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The Mysterious Nabataeans and the Greek Influence


Petra in Jordan made by Nabataeans
The Mysterious Nabataeans and the Greek Influence. Petra, Jordan. credit: David Berkowitz / wikimedia commons CC BY 2.0

Is the history of the Nabataeans mysterious or lost? The Kingdom of the Nabataeans has not been substantially recorded by scholars and archaeologists alike, but that is changing. The question is if there is any connection between the Nabataeans and the ancient Greeks and Greco-Roman civilization.

At its peak, Nabataean influence stretched from modern Yemen to Damascus and from western Iraq into the Sinai Desert—at least according to certain historians. It is difficult to say how large the area of Nabataean influence really was, as their caravans traveled widely. Equally challenging is to ascertain the borders of their dominion. Written records left by the Nabataeans are also rare and difficult to find, but much has been found—including links to Greco-Roman history and culture.

The Nabataeans were apparently one of several nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian desert in search of pasture and water for their herds. In fact, they emerged as a distinct civilization and political entity between the 4th and 2nd centuries BCE, with their kingdom centered around a loosely controlled trading network that brought considerable wealth and influence across the ancient world. That was the same period as the Hellenistic era, which began in 323 BCE and lasted until Rome’s conquering of the Greek empire that Alexander the Great had left to his generals (145 BCE) and beyond.

Petra and the lost kingdom of the Nabataeans

One of the most distinguished peoples of the ancient world, today they are known for their hauntingly beautiful rock-carved capital Petra. When seen, it is hard not to imagine some type of Greco-Roman influence in their architecture.

The ancient city of Petra, which is actually the Greek word for “rock” (Πέτρα), is carved out of the rock of mountainous southern Jordan and houses some of antiquity’s grandest relics. Created by the Nabataeans, whose history is often hazily recorded, Petra’s monuments rival those of classical Greece and Rome. In its desert setting, this city relied on the skills of brilliant engineers who cut or built miles of channels, diverting springs and rainfall into their reservoirs. They redesigned nature with a carefree spirit to create a cosmopolitan garden city in the desert. Genius stonemasons cut provocative images and faces of their gods into rock. Using the tools available to them, they constructed impressive terraces and elaborate stairways within the mountains.

Nabataeans might not have been Semitic people

Jane Taylor’s Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans is especially informative about the Nabataeans. Taylor states that nobody really knows when the Nabataeans first set foot in Petra. She adds that it is even more questionable if they were truly Semitic people and that have been mixed up with Arabs of a similar ancient name. Even if some Nabataeans settled in the mountains of Edom around the early sixth-century BC, “this is all conjecture,” Taylor explains.

Nabatean history goes back to the Stone Age and conflicts with the Edomites, with whom they may have intermarried. They were mentioned in the Old Testament. This was before the people who built the city and whose remains can be seen today emerged.

Their settlements, most prominently the capital city of Raqmu (present-day Petra, Jordan), gave the name Nabatene (in Ancient Greek) to the Arabian borderland that stretched from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. That fact is suggestive of an evolving empire and encounters with the Ancient Greeks.

Arabic and Aramaic

The Nabatean society spoke a dialect of Arabic, and later on adopted Aramaic. Much of what is now known about Nabatean culture comes from the Greek geographer Strabo, who lived in Asia Minor during the transitional period of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. He reported that their community was governed by a royal family although a strong spirit of democracy prevailed.

According to Strabo, there were no slaves in Nabatean society, and all members shared in work duties. The Nabateans worshipped a variety of local gods, such as the sun god, Dushara, and the goddess Allat as well as Greco-Roman gods, such as Tyche and Dionysus.

Statue of Greek God Dionysus
Statue of Greek God Dionysus. Credit: Egisto Sani, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 / Flickr

Described as fiercely independent by contemporary Greco-Roman accounts, the Nabataeans were annexed into the Roman Empire by Emperor Trajan in 106 CE. Nabataeans’ individual culture, easily identified by their characteristic finely potted, painted ceramics, was adopted into the larger Greco-Roman culture.

