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NABATEANS , ancient people in the Middle East. Originally a pastoral, nomadic people, the Nabateans became merchants in the trade of oils, aromatics and spices, frankincense and myrrh from southern Arabia. By the second century b.c.e., they controlled the Red Sea coastal cities and were considered unwelcome competition by Ptolemaic shipping interests (Diodorus 3, 43:5). Soon thereafter the expansionist Nabateans established settlements on the lucrative trade route, dominating the passage from the Hejaz through Petra to Damascus, and from Petra through the Negev to the Mediterranean port city of Gaza. Nabatean remains are found at over 1,000 sites in this area. At their height they controlled and colonized parts of modern-day Syria, Jordan, the Israeli Negev, Sinai, parts of eastern Egypt, and a northwestern section of Saudi Arabia. Nabatea's apogee is from the first century b.c.e. to the second century c.e. Nabatean material culture reaches its zenith in the second half of the first century b.c.e., before the Romans established control in 106 c.e.

The Nabateans (Gk. Nabataioi) are identified as people from the Arab kingdom of Nabatea. They refer to themselves as Nabatu on their Aramaic inscriptions. Their origins are controversial, but according to Graf the Nabateans arose within the Aramaic-speaking world of the so-called "Fertile Crescent" (Hieronymous of Cardia, apud Diodorus Siculus 19:95), and they may have been a sub-tribe from Qedar or the Persian Gulf. Philip C. Hammond places their origins in the Arabian Hejaz. However, the fact is that we do not know where they come from; thus, their origins are unknown. Whatever their origins, we do know that by 312 b.c.e. the Nabateans were already living in Petra, where they defended themselves successfully from an attack by Antigonus the "One-Eyed," a veteran commander from Alexander the Great's eastern campaigns.

The Nabatean Kingdom was strategically located. It was interlaced with east-west routes traversing the desert of the region now designated as the Israeli Negev (south of Beersheba) to the ports of Gaza, Ascalon, and Raphia (Rafa) in the Sinai, the latter a border town between Gaza and Egypt on the Mediterranean Coast. It also included the vast desert of the Sinai. From Petra, which served as the nexus for the redistribution of goods for the caravan traffic, the most important route to the west crossed the Negev to the Sinai. Here the Nabateans established settlements in the Negev that served as their intermediary links either to the Mediterranean or to Jerusalem and Phoenicia in the north. The best known of these towns include: Nessana (Auja al-Hafir in Arabic, Nitzana in Hebrew), and in the Negev, Sbeita or Sobata (Isbeita in Arabic, Shivta in Hebrew), Elusa (Khalasa in Arabic, Halutza in Hebrew), Oboda (Abda in Arabic, Avdat in Hebrew), Rehovot-in-the-Negev (Ruheibeh in Arabic), and Mampsis (Kurnub in Arabic, Mamshit in Hebrew). From Mediterranean ports ships sailed westward to the North African coast to Egypt and Alexandria, and northwards to Palestinian and Phoenician ports, primarily Caesarea and Tyre, and to Anatolian ports, such as Miletus. Goods were then transported further afield to Europe.

What little is known of Nabatean history is through Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Nabatean sources which have been extensively researched by the Abbé J. Starcky (1966), P.C. Hammond (1973), R. Wenning (1987), and G.W. Bowersock (1983). Writing in the Augustan period, two writers are particularly important for our understanding of the Nabateans. One is the first century b.c.e. Sicilian-born Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, whose Bibliotheca historica (19:94–100) is based on Hieronymos of Cardia. The second historian is Strabo, who wrote about the Nabateans in his Geography.

Petra – Capital of Nabatea

Located in a north-south deep canyon, approximately 50 miles (80 km.) south of the Dead Sea, via the Desert Highway some 160 miles (260 km.) south of Amman, Petra is enclosed by the towering majesty of the scarp which forms the Dead Sea Rift System. It can be said that the city of Petra (Raqmu in Nabatean) is symbolic of the religious, social, and political order of the Nabateans, and we have little physical evidence that is more central to their study. This complex, remarkable capital of the Nabatean kingdom is unique in its setting and architecture, including not only opulent temples and 800 tombs but also all the trappings of an active major urban center with a theater, baths, and administrative buildings.

The chronologies of Nabatean monarchs for these periods are provided by Abbé J. Starcky 1966, Z.T. Fiema and R.N. Jones 1990, and R. Wenning 1993 (see chart of Nabatean kings below). Although the early rulers are shrouded in mystery, the list begins with a reference to the Nabateans in the war with the Seleucid king Antigonus of Syria. The Nabatean King Aretas i (ca. 170–160 b.c.e.) is referred to as the "tyrant of the Arabs" and the "King of the Nabatu," or King of the Nabateans. It is also Aretas I who is cited in ii Maccabees 5:8 as the protector of the High Priest Jason, who asks for asylum in Petra. He also rules when cordial hospitality is offered to the Maccabean leaders Judas and Jonathan. There is scholarly debate (see Bowersock 1983) as to whether Aretas i is or is not succeeded by a king known as Rabbel i.

