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Nabatean Religion


NABATEAN RELIGION . The scholarly consensus is that the Nabateans, whose kingdom flourished from about 400 bce to 106 ce and whose capital was Petra in Jordan, were in part the descendants of the earlier inhabitants of southern Jordan, though apparently ruled by a dynasty of north Arabian background. At its most extensive, the Nabatean kingdom also incorporated other populations, including many of Aramean descent in southern Syria. In discussing Nabatean religion, therefore, one needs to take account of the fact that some peoples under Nabatean rule may only have adopted the traditions of Petra superficially, while basically retaining their own traditional cults. A "new" deity could be assimilated into or merged with a well-established local deity. Also, distinct Nabatean regions can be detected in which the deities worshiped vary along with other cultural markers (such as language and personal names).

Nabatean History

The history of the Nabatean kingdom can only be traced in part, the sources being principally epigraphic, literary, and numismatic. Archaeology and iconography provide some evidence in relation to religion but add little to Nabatean history.

The epigraphic corpus consists of thousands of inscriptions and a few papyri written in the Nabatean version of the Aramaic language (widely used from the Achaemenid era) and in a distinctive local variety of the Achaemenid Aramaic script. Although the number of Nabatean inscriptions is large (over five thousand), many come from regions well outside the Nabatean heartland and were probably written by people who had only a tenuous connection with the Nabatean state (and its religion). Also, many were written after the fall of the Nabatean kingdom in 106 ce and thus provide only secondary evidence for the period of the kingdom itself.

Although the prestigious literary language, Aramaic, was used for inscriptions, it is generally agreed that the Petran élite, and probably large swathes of the populations of the southern and eastern parts of the kingdom, used some early form of Arabic as a vernacular. The evidence for this is provided by Arabic loanwords in Nabatean Aramaic and by the fact that many of the peoples in eastern Jordan used a form of early Arabic (Safaitic).

Literary evidence for Nabatean history is entirely non-native and mostly in Greek. Still, little historical detail is recorded, though Diodorus Siculus includes important anecdotes on the Nabatean contact with the Seleucids, and Josephus makes passing comment on Judaean dealings with the Nabateans. Other authors, writing in Greek (Strabo) and Latin (Pliny), confine themselves largely to describing aspects of Nabatean society (including religious aspects). These various sources make it clear that the basis of Nabatean prosperity was control of the overland routes of the Arabian incense trade: the trade was heavily taxed.

The Nabateans first appear in a historical context in 312 bce in conflict with the Seleucids (Diodorus). Thereafter their independent kingdom is mentioned in the books of Maccabees, mostly in conflict with, though sometimes in alliance with, the Judaeans. From c. 100 bce we have a tolerably clear king list, reconstructed in part on the basis of Nabatean inscriptions and coins and in part on the basis of authors like Josephus, who detailed ongoing relations with the Judaeans. On the wider stage, the involvement of the Nabatean Syllaeus (later pretender to the Nabatean throne) in Aelius Gallus's largely abortive campaign in 24 bce against southern Arabia is recorded by Strabo (blaming Syllaeus). After a dispute over the throne, Aretas IV ruled from 9 bce to 40 ce, and it was under this king that Petra and Nabataea enjoyed a period of evident success, with most of the great buildings of Petra being built at this time. Aretas appears to have had a nationalistic policy, and he took the title "lover of his own people." Rabel II (from 70 ce) is the last of the kings. Nabatean control over the trade routes was in decline and there was a (peaceful?) Roman takeover in 106 ce, at which point Nabataea was incorportated into the Province of Arabia with its center at Borā.

Nabatean Sites

The main Nabatean sites have yielded evidence of religious architecture that throws some light on practice. Petra and Madā'in āli in Saudi Arabia (ancient egra) are also notable for their visible monuments that did not require excavation, being carved into rock faces. For reasons of space, the concentration here is on the main sites: there is a full gazetteer in Wenning (1987) and a survey in Healey (2001).

At Petra, even the rock defile, the so-called Sīq, which is the most usual access point to the city, was at least in part religious, as is suggested by religious carvings in it, some with inscriptions, and it may have been used for processions connecting Petra itself with Gaya (later named al-Jī, Wādī Mūsā), which is known to have had at least one important temple.

