The Nabateans

The Nabateans were a people, but they have also been called a "national transport company." (Keel II 146). 

Their origins are obscure. On linguistic grounds, we have to omit from consideration the nabatu and nabajti of Assyrian documents from the 7th century BC. (Boehmisch) We must also take care to avoid confusing them with a Mesopotamian group known among Arab historians as Nabat al-Irak. Our Nabateans, the great desert traders who had their capital at Petra, who founded Avdat and other cities in the Negev, were the Nabat ash-Sham of Arab history. They made their first definite appearance in 312 BC. A Seleucid officer named Hieronymus of Cardia mentioned them in a battle report. They had developed a profitable trade in asphalt, which they mined from the Dead Sea and sold to Egypt. Hieronymus was sent to wrest it away from them, but they repulsed him. In 50 BC a Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus cited his report. Diodorus adds this piece of information: 

"They live under the open sky and claim as fatherland a wilderness that contains neither rivers nor goodly springs from which a hostile army might draw water. They have a law forbidding them to sow grain, plant orchards, make wine or build houses. Anyone who does so will be executed. They follow this principle because they believe that anyone who possesses such things in order to get a use from them is vulnerable to powerful men, who can compel their obedience. Some raise camels, others sheep, which they pasture in the wilderness. Although there are a great many other Arab tribes that use the desert as grazing land, the Nabateans, though numbering only 10,000 men, far exceed them in wealth..., because many regularly transport frankincense, myrrh and the choicest spices to the sea (the Mediterranean - SL), products that they take over from people who bring them out of so-called happy Arabia. Their country, without water, is impenetrable to enemies, but the Nabateans fill cisterns and caves with rain water, making them flush with the rest of the landscape. They leave markers there which only they understand. They water their herds only every third day to accustom them to a flight throughout a waterless country." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History XIX, 94-100. Loeb Classical Library 10, 88. Antigonus' Campaign of 312 BC.)

These Nabateans are not to be found among the tribes that are listed in Arab genealogies. They were likely a mixed group led by an Arab elite. Although they used Aramaic heavily in their inscriptions, their names are in Arabic, and so, probably, was their everyday speech. They settled east of the Syro-African rift between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, that is, in the land that had once been Edom. And although the first sure reference to them dates from 312 BC, it is not impossible that they were present much earlier. In the early 6th century BC, when the Edomites (Idumeans) exploited Judah's weakness in the south, it may be that the Nabateans were pressuring them. The relations between the two groups were not merely hostile. Herod, for example, had Edomite genes from his father's side and Nabatean from his mother's. 

The area around Petra is too poor in agriculture to form, in itself, a base of power. By the late 4th century BC, however, conditions in the ancient world were such that the Nabateans could develop a wealthy domain from this plateau. First, they had managed to withstand the Greek Empire, as in the battle reported by Hieronymus of Cardia. Second, a great deal of wealth had concentrated in Greece and would later concentrate in Rome. The rich wanted frankincense and myrrh. (On their uses.) These spices came from the southern end of Arabia, Yemen today, called "Happy Arabia" in Greek and Latin. Between Happy Arabia and Gaza, which was the nearest port on the Mediterranean coast, lay 2750 kilometers (1650 miles) of desert - according to Pliny, 65 camel stages. And who occupied the strategic spot on this route? Who had camels? And most important: Who knew how to guide the runoff from winter rains into secret cisterns? The Nabateans. They were, in short, the right people at the right place at the right time, and the right time lasted half a millennium. 

Their general situation was analogous to that of the Phoenicians earlier. The mountains of Lebanon pressed the Phoenicians against the sea, leaving little land for agriculture. And so the Phoenicians became the great merchant sailors of the ancient world, before the rise of the Greeks and Romans. Likewise, east of the rift between Dead and Red, severe limitations on agriculture forced the Nabateans to look to trade as a source of wealth. Their ships were of the desert. 

With the help of a Greek merchant and Pliny, we can follow the whole spice route, as cited in Alexandra Porter's seminar on the spice trade. All the frankincense in Happy Arabia went first to Qana on the Gulf of Aden (see map). Then camel caravans took it to Shabwa. (Anyone who deviated from this route to avoid the temple tax was subject to severe punishment, even death.) Then it went to Qataban. After paying taxes to a king there, the caravans headed north to Najran. Here the route divided, some camels going northeast to Mesopotamia while others went to Petra and thence to Gaza. According to Pliny, all along the route the merchants kept paying duties, as well as costs for upkeep. By the time they got to Gaza, they had spent 688 denarii per camel (more than the average man could earn in two years). A camel can comfortably carry 150 kilograms (about 330 pounds). Add the costs of sea transport, customs and the profits taken by Roman merchants. The price of a pound of top-quality incense in Rome was 6 denarii (more than two weeks' wages). The incense carried by each camel, in other words, would have fetched about 2000 denarii in Rome. Some of that went to the Nabateans. It gave them enough of a margin to build their prosperity. 

The Nabateans established themselves, then, as a huge transport company for precious goods. According to Diodorus, they conquered the Red Sea coast south to Happy Arabia in the 2nd century BC. Here they took over the Indian trade, including cinnamon. Later they added the silk trade from China. They controlled the routes not only westward from Petra across the Negev to Gaza, but also northward up the King's Highway to the outskirts of Damascus. The last is the setting for a mention in the Bible. Paul speaks of Aretas, who was king of the Nabateans from 9 AD until 40 AD. "In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands." (2 Corinthians 11:32-33). Note that Aretas IV is not inside the city. Damascus is free, a Decapolis city. Aretas is "guarding" the routes outside, and Paul gives him the slip.

After gaining wealth and power, the Nabateans altered their ways. They planted orchards, built houses, made wine - and did so with a "vengeance," overcompensating, as it were, for their past ascetic ways. The glories of Petra attest to this change. They got a king around 168 BC. The pattern is similar to that of the Israelites, who also lacked a king - a human king, that is - during their semi-nomadic phase. When the Israelites got their roots into the soil, then they had something to lose, and as Diodorus put it in the passage quoted above, they became "vulnerable to powerful men, who can compel their obedience." Vulnerable to the Philistines, they chose Saul to protect them. Then came another powerful man, David, and brought them into line. (See Word versus Earth in the experience of Ancient Israel.)

Petra and the cities in the Negev show a very high level of civilization. Using their early know-how in water storage, they developed elaborate hydraulic systems, including dams to collect run-off, reservoirs, ceramic pipes and siphons. They prepared whole hillsides so that the run-off from winter rains flowed into their orchards in the valleys. In an area with only 100 mm. of annual rainfall flourished grapes requiring 500 mm. 

Their pottery was of a fine metallic hardness, perhaps the best produced in the Middle East at the time. Their running ("cursive") script became the basis, it is thought, for the Arabic kufic, the script of the Quran and the basis for present-day Arab writing. 

Just as the Seleucids had tried to subdue the Nabateans in 312 BC, so the Romans made several attempts to get their hands on that lucrative trade. In 106 AD, under Trajan, they succeeded, conquering and annexing the Nabatean realm. Trajan improved the King's Highway to Damascus (Trajan's Road) to such an extent that the route across the Negev became superfluous: one could reach the Mediterranean more easily through Damascus, and the road was now so well-provided that one needed no special qualifications to make the journey. The Nabateans still thrived for a time, but their distinctive livelihood was gone. Eventually, they assimilated into the Roman world.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (

© 2003 Near East Tourist Agency (NET)
Text © 2003 Stephen Langfur