The Nabataeans or Nabateans (/ˌnæbəˈtənz/; Nabataean Aramaic: 𐢕𐢃𐢋𐢈Nabāṭū; Arabic: ٱلْأَنْبَاط, al-ʾAnbāṭ, singular النبطي, al-Nabaṭī; compare Akkadian: Assyrian cuneiform U1223E MesZL 110.svgAssyrian cuneiform U12040 MesZL 14.svgAssyrian cuneiform U121AD MesZL 87 or U122FD MesZL 88 or U12305 MesZL 86.svgAssyrian cuneiform U12261 MesZL 112.svg Nabātu; Ancient Greek: Ναβαταῖος; Latin: Nabataeus) were an ancient Arab people who inhabited northern Arabia and the southern Levant.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7] Their settlements—most prominently the assumed capital city of Raqmu (present-day Petra, Jordan)[1]—gave the name Nabatene (Ancient Greek: Ναβατηνή, Nabatēnḗ) to the Arabian borderland that stretched from the Euphrates to the Red Sea.

Roman Empire 125.png
Map of the Roman empire under Hadrian (ruled CE 117–138), showing the location of the Arabes Nabataei in the desert regions around the Roman province of Arabia Petraea
Related ethnic groups
Arameans, Arabs

The Nabataeans were one of several nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert in search of pasture and water for their herds.[8] They emerged as a distinct civilization and political entity between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE,[8] with their kingdom centered around a loosely controlled trading network that brought considerable wealth and influence across the ancient world.

Described as fiercely independent by contemporary Greco-Roman accounts, the Nabataeans were annexed into the Roman Empire by Emperor Trajan in 106 CE. Nabataeans' individual culture, easily identified by their characteristic finely potted painted ceramics, was adopted into the larger Greco-Roman culture. They later converted to Christianity during the Later Roman Era. Jane Taylor describes them as "one of the most gifted peoples of the ancient world".[9]



The Nabataeans were one among several nomadic tribes who roamed the Arabian Desert, moving with their herds to wherever they could find pasture and water. These nomads became familiar with their area as seasons passed, and they struggled to survive during bad years when seasonal rainfall diminished.[9] Although the Nabataeans were initially embedded in Aramaic culture, modern scholars reject theories about their having Aramean roots. Historical, religious, and linguistic evidence instead identifies them as a northern Arabian tribe.[10]

A hypothesis argues that the Nabataeans came from the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula,[9] and Edward Lipiński identified the Nabātu and Nabayatu mentioned by Tiglath-Pileser III and Sennacherib with the Nabataeans and located them as living to the west of Babylonia's western border in the 7th century BCE, where they were strongly influenced by Babylonian culture. Under the reign of Sargon II, the Nabataya are mentioned as having been put by the Assyrian king at the disposal of the governor of Ašipā in Babylonia, and later in the middle of the 7th century BCE their envoys were presented with captives from Sippar by the Babylonian king Shamash-shum-ukin.[10] By the time Ashurbanipal conducted his campaigns against the Arabs, the Nabātu had migrated westwards into the Syrian steppe, and they had moved to the south of the Wādī Sirḥān in the 6th century BCE.[10] Similarities between late Nabataean Arabic dialect and the ones found in Mesopotamia during the Neo-Assyrian period, and the fact that the Assyrians listed a group with the name of "Nabatu" as one of several rebellious Arab tribes in the region, suggests a connection between the two.[9] The Arabic language scholar Ahmad al-Jallad concludes that evidence suggests that Arabic was part of the linguistic milieu of the Levant and Mesopotamia as early as the Iron Age.[11] As such the Nabataeans, along with other notable Arab tribes in the region, the Tanukhids, Banu al-Samayda, Banu Amilah and Ghassanids, would have been a part of a milieu that was native to the Levant and Mesopotamia.[citation needed] The Nabataeans have been identified with the Nebaioth of the Hebrew Bible, the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's son.[9]

The suggestion that they came from the Hejaz area is considered by Michele Murray[12] to be more convincing, as they share many deities with the ancient people there, and nbtw, the root consonant of the tribe's name, is found in the early Semitic languages of Hejaz.[9]

Herodotus mentioned an Arabian king, possibly the Nabatean king, who was an ally of the Persians and gave them a safe passage to Egypt.[13] According to the same source, all people of West Asia were subjects to the Persians except the Arabians who never submitted to the Persian yoke.

