The Nabataeans

The Nabataeans, also Nabateans, were an ancient people who inhabited northern Arabia and Southern Levant, their settlements in CE 37 - c. 100, gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Arabia and Syria, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Their loosely-controlled trading network, which centered on strings of oases that they controlled, where agriculture was intensively practiced in limited areas, and on the routes that linked them, had no securely defined boundaries in the surrounding desert. Trajan conquered the Nabataean kingdom, annexing it to the Roman Empire, where their individual culture, easily identified by their characteristic finely-potted painted ceramics, became dispersed in the general Greco-Roman culture and was eventually lost.


Petra is a historical and archaeological city in the southern Jordanian governorate of Ma'an that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Another name for Petra is the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved.

Established possibly as early as 312 BCE as the capital city of the Nabataeans, it is a symbol of Jordan, as well as Jordan's most-visited tourist attraction. It lies on the slope of Jebel al-Madhbah (identified by some as the biblical Mount Hor) in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.

The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was introduced by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It was described as "a rose-red city half as old as time" in a Newdigate Prize-winning poem by John William Burgon. UNESCO has described it as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage".

Pliny the Elder and other writers identify Petra as the capital of the Nabataeans and the center of their caravan trade. Enclosed by towering rocks and watered by a perennial stream, Petra not only possessed the advantages of a fortress, but controlled the main commercial routes which passed through it to Gaza in the west, to Bosra and Damascus in the north, to Aqaba and Leuce Come on the Red Sea, and across the desert to the Persian Gulf.

Excavations have demonstrated that it was the ability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply that led to the rise of the desert city, creating an artificial oasis. The area is visited by flash floods and archaeological evidence demonstrates the Nabataeans controlled these floods by the use of dams, cisterns and water conduits. These innovations stored water for prolonged periods of drought, and enabled the city to prosper from its sale.

In ancient times, Petra might have been approached from the south on a track leading across the plain of Petra, around Jabal Haroun ("Aaron's Mountain"), where the Tomb of Aaron, said to be the burial-place of Aaron, brother of Moses, is located. Another approach was possibly from the high plateau to the north. Today, most modern visitors approach the site from the east.

The impressive eastern entrance leads steeply down through a dark, narrow gorge (in places only 3-4 m (9.8-13.1 ft) wide) called the Siq ("the shaft"), a natural geological feature formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. At the end of the narrow gorge stands Petra's most elaborate ruin, Al Khazneh (popularly known as "the Treasury"), hewn into the sandstone cliff. While remaining in remarkably preserved condition, the face of the structure is marked by hundreds of bullet holes made by the local Bedouin tribes that hoped to dislodge riches that were once rumored to be hidden within it.

A little farther from the Treasury, at the foot of the mountain called en-Nejr, is a massive theatre, positioned so as to bring the greatest number of tombs within view. At the point where the valley opens out into the plain, the site of the city is revealed with striking effect. The amphitheatre has been cut into the hillside and into several of the tombs during its construction. Rectangular gaps in the seating are still visible. Almost enclosing it on three sides are rose-colored mountain walls, divided into groups by deep fissures and lined with knobs cut from the rock in the form of towers. Read more ...


Colossal Nabataean columns stand in Bosra, Syria.

Jordan's incomparable city in stone is a mute monument to the powerful civilization that blossomed 2,000 years ago in this remote desert locale surrounded by rocky mountains, gorges, and cliffs. Petra earned fame as an exotic backdrop in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but its real history is as incredible as anything Hollywood could create for the silver screen. And many new stories are still waiting to be told - archaeologists have explored only about 15 percent of the sprawling site.

Petra ("rock" in Greek) was a bustling caravan hub situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. The Nabataeans thrived here for about a thousand years, and their metropolis peaked in the centuries just before and after A.D. 1, when caravan routes from the Levant (Syria-Phoenicia), Arabia, and Egypt found their way to Petra's gates.

Historical information on the Nabataeans themselves is sparse, but these Arab peoples excelled at trading. It was by commercial acumen, not force of arms, that they became a wealthy and formidable regional power. The Nabataeans controlled lands stretching from today's Israel and Jordan into the northern Arabian Peninsula; later they became a part of the Roman Empire.

Petra's past wealth is lavishly displayed in its arts and architecture, nowhere more dramatically than in elaborate buildings, such as the Treasury, which were carved directly into the soft sandstone cliffs.

The Nabataean capital was also a remarkable feat of urban planning. Some 30,000 people once lived in this dry desert location, quenching their thirsts by a channel-and-cistern system that harvested and stored winter rains for future use. The scheme worked well enough to accommodate many gardens.

Petra's decline began when trade routes shifted and moved seaward, and it accelerated after a devastating A.D. 363 earthquake. The city survived into the seventh century A.D. - even constructing a fifth-century Christian basilica - then lapsed into obscurity and remained largely unknown to the world at large until the 19th century. Today Petra is Jordan's top tourist attraction, one of 2007's New Seven Wonders of the World, and a must-see standout even among its World Heritage List peers.

