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Petra: The Definitive Guide

The Nabataeans
"Half as Old as Time - The Nabataeans" from "Petra Book" by Jane Taylor

Nobody knows when the Nabataeans first set foot in Edom. Assyrian records tell of King Ashurbanipal (668-633 BC) fighting with 'Nabaiateans' of Arabia, but there is nothing to connect these shadowy people with the Nabataeans who appear with such clarity several centuries later, established in Petra. Indeed their identity is unlikely since the Semitic name of the Nabataeans, nbtw, has different consonants from that of the Nabaiateans, nbyt.

Nomads from the Arabian peninsula, the Nabataeans may in their wanderings have had trade dealings and marriage ties with the Edomites. Some may have settled in the mountains of Edom as early as the sixth century BC, but at this stage all is conjecture. The first definite reference is from a first-century BC Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily, parts of whose work is based on the eye-witness account of Hieronymus of Cardia, one of Alexander the Great's officers, who had first-hand experience of the Nabataeans.

Diodorus describes the Nabataeans as nomads who 'range over a country which is partly desert and partly waterless, though a small section of it is fruitful... It is their custom neither to plant grain, set out any fruit-bearing tree, use wine, nor construct any house... Some of them raise camels, others sheep, pasturing them in the desert... They themselves use as food flesh and milk and those of the plants that grow wild from the ground which are suitable for this purpose'.

Lest we should be seduced by an image of them as noble savages, Diodorus also tells us that the Nabataeans 'lead a life of brigandage, and overrunning a large part of the neighbouring territory they pillage it'. Some indulged in piracy on the Red Sea, profitably attacking the merchant ships of Ptolemaic Egypt.

Nomads, pirates and brigands they may have been, but they were also traders in frankincense, myrrh and the most valuable kinds of spices. This had made them immensely wealthy; but when the cupidity of others was aroused the Nabataeans, who 'are exceptionally fond of freedom... take refuge in the desert, using this as a fortress; for it lacks water and cannot be crossed by others, but to them alone, since they have prepared subterranean reservoirs lined with stucco, it furnishes safety'. Even then, it appears, the Nabataeans had acquired something of the mastery of water resources which they were later to develop with such brilliance at Petra.

In the division of Alexander the Great's empire, Antigonus Monophthalmos ('the One-Eyed') ruled much of Asia Minor, northern Mesopotamia, Syria and most of Jordan; Egypt was taken by Ptolemy I Soter, while Seleucus I Nicator ruled in Babylon. Wishing to expand his patrimony, Antigonus moved south, only to come face to face with the slippery, desert-wise and enviably wealthy Nabataeans. In 312 BC he sent his general Athenaeus against 'the barbarians' with 4,000 light foot-soldiers and 600 horsemen.

It was the Nabataean custom, writes Diodorus, to hold an annual trade fair, during which time, while the men were away, they installed all their possessions, their old people, women and children on top of 'a rock, which is exceedingly strong since it has but one approach'. Athenaeus headed for the rock and captured it, killing many and taking others prisoner. He then made off with most of the precious frankincense and myrrh that were stored there as well as about 500 talents of silver.

Hearing of this disaster, the Nabataeans pursued the Greeks and fell upon them as they slept carelessly without adequate guard. In reply to their letter of complaint, written 'in Syrian characters' (Aramaic), the two-faced Antigonus the One-Eyed assured them that Athenaeus had acted without orders. Wisely the Nabataeans suspended belief so that when Antigonus, after a lulling interval, sent his son Demetrius the Besieger with a larger force than before, they were prepared. This time they were able to resist the Greek assault and, with the offer of valuable gifts, they persuaded Demetrius to withdraw. In 301 BC Antigonus was killed in battle against the Seleucids, and in the new division of territory, Jordan became part of the Ptolemaic kingdom. The Nabataeans, however, remained independent in their mountain kingdom.

For nearly 150 years after this passage of arms with Antigonus a profound silence again descends on the Nabataeans. Lacking their own historical records, we rely on tantalisingly incomplete references by their contemporaries – sometimes admiring, often critical, always partisan – in particular the Greek geographer, Strabo, and the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. We grasp at legends on coins, at rare inscriptions in stone, and rarer documents. Their carved faηades speak most eloquently of all. With each new glimpse, the kaleidoscope of their lives shakes into a new and richer pattern: once nomads, they became a settled people; as traders they took ever firmer control of the rich trade routes that converged in their territory and indulged in a lucrative combination of protection racket and true trade in myrrh, frankincense, spices, silks and minerals; and these erstwhile tent-dwellers developed a sublime form of architecture.