At the other end of the Sīq, the narrow defile opens out in front of the Khazneh, a monumental façade carved out of the rock. There has long been ambiguity about the original purpose of the Khazneh, but it is most likely a tomb of a king, though no inscription exists to confirm its function. The Khazneh's baroque decoration is the result of Alexandrian influence.

After the Khazneh, the space in which Petra itself is located opens out and the city is dominated by two principal features: monumental tombs (some probably royal) carved out of the steep rock faces, and a main street that terminates at the gateway of a major temple, passing other religious and nonreligious monuments on its way. The only inscribed tomb in the central area, Qabr al-Turkmān, does not name the person for whom it was carved. Some have seen the absence of inscribed tombs at Petra (by contrast with egra) as arising from a taboo against names on tombs at Petra. A more likely explanation is that some impermanent material like wood was used for the inscriptions on Petran tombs (and a tomb outside the Sīq does have a name).

The temple at the end of the main street is surrounded by a temenos. The sanctuary itself, to the left of the axis of the main street, is square and has an inner sanctum in which the object of worship was placed on a podium against the rear wall. The front was open, and directly opposite the entrance stood an altar surrounded by a large enclosure suitable for the gathering of crowds.

Only fragmentary inscriptions from the immediate area give any clue to the deity to whom the temple was dedicated. There are two hypotheses. As the probable main temple of the city, it is often assumed to be dedicated to the main god, Dushara (below), and in support of this we may note a fragmentary post-Nabatean inscription with a dedication to Zeus: Dushara came to be identified with Zeus. The other hypothesis notes that the traditional Arabic name of the temple, Qar al-Bint, "castle of the girl," might be an echo of the temple of Aphrodite, which existed later at Petra (as we know from one of the documents in the "Babatha" archive found to the west of the Dead Sea [papyrus Yadin 12]) and suggests the temple was dedicated to a Nabatean goddess (on Allāt/al-ʿUzzā, see below).

Just outside the temenos gate, to the north, lies the Temple of the Winged Lions (so named because of decorative features discovered there). This is a complex structure at the center of which is a cella of a very different type than that of the Qar al-Bint, one that allowed movement around the podium on which the cult object stood. Hammond suggested that this central podium was surrounded by curtains and elaborated this suggestion in terms of a "mystery" cult similar to that of Isis (as described in Apuleius's Golden Ass ). In support of the Isis link is a beautiful votive figure with Isiac iconography. The inscription on the figure does not, however, name the goddess, only the dedicator of the offering involved, and while we know that Isis was worshiped at Petra, this cult seems to have been practiced in remote rock sanctuaries around the city. In any case, all the goddesses of the Roman world and adjacent areas were susceptible to Isis influences because of her extreme popularity. It seems most likely, therefore, that the Temple of the Winged Lions was dedicated to Allāt/al-ʿUzzā in Isis mode. Unfortunately, the one extensive inscription from the temple deals with tithes for priests but throws no light on the identity of the goddess.

The third building to note here is the so-called "Great Temple" or "Large Temple" to the south. Again we have an elaborate building that may have been a temple, but the presence in its midst of a theater suggests it was used for some other purpose.

Religious Installations

Temples ascribed to the Nabateans are found at a number of neighboring sites, the most important of which are Dhari and Tannūr to the north and in Wādī Ramm to the south. It is not easy to be sure that others, for example, in southern Syria, are Nabatean in design: the Nabatean colonization of southern Syria was culturally superficial. Of the Nabatean temples proper there are two types. One (Qar al-Bint) has a podium against the rear wall. The other type has a pillared gallery around the podium (Winged Lions, Dhari, Ramm). The suggestion has been made that this latter arrangement would have allowed circumambulation, but there is no direct evidence of such a ritual, and the space available would not allow for more that a few cult officials.