National Geographic

Astronomical Observatories

How celestial events influenced orientation of the great constructions of the Nabataeans   PhysOrg - March 6, 2014
The movement of the Sun in the skies of Petra determined the way in which the monuments of this and other Nabatean cities were erected. great buildings were erected bearing in mind the equinoxes, solstices and other astronomical events that determined the Nabataean religion. The Nabataeans prospered in the first century BC and the first century AD in what is now Jordan and neighboring countries. The astronomical orientations were often part of an elaborate plan," he added "and, possibly, a mark of the astral nature of their religion, which showed incredible 'hierophanies' or demonstrations of the sacred on monuments related to cultic times and worship".


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 no Nabataean literature has survived, nor was any noted in antiquity, and the temples bear no inscriptions. Onomastic analysis has suggested 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. Diodorus Siculus (book ii) described them as a strong tribe of some 10,000 warriors, pre-eminent 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.


The extent of Nabataean trade resulted in cross-cultural influences that reached as far as the Red Sea coast of southern Arabia. The gods worshipped at Petra were notably Dushara and al-‘Uzza. 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, the Nabataeans became so influenced by other cultures such as those of Greece and Rome that their gods eventually became anthropomorphic and were represented with human features.


The brief Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews that began in 586 BCE opened a minor power vacuum in Judah (prior to the Israelites' return under the Persian King, Cyrus the Great), and as Edomites moved into open Judaean grazing lands, Nabataean inscriptions began to be left in Edomite territory.

The first definite appearance was in 312/311 BCE, when they were attacked at Sela or perhaps Petra without success by Antigonus I's officer Athenaeus as part 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."

The Nabataeans had already some tincture of foreign culture when they first appear in history. That culture was Aramaic; they wrote a letter to Antigonus in Syriac letters, and Aramaic continued to be 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.

They occupied Hauran, and in about 85 BC their king Aretas III became lord of Damascus and Coele-Syria. Nabataeans became the Arabic name for Aramaeans, whether in Syria or Iraq, a fact which was thought to show that the Nabataeans were originally Aramaean immigrants from Babylonia. Proper names on their inscriptions suggest that they were ethnically Arabs who had come under Aramaic influence. Starcky identifies the Nabatu of southern Arabia (Pre-Khalan migration) as their ancestors. However different groups amongst the Nabataeans wrote their names in slightly different ways, consequently archeologists are reluctant to say that they were all the same tribe, or that any one group is the original Nabataeans.

Various native homelands were suggested for the Nabataeans, such as Northern Arabia and the North-East of the Arabian peninsula, based on a probable similarity between the names of deities which were worshiped in those areas,

and some similarities between the inscriptions of some other Arab groups who inhabited the southern half of ancient Mesopotamia.

In 1997, a group of scholars of the University of Exeter in England made a critical review of all these theories in a multi-volume study, arguing that the original homeland of Nabataens was to the south of Al Jawf Province.


The language of the Nabataean inscriptions, attested from the 2nd century BCE, shows a local development of the Aramaic language, which had ceased to have super-regional importance after the collapse of the Achaemenid Empire (330 BC). The Nabataean alphabet itself also developed out of the Aramaic alphabet.

This Aramaic dialect was increasingly affected by the Arabic dialect of the local population. From the 4th century, the Arabic influence becomes overwhelming, in a way that it may be said the Nabataean language shifted seamlessly from Aramaic to Arabic. The Arabic alphabet itself developed out of cursive variants of the Nabataean script in the 5th century.

Ibn Wahshiyya claimed to have translated from this language in his Nabataean corpus.


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 which 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 M. 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.

Another study was conducted by Y. Kedar in 1957, which also focused on the mechanism 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 Prof. E. Mazor, of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

The Hellenistic and Roman periods

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

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 which invited Pompey's intervention in Judea. Many Nabataeans were forcefully converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus. 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 unspecified amount. Obodas I knew that Alexander would attack, so was able to ambush Alexander's forces near Gaulane destroying the Judean army (90 BCE).

The Roman military were not very successful in their campaigns against the Nabataeans. In 62 BC, 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 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.

In 32 BC during King Malichus II's reign Herod the Great started a war against Nabataea, with the support of Cleopatra. The war started with Herod's army plundering Nabataea and with a large cavalry force, and the occupation of Dium. After this defeat the Nabataean forces amassed near Canatha in Syria, but were attacked and routed. Athenio (Cleopatra's General) 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.

After an earthquake in Judaea, the Nabateans rebelled and invaded Israel, 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 for battle, but were defeated in this last battle.

An ally of the Roman Empire, the Nabataean kingdom continued to flourish 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 Myoshormus to Coptos on the Nile. Under the Pax Romana they lost their warlike and nomadic habits, and were 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 short-lived Roman province of Arabia Petraea.

By the 3rd century, the Nabataeans had stopped writing in Aramaic and begun writing in Greek instead, and by the 5th century they had converted to Christianity.[17] 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 Kindah Arab Kingdom in North Arabia.

The city of Petra was brought to the attention of Westerners by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.