Unlike the rest of the Arabian tribes, the Nabataeans later emerged as vital players in the region[which?] during their times of prosperity. However, they later faded and were forgotten.[9] The brief Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews that began in 586 BCE opened a minor power vacuum in Judah (prior to the Judaeans' return under the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, who reigned 559–530 BCE). As Edomites moved into open Judaean grazing lands, Nabataean inscriptions began to appear in Edomite territory. The first definite appearance dates from 312/311 BCE, when they were attacked at Sela or perhaps at Petra without success by Antigonus I's officer Athenaeus in the course of the Third War of the Diadochi; at that time Hieronymus of Cardia, a Seleucid officer, mentioned the Nabataeans in a battle report. About 50 BCE, 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]

The Nabataeans had already some trace of Aramaic culture when they first appear in history. They wrote a letter to Antigonus in Syriac letters, and Aramaic continued as 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 river. They occupied Hauran, and in about 85 BCE their king Aretas III became lord of Damascus and Coele-Syria. Proper names on their inscriptions suggest that they were ethnically Arabs who had come under Aramaic influence. Starcky identifies the Nabatu of southern Arabia (Pre-Khalan migration) as their ancestors.[citation needed] However, different groups amongst the Nabataeans wrote their names in slightly different ways; consequently archaeologists are reluctant to say that they all belonged to the same tribe, or that any one group represents the original Nabataeans.[citation needed]

Historians such as Irfan Shahîd,[14] Warwick Ball,[15] Robert G. Hoyland,[16] Michael C. A. Macdonald,[17] and others[18] believe Nabataeans spoke Arabic as their native language. John F. Healy states that "Nabataeans normally spoke a form of Arabic, while, like the Persians etc., they used Aramaic for formal purposes and especially for inscriptions."[19]

Nabataean KingdomEdit

The Roman province of Arabia Petraea, created from the Nabataean kingdom
Silver drachm of Malichos II with Shaqilat II
Silver drachm of Obodas II with Hagaru

Petra was rapidly built in the 1st century BC, and developed a population estimated at 20,000.[20]

The Nabataeans were allies of the first Hasmoneans in their struggles against the Seleucid monarchs. They then became rivals of the Judaean dynasty, and a chief element in the disorders that invited Pompey's intervention in Judea. According to popular historian Paul Johnson, many Nabataeans were forcefully converted to Judaism by Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus.[21][better source needed] It was this king who, after putting down a local rebellion, invaded and occupied the Nabataean towns of Moab and Gilead and imposed a tribute of an unknown amount. Obodas I knew that Alexander would attack, so was able to ambush Alexander's forces near Gaulane destroying the Judean army (90 BC).[22]

The Roman military was not very successful in their campaigns against the Nabataeans. In 62 BCE, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus accepted a bribe of 300 talents to lift the siege of Petra, partly because of the difficult terrain and the fact that he had run out of supplies. Hyrcanus II, who was a friend of Aretas, was despatched by Scaurus to the King to buy peace. In so obtaining peace, King Aretas retained all his possessions, including Damascus, and became a Roman vassal.[23]

In 32 BCE, during King Malichus II's reign, Herod the Great, with the support of Cleopatra, started a war against Nabataea. The war began with Herod plundering Nabataea with a large cavalry force, and occupying Dium. After this defeat, the Nabataean forces amassed near Canatha in Syria, but were attacked and routed. Cleopatra's general, Athenion, sent Canathans to the aid of the Nabataeans, and this force crushed Herod's army, which then fled to Ormiza. One year later, Herod's army overran Nabataea.[24]

Colossal Nabataean columns stand in Bosra, Syria

After an earthquake in Judaea, the Nabateans rebelled and invaded Judea, but Herod at once crossed the Jordan river to Philadelphia (modern Amman) and both sides set up camp. The Nabataeans under Elthemus refused to give battle, so Herod forced the issue when he attacked their camp. A confused mass of Nabataeans gave battle but were defeated. Once they had retreated to their defences, Herod laid siege to the camp and over time some of the defenders surrendered. The remaining Nabataean forces offered 500 talents for peace, but this was rejected. Lacking water, the Nabataeans were forced out of their camp for battle, but were defeated in this last battle.[25]

