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Nabataean Kingdom

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The Nabataean Kingdom (Arabic: المملكة النبطية‎), also named Nabatea (/ˌnæbəˈtə/), was a political state of the Arab Nabataeans during classical antiquity.

Nabataean Kingdom

المملكة النبطية
4th century BC–106 AD
The Nabataean Kingdom at its greatest extent
The Nabataean Kingdom at its greatest extent
Common languagesNabataean Aramaic
Nabataean Arabic
Arab polytheism
Historical eraAntiquity
• Established
4th century BC
• Obodas I repels Hasmonean invasion
90 BC
• Conquered by the Roman Empire
106 AD
200,000 km2 (77,000 sq mi)
CurrencyNabataean Denarius
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Arabia Petraea
Today part of Jordan
 Saudi Arabia

The Nabataean Kingdom controlled much of the trade routes of the region, amassing a large wealth drawing the envy of its neighbors. It stretched south along the Red Sea coast into the Hejaz desert, up to as far north as Damascus, which it controlled for a short period (85–71) BC.

Nabataea remained independent from the 4th century BC until it was annexed by the Roman Empire in AD 106,[1] which renamed it Arabia Petraea.[2]




Painting of a Nabataean tomb, Qasr al Farid, located at Mada'in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

The Nabataeans were one among several nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert and moved with their herds to wherever they could find pasture and water.[3] They became familiar with their area as seasons passed, and they struggled to survive during bad years when seasonal rainfall diminished.[3] Although the Nabataeans were initially embedded in Aramaic culture, theories about them having Aramean roots are rejected by modern scholars. Instead, archaeological, religious and linguistic evidence confirm that they are a northern Arabian tribe.[4]

The precise origin of the specific tribe of Arab nomads remains uncertain. One hypothesis locates their original homeland in today's Yemen, in the southwest of the Arabian peninsula, but their deities, language and script share nothing with those of southern Arabia. Another hypothesis argues that they came from the eastern coast of the peninsula.[3]

The suggestion that they came from the Hejaz area is considered to be more convincing, as they share many deities with the ancient people there; nbtw, the root consonant of the tribe's name, is found in the early Semitic languages of Hejaz.[3]

Similarities between late Nabataean Arabic dialect and the ones found in Mesopotamia during the Neo-Assyrian period, as well as a group with the name of "Nabatu" being listed by the Assyrians as one of several rebellious Arab tribes in the region, suggests a connection between the two.[3]

The Nabataeans might have originated from there and migrated west between the 6th and 4th centuries BC into northwestern Arabia and much of what is now modern-day Jordan. Nabataeans have been falsely associated with other groups of people. A people called the "Nabaiti", who were defeated by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, were associated by some with the Nabataeans because of the temptation to link their similar names. Another misconception is their identification with the Nebaioth of the Hebrew Bible, the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's son.[3]

Unlike the rest of the Arabian tribes, the Nabataeans later emerged as vital players in the region during their times of prosperity. However, their influence then faded, and the Nabataeans were forgotten.[3]


Trading routes of the ancient Middle East, when Petra was the last stop for caravans carrying spices before being shipped to European markets through the Port of Gaza.

The literate Nabataeans left no lengthy historical texts. However, thousands of inscriptions have been found in their settlements, including graffiti and on minted coins.[3] The Nabataeans appear in historical records from the fourth century BC.[5] although there seems to be evidence of their existence before that time. Aramaic ostraca finds indicate that the Achaemenid province Idumaea must have been established before 363 B.C.[6] after the failed revolt of Hakor of Egypt and Evagoras I of Salamis against the Persians. The Qedarites joined the failed revolt, lost significant territory and a privileged position in the frankincense trade, and were presumably replaced by the Nabataeans.[5] It has been argued that the Persians lost interest in the former territory of the Edomite Kingdom after 400 B.C., allowing the Nabataeans to gain prominence in that area.[7] All of these changes would have allowed Nabataeans to gain control of the frankincense trade from Dedan to Gaza.[5]

