Map of the Roman empire under Hadrian (ruled AD 117–138), showing the location of the Arabes Nabataei in the desert regions around the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.
Al Khazneh, Petra (the Nabatean capital).
A row of tombs from the al-Khuraymat group, Mada'in Saleh, Saudi Arabia.
Avdat, Israel

The Nabataeans, also Nabateans (Arabic: الأنباطal-ʾAnbāṭ), were ancient peoples of southern Jordan, Canaan and the northern part of Arabia, whose oasis settlements in the time of Josephus (AD 37 – c. 100), 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 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.



Many examples of graffiti and inscriptions—largely of names and greetings—document the area of Nabatean culture, which extended as far north as the north end of the Dead Sea, and testify to widespread literacy; but no Nabatean literature has survived, nor was any noted in antiquity,[1] and the temples bear no inscriptions. Onomastic analysis has suggested[2] that the Nabatean culture may have embraced multiple ethnicities. Classical references to the Nabateans begin with Diodorus Siculus; they suggest that the Nabateans' 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 and 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.[3]

The extent of Nabatean trade resulted in cross-cultural influences that reached as far as the Red Sea coast of southern Arabia. The gods worshipped at Petra were headed by Dushara and al-‘Uzzá.


The brief Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews that began in 586 BC opened a minor power vacuum in Judah (prior to the Israelites' return under the Persian King, Cyrus), and as Edomites moved into open Judaean grazing lands, Nabatean inscriptions began to be left in Edomite territory. The first definite appearance was in 312/311 BC, 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 Nabateans in a battle report. About 50 BC, 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]

Sela was the ancient capital of Edom; the Nabateans 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.[citation needed]

The Nabateans 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. Nabateans became the Arabic name for Aramaeans, whether in Syria or Iraq, a fact which has been incorrectly held to prove that the Nabateans were originally Aramaean immigrants from Babylonia. Proper names on their inscriptions suggest that they were true 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 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 Nabateans.[4]


The language of the Nabatean 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 AD, the Arabic influence becomes overwhelming, in a way that it may be said the Nabatean language shifted seamlessly from Aramaic to Arabic. The Arabic alphabet itself developed out of cursive variants of the Nabatean script in the 5th century.

Ibn Wahshiyya claimed to have translated from this language in his Nabataean corpus.[5]


Although not as dry as at present, the area occupied by the Nabateans was still a desert and required special systems for agriculture. One system 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

The Roman province of Arabia Petraea, created from the Nabataean kingdom.
Nabataean trade routes.

Petra was rapidly built in the first century BC in Hellenistic splendor, and developed a population estimated at 20,000.[6]

The Nabataeans were allies of the first Hasmoneans in their struggles against the Seleucid monarchs. They then became rivals of the Judaean dynasty in the period of its splendor, 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.[7] It was this King who after putting down a local rebellion invaded and occupied the Nabatean 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 BC).[8]

The Roman military was 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 Scaurus had run out of food provisions. Hyrcanus who was a friend of Aretas was dispached by Scaurus to the King to buy peace. In so obtaining peace King Aretas retained his whole possessions, including Damascus and became a Roman vassal.[9]

During the King Malichus II reign, in 32 BC Herod the Great started a war against Nabatea, 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 Nabatean forces amassed near Canatha in Syria, but were attacked and routed. Athenio (Cleopatra's General) sent Canathans to the aid of the Nabateans, and this force crushed Herod's army which then fled to Ormiza. One year later, Herod's army overran Nabataea.[10]

Colossal Nabatean columns stand in Bosra, Syria.

After an earthquake in Judea, 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 Nabateans under Elthemus refused to give battle, so Herod forced the issue when he attacked their camp. A confused mass of Nabateans gave battle but were defeated. Once the defeated had retreated to their defences, Herod laid siege to the camp and over time some of the defenders surrendered. The remaining Nabatean forces offered 500 talents for peace but this was rejected. Lacking water, the Nabateans were forced out of their camp for battle, but were defeated in this last battle.[11]

An ally of the Roman Empire, the Nabataean kingdom continued to flourish throughout the first 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 but for Trajan, who reduced Petra and broke up the Nabataean nationality as the short-lived Roman province of Arabia Petraea.