Roman periodEdit

An ally of the Roman Empire, the Nabataean kingdom flourished throughout the 1st 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 Myos Hormos to Coptos on the Nile. Under the Pax Romana, the Nabataeans lost their warlike and nomadic habits and became 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 except in the time of Trajan, who reduced Petra and converted the Nabataean client state into the Roman province of Arabia Petraea.[26] By the 3rd century, the Nabataeans had stopped writing in Aramaic and begun writing in Greek instead, and by the 5th century they had converted to Christianity.[27] 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 Kingdom of Kinda in North Arabia. The city of Petra was brought to the attention of Westerners by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812.[citation needed]


Nabataean trade routes

Many examples of graffiti and inscriptions—largely of names and greetings—document the area of Nabataean culture, which extended as far north as the north end of the Dead Sea, and testify to widespread literacy; but except for a few letters[28] no Nabataean literature has survived, nor was any noted in antiquity.[29][30][31] Onomastic analysis has suggested[32] that Nabataean culture may have had multiple influences. Classical references to the Nabataeans begin with Diodorus Siculus; they suggest that the Nabataeans' 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, preeminent 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, 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.[33]

Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq's Kitab al-Tabikh, the earliest known Arabic cookbook, contains a recipe for fermented Nabatean water bread (khubz al-ma al-nabati). The yeast-leavened bread is made with a high quality wheat flour called samidh that is finely milled and free of bran and is baked in a tandoor.[34]


Eagle on the tomb facade that represents the guardianship of Dushara against intruders at Mada'in Saleh, Hejaz, Saudi Arabia

The extent of Nabataean trade resulted in cross-cultural influences that reached as far as the Red Sea coast of southern Arabia. The gods worshiped at Petra were notably Dushara and Al-‘Uzzá. Dushara was the supreme deity of the Nabataean Arabs, and was the official god of the Nabataean Kingdom who enjoyed special royal patronage.[35] His official position is reflected in multiple inscriptions that render him as "The god of our lord" (The King).[36] The name Dushara is from the Arabic "Dhu ash-Shara": which simply means "the one of Shara", a mountain range south-east of Petra also known as Mount Seir.[35] Therefore, from a Nabataean perspective, Dhushara was probably associated with the heavens. However, one theory which connects Dushara with the forest gives a different idea of the god.[37] The eagle was one of the symbols of Dushara.[38] It was widely used in Hegra as a source of protection for the tombs against thievery.[39]

Nabataean inscriptions from Hegra suggest that Dushara was linked either with the sun, or with Mercury, with which Ruda, another Arabian god, was identified.[36] "His throne" was frequently mentioned in inscriptions, certain interpretations of the text consider it as a reference for Dhushara's wife, goddess Harisha. She was probably a solar deity.[37]

However, when the Romans annexed the Nabataean Kingdom, Dushara still had an important role despite losing his former royal privilege. The greatest testimony to the status of the god after the fall of the Nabataean Kingdom was during the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Rome where Dushara was celebrated in Bostra by striking coins in his name, Actia Dusaria (linking the god with Augustus victory at Actium). He was venerated in his Arabian name with a Greek fashion in the reign of an Arabian emperor, Philip.[36]

Sacrifices of animals were common and Porphyry’s De Abstenentia reports that, in Dumat Al-Jandal, a boy was sacrificed annually and was buried underneath an altar. Some scholars have extrapolated this practice to the rest of the Nabataeans.[40]

The Nabataeans used to represent their gods as featureless pillars or blocks. Their most common monuments to the gods, commonly known as "god blocks", involved cutting away the whole top of a hill or cliff face so as to leave only a block behind. However, over time the Nabataeans were influenced by Greece and Rome and their Gods became anthropomorphic and were represented with human features.[41]


Qasr al-Farid, the largest tomb at Mada'in Saleh

The Nabataeans spoke an Arabic dialect but, for their inscriptions, used a form of Aramaic that was heavily influenced by Arabic forms and words.[42] When communicating with other Middle Eastern peoples, they, like their neighbors, used Aramaic, the region's lingua franca.[36] Therefore, Aramaic was used for commercial and official purposes across the Nabataean political sphere.[43] The Nabataean alphabet itself also developed out of the Aramaic alphabet, but it used a distinctive cursive script from which the Arabic alphabet emerged. There are different opinions concerning the development of the Arabic script. J. Starcky considers the Lakhmids' Syriac form script as a probable candidate.[44] However, John F. Healey states that: "The Nabataean origin of the Arabic script is now almost universally accepted".[44]