After the collapse of the Nabatean kingdom in 106 AD, Petra was ruled in turn by the Roman and Byzantine empires, the early Islamic Umayyad Caliphate, and the Crusaders briefly. Each conqueror left their mark on their territory.

The city of Petra disappeared from Western awareness until 1812. It was “rediscovered” by Swiss explorer J.L. Burckhardt. Until the 1980s, Bedouin cave dwellers occupied Petra. That ended when the Jordanian government forced them to evacuate the caves as well as any archaeological sites.

Obelisk tomb Petra, Jordan
Obelisk tomb, Petra, Jordan. Credit: Mario Micklisch, CC-BY-2.0 / Flickr

Before the Nabataeans

For centuries, the land of Edom was the crossroads for caravans traveling north to south and sometimes east to west. Edom and Moab (both in present-day Jordan) were connected by a well-traveled path, known as the King’s Highway.

Along this road, wares from Egypt traveled to Babylon, present-day Iraq, and back. Merchandise from southern Arabia traveled to the kingdoms in the north. This trade had existed for centuries before the Nabataeans.

Since so many convoys traveled up the King’s Highway, the land of Edom played an important role in the merchant world. Dominion over the King’s Highway was so valuable that Edom was conquered by the Hebrews, Assyrians, Babylonians (sometimes referred to as Chaldeans), and finally Persians.

Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East. He brought the entire region under Greek control. Following that, the Hellenization process began. Hellenization is the adoption of Greek culture, religion, language, and identity by non-Greeks.

Nabateans take history’s world stage

Upon Alexander’s death however, his empire was divided up between his generals. The Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria fought bitterly over control of the region. It was in 312 BC, early in this struggle, that the Nabataeans were suddenly catapulted onto the history’s world stage.

Immediately following the dissolution of Alexander’s empire Antigonus, one of his generals, known as the “The-One-Eyed,” briefly rose to a position of power in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, and most of Jordan. He aimed to defeat his rival Ptolemy, whose power base was in Egypt. Antigonus’ plan for success had two components, namely military and economic. The mountaintop settlement of Selah and the Nabataean people figured in both components.

Nabataeans and the monopoly on bitumen

At this historical moment, the Nabataeans had not only made a name for themselves as one of the principal trading powers in the region. They had established a monopoly on bitumen (asphalt or pitch), which they harvested from the Dead Sea. They then shipped the product to Egypt, where it was essential in the embalming process.

Antigonus felt that if he could gain control of the Nabataean stronghold of Selah, the hub of the major caravan routes in the region, then he would gain control over the frankincense and bitumen industry as well. That would give him access to and from Egypt and the possession of commodities more valuable to the Egyptians than gold.

Greek General Antigonus
Greek General Antigonus.Roman copy from 1st century AD of Greek original from 3rd century BC. credit: Carole Raddato / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Nabataean resistance to Antigonus

Antigonus did not consider the resistance of the Nabataeans. They fiercely resisted this plan. The historian, Diodorus Siculus, records how Antigonus in 312 BC dispatched his friend, Athanaeus, along with four thousand infantry and six hundred cavalry to Selah to conquer the Nabataeans (termed “the barbarians”). Antigonus’ forces wished to gain control of the Gaza-Sinai trade route, thus checking Egypt’s access to Syria and Arabia.

The expeditionary force reached Selah under cover of night. They found most of the male population was away at market. The Nabataean males were probably in nearby Bozrah, the capital of Edom. They had left the women and children on top of a mountain for safety.

The Greek army attacks

The Greek army attacked and made off with a number of prisoners and quantities of frankincense and myrrh as well as five hundred talents of silver. Talents were an ancient unit of measure.

Within an hour, the Nabataean men had returned, taken stock of the situation, and were in pursuit of the invaders. Athanaeus, not anticipating the Nabataeans would soon return, had failed to organize proper security.

This was a fatal error on their part, as Athanaeus and his army were slaughtered. Only fifty of his forces survived when they fled.