The first historical reference to the Nabataeans is by Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who lived around 30 BC. Diodorus refers accounts made 300 years earlier by Hieronymus of Cardia, one of Alexander the Great's generals, who had a first-hand encounter with the Nabataeans. Diodorus relates how the Nabataeans survived in a waterless desert and they managed defeated enemies by hiding in the desert until the latter surrendered for lack of water. The Nabataeans dug cisterns that were covered and marked by signs known only to themselves.[3]

Diodorus wrote about how they were "exceptionally fond of freedom" and includes an account about unsuccessful raids that were initiated by Greek general Antigonus I in 312 BC.[3]

neither the Assyrians of old, nor the kings of the Medes and Persians, nor yet those of the Macedonians have been able to enslave them, and... they never brought their attempts to a successful conclusion. - Diodorus[3]

After Alexander the Great's death in 323 BC, his empire split among his generals. During the conflict between Alexander's generals, Antigonus I conquered the Levant and this brought him to the borders of Edom, just north of Petra.[3] According to Diodorus Siculus, Antigonus sought to add "the land of the Arabs who are called Nabataeans" to his existing territories of Syria and Phoenicia.[8] The Nabataeans were distinguished from the other Arab tribes by wealth.[9] The Nabataeans generated revenues from the trade caravans that transported frankincense, myrrh and other spices from Eudaemon in today's Yemen, across the Arabian peninsula, passing through Petra and ending up in the Port of Gaza for shipment to European markets.[3]

Antigonus ordered one of his officers, Athenaeus, to raid the Nabataeans with 4000 infantry and 600 cavalry and loot herds and processions. Athenaeus learned that the every year the Nabataeans gathered for a festival, during which women, children, and elders were left at Petra (or "the Rock" as Athenaeus knew it.) The Antigonids attacked Petra in 312 BC while the Nabataeans were away trading; the inhabitants were taken by surprise and tonnes of spices and silver were looted. Although 312 BC is regarded as the official start of Nabataean history, they were already wealthy.[3] The Antigonids departed before nightfall and made camp to rest 200 stadion away[10] where they thought they would be safe from Nabataean counter-attack. The camp was attacked by 8000 pursuing Nabataean soldiers and - as Diodorus describes it - "all the 4000 foot-soldiers were slain, but of the 600 horsemen about fifty escaped, and of these the larger part were wounded"[11]; Athenaeus himself was killed.[12] The Antigonids had deployed no scouts, a failure that Diodorus ascribes to Athenaeus failure to anticipate the rapidity of the Nabataeans response. The Nabataeans wrote a letter to Antigonus declaring that they had destroyed the Antigonid army in self-defence and did not want war. Antigonus reply blamed Athenaeus for acting unilaterally and was intended to lull the Nabataeans into a false sense of security but the Nabataeans remained extremely suspicious. The Nabataeans established outposts on the edge of the mountains in preparation for future Antigonid attacks.[8]

Marble bust of Demetrius I Poliorcetes. Roman copy from 1st century AD of a Greek original from 3rd century BC

The Antigonids' second attack was with an army of 4000 infantry and 4000 cavalry led by Antigonus' son, Demetrius "the Besieger". Nabataean scouts used smoke signals to warn of the approaching Antigonid army. The Nabataean's dispersed their herds and possessions to guarded locations in harsh terrain - such as deserts and mountain tops - which would be difficult for the Antigonids to attack, and garrisoned Petra to defend what remained.[13] The Nabataeans had superior knowledge of the terrain; they drew water from underground cisterns they had constructed to gather seasonal rainfall, and could navigate the desert. The Antigonids besieged Petra but were unable to capture it.[14] The Nabataeans sent a message to Demetrius pointing out that Antigonid aggression made no sense, for the land was semi-barren and the Nabataeans had no desire to be Antigonid slaves. Eventually Demetrius was forced to accept peace, and withdraw with prisoners and gifts.[15] Demetrius drew Antigonus displeasure for the peace, but this was ameliorated by Demetrius' reports of bitumen deposits, a valuable commodity that was essential for the embalming process[11], in the Dead Sea[16]

