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Middle 4th century BCE-106 CE

Ancient World /

1. Economy
2. Religion
3. Architecture and Society
4. History

The Nabatean capital Petra
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The so-called Monastery at the Nabatean capital Petra, Jordan.

Details from the so-called Monastyery at the Nabatean capital Petra
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Detailas from the so-called Monastery at Petra (Jordan).

The Nabatean port on Sinai (modern Dahab, Egypt)
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From an old Nabatean port at Sinai (Dahab, Egypt)

Ancient people of northwestern Arabia, centered in modern Jordan. They formed a kingdom in the 4th century BCE or possibly earlier which lasted until 106 CE, representing about 450 years of existence. Their capital was Petra.
The Nabateans are most likely of the same ethnic origin as other peoples of Arabia, and their modern descendants are either labelled Arabs or Bedouins.
Their heartland was one without rivers or lakes, but they had built cisterns in the mountains to catch rain water.

Since the Nabateans originally were nomads, they their first economy was supported by raiding neighbouring kingdoms and caravans. As they established urban centres, they altered this approach and provided trade caravans with necessary services, securing their passage through their lands and providing them with a place to do business, in return for taxes paid.
The Nabateans benefited much from being located between rich lands; Egypt, Arabia, Syria, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. The most important products passing through their lands were myrrh, balsam and frankincense from southern Arabia and pepper, ginger, sugar and cotton from India. There are reports indicating that the trade routes stretched as far as China.
The eventual decline of Petra came with the increase in sea transportation, and the remaining land routes would chose the shortest distance between Persia and Egypt, bringing Palmyra to the fore as a trading center.

Being a trade junction, the Nabateans were effectively exposed to many different belief systems, whether from Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, Greece or Rome. This situation was decisive for the development of Nabatean religion.
Their religion was as most other religions of the time, polytheistic. Gods were represented as rocks, both in a symbolic but also in a literal sense. The rocks were holy in themselves and a part of the divine, but also a link to a dimension beyond. The rocks can be understood as a sort of altar.
On top of the Nabatean pantheon was Dushara, who probably was of Edomite origin. He was at first the god of the sun, but would become associated with Dionysos, the wine god.
Other deities were Atagatis, the fertility goddess; the moon god Allat; Manat, god of fate, Uzza, god of water. The three latter would survive in Arabian religions long enough to be mentioned in the Koran.
After the 1st century BCE, indications suggest that Nabatean society housed dissident groups from neighbouring countries. Early in the 1st century CE the Roman historian Strabo writes about a group he calls "the Esser sect of the Jews", which can be hardly be any other group than the Essenes. As some historians have suggested, Jesus may have had Essene contacts, or possibly even with Zealots. Some have gone so far as to say that he may have spent portions of his adult life in the Nabatean kingdom.

Architecture and Society
The Nabateans proved to be great artisans, creating the spectacular rock city of Petra, one of the most remarkable sites of the Middle East. Buildings were cut out from the rocks, using a mixture of Middle Eastern and Arabian patterns.
The Nabatean kingdom was governed by a royal family. The kingdom had abundant resources and bustled with a cosmopolitan population. It is suggested that at its height, Petra may have had 10,000 inhabitants. How many lived outside the capital is hard to estimate. The total population may have been between 15,000 and 100,000. The 1st century BCE Roman historian, Diodorus Siculusí, estimates their total number to be as low as 10,000.

647 BCE: First mention of the Nabateans; they are listed among the enemies of King Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria.
6th century: The Nabateans settle in the lands to the east of the Dead Sea, after the Edomites moved into Palestine.
312: The Nabatean capital of Petra is attacked twice by the Seleucids, first by king Antigonus and then by Prince Demetrius. The Nabateans managed both times to drive back the Macedonian troops.
2nd century: The Seleucid kingdom loses its strength and therefore its control over Middle Eastern lands. The Nabateans capitalize on this weakness to conquer land to the north and east, involving parts of modern Syria and most of modern Jordan.
Early 1st century: They take control over the land of modern Lebanon.
63: Rome takes control over Palestine, and the Nabatean king, Aretas 3, becomes a vassal of Rome. According to the agreement, he keeps control over most of his lands, but is able to pay off the Roman forces and retain his independence.
31: The Nabateans lose large portions of their land to King Herod the Great.
Middle 1st century CE: The lands of modern Syria are annexed by Rome.
106: All of the Nabatean kingdom is annexed by Rome. A new province, called Arabia, is established, and Bosra becomes the new capital at the expense of Petra.

By Tore Kjeilen