Who were the Nabataean?

The Nabateans were an Arab kingdom most famous for the construction of Petra. The kingdom reached its greatest influence in the first century AD under Aretas III, although it maintained prominence until 106AD when it was finally annexed by Rome. The Nabatean territories spanned modern day trans-Jordan as well as neighbouring areas of Saudi Arabia, the Sinai and Gaza. The Nabataean capital was in Raqmu (modern day Petra).

The kingdom controlled critical trade routes from Damascus to Hegra, that linked Mesopatamia and the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt and the Mediterranean ensuring that large volumes of commercial trade passed through their territory.

Emergence of the Nabataean

Prior to the emergence of the Nabataean in the 4th century BC the Persians had proxy control of the Arabian Peninsula and the frankincense trail. A failed Egyptian revolt against the Persians was supported by the Qedarites, who had been in control of Edom (southern Jordan). Their collapse left a power vacuum in the region as Persia lost interest in controlling the distant desert trade route.

Before emerging as a powerful kingdom, the Nabataean were Bedouin nomads who used their knowledge of desert water sources to become successful traders in southern Arabia’s ’empty quarter’ – the sandy barren southern desert Rub’ al Khali of the Arabian Peninsula. The Nabataean guarded the locations of their cisterns carefully to ensure they maintained control of the desert trade routes. They would mark water sources with inconspicuous rocks.

As Persia shifted its focus towards the more profitable silk road to the north, the Nabataean began to emerge as the dominant tribe to control the frankincense trade. They were regarded as a fiercely independent nation and were not motivated to alliances with powerful empires. It was recorded by the Greeks during an attack on Petra that the Nabataean highlighted that the attack was pointless.  They referenced that the Greeks had no use for the barren deserts controlled by the Nabataean and that the they would never serve under them. This strategy was effective with the Greek general returning with a peace agreement.

The Nabataean were known to use a combat strategy of leading their enemies into the desert and waiting for them to surrender once they had run out of water. Throughout their influence they controlled the fringes of the empty quarter that was often considered uninhabitable.

The Nabatean emerged from the nomadic Bedouin tribes of unknown origins on the Arabian Peninsula. It is most probable that they originate from Hejaz – the Red Sea Coastal region of Saudi Arabia as they have similar dieties to the tribes of the area. The Nabataeans greatest strength over their rivals was their hydraulic engineering abilities. They were capable of developing water networks that could sustain large populations in locations where others were unable to locate water.

They transitioned from nomadic lifestyles to establishing centres along trade routes with fortification, worship sites and water storage. The emergence of the Nabataean coincided with increased demand for frankincense and myrrh. This is the primary factor that led to the Nabataean rise to power during the second century BC. Initially acting as couriers the Nabataean expanded their influence to gain complete control over the incense trade. After growing wealthy from fees collected from passing caravans they established trade officers and acted as buying and selling agents. Eventually they facilitated the entire trade process and operated caravans 

The Nabataean developed their wealth primarily from controlling the regions trade routes including the Frankincense trail linking Oman and Yemen to the Mediterrainian. With limited natural water available throughout the area, the Nabatean moved to control springs and monopolise water sources. In doing so their centres became crucial for merchant caravans passing through their territory. They accumulated great wealth from traders along the Arabian Peninsula trade routes which met in Petra.

Nabataean territories were of strategic importance with the frankincense trail from the south and the spice trail from the east leading to wealthy markets in Egypt to the west and the Mediterranean to the north west.

Frankincense trail monopoly and expansion

In 312BC the Greek ruler of Syria, Antigonus attempted to loot the wealth of the Nabataean during a festival. He sent an army at night to take the unguarded wealth of the city. The Nabataean  recaptured the fleeing forces and recaptured their possessions. They did not want direct conflict with their rivals and although settling the dispute remained wary of their northern neighbour. From this expedition the Seleucids, as the Syrian Greeks were called, became aware of bitumen deposits in the Dead Sea. The Nabataean slaughtered a expedition that was sent to exploit the resource. This was the start of a conflict between the two that lasted for over a century. The conflict enabled them to extend their empire north as far as Damascus.