Antigonus sent an expedition, this time under Hieronymus of Cardia, to extract bitumen from the Dead Sea. The Nabataeans were enraged by yet another incursion and destroyed the Antigonids with arrows. Antigonus launched no further attacks on the Nabataeans..[17] The event is described as the first conflict caused by a Middle Eastern petroleum product.[18]

The series of wars between the Greek generals ended in a dispute over the lands of modern-day Jordan between the Ptolemies based in Egypt and the Seleucids based in Syria. The conflict enabled the Nabataeans to extend their kingdom beyond Edom.[19]

Creation of the Nabataean KingdomEdit

Al-Khazneh carved into rock by the Nabataeans in their capital, Petra.

The Nabataean Arabs did not emerge as a political power suddenly, their rise instead went through two phases.[20] The first phase was in the 4th century BC, it was marked by the growth of Nabataean control over trade routes and various tribes and towns. While the second phase (3rd century BC) witnessed the creation of the Nabataean kingdom.[21] During the late fourth century BC, the Nabataeans occupied northern Hejaz, Edom and the Negev into the Mediterranean Sea. Along with some offshore islands and a stretch of land along the coast of the Red Sea.[3] For more than four centuries the Nabataeans dominated, politically and commercially, a large territory. And was arguably the first Arab kingdom in the area.[22]

One of the subsequent outcomes of the Greek expeditions on the Nabataeans was the political centralization of the Nabatu tribe. The earliest evidence of Nabataean kingship comes from a Nabataean inscription in the Hauran region which mentions a Nabataean king whose name was lost. The inscription was dated by Stracky to the early third century BC.[23] The dating is significant, since the available evidence does not attest the existence of Nabataean monarchy until the second century BC.[24]

Diodorus mentions that the Nabataeans had attacked merchants ships belonging to the Ptolemies in Egypt but were soon targeted by a larger force and "punished as they deserved".[3]

While it is unknown why the wealthy Nabataeans turned to piracy, one possible reason is that they felt that their trade interests were threatened by the competitive naval trade route across the Red Sea.[3]

Half a century following Antigonus's aggressions is the second historical reference to the Nabataeans in Hauran.[3]

Dionysius, one of two Greek employees who sought an alternative career of selling women as sex slaves, was once detained by the Nabataeans for a week during one of his trades.[3]

Considering the Nabtaean society's remarkable gender equality at that time, it is likely that they were objecting to the treatment of women in their area, which they believed they were responsible for in the course of maintaining law and order.[3]

Aretas I is the first named king of the Nabataeans whose name was found on an inscription in the Negev dating back to the second century BC.[3]

Around the same time, the Arab Nabataeans and the neighboring Jewish Maccabees had maintained a friendly relationship, the former had sympathized with the Maccabee who were being mistreated by the Seleucids.[3]

The Nabataeans started to mint coins during the same century, portraying the extensive economic and political independence that they enjoyed.[3]

Petra was included in a list of major cities in the Mediterranean area to be visited by a notable from Priene, a sign of the significance of Nabataea in the ancient world. Petra was included with Alexandria, which was considered to be a supreme city in the civilized world.[3]

Nabataeans and HasmoneansEdit

Temple of Avdat in the Negev, built by the Nabataeans to commemorate king Obodas I and his victories against the Hasmoneans and the Seleucids.

The Nabataeans were allies of the Maccabees during their struggles against the Seleucid monarchs. They then became rivals of their successors, the Judaean Hasmonean dynasty, and a chief element in the disorders which invited Pompey's intervention in Judea.[25] The Port of Gaza was the last stop for spices that were carried by trade caravans before shipment to European markets, and so the Nabataeans had considerable influence over the Gazans.[3]

The Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus, besieged the city of Gaza around 100 BC, on the grounds that the Gazans had favoured the Ptolemies over the Judaeans in their recent battles. Gaza was occupied and its inhabitants put to the sword by Jannaeus.[3]