Apart from built temples, the Nabateans were also fond of open-air sanctuaries on the tops of mountains. The most striking of these is the so-called High Place on the Maba outcrop at Petra. Here we find an elaborate installation involving podia, steps, reservoirs, and drainage channels. Arabic maba means "altar" or "place of sacrifice," and the installation, which overlooks the center of the city, is usually

interpreted in this light. Its religious significance is confirmed by the monumental stairway that leads to it and by the religious niches, some with inscriptions and distinctive religious iconography, that surround it. One niche carved nearby has crescent moons and was probably dedicated to a moon deity, while another, farther away, has a remarkable dual representation (probably) of Dushara both as a bearded "classical" god and as a plain betyl or stone pillar.

Cult niches are a common religious artifact of the Nabatean tradition. They were often podia for betyl s (cult-stones). The latter are usually plain and unmarked, but some have minimalist representations of a face. Some were movable, while others were carved in situ out of the rock face, with up to three betyl s of different sizes, apparently representing a "divine family."

That the Nabateans believed in an afterlife is suggested by hundreds of monumental tombs. In some cases these are provided with triclinia, ritual banqueting rooms, suggestive of a commemorative ceremony. Some triclinia are not related to the dead but were the locus of special cults (mrzy') adhered to by guilds or sodalities.

The Deities

Dushara appears to be the main Nabatean god, his primacy being evident in the phrase "Dushara and all the gods" in several inscriptions and in the fact that wherever gods are listed he appears first. His name (dwšr') is in origin an epithet meaning "the One of (Mount) Shara" (located in southern Jordan). The same analysis of the name appears in Islamic sources, which call him ū al-Š/arā(t). The name's structure is paralleled in northern and southern Arabia. Dushara's close link with the Petra area is clear from his epithet "god of Gaya," this being an old name of the village at the entrance to Petra.

Of the few indications of specific characteristics of Dushara, we may note the title "the one who separates night from day" in an inscription, which suggests an astral character. Scholars have favored the planet Venus (male in southern Arabia), Mercury (the Arabian god Ruā) or the sun (Strabo hints at such a cult in Nabataea, and a solstice aspect of Dushara is suggested later by Epiphanius). Roman identifications of Dushara, for example, with Zeus and Dionysos, are secondary.

Names of other male deities occur, such as Baalshamin (an import from Nabatean Syria), Qōs (Edomite and worshiped at Tannūr) and Hubal (only in northern Arabia), but there is such a concentration on Dushara that it can be argued that he was, in practice, the supreme Nabatean deity. Certainly he was the dynastic deity of the royal house, "the god of our lord (the king)," and because of this his cult spread wherever Nabatean rule extended. In the different localities he was connected with established local gods, such as Baalshamin in Syria.

On the female side, there is evidence of worship of a number of goddesses: Allāt, al-ʿUzzā, and Isis and Atargatis (these last two being foreign). There are also some goddesses who appear only in particular localities within the Nabatean realm (for example, Manōtu only in egra; specific manifestations of Allāt localized in Borā, the awrān and Ramm).

The two principal female divine names that occur (though never together) are Allāt and al-ʿUzzā. The distribution of these in the inscriptions suggests that they were never worshiped side by side. There is no explicit evidence of Allāt at Petra and little of al-ʿUzzā at Ramm and in southern Syria. When account is taken, therefore, of the fact that al-ʿUzzā is in fact an epithet, not a personal name, meaning in Arabic "the Mighty One," it is possible to conclude tentatively that al-ʿUzzā was for the Nabateans an epithet of Allāt. The latter enjoyed much wider popularity in Syria and Jordan, while the title al-ʿUzzā is more restricted in use and of Arabian background. The two were, however, distinguished in later tradition in northern Arabia. A final resolution of this may be provided in the future by further epigraphic evidence identifying or distinguishing the two.

Little can be said of characteristics of Allāt and al-ʿUzzā. The former is described in inscriptions as "mother of the gods" (reading uncertain) and "the great goddess." Herodotos identified her with Aphrodite, though in the awrān she was identified with Athena. al-ʿUzzā is the northern Arabian goddess of the planet Venus and is identified with Aphrodite in a Nabatean inscription from the island of Cos.

