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, the Nabataean capital
Petra, the Nabataean capital

The Nabataeans were a trading people of ancient Arabia, whose oasis settlements in the time of Josephus gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Syria and Arabia, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Their loosely-controlled trading network, which centered on strings of oases and the routes that linked them, had no securely defined boundaries in the surrounding desert. For who ruled the area, see Rulers of Nabatea.



Thousands of graffiti and inscriptions document the area of Nabataean culture and testify to widespread literacy, yet no literature has survived, nor was any noted in Antiquity, and the temples bear no inscriptions. Classical references to the Nabataeans suggest that their 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 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 and myrrh and spices from Arabia Felix, as well as a trade with Egypt in bitumen from the Dead Sea. Their arid country was the best safeguard of their cherished liberty; for the bottle-shaped cisterns for rain-water which they excavated in the rocky or clay rich soil were carefully concealed from invaders.


The Nabataean origins remain obscure. On the similarity of sounds, Jerome suggested a connection with the tribe Nebaioth mentioned in Genesis, but modern historians are cautious about an early Nabatean history. The Babylonian captivity that began in 586 BCE opened a power vacuum in Judah, and as Edomites moved into Judaean grazing lands, Nabataean inscriptions began to be left in Edomite territory. earlier than 312 BC, when they were attacked at Petra without success by Antigonus I. Petra or Sela was the ancient capital of Edom; the Nabataeans must have occupied the old Edomite country, and succeeded to its commerce, after the Edomites took advantage of the Babylonian captivity to press forward into southern Judaea. This migration, the date of which cannot be determined, also made them masters of the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba and the important harbor of Elath. Here, according to Agatharchides, they were for a time very troublesome, as wreckers and pirates, to the reopened commerce between Egypt and the East, until they were chastised by the Ptolemaic rulers of Alexandria.

The Nabataeans had already some tincture of foreign culture when they first appear in history. That culture was naturally 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 became lord of Damascus and Coele-Syria. "Nabataeans" became the Arabic name for Aramaeans, whether in Syria or Iraq, a fact which has been incorrectly held to prove that the Nabataeans were originally Aramaean immigrants from Babylonia. Proper names on their inscriptions suggest that they were true Arabs who had come under Aramaic influence. Starcky [1] identifies the Nabatu of southern Arabia as their ancestors. However different groups amongst the Nabateans 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 [5].

The Hellenistic and Roman periods

Missing image
The Roman province of Arabia Petraea, created from the Nabataean kingdom.

Petra was rapidly built in the 1st century BCE in Hellenistic splendor, yet the Nabataeans were allies of the first Hasmoneans in their struggles against the Seleucid monarchs they became the rivals of the Judaean dynasty in the period of its splendor, and a chief element in the disorders which invited Pompey's intervention in Palestine. Many were forcefully converted to Judaism by the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus [4]. The Roman military was not very successful, and King Aretas retained his whole possessions, including Damascus, as a Roman vassal.

As allies of the Romans the Nabataeans continued to flourish throughout the first century AD. Their power extended far into Arabia along the Red Sea to Yemen, and Petra remained 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.

They might have long been a bulwark between Rome and the wild hordes of the desert but for the short-sighted cupidity of Trajan, who reduced Petra and broke up the Nabataean nationality as the short-lived Roman province of Arabia Petraea.

By the third century AD the Nabateans had stopped writing in Aramaic language and begun writing in Greek instead, and by the forth century they had converted to Christianity [3]. The new Arab invaders who soon pressed forward into their seats found the remnants of the Nabataeans transformed into fellahin.


  1. The Nabateans: A Historical Sketch - Jean Starcky (
  2. The Nabateans in the Negev (
  3. The Nabateans by Professor Avraham Negev (
  4. A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson, George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Limited, London, 1987
  5., Dan Gibson's comprehensive Nabataean site (

External links

Further reading

  • David Graf, Rome and the Arabian Frontier: from the Nabataeans to the Saracens
  • Encyclopedia of Islam, Volume VII: "Nabat."ar:أنباط

de:Nabater he:נבטים nl:Nabateers fi:Nabatealaiset sv:Nabater


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