Around 168 BC, in the time of Judas Maccabeus, the apocryphal Book of Maccabees refers to 'Aretas, ruler of the Arabs'. For want of any earlier kingly names, he is known to us as Aretas I. He is the first known Nabataean ruler, assumed to be a king.

Again the Nabataeans recede into obscurity, with only the merest whiff of a reference to a king who may have been Rabbel I. Then Josephus tells us that the people of Gaza, who were attacked around 100 BC by the Hasmonean ruler, Alexander Jannaeus, appealed for help to 'Aretas, king of the Arabs.' For some reason this second Aretas did not respond in time, and Gaza was taken – a puzzling omission for it had long been a vital port in the Nabataean trading empire. But Aretas II (c.100-96 BC) was active in other ways – he expanded Nabataean territory and a later Roman source credits him with 700 sons.

Obodas I (96-86 BC) continued his father's expansion, and his defeat of Alexander Jannaeus around 93 BC extended Nabataean rule into southern Syria. This bothered the Seleucids, being too close to home, and a few years later Antiochus XII Dionysus marched against the Nabataeans. The Seleucids were roundly defeated and Antiochus killed. Soon after this Obodas died in the Negev, and was buried there at a place that was renamed in his honour – Obodat (modern Avdat). Such was his renown that he was deified soon after.

As Seleucid rule disintegrated in the north, Aretas III (86-62 BC), son of Obodas I, continued Nabataean expansion and in 85 BC occupied Damascus at the request of its citizens. It was a conspicuous diplomatic coup; and to underline that he was heir to the Greek Seleucids, Aretas had coins minted with his image in the Greek style, and his name in Greek instead of the Nabataean Aramaic. To make his Hellenistic pretensions still clearer, he gave himself the epithet 'Philhellene', 'lover of Greek culture'.

The death in 67 BC of Alexander Jannaeus' redoubtable widow Alexandra ultimately changed everything for the Nabataeans. Alexandra's elder son, Hyrcanus II, was driven from his throne by his brother Aristobulus and took refuge at the court of Aretas III at Petra. Aretas' espousal of Hyrcanus' cause soon brought the Nabataeans face to face with the rising power of Rome.

When Pompey annexed Syria in 64 BC, his legate, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, immediately turned his attention to Judaea. Financially persuaded of the rightness of Aristobulus' cause, Scaurus ordered Aretas and his army to return to Petra. He did so, unwilling to risk his troops and his country for the sake of Hyrcanus. Scaurus returned to Syria with his bribe but Aristobulus, not content with this bloodless victory, pursued the Nabataeans and defeated them with the loss of 6,000 lives. Two years later Scaurus himself marched against the wealthy Nabataeans, but war was averted when he accepted 300 talents of silver, thereby setting a tempting precedent for later Roman generals who wished to improve their personal finances.

Around 62 BC another Obodas seems to have occupied the Nabataean throne briefly, the only evidence a handful of coins. His heir, Malichus I (59-30 BC), played with some success the dangerous game of 'spot-the-winner' in the hectic permutations of Roman rule. He judged rightly in backing Julius Caesar against Pompey, then missed his footing in joining Caesar's assassins and their Parthian allies against Antony and Octavian; but, with a skilful blend of wealth and diplomacy, learned from his predecessors, he was able to buy his kingdom out of subjection to Rome.

When Antony was given the eastern areas of Rome's dominions, the opportunistic Cleopatra demanded as a gift both Judaea (a dependency ruled by Herod the Great) and the still independent kingdom of the Nabataeans, allies of Rome. Despite his infatuation, it was one of the few of her many requests that Antony turned down, though he did give her part of the Nabataean Hauran (now divided between Jordan and Syria), a strip of Nabataean coast and Herod's cherished balsam groves near Jericho. Antony's defeat by Octavian (soon to be known as Augustus) at Actium in 31 BC, followed by the suicides of both Antony and Cleopatra, left the Nabataeans still, for the time being, their own masters.