Of the various other deities who have some degree of prominence, note may be made of: (1) al-Kutbā, a deity in the Thoth/Nabu tradition, but apparently worshiped in both male and female forms; (2) other deities with north Arabian affiliations such as Shayʿal-Qawm and Hubal; and (3) the

god ʿObodat, apparently the divinization of one of the kings of Petra, whose tomb was reportedly located at ʿAvdat in the Negev (Uranius).

Aniconism and Arabia

Reference has already been made to a Nabatean (and wider northern Arabian) tradition of representing deities not as human beings but as betyls. This is part of the Nabateans' northern Arabian heritage, but it was not in itself a matter of rigid religious principle, as can be see from the fact that under Greek and Roman influence the Nabateans soon got used to making statues. Reference has been made earlier to the combined representation of Dushara both as a plain betyl and as a bearded male figure.

Aniconism (reluctance about or rejection of images) constitutes one of the cultural links between the Nabateans and their contemporary Judaean neighbors on the one hand and the later Muslims on the other, though in the case of Judaism and Islam, aniconism became a central part of religious ideology. There are other points of contact with Jewish practice (such as the probable use of secondary burial), but the northern Arabian coloring of Nabatean religion is much stronger. Apart from the use of betyl s, major deities such as Dushara and al-ʿUzzā /Allāt, as well as the minor deities such as Hubal and Manōtu (= Manāt), have a clear north Arabian background and they re-emerge later as the pre-Islamic idols destroyed by order of Muammad. The most likely explanation of this phenomenon of Arabianism is that at least the higher strata of Nabatean society were of northern Arabian origin: this would also explain the probable use of a form of Arabic as a vernacular and the predominance of Arabian-type personal names.

Because of the sparsity of the evidence, there are few aspects of Nabatean religiosity on a personal level that can be teased out in any detail. A certain fondness among a minority for devotional cults associated with particular gods (Isis and others) may reflect personal religion. The repeated use in graffiti of the religious formula "Remembered be " envisages a pious passer-by bringing blessing on himself by mentioning the name of the inscriber "before the god."

Nabatean religious tradition was heavily influenced by northern Arabian religion, both in the particular gods venerated and in some of the forms that veneration took: the reluctance to depict deities in human form is a good example.

Historically more important, perhaps, is the distinct tendency to restrict attention and worship to the main deities, Dushara and Allāt/al-ʿUzzā (if the latter is a single deity, as argued above). Other gods were worshiped by specialist groups (special ethnically, geographically, socially), but Dushara and Allāt formed a divine pair par excellence, and the cult of these two appears to be the official cult of the state. This is a modified form of monotheism, though involving a pair of deities rather than just one. This type of "dyotheism" was not neweven the Old Testament Yahweh was regarded by many Israelites as having a spouse.


Hackl, Ursula, Hanna Jenni, and Christoph Schneider. Quellen zur Geschichte der Nabatäer: Textsammlung mit Übersetzung und Kommentar (Novum Testamentum et Orbis Antiquus 51). Freiburg and Göttingen, 2003.

Healey, John. The Nabatean Tomb Inscriptions of Mada'in Salih (Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement 1). Oxford, 1993.

Healey, John. The Religion of the Nabateans: A Conspectus (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 136). Leiden, 2001.

Starcky, Jean. "Pétra et la Nabatène." In Dictionnaire de la Bible: Supplément, edited by Henri Cazelles et al., vol. 7, cols. 886-1017. Paris, 1966.

Tholbecq, Laurent. "Les Sanctuaires des Nabatéens: état de la question à la lumière de recherches archéologiques récentes." Topoi 7, no. 2 (1997): 10691095.

Wenning, Robert. Die NabatäerDenkmäler und Geschichte (Novum Testamentum et Orbis Antiquus 3). Freiburg/Göttingen, 1987.

Wenning, Robert. "Bemerkungen zur Gesellschaft und Religion der Nabatäer." In Religion und Gesellschaft: Studien zu ihrer Wechselbeziehung in den Kulturen des Antiken Vorderen Orients I (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 248), edited by Rainer Albertz, pp. 177201. Münster, 1997.

John F. Healey (2005)

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