In surviving Nabataean documents, Aramaic legal terms are followed by their equivalents in Arabic. That could suggest that the Nabataeans used Arabic in their legal proceedings but recorded them in Aramaic.[45][46]

The name may be derived from the same root as Akkadian nabatu, to shine brightly.[47]


Nabataean farming, capturing 50 acres of run-off water for one acre of crops
Remains of a Nabataean cistern north of Makhtesh Ramon, southern Israel

Although not as dry as at present, the area occupied by the Nabataeans was still a desert and required special techniques for agriculture. One 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 that 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 Michael 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.[48]

Another study was conducted by Y. Kedar[who?] in 1957, which also focused on the mechanism[vague] 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 E. Mazor,[who?] of the Weizmann Institute of Science.[citation needed]

Nabatean architects and stonemasonsEdit

  • Apollodorus of Damascus - Nabataean architect and engineer from Damascus, Roman Syria, who flourished during the 2nd century AD. his massive architectural output gained him immense popularity during his time. He is one of the few architects whose name survives from antiquity, and is credited with introducing several Eastern innovations to the Roman Imperial style, such as making the dome a standard.[49]
  • Wahb'allahi - a first century stonemason who worked in the city of Hegra.[50] Wahb'allahi was the brother of the stonemason 'Abdharetat and the father of 'Abd'obodat. He is named in an inscription as the responsible stonemason on the oldest datable grave in Hegra in the ninth year of the Nabataean king Aretas IV (1 BCE-CE).[51]
  • 'Abd'obodat son of Wahballahi - a 1st-century Nabatean Stonemason who worked in the city of Hegra.[52] He is named by inscriptions on five of the grave facades typical of Hegra as the executing craftsman. On the basis of the inscriptions, four of the facades can be dated to the reigns of kings Aretas IV and Malichus II. 'Abd'obodat was evidently a successful craftsman. He succeeded his father Wahb'allahi and his uncle 'Abdharetat in at least one workshop in the second generation of Nabatean architects. 'Abd'obodat is considered to be the main representative of one of the two main schools of the Nabataean stonemasons, to which his father, his uncle belonged. Two more grave facades are assigned to the school on the basis of stylistic investigations; 'Abd'obodat is probably to be regarded as the stonemason who carried out the work.[53]
  • 'Aftah - a Nabatean stonemason who became prominent in the beginning of the third decade of the first century.[54] 'Aftah is attested in inscriptions on eight of the grave facades in Hegra and one grave as the executing stonemason. The facades are dated to the late reign of King Aretas IV . On one of the facades he worked with Halaf'allahi, on another with Wahbu and Huru . A tenth facade without an inscription was attributed to the 'Aftah sculpture school due to technical and stylistic similarities. He is the main representative of one of the two stonemason schools in the city of Hegra.
  • Halaf'allahi - Nabatean stonemason who worked in the city of Hegra in the first century. Halaf'allahi is named in inscriptions on two graves in Hegra as the responsible stonemason in the reign of the Nabataean king Aretas IV. The first grave, which can be dated to the year 26-27 CE, was created together with the stonemason 'Aftah. He is therefore assigned to the workshop of the 'Aftah. Nabataean architects and sculptors were in reality contractors, who negotiated the costs of specific tomb types and their decorations. Tombs were therefore executed based on the desires and financial abilities of their future owners. The activities of Halaf'allahi offer an excellent example of this, as he had been commissioned with the execution of a simple tomb for a person who apparently belonged to the lower middle class. However, he was also in charge of completing a more sophisticated tomb for one of the local military officials.[55]

Archeological sitesEdit

  • Petra and Little Petra in Jordan
  • Bosra in Syria
  • Mada'in Saleh[56] in northwest Saudi Arabia.
  • Jabal al-Lawz in northwest Saudi Arabia.
  • Shivta in the Negev Desert of Israel; disputed as a Nabataean precursor to a Byzantine colony.
  • Avdat in the Negev Desert of Israel
  • Mamshit in the Negev Desert of Israel
  • Haluza in the Negev Desert of Israel
  • Dahab in South Sinai, Egypt; an excavated Nabataean trading port.

See alsoEdit


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  • Schmid, Stephan G. (2001). "The Nabataeans: Travellers between Lifestyles". In MacDonald, Burton; Adams, Russell; Bienkowski, Piotr (eds.). The Archaeology of Jordan. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press. pp. 367–426. ISBN 978-1-84127-136-1.

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