Although previously acting as merchants from southern Arabia, after gaining control of the important intersection of trade routes they rapidly established fortified caravanserais and taxed caravans passing through their kingdom. Frankincense and myrrh are aromatic gum resins from trees that only grow in the south of the Arabian Peninsula and the horn of Africa. The Nabataean established a network of caravanserai one days travel from each other along the frankincense trail. In contrast to other empires, the Nabataean did not maintain a standing army or extensive bureaucracy and hence had far less administrative costs. This allowed their wealth to be magnified.

inscriptions wadi rum

How did the Nabataean come to Petra?

During the 5th century BC there were several nomadic tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert. Many similar to Bedouins today, moving their herds in search of pasture and water. As the Qedarites collapsed, groups were able to move further north. At the time of the Nabataeans increasing wealth, the Edomites were living in Petra. The Nabataeans wanted to use the strategic location nearby the water sources of Wadi Musa to establish an irrigation system that they would channel vast volumes of water to Petra (known as Raqmu). There is some evidence that the art of producing exquisite pottery, for which the Nabateans are world famous, were taught to them by the Edomites. Both the Nabateans and the Edomites claimed descent from the prophet Ishmael, contributing to the peace between the two people.

Nabataean magnificence in Petra

From around 300 BC the Nabataean began to establish a base in Petra. As tourists visit Petra today, they walk in the structures in the valley which were built during the Roman era. However they were likely expanded on and blended with the pre existing Nabatean structures. A very important Nabatean structure that survived into the Roman period were the water systems. With a complex network of ceramic pipes and aqueduct channeling runoff from the surrounding mountains in cisterns from dams high in Wadi Musa.

As the society of Petra developed great wealth at the height of the Nabataean kingdom they began to build elaborate tombs into the cliffs. The Nabataean believed that the afterlife was eternal and life on earth was short so they took great pride in a spectacular burial tomb. Tombs became larger and more elaborate as the society’s wealth grew. Wealthy citizens would commission stone masons to carve out large tombs with banquet halls and large entrances. Large groups would work for years carving tombs starting from the top of the cliffs and carving downward to form the agreed tomb to specific plans from designers and engineers.

At the time the area also had large residences, agricultural areas and public spaces, however it was the tombs carved into the cliffs that would survive the test of time and earthquakes that would hit the area to ensure that the Nabataean would be remembered around the world.


The Nabatean caravanserai’s were their primary income source. The journey from the frankincense and myrrh production in the south to the Mediterranean port in Gaza was 2750km, measured as 65 camel stages. The total cost in taxes per camel was 688 denarii, which was more than an average mans wage for 2 years. Incense was expensive and used by the wealthy in Rome, Athens and Egypt.

The Nabataean controlled all logistics of trade within their kingdom. They had forts and barracks to support the network of caravanserai ensuring security within their territories. All requirements were provided to passing caravans including food, water, shelter and refreshed camels for long journeys.

Although prosperous primarily from trade, the Nabataean also produced and exported goods. They mined bitumen from the Dead Sea. This was their greatest export income. They also mined salt from the Dead Sea and had balsam orchards near Jericho. Both bitumen and balsam were valuable and highly sought after in Egypt for mummification processes.

The Nabataean became well known for their pottery production. Although they created plates and other culinary needs, their main production was for irrigation pipes and storage vessels for perfumes and balsam. The Nabataean developed 3 industrial scale kilns for production. Ceramics produced were identifiable due to the dark red pigment of the clay. They became increasingly recognised for the fine work and historians have likened their thin glazed works to egg shells.

Additionally copper and iron mines were established and coins and weapons were produced. The Nabataean had several copper mines in Wadi Araba and in southern Sinai. Manufacturing industries included textiles, clothing and perfumes.

Prior to the expansion to direct trade with the Greeks, wine was not consumed in the area. However with cross cultural exchange in the Mediterranean, Greek influence led to vineyards being established and over time they grew to replace olives as the Nabataeans largest crop.

Nabataean traders established agencies in foreign lands including Mesopatamia, Egypt, Aegean Islands and Italy. Nabataean inscriptions have been discovered in Italy.