The Hasmoneans, under Jannaeus, launched a campaign that captured several territories in Transjordan north of Nabataea, along the road to Damascus, including northern Moab and Gilead. The territorial acquisitions threatened Nabataean trade interests, both to Gaza and to the Seleucids in Damascus.[26] The Nabataean King, Obodas I fought to restore the areas. Obodas managed to defeat Jannaeus in the Battle of Gadara around 93 BC, when he ambushed him and his forces in a steep valley where Jannaeus "was lucky to escape alive".[3]

After the Nabataean victory over the Judaeans, the former were now at odds with the Seleucids, who were not impressed with the increasing influence of the Nabataeans to the south of their territories.[27] The Nabataeans were again victorious over the Greeks, and this time over the Seleucids. During the Battle of Cana, the Seleucid king Antiochus XII waged war against the Nabataeans and the king himself was slain during combat. His demoralized army fled and perished in the desert from starvation. After Obodas's victories over the Judaeans and the Greeks, he became the first Nabataean king to be worshipped as a god by his people.

Avdat was a temple built in the Negev desert by the Nabataeans to commemorate Obodas. He was buried there and inscriptions have been found referring to "Obodas the god".[3]

During the reign of Aretas III (87 to 62 BC) the kingdom seems to have reached its territorial zenith, but it was defeated by a Roman army under the command of Marcus Aemilius Scaurus. Scaurus' army even besieged Petra, but eventually a compromise was negotiated. Paying a tribute, Aretas III received the formal recognition by the Roman Republic.[28]

The Nabataean kingdom saw itself slowly surrounded by the expanding Roman Empire, which conquered Egypt and annexed Hasmonean Judea. While the Nabataean kingdom managed to preserve its formal independence, it became a client kingdom under the influence of Rome.[28]

Roman annexationEdit

A map of the Roman Empire, at its greatest extent, showing the territory of Trajan's Nabataean conquests in red.

In 106 AD, during the reign of Roman emperor Trajan, the last king of the Nabataean kingdom Rabbel II Soter died.[28] That might have prompted the official annexation of Nabatea to the Roman Empire, but the formal reasons and the exact manner of annexation are unknown.[28] Some epigraphic evidence suggests a military campaign, commanded by Cornelius Palma, the governor of Syria. Roman forces seem to have come from Syria and also from Egypt. It is clear that by 107 AD Roman legions were stationed in the area around Petra and Bostra, as is shown by a papyrus found in Egypt. The kingdom was annexed by the empire to become the province of Arabia Petraea. Trade seems to have largely continued thanks to the Nabataeans' undiminished talent for trading.[28] Under Hadrian, the limes Arabicus ignored most of the Nabatæan territory and ran northeast from Aila (modern Aqaba) at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba. A century later, during the reign of Alexander Severus, the local issue of coinage came to an end. There was no more building of sumptuous tombs, apparently because of a sudden change in political ways, such as an invasion by the neo-Persian power under the Sassanid Empire.

The city of Palmyra, for a time the capital of the breakaway Palmyrene Empire (fl. 130–270), grew in importance and attracted the Arabian trade away from Petra.[29][30]


It was between the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian Peninsula. Its northern neighbour was the kingdom of Judea, and its south western neighbour was Ptolemaic Egypt. Its capital was the city of Raqmu in Jordan, and it included the towns of Bostra, Mada'in Saleh (Hegra), and Nitzana.