The Nabataeans recover

With their people and property recovered, the Nabataeans returned to their rock fortress and drafted a protest note to Antigonus. This set a precedent.

Nabataeans preferred diplomacy with powerful neighbors over confrontation. Antigonus blamed the whole affair on his friend, the dead Athanaeus, whom he claimed had acted without orders.

While the Nabataeans drafted this letter (in Aramaic), Antigonus organized a second attack. This attack was to be led by his son Demetrius, but Antigonus had not fooled the Nabataeans.

The Greek army marched for three days across the trackless desert. As soon as Nabataean spies sighted Demetrius’ forces, they set off fire signals that flashed from mountain to mountain.

Demetrius’ troops fail to conquer the Nabataeans

Alerted, the Nabataeans deposited what they could not carry on Selah under guard. They then gathered up their flocks, the rest of their possessions, and fled to the desert. After a one-day battle, Demetrius failed to take the rocky fortress.

In 301 BC, Antigonus was defeated by the combined forces of Seleucus, Lysimachus, and Prepelaos at the decisive Battle of Ipsus. In his eighty-first year, he died in battle after being struck by a javelin.

He was followed by another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, who established the Seleucid Empire and ruled the region until it was conquered by the Romans.

Good terms with the Seleucids

Records indicate that the Nabataeans were eager to remain on good terms with the Seleucids in order to perpetuate their trading ambitions.

Throughout much of the third century BCE, the Ptolemies and Seleucids warred over control of Jordan, with the Seleucids emerging victorious in 198 BCE. Nabataeans remained essentially untouched, however, and remained independent throughout this period.

Jane Taylor, author of “Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans” explains that for 150 years after the clash between the Nabataeans and Antigonus, there was a historical silence as they lacked their own written records.

This is why reliance on Greco-Roman writers, such as Strabo and Flavius Josephus, became important and why scholars are dependent on coins and inscriptions in stone.

The rise of Aretas

Although the Nabateans resisted military conquest, the Hellenistic culture of their neighbors influenced them greatly. Hellenistic influences can be seen in Nabatean art and architecture, especially at the time that they were expanding northward into Syria around 150 BCE.

Around 168 BC at the time of Judah Maccabee, the apocryphal Book of Maccabees refers to Aretas, ruler of the Arabs (or Nabataeans as we known them today.) Apocrypha are ancient works of unknown authorship and doubtful origins.

Josephus explains the people of Gaza were attacked around 100 BC by the Hasmonean (Maccabean) ruler, Alexander Jannaeus. Hasmonea was in Judea, sprawling across present day Israel and Palestine’s West Bank. Jannaeus, the Macabbean priestly ruler, had his image on coins with Greek and Hebrew lettering.

Gaza and the Nabateans

Up until this point, Gaza had acted as a key seaport on the Mediterranean for Nabataean merchants. The people of Gaza appealed for help to Aretas II (100 – 96 BC), the ruler of the Nabataeans. Aretas did not answer or counter promptly, however, even though it was allegedly a crucial port in the Nabataean territory to the north, and Gaza was captured.

The trouble was Aretas II was active elsewhere. He expanded Nabataean territory to the north, which proved a wise strategy.

Later, Aretas II apparently negotiated terms for Nabataean merchants and continued engagement with Gaza as a port city. If Philip Hammond’s The Nabataeans is accurate, Alexander Jannaeus did not occupy Gaza.

Diodorus on the Nabataeans

During the first century BC, Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily wrote about the Nabataeans. He based his work on eyewitness accounts of Hieronymus of Cardia, who wrote in the late 4th century BC. This was when Alexander the Great’s empire was divided between his ambitious generals.

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…Some of them raise camels, others sheep…in the desert…they lead a life of brigandage and overrunning a large part of the neighboring territory they pillage it. Some had penetrated to the Mediterranean coast where they indulged in piracy, profitably attacking the merchant ships of Ptolemaic Egypt [presumably from Gaza].”

Were the Nabataeans barbarians or civilized?

