The Nabataeans

Petra desert roadWhatever you read about the ancient city of Petra in Jordan you’ll come across references to the civilization accredited with carving the beautiful city out of rock – the Nabataeans. But they are not as well known as the ancient Greeks, Romans or Egyptians. So who were the Nabataeans?

The Nabataeans appear to have spoken Arabic and later Aramaic; they were ruled by a monarch but shared the burdens of the kingdom like a democracy and they prayed to pagan deities like the sun god Dushara and the goddess Allat.

The various theories of their origins include them being descendants from Nabaioth, a sister of Bashemath, one the Esau’s wives; originating in ancient Iraq (Mesopotamia); they may have descended from Nebayoth the son of Ishmael; perhaps they were the Nabat-al-Sham of Damascus and they have even been called pirates who sailed on the Red Sea. However wherever they originated from it is evident that the Nabataeans migrated from the Southern Arabian Peninsula up to Southern Jordan in the 4th century BC and settled there, making Petra their capital.

The Nabataeans were great traders and they established Petra as a link in their trading network. The Nabataean tradesmen managed to dominate the trade routes from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, they connected Aqaba on the Red Sea with cities on the Persian Gulf as well as Bosra and Damascus in the north. The exact bounderies of their kingdom are unknown but their caravans traveled as far as Yemen, Western Iraq and the Sinai Desert. Goods such as myrrh, copper, spices and precious gems were transported. These valuable routes were so coveted that in 312BC Syria launched two unsuccessful attacks on Petra. Thanks to the city’s natural rock fortifications the Nabataeans prevailed.

Although there are few written references to this great civilization a Nabataean King Harith is mentioned in the 3rd century BC and then from 100BC onwards there are more references helping historians to establish a timeline of Nabataean kings.

In 63BC the Romans conquered the Nabataeans but allowed them to continue operating independently in Petra. The Nabataeans acted as a buffer between the Romans and the desert tribes. Hard times befell the Nabataeans as new trade routes were established circumventing Petra; their economy suffered; there were food and water shortages and their absorption into the Roman Empire seemed imminent. In 107AD power shifted and the Roman Emperor Trajan conquered the Nabataeans, appointing Syria to make the Nabataean Kingdom (Jordan) a Roman province called Arabia Petraea. As part of the Roman Empire a mixed bag of cultures and religions arrived in Petra, and although the city prospered for a while the Nabataean culture declined. Another blow came when the neo-Persian Sassanid Empire invaded Jordan and the city declined further due to a series of earthquakes. Disaster followed disaster for the once mighty race and in 551AD another, more destructive earthquake hit Petra this time damaging the water system. By 700AD the city was completely abandoned leaving only Bedouin desert tribes in the surrounding landscape. The Nabataean civilization slipped away with the desert sands.

Although it is believed that the Nabataeans were highly literate they did not write down their history, unlike the Jews, Egyptians and Babylonians, almost as if they had a secret to keep. Little is known about their race, making the Nabataeans seem mysterious and secretive. Questions remain: how did a nomadic tribe create such sophisticated architecture in Petra? Why is Petra accessible through such a narrow gorge, what was there to hide? Perhaps they hid their precious knowledge of trading, architecture, water conservation and who knows what other skills from the dominating civilizations at the time the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians in order to protect it.