi and his uncle 'Abdharetat in at least one workshop in the second generation of Nabatean architects. 'Abd'obodat is considered to be the main representative of one of the two main schools of the Nabataean stonemasons, to which his father, his uncle belonged. Two more grave facades are assigned to the school on the basis of stylistic investigations; 'Abd'obodat is probably to be regarded as the stonemason who carried out the work.[67]
  • 'Aftah - a Nabatean stonemason who became prominent in the beginning of the third decade of the first century.[68] 'Aftah is attested in inscriptions on eight of the grave facades in Hegra and one grave as the executing stonemason. The facades are dated to the late reign of King Aretas IV. On one of the facades he worked with Halaf'allahi, on another with Wahbu and Huru. A tenth facade without an inscription was attributed to the 'Aftah sculpture school due to technical and stylistic similarities. He is the main representative of one of the two stonemason schools in the city of Hegra.
  • Halaf'allahi - Nabatean stonemason who worked in the city of Hegra in the first century. Halaf'allahi is named in inscriptions on two graves in Hegra as the responsible stonemason in the reign of the Nabataean king Aretas IV. The first grave, which can be dated to the year 26-27 CE, was created together with the stonemason 'Aftah. He is therefore assigned to the workshop of the 'Aftah. Nabataean architects and sculptors were in reality contractors, who negotiated the costs of specific tomb types and their decorations. Tombs were therefore executed based on the desires and financial abilities of their future owners. The activities of Halaf'allahi offer an excellent example of this, as he had been commissioned with the execution of a simple tomb for a person who apparently belonged to the lower middle class. However, he was also in charge of completing a more sophisticated tomb for one of the local military officials.[69]

Archeological sites[edit]

Northwest Saudi Arabia
Negev Desert, Israel
South Sinai, Egypt
  • Dahab: excavated Nabataean trading port

See also[edit]


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