Jane Taylor advises not to be “seduced” by renderings of the Nabataeans as narrowly “noble savages” or “brigands.” Essential to understanding this people is they were traders in frankincense, myrrh, and other most valuable kinds of spices. This suggests what they had to trade would have been essential to other peoples’ religious, culinary, and medical life.

By the 4th century BC, the Nabataeans, who had been merchants and pirates in the Red Sea, had moved to ports on the Mediterranean Sea, where other nations’ ships were being defeated and captured.

During this period, they either appeased or formed alliances with other civilizations that provided advantages. When necessary, they would fight but only if compelled. Gradually, they spread their circles of influence west into the Negev to Wadi al-Arish and farther into Egypt. The Nabataeans maintained an outpost in Wadi Tumilat to the east of the Nile Delta.

The Nabataeans under Obodas

Around this historical period, some scholars refer to the development of the Nabataean Empire. Obodas I was the subsequent ruler of the Nabataeans (96-86 BC).

As Seleucid rule declined, Obodas furthered his father’s expansion by moving northward into Syria.

Obodas managed to corner Alexander Jannaeus near Gadara just southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Using a mass of camel riders, he forced Jannaeus into a deep valley. The Nabataeans ambushed Jannaeus’ forces. They avenged the loss of Gaza.

Around 86 BC, Seleucid ruler Antiochus XII Dionysus mounted an invasion against Obodas’ Nabataeans. Both Antiochus and Obodas died in battle, the Seleucid army was utterly defeated, and the Nabataean Empire was saved. Obodas was buried in the Negev.

Aretas III continues Nabataean expansion

As Seleucid rule collapsed in the north, Aretas III (86 – 62 BC), a son of Obodas, continued the Nabataean expansion. In 85 BC, he occupied the great city of Damascus.

At this point, Aretas III was not only the ruler of the nomadic Nabataeans but also the ruler of Damascus.

Many are astonished that the nomadic Nabataeans were thrust onto the stage of world politics. Observers of history must be careful. Historical judgment often associates civilizations with cities.

Migrating people can be highly intelligent and ecological. Still, Aretas III illustrates a historical dilemma. Is assimilation to the culture of others internalized oppression or insightful innovation?

Aretas III and Greek culture

Aretas transformed his image from a nomadic desert brigand. He had coins minted with his image that were in the Greek style.

His name was placed in Greek instead of Nabataean Arabic. To make his Hellenistic pretensions still clearer, he called himself a “philhellene.”

Philhellenes are lovers of Greek culture. Aretas III ruled from 87 to 62 BC, and while his personality may have been the high point of embracing Greek culture, scholars see its presence in the architecture of Petra going back to 150 BC.

Nabateans retreat and advance

These cultural changes, as modeled by Aretas III, were profound in meaning. The year 85 BC marks the pivotal transition when Nabataeans began to rapidly transition from being nomads to urban dwellers.

The Nabataeans ruled Damascus for over a dozen years. Then, soon after 72 BC, the Armenian King Tigranes, son of Mithridates VI of Pontus, took Damascus. The Nabataeans retreated without a fight.

Tigranes then vacated Damascus in 69 BC to deal with a Roman threat against his own capital. The Nabataeans occupied the city once again and controlled it for a number of years.

Confrontation with Rome

The death of Alexander Jannaeus’ widow Alexandra in 67 BC changed everything for the Nabataeans. Alexandra’s elder son, Hyrcanus II, was overthrown by his brother, Aristobulus.

He then took refuge in the court of Aretas III at Selah. Aretas’ defense of Hyrcanus’ authority soon brought the Nabataeans face-to-face with the rising power of Rome.

When the Roman leader Pompey annexed Syria in 64 BC, his legate Marcus Aemilius Scaurus immediately turned his attention to Judea.

Aware of Aristobulus’ power as the first Hasmonean king of Judea, Scaurus ordered Aretas and his army to cease supporting Hyrcanus II.