Raqmu, now called Petra, was a wealthy trading town, located at a convergence of several important trade routes. One of them was the Incense Route which was based around the production of both myrrh and frankincense in southern Arabia,[29][31] and ran through Mada'in Saleh to Petra. From there, aromatics were distributed throughout the Mediterranean region.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Saudi Arabia's silent desert city".
  2. ^ Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities - Petra Archived 2008-04-10 at the Wayback Machine. from the official website for The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Jane, Taylor (2001). Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans. London, United Kingdom: I.B.Tauris. pp. 14, 17, 30, 31. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  4. ^ Maalouf, Tony (2003). Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God's Prophetic Plan for Ishmael's Line. Kregel Academic. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  5. ^ a b c The World of the Nabataeans. Vol. 2 - p.26.
  6. ^ Lemaire 1999
  7. ^ Knauf 1988 - p.76-77.
  8. ^ a b Glen Warren Bowersock. Roman Arabia. Harvard University Press; 1994. ISBN 978-0-674-77756-9. p. 13.
  9. ^ Mills, Watson; Bullard, Roger (1990). Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Mercer University Press. p. 598. Retrieved 9 July 2016.
  10. ^ Al-Dughaim: Military organisation - p.107 / الدغيم: التنظيمات العسكرية، ص 107
  11. ^ a b Jane, Taylor (2001). Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans. London, United Kingdom: I.B.Tauris. pp. 30, 31, 38. Retrieved 8 July 2016.
  12. ^ N. G. De Groot. The History of the Israelites and Judæans: Philosophical and Critical. Trübner & Company; 1879. p. 7.
  13. ^ Graf: The Nabatean army p.270.
  14. ^ Al-Dughaim: Military organisation - p.50 / الدغيم: التنظيمات العسكرية ص 50
  15. ^ Bowersock: Roman Arabia p.14.
  16. ^ McLaughlin, Raoul (9 November 2014). The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean: The Ancient World Economy and the Kingdoms of Africa, Arabia and India. Pen and Sword. p. 50-52. Retrieved 10 July 2016.
  17. ^ James Ussher. The Annals of the World. New Leaf Publishing Group; 1 October 2003. ISBN 978-1-61458-255-7. p. 331.
  18. ^ Waterfield, Robin (11 October 2012). Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great's Empire. Oxford University Press. p. 123. Retrieved 10 July 2016.
  19. ^ Salibi, Kamal (1998). The Modern History of Jordan. I.B.Tauris. p. 10. ISBN 978-1-86064-331-6. Retrieved 11 July 2016.
  20. ^ The Rise of the Nabataeans / Sociopolitical Development in 4th and 3rd Century BC Nabataea - p.8
  21. ^ The Rise of the Nabataeans / Sociopolitical Development in 4th and 3rd Century BC Nabataea - p.8
  22. ^ The Rise of the Nabataeans / Sociopolitical Development in 4th and 3rd Century BC Nabataea - p.1
  23. ^ The Rise of the Nabataeans / Sociopolitical Development in 4th and 3rd Century BC Nabataea - p.147
  24. ^ The Rise of the Nabataeans / Sociopolitical Development in 4th and 3rd Century BC Nabataea - p.147
  25. ^ Johnson, Paul (1987). A History of the Jews. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-79091-4.
  26. ^ Josephus, Flavius (1981). The Jewish War. 1:87. Trans. G. A. Williamson 1959. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin. p. 40. ISBN 978-0-14-044420-9.
  27. ^ Ball, Warwick (10 June 2016). Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire. Routledge. p. 65. Retrieved 10 July 2016.
  28. ^ a b c d e Taylor, Jane; Petra; p.25-31; Aurum Press Ltd; London; 2005; ISBN 9957-451-04-9
  29. ^ a b Teller, Matthew; Jordan; p.265; Rough Guides; Sept 2009; ISBN 978-1-84836-066-2
  30. ^ "'Al Kanfei Yonah". Google Books. Retrieved 27 August 2014.
  31. ^ Gibson (2011), p. 132.

Further readingEdit

  • Benjamin, Jesse. "Of Nubians and Nabateans: Implications of research on neglected dimensions of ancient world history." Journal of Asian and African Studies 36, no. 4 (2001): 361–82.
  • Fittschen, Klaus, and G Foerster. Judaea and the Greco-Roman World In the Time of Herod In the Light of Archaeological Evidence: Acts of a Symposium. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996.
  • Kropp, Andreas J. M. "Nabatean Petra: the royal palace and the Herod connection." Boreas 32 (2009): 43-59.
  • Negev, Avraham. Nabatean Archaeology Today. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

External linksEdit

Coordinates: 30°19′43″N 35°26′31″E / 30.3286°N 35.4419°E / 30.3286; 35.4419