Although the known rulers are male, there is clear evidence for the high status accorded queens, for the coinage demonstrates that both the king and the queen occupied prominent positions. And in some cases they probably serve as joint rulers.

Nabatean Language and Writing

The Nabateans were apparently multilingual. Their native language was Arabic, many of their personal names were in Arabic, and they spoke Arabic, but they adopted the lingua franca, Aramaic, which they wrote in their own script for formal inscriptions. After the Romans occupied and established a strong military presence in the area, Petra continued to retain its native language but used Greek for business. After 106 c.e. the Nabateans incorporated Roman institutions and employed Latin for government and business.

Nabatean Religion

The main deities of the Nabateans were Dushara, and Al-'Uzza (on the various deities see Sourdel, 1952). Dushara – Dusares in Greek, Dus-sara (pronounced Dushara, or "Lord of the Shara") – was the tutelary deity of Petra, the supreme deity of the Nabateans and of Petra. He is associated with vegetation and fertility, and is also the everlasting, deathless god. At Petra Dushara has been recognized by a black obelisk and huge rectangular blocks of stone that carried his spirit (Glueck 1965). The tradition handed down by Arab folklore is that the djinn blocks and tower tombs are representations of Dushara and embody his spirit. The djinn are considered to be malevolent spirits that inhabit some 26 of these blocks of stone found at Petra. Dushara was also worshipped in carved quadrangular niches with betyls in them.

In the Hellenistic period, Dushara became equated with Dionysos, and was syncretized with the Egyptian gods Serapis and Osiris. Later he may be identified with the Hellenistic Zeus and Ares.

Al-'Uzza (sometimes associated with the Syrian Atargatis, meaning "the mighty One") is the Nabatean mother goddess, the Arabian Aphrodite sometimes referred to as Al-'Uzza-Aphrodite. She symbolizes fertility and vegetation, and is also the paramount queen, the sky-mother, and the patroness of travelers. Most important of all, she is the creator and sustainer of life.

Nabatean Material Culture

Among the most remarkable of Nabatean technological achievements are the hydraulic engineering systems they developed for water conservation. Utilizing their ingenuity, they constructed dams, terraces, and aqueducts to divert and harness the rush of swollen winter waters. As brilliant engineers they diverted flash flood conduits to funnel the precious resource throughout Petra.

Nabatean architecture exhibits an eclecticism achieved by a combination of styles, with Hellenistic Greek, Seleucid, Ptolemaic, Egyptian, and to a lesser extent Parthian architectural concepts. These are combined with a Nabatean sense of Orientalism. A strong native style asserts itself in both architecture and sculpture. Most of their monuments were constructed within a 200-year period. The artisans were probably imported, perhaps from Alexandria. With time the stylistic development of sculptural decoration became simplified, so that by the Roman period, most of the recovered sculpture is more bold and crude in character with less warmth, and a metamorphosis takes place resulting in a style that has all but lost its individuality.

Nabatean construction primarily employed sandstone ashlar blocks – either bonded together with mortar or drylaid. Their walls are set with timber stringcourses that provide tensile reinforcement against earthquakes. The diagonally chiseled surfaces are designed to hold colorful stucco commonly used for decoration. Ornamented plaster, and sometimes marble imported for use as revetments, also decorated many of the buildings.

Nabatean Coinage

Minted for 170 years, the earliest Nabatean coins were struck during the period of 62–60 b.c.e. These coins are important sources of information about Nabatean political standing.

Nabatean Pottery

Nabatean pottery is unique. It is what archaeologists refer to as a "horizon-marker" or an "index fossil," because it is different from any other wares produced at this time. Not only is it recovered in prodigious numbers at Petra and known Nabatean sites in Jordan, but large quantities also are found in Saudi Arabia, the Negev, and the Sinai. The origins of Nabatean pottery are obscure, but it makes its earliest appearance at Petra during the reign of Aretas ii, or between 100 and 92 b.c.e.

In conclusion, Nabatean research proves the existence of a highly original culture that flourished from the second century b.c.e. to the second century c.e. Nabatea has not yet, however, yielded all the secrets concealed in its soil.

(The names of sites and monuments in Petra and Jordan are based on the official transliteration system used by the Royal Jordanian Geographic Center (rjgc).)

Aretas Ica. 170–160 B.C.E.
(?) Rabbel I
Aretas IIca. 100–96/92 B.C.E.
Obedas I93–85 B.C.E.
Aretas III Philhellenos85–62 B.C.E.
Obedas II62/61–59 B.C.E.
Malichus I59/58–30 B.C.E.
Obedas III30–9/8 B.C.E.
Aretas IV "Lover of his People"9 B.C.E.–40 C.E.
Malichus II40–70 C.E.
Rabbel II70–106 C.E.


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[Martha Sharp Joukowsky (2nd ed.)]

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