By the third century, the Nabateans had stopped writing in Aramaic and begun writing in Greek instead, and by the fourth century they had converted to Christianity.[12] 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.

Archeological sites

  • Petra in Jordan
  • Bosra in Syria
  • Mada'in Saleh[13] in northwest Saudi Arabia.
  • Shivta in Negev Desert of Israel; disputed as a Nabataean precursor to a Byzantine colony.
  • Avdat in Negev Desert of Israel

See also


  1. ^ The carbonized Petra scrolls, mostly economic documents in Greek, date to the 6th century: Glen L. Peterman, "Discovery of Papyri in Petra", The Biblical Archaeologist 57 1 (March 1994), pp. 55–57; P. M. Bikai, "The Petra Papyri" Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan, 1997; Marjo Lehtinen, "Petra Papyri" Near Eastern Archaeology 65,4 (December 2002), pp. 277–278.
  2. ^ Macdonald, M. C. A. (1999). "Personal names in the Nabataean realm: a review article". Journal of Semitic Studies XLIV (2): 251–289. Retrieved 7 February 2011. 
  3. ^ J. W. Eadie, J. P. Oleson, "The Water-Supply Systems of Nabatean and Roman Ḥumayma", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1986.
  4. ^, Dan Gibson's comprehensive Nabatean site
  5. ^ The last pagans of Iraq: Ibn Waḥshiyya and his Nabatean agriculture Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila (2006) ".. centred on the Nabatean corpus, consisting of the Nabatean Agriculture and some related texts, such as Kitab as-Sumum, Kitab Asrar al-falak and Shawq al-mustaham, all claiming to be translations made by Ibn Wahshiyya."
  6. ^ "A City Carved in Stone". Petra: Lost City of Stone. Canadian Museum of Civilization. 7 April 2006. Retrieved 7 February 2011. 
  7. ^ Johnson, Paul (1987). A History of the Jews. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 978-0297790914. 
  8. ^ Josephus, Flavius (1981). The Jewish War. 1:87. Trans. G. A. Williamson 1959. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin. p. 40. ISBN 978-0140444209. 
  9. ^ Josephus 1:61, p. 48.
  10. ^ Josephus 1:363–377, pp. 75–77.
  11. ^ Josephus 1:377–391, pp. 78–79.
  12. ^ Rimon, Ofra. "The Nabateans in the Negev". Hecht Museum. Retrieved 7 February 2011. 
  13. ^ Nabataea: Medain Saleh


  • Gibson, Dan (2011). Qur’anic Geography: A Survey and Evaluation of the Geographical References in the Qur’an with Suggested Solutions for Various Problems and Issues. Independent Scholars Press, Canada. ISBN 978-0-9733642-8-6.
  • Graf, David F. (1997). Rome and the Arabian Frontier: From the Nabataeans to the Saracens. Aldershot: Ashgate. ISBN 978-0860786580. 
  • Healey, John F., The Religion of the Nabataeans: A Conspectus (Leiden, Brill, 2001) (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 136).
  • Krasnov, Boris R.; Mazor, Emanuel (2001). The Makhteshim Country: A Laboratory of Nature: Geological and Ecological Studies in the Desert Region of Israel. Sofia: Pensoft. ISBN 978-9546421357. 
  • "Nabat", Encyclopedia of Islam, Volume VII.
  • Negev, Avraham (1986). Nabatean Archaeology Today. Hagop Kevorkian Series on Near Eastern Art and Civilization. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0814757604. 
  • Schmid, Stephan G. (2001). "The Nabataeans: Travellers between Lifestyles". In MacDonald, Burton; Adams, Russell; Bienkowski, Piotr. The Archaeology of Jordan. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press. pp. 367–426. ISBN 978-1841271361. 

External links

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  • Nabataeans — n. resident of Nabataea, one who is from Nabataea (also Nabatean) adj. of or pertaining to the people of an ancient Arabian kingdom, of the language of the Nabataeans (also Nabatean) …   English contemporary dictionary

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