Their society pioneered ceramic techniques that innovated pottery and irrigation systems. They held an advanced understanding of hydraulic pressure and designed irrigation systems to sustain large populations and agriculture. The established techniques prevented damage to systems during times of seasonal floods. Their systems were able to sustain over 100,000 residents in Petra and maintained year round water supply at their caravanserai locations. They developed their own language that became the predecessor of Arabic


Prior to their emergence as a transcontinental trading kingdom, the Nabataean spoke local Bedouin dialetcs that form early Arabic divergence from other semetic languages. However as they emerged as a merchant trading hub they began to use Aramaic which was the regional language used for communication between language groups. They later became fluent in Greek and many of the inscriptions at Nabataean sights are bilingual in Aramaic and Greek.

The Nabataean began to create a pre Arabic script using Aramaic letters with a cursive adaptation that linked each letter. The Nabataean alphabet had 22 letters and they wrote from right to left.

nabatean temple in wadi rum

Nabataean Kingdom emerges

Previously based on system of sheiks where the most charismatic and diplomatic within the wealthy families would gain control, the Nabataean shifted to a hereditary kingdom in the 2nd century BC. King’s were held accountable by a general assembly of citizens.

Aretas I ‘Tyrant of the Arabs’ 168-120BC

Aretas II 120-96BC

Obadas I 96-85BC

Rabel I 85-84BC

Aretas III Philhellene ‘Friend of the Greeks’ 84-60BC

Obadas II 60-59BC

Malichus I 59-30BC

Obadas III 30-9BC

Syllaios ‘The Minister’ 9BC

Aretas IV Philodeme 9BC-40AD

Malichus II 40-70AD

Shaqilat II (Queen Mother) 70-76AD

Rabel II Soter ‘Saviour 76-106AD

What did the Nabatean believe in?

The Nabatean worshipped the sun and atop every house was an altar to Dushara the supreme god. This was anointed daily and perfumed with frankincense. The Nabataean did not depict their gods instead using simple geometric shapes to represent deities. This was later influenced by Greek culture and as the two pantheon merged depictions became increasingly detailed. Early Nabataean typically symbolised Dushara by a block of stone, often black basalt.

Dushara was the sun god and was considered the head of the gods. There was a major festival each year on December 25th where he was worshipped similarly to Horus in Egypt. As with most pre-Islamic Arabian polytheistic religions they had a supreme god with three goddess daughters who acted as the most prominent deities in the pantheon.

The three primary goddesses of the Nabataean were Al’Uzza, Manaat & Allat (whom the temple in Wadi Rum was dedicated to). The chief goddesses were worshipped as fertility and destiny gods. Other major gods worshipped by the Nabataean included Shaya Al’Quam – the protector or warrior god and Al Kutba – the god of education and commerce.

Decline of the Nabatean Kingdom

The Nabataean mostly maintained good relations with neighbouring nations, giving gifts and hosting banquets in honour of other kings. They did not maintain a standing army, instead relying on mobilising civilian forces when necessary. During their dominance they were effective in avoiding conflict although they were required to repel some incursions. They successfully resisted attacks from Antigonid 312BC, Pompey in 63BC, King Herod in 32BC.

Under the rule of Malichus II, the Romans were growing in dominance and began to divert trade routes by sea. This both undermined Nabataean financial power and allowed the Romans to source goods at cheaper prices. The spice trade from India was shifted to Red Sea ports controlled by the Romans in Egypt and sea trade began directly between the south coast of the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. In response the capital was shifted north to Busra in 93AD in an attempt to capture northern trade routes.

In 106AD, upon the death of King Rabel II, the Nabatean Kingdom sucumb to the expanding Roman empire. With little revenue generated by the Nabataean there was limited motivation for the population to resist the Roman advance, as they had been accustomed to the lavish lifestyles offered by the kingdoms wealth and became tired by the trade war. The Romans utilised the innovative irrigation systems established by the Nabataean and continued to use their trading network. The Romans developed their own temples and collonaded streets in Petra with the city experiencing continued prosperity as a Roman governate until a major earthquake in 363AD.