Strabo's Geography, written in the early first century AD, gives a vivid thumb-nail sketch of Nabataean life under Obodas III (30-9 BC). A friend of Strabo's had spent some time at Petra and spoke with admiration of the Nabataeans' peaceable civic system in which litigation had no part. They had clearly overcome their earlier aversion to sedentary life, materialism and alcohol, as described by Diodorus, and were unusually free of slavery and inequality. They had also adopted a style of kingship remarkable for its accountability to the people:

'The Nabataeans are a sensible people, and are so much inclined to acquire possessions that they publicly fine anyone who has diminished [them] and also confer honours on anyone who has increased them. Since they have but few slaves, they are served by their kinsfolk for the most part, or by one another, or by themselves; so that the custom extends even to their kings. They prepare common meals together in groups of thirteen persons; and they have two girl-singers for each banquet. The king holds many drinking-bouts in magnificent style, but no one drinks more than eleven cupfuls, each time using a different golden cup. The king is so democratic that, in addition to serving himself, he sometimes even serves the rest himself in his turn. He often renders an account of his kingship in the popular assembly; and sometimes his mode of life is examined.'

This description of 'common meals', with the specified number of members, their singers and generous allocation of wine, perhaps gives a clue to Nabataean sacred associations at this period. Sketchy as it is, it may give us a glimpse of the nature of the memorial banquets that took place in the large number of feasting rooms associated with tombs in Petra.

Obodas' democratic leanings seem to have done little for his effectiveness – 'he did not care much about public affairs, and particularly military affairs', as Strabo puts it. He also seems to have given so much authority to his very active minister, Syllaeus, that this undoubtedly devious character may well have been responsible for poisoning him.

Obodas was succeeded by a probably distant relative called Aeneas who changed his name to the more kingly one of Aretas. Unlike Aretas III who had looked abroad for his epithet 'Philhellene', Aretas IV called himself 'rhm 'mh' – he who loves his people. During his long reign (9 BC-AD 40) the Nabataeans reached the height of their economic and cultural development – they built new towns, enlarged and embellished old ones, in particular Petra, and extended their irrigation schemes to the great enrichment of their agriculture.

An attractive feature of the Nabataeans is the status they accorded women. Inscriptions at that other great Nabataean site – Meda'in Salih in present-day Saudi Arabia – indicate that Nabataean women, unlike many of their contemporaries, inherited and owned property in their own right. Also, from the time of the democratic Obodas III onwards, the queen's profile appears on coins together with that of her husband or, in the case of a regency, her son. Aretas IV had two wives, apparently successively rather than together, the first called Huldu and the second Shaqilath. Another Shaqilath appears as the consort of his successor Malichus II, and again with her son, the last Nabataean king, Rabbel II, during his minority.

The story of Nabataea continued to intertwine uneasily with that of Judaea. When Herod the Great died in AD 4, his kingdom was divided between the three of his sons who had escaped his recurrent murderous moods. One of them, Herod Antipas, who became tetrarch of the Galilee and Peraea, had married a daughter of Aretas IV. For a while this resulted in good relations but in AD 27 Antipas fell passionately in love with his niece Herodias, wife of his brother, Herod Philip. To marry her, which outraged religious opinion, he divorced his Nabataean wife, which outraged Aretas. John the Baptist's outspoken condemnation of the marriage, and his subsequent imprisonment and execution at the instigation of the delinquent Herodias, are well known. Less well known is that the spurned Nabataean wife quietly went home to Petra, and Aretas launched a successful expedition against his old son-in-law and new enemy.

The birth, life and death of Jesus Christ seem to have passed unnoted in the Nabataean kingdom, though something of the impact of Christ and his followers was clearly felt, and aroused antagonism. During a brief revival of Nabataean rule in Damascus under Aretas IV, the apostle Paul made his famously undignified exit, when 'the governor under King Aretas guarded the city... in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped his hands'. (2 Cor. 11: 32-33)

Damascus was finally lost to the Nabataeans under Malichus II (AD 40-70), son of Aretas IV. Little is known of him, but according to Josephus he sent the Emperor Titus 1,000 cavalry and 5,000 infantry which took part in the destruction of Jerusalem and the great temple in AD 70.

In that same year Rabbel II, the last of the Nabataean dynasty, came to the throne as a minor, his mother Shaqilath acting as regent for six years. Rabbel, who seems to have preferred the city of Bostra in the north of his kingdom to the ancient capital of Petra in the south, was known as 'hyy wsyzb 'mh' – he who brings life and deliverance to his people. What he delivered his people from remains unclear, but they certainly enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity in the final decades of the Nabataean kingdom.

Judaea to the west, Egypt to the south and Syria to the north had already been mopped up in Rome's territorial expansion and reorganisation. Only Nabataea remained more or less independent, a temptingly rich plum, ripe for the picking.