Aretas, unwilling to risk his country for the sake of Hyrcanus, returned to Saleh. The Nabateans, at this moment, were under the indirect rule of the Roman Empire. Still, Aristobulus was not content with this bloodless victory. Aristobulus pursued the Nabataeans and defeated them, killing six hundred of them.

Pompey and the Nabataeans

Pompey had planned to move against the Nabataeans, but perennial conflict among Jewish rulers deflected his focus. In 63 BC, Pompey personally took control of Jerusalem.

He sent Aristobulus and his family to Rome in chains. Hyrcanus was confirmed priest and ethnic leader. Still, he was denied a royal title.

Having settled the issues in Judea, Pompey finally turned his attention to the wealthy Nabataeans. He dispatched Aemilius Scaurus, who it seems was bribed to campaign against the Nabataeans. Scaurus led Pompey’s armies through dry and desert land. His army suffered from hunger, thirst, and exhaustion.

At the last moment, when a rider appeared, the sojourn was terminated. Reporting to the Romans of the murder of Mithridates VI, the king of Armenia, by his son Tigranes, Pompey immediately wanted to disengage. The Nabataean fight was tossed aside to deal with this other threat.

Clever Nabataeans maneuver around Rome

The wily Nabataeans seized the opportunity and offered the Romans three hundred talents of silver to leave. Pompey accepted. He set a corrupting precedent for later Roman generals wishing to improve their personal finances.

Afterward, Malichus, successor to Obodas, first correctly took Caesar against Pompey’s side. Next, he mistakenly joined Caesar’s assassins and their Parthian allies against Antony and Octavian. However, with a skillful blend of wealth and diplomacy emulating that of his predecessors, Malichus purchased his kingdom out of subjugation to Rome.

When Antony was handed the eastern areas of Rome’s dominions, the opportunistic Cleopatra asked for a gift. She desired Judea, ruled by Herod the Great, and the independent realm of the Nabataeans now considered allies of Rome.

Antony turns down Cleopatra

Despite Antony’s infatuation, it was among the rare requests from Cleopatra that Antony turned down, though he may have given her a strip of Nabataean land by the Red Sea.

Antony was later defeated by Octavian—soon to be known as Emperor Augustus—at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and he and Cleopatra ended their lives with suicide. This left the Nabataeans to be their own masters.

Obodas III became the ruler of the Nabataeans in 30 BC and ruled until 9 BC. Strabo’s Geographica, written in the early 1st century AD, describes Nabataean life under Obodas III.

Strabo reveals how the Nabataeans had changed in the intervening years. Information by Strabo actually came from his friend, Athenodorus, a Stoic philosopher, tutor of Caesar Augustus, and a native of Petra.

These excerpts from Strabo’s Geographica describe Petra approaching the zenith of its power:

…Petra is always ruled by some king from the royal family, and the king has as Administrator one of his companions, who is called ‘brother.’…It is exceedingly well governed; at any rate, Athenodorus, a philosopher and companion of mine, who had been in the city of Petraeans, used to describe the government with admiration.

Strabo’s assessment of the Nabataeans

Often caught up in litigation there, Strabo explained that many Romans and foreigners visited. Strabo’s judgment is overstated. More to the point is Petraeans get caught up in disputes between themselves. Strabo’s Nabataeans are “sensible people” who respect property. They tax those who injure property and confer honor on those who accumulate wealth for the community.

Strabo found “since they have few slaves, they are served by their kinfolk for the most part…so that the custom even extends to kings. They prepare common meals together in groups of thirteen.”

They have female singers at banquets. The king, who is known to share drinks with his subjects using different gold cups, is “so democratic.” He sometimes serves himself and his guests.

Strabo’s Nabataeans are libation bearers and sun worshippers and also burn frankincense. They don’t wear tunics but girdles around the loins. Notably, most molded works, Strabo says, are not made in their country.

Their cities are not walled. The Nabataeans have a strong supply of fruit. The king’s distribution of alcohol likely describes a communion rite. Whether democratic instincts are a holdover from earlier tribal life before surfacing as a more urban people, the Nabataeans accomplished a great deal for an independent ancient civilization.





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