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The History of the Nabataean Kingdom

posted on: Nov 15, 2021

By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer

There were many great kingdoms and empires during the Classical Age of History such as the Roman Empire, the Han Empire, the Sassanid, and Parthian Empires. However, another less known, but equally interesting kingdom was the Nabataean Kingdom whose Arab rulers lived in modern-day Jordan which is where this kingdom’s wealth and sculptures can be seen in the country today. The Nabataeans’ extensive history which includes their impressive architectural achievements is a fascinating story.

Nabatea’s Rise and Fall:

The History of the Nabataean Kingdom
The extent of the Kingdom of Nabatea
Image by archetron.com

The people who make up the Nabataean Kingdom were Arabs from Northern Arabia according to metmuseum.org, or from the Negev Desert according to ancient.eu.  These peoples settled in present-day southern Jordan around the year 312 B.C.E.  During this year, one of Alexander the Great’s former generals, Antigonus I, led an attack on the Nabataeans.  This Greek general wanted to attack Petra due to its already vast quantities of wealth. The plan for Antigonus was to befriend Nabatea, but to also send his son Demetrius to lead a surprise attack on the Nabataeans according to ancient.eu. However, the Nabataeans were ready and defeated Demetrius and soon forced Antigonus I out of the region for good.  By the time of this Greek attack, the city of Petra was already well established and built by the Nabataeans around the later 4th century B.C.E. or perhaps even earlier than that. Many historians however consider the Nabataean Kingdom to begin around 168 B.C.E., where the first king of Nabatea became known to history.  

Throughout its history, the Kingdom of Nabatea was extremely wealthy.  Their wealth came from their control of the lucrative trade routes in the region.  The Nabataeans controlled the trade from Southern Arabia, in modern-day Yemen, within the wider Mediterranean region.  They controlled the region because of their land knowledge and also where the best sources of water were. Traders needed to know these routes before going through their kingdom coming from Southern Arabia or the Mediterranean Sea according to ancient.eu.  The reason for the wealth and importance of these trade routes were the products of incense coming from Yemen and in demand in the Mediterranean.  In fact, these trade routes were called the Incense Routes precisely for this reason where the incense being traded was derived from myrrh.  These incense routes had been used for centuries before the rise of Nabatea, where other kingdoms and states would tax their merchants to increase their wealth. The Nabataean Kingdom’s made their economic wealth from trading with and taxing merchants.

After the Greek attack, the Nabataean Kingdom would survive for many centuries.  They in fact became more powerful during the reign of King Aretas III from 86 to 62 B.C.E. when the kingdom expanded its territory by capturing Damascus.  However, this was short-lived as after this the Romans under Pompey came along and stopped the Nabataeans’ expansion into Syria according to metmuseum.org.  The kingdom would then be neighbors to the powerful Roman Empire and was still in control of the areas of Jordan, the Negev, the Sinai, and other surrounding areas.  They would soon reach the height of their wealth and power under the Nabataean king, Aretas III who would rule from 9 B.C.E. to around 40 C.E.  Also around this time, the city of Petra contained around 25,000 inhabitants and was a thriving trading city.  It was also around this time that the kingdom of Nabatea became famous as dynasties in China, Arabia, India, and around the Mediterranean Sea knew of its existence. However, by the time of the Roman Empire, the kingdom had to remain in a good relationship with them as a vassal.  Despite their efforts, the Romans would annex Nabatea around 106 C.E. under Emperor Trajan.  The city of Petra would remain wealthy after annexation but this too would not last.  They gradually lost control over the Incense Routes which were now in the control of the Syrian city of Palmyra.  When the city of Palmyra was razed by the Romans after their defeat around 272 C.E., by Emperor Aurelian, the damage had already been done as the city of Petra would be gradually abandoned.  

The Legacy of Nabatea and Petra

The History of the Nabataean Kingdom
City of Petra
Image by historyfiles.co.uk

However, despite their downfall, the Kingdom of Nabatea and especially their city of Petra is still famous today due to its impressive architecture which makes the area Jordan’s most famous attraction. People who visit Petra often wonder why would someone want to build their capital here as the region had no permanent water sources and the region itself was not well suited for life as it was built out of a sandstone cliff.  However, its inaccessibility and inhospitableness made the city’s location an excellent place for defense against foreign invasions like that of the Antigonus I.  In addition, its location had also been used as an effective area to monitor the Incense Routes passing through them.  They were also able to deal with their water problem by using aqueducts, cisterns, and dams to control their occasional flash floods in the region to supply their city with enough water for the inhabitants according to ancient.eu.  The water system and Petra’s design itself show the impressiveness of this Arab Kingdom and a sign of its wealth.  

Thanks to their architectural expertise, the city of Petra and the Kingdom of Nabatea is still visited by millions of people today.  It continues to inspire many people around the world to be interested in architecture and history.  The Kingdom of Nabatea despite being abandoned for centuries is still famous today and will continue to be so for future generations.

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