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The Nabataeans--An Early, Pre-Islamic Arab Kingdom Once Lost in Time

posted on: Jun 12, 2019

The Nabataeans--An Early, Pre-Islamic Arab Kingdom Once Lost in Time
A view of the Treasury Building in Petra, the ancient capital of the Arab Kingdom of the Nabataeans

By John Mason,/Arab America Contributing Writer

Long before the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD, an Arab power arose in the 4th century BC. Known as the Nabataean Kingdom, is formed from an Arab, Bedouin tribal base, much as the Islamic empire did almost a millennium later. In time, the Kingdom became a client state of the Roman Empire and thereafter declined in importance to the point where it almost disappeared from the map. It became so hidden in its geographic and economic isolation that it was virtually forgotten, becoming home to just a few nomads. Its capital of Petra, carved out of stone, was virtually rediscovered by a European explorer in 1812. Found in a long, narrow canyon that is difficult to access, in the south of today’s Jordan, Petra is one of the most architecturally remarkable sites from the ancient world.

The Nabataeans--An Early, Pre-Islamic Arab Kingdom Once Lost in Time
The Arab Nabataean Kingdom in the 4th century BC controlled a large swath of the ancient Middle East (Petra, it’s capital, is just to the bottom right of the Dead Sea)

An Arab Power in Classic Times

The Nabataeans were Bedouin tribal people whose origin was probably in the Hejaz region of present-day Saudi Arabia. Linguistic ties are to that region and its early Semitic language. Originally believed to be part of the Aramaic culture because they used Aramaic as their written language, most evidence now points to an Arab tribal base. They, in fact, spoke Arabic as their primary language. Their rise was gradual, beginning in the 4th century BC, which began with control over trade routes and other tribes and towns. They eventually gained in military might and their ability to defend their territory. By the 3d century BC, Nabataea had become a full-blown political state built on an urban base. This allowed them to participate in broad trade networks and, inevitably, war. Greek historians from the 4th and 3d centuries BC attest to the Kingdom’s importance politically and economically. The Kingdom also had a religious life, with deities and temples and tombs. It had not at that point become known for the architectural wonders it eventually produced.

The Nabataeans--An Early, Pre-Islamic Arab Kingdom Once Lost in Time
Petra–the ancient capital city of the Arab Nabataean Kingdom (found within a vast rock gorge– one enters at the visitor center (r,) following the white line along a narrow passage to enter deep into the gorge and a monumental wonder of buildings carved into the rock walls)

Though there are no records by the early Nabataean themselves of their own accomplishments, they do appear in the historic records of others, such as the Persians and Greeks. Greek account records that the Nabataeans “…survived in a waterless desert and managed to defeat their enemies by hiding in the desert until the latter surrendered for lack of water.” While a gross simplification, this record captures a long term strategy of the Nabataeans in adapting to their human and physical environments. In the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s demise in 323 BC, the Nabataean power was recognized by its wealth generated by trade caravans carrying frankincense, myrrh, and other spices in present-day Yemen. These products were then transported onto Europe.

The Nabataeans--An Early, Pre-Islamic Arab Kingdom Once Lost in Time
Tombs of ancient Kings and other structures of the Nabataean Kingdom

A Greek raid on the Nabataeans in their outpost of Petra was recorded around 312 BC. The story goes that they were attacked while the men were away trading, during which time women, children, and elders were left behind. The Nabataean men then returned and wreaked havoc on the Greeks. In time, the Kingdom controlled a large swath of land south along the Red Sea down the coast of Hejaz (in today’s Saudi) and north to Damascus (now the capital of Syria). This was during the 1st century BC. The Nabataeans minted their own coins by the 2d century, indicating a broad political and economic independence which they enjoyed. By then, Petra was seen as an important city, a civilized one such as ancient Alexandria (in today’s Egypt) — attracting visitors from afar. The Kingdom defeated powerful enemies, including the Judeans of Israelite fame. The Roman Empire, starting in the 1st century BC, gradually gained control over much of Nabataea by the early 2d century AD (106 AD). It became part of the Roman Empire, known as ‘Arabia Petraea.”

Petra: A Wonder of the World

 By the 4th Century AD, the Nabataean Kingdom had become a backwater. Sea trade routes had begun to take over land routes and in 363 AD a major earthquake had hit the Kingdom’s center, Petra, destroying many of its buildings. As noted earlier, Petra in the Islamic era was bypassed by history. It was only rediscovered for the rest of the world in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.

Petra is accessed by a ½ mile or so narrow gorge surrounded by towering walls. The author had the privilege of walking down this long, dark narrow gorge into the “city.” Its architecture is cut from the rock walls, as is its water conduit system. Because of its architectural beauty, Petra has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which describes it as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.” A popular poll in 2007 chose Petra as one of the “New7Wonders of the World.”

Why and how did this Nabataean Kingdom city of Petra become so important for this early Arab power? The fortress-like character of Petra was shaped by the high walls; a permanent stream that flowed into the city provided for its sustainability. Because of its geographic position, geologic shape, and the motivation of its inhabitants, it gained control of the major commercial routes. It was apparently the capability of the Nabataeans to control the water supply, including the use of dams, cisterns, and conduits to control the flash floods that defined their success. These techniques allowed for the storage of water during long periods of drought.

The Nabataeans--An Early, Pre-Islamic Arab Kingdom Once Lost in Time
Before Petra was rediscovered in the early 19th century, it was inhabited by herders

Lost – then Found: Nabataea, Once a Power to be Reckoned with

 Following their downfall, in the Christian era, some Nabataeans adopted the faith of its conquerors, including that of Byzantium or Eastern Christianity. In Islamic times, many converted to Islam, which employed the Arabic language they actually spoke. The Kingdom’s role in trade had faded and Petra became a backwater.

It is interesting to posit that had the Nabataeans had a similar political and religious ethos that propelled the Islamic Empire into regional power a millennium later, the Middle East might today be a different place. However, the Nabataean capital city of Petra eventually became lost in time. Its “resurrection” by archeologists and historians shows that Nabataea was a technologically sophisticated society in terms of water management and agriculture. Historical records show that it was very savvy as a major trading partner, which took diplomacy and state power skills to enact. All in all, the Nabataean Kingdom represents a moment in history that should make Arab peoples proud. Not to be forgotten in all of this history is the possibility of one day visiting the monumental site of Petra. This author is ready to go again at a moment’s notice.



(References: Jane Taylor, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans. Harvard University Press, 2002; Strabo, Geography, 8 volumes, Loeb Classical Library, 1917-32; Burckhardt, J. L. Travels in Syria and in the Holy Land, London, 1822.)


John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.