Nabataeans

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The Siq, a natural access route to Petra, capital of the Nabatean empire.  An arch stood here at the entrance until the late-nineteenth century.
The right side of what was once the entrance arch to the Siq.

NABATAEANS năb’ ə tē ənz (Ναβαται̂οι). The Nabataeans, a powerful people who occupied the northwestern part of Arabia and Trans-Jordan in the NT period, are not mentioned directly in the OT or NT. Jean Starcky has shown that Biblical Nebayoth (Gen 25:13; 1 Chron 1:29) and the Nabayat of the Assyrian chronicles cannot be identified with the Nabataeans (BA 18 [1955], pp. 85f.). However, non-Biblical sources and archeological evidence indicate that during the inter-testamentary period and esp. in the 1st cent. of the Christian era the Nabataeans were a significant political power in the Near E. The Nabataeans usually are associated with the magnificent ruins of Petra, SE of the Dead Sea, but their political domain extended at times west to the Negev and N as far as Damascus. Their origin seems to be among the Arab tribes inhabiting southern Arabia.

Located in the territory of ancient Edom, the Nabataeans controlled some of the rich trade routes linking the major areas of the Fertile Crescent. The first historical reference to them is in connection with their refusal to recognize the authority of Antigonus, the successor of Alexander the Great in this area. Attempts to subjugate the Nabataeans were unsuccessful.

The classical period or Golden Age of the Nabataeans was the 1st cent. b.c. and the 1st cent. of this era. In this period they settled extensively in the lands once occupied by the Edomites and Moabites and intensively cultivated the soil. In addition, they incorporated the Negev and Sinai into their kingdom. In this period they developed a brilliant civilization with a dynamic creativity and speed scarcely paralleled in history. The sudden end came with the Rom. conquest in the beginning of the 2nd cent.


At the time of Paul’s escape from Damascus following his conversion (Acts 9:23-25), an ethnarch of Aretas was guarding the city (2 Cor 11:32f.). The exact nature of the Nabataean control of Damascus is not known, but this does indicate some type of Nabataean military or police control of the city. Successors of Aretas IV included Malichus II (a.d. 40-70) and Rabbel II, the last king of the Nabataeans who died in a.d. 106. During the reign of Trajan, the legate of Syria, A. Cornelius Palma, in a campaign in a.d. 105 to 106 annexed Nabataea to the Rom. empire. Bostra became the capital of the new province called Arabia. This was the beginning of the Era of Bostra, frequently used in the datelines of inscrs. in this area in subsequent centuries.

The most extensive ruins of the Nabataeans are found at Petra, S of the Dead Sea. In this valley surrounded by virtually impassable mountains are the ruins which illustrate the unique type of architecture developed by the Nabataeans. The structures were carved into the living rock and reveal a remarkable engineering skill. The typical Nabataean facade consists of a row of pillars (carved in situ) with niches containing sculptures between the pillars which support a crossbeam decorated with a frieze. Above this is a split gable with a domed structure in the middle similar to an inverted urn. The pendantive type of dome may have been developed by the Nabataeans (Safwan K. Tell, Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 14 [1969], pp. 35-37 [Arab.]). They had a unique method of dressing stones—lines cut diagonally across the face of the stone or rock face. Most of the rock-hewn structures in Petra appear to be mausoleums in connection with a cult of the dead, rather than temples. Another major Nabataean site is located on Jebel et-Tannur (excavated by Nelson Glueck in 1937), SE of the Dead Sea, where a series of successive sanctuaries with numerous carved figures and designs were uncovered—perhaps the most significant being the statues of Zeus-Hadad and the goddess Atargatis.

The Nabataeans have made a unique contribution to Palestinian ceramic ware. “Nabataean ware” is very thin and smooth—almost like porcelain. The shapes were beautifully symmetrical, often with delicate decorations in dark brown or black paint on the red ware. The material is so characteristic that the presence of a small sherd on a site strongly suggest Nabataean occupation.

Prior to the discovery of the DSS which includes some papyri in Nabataean, the only literary remains in Nabataean were some inscrs. and graffiti in Sinai and Trans-Jordan, esp. in Petra. Nabataean was a form of Aram. with a strong Arab. influence. The Nabataean papyri, dated in the 1st cent. of the Christian era, provide new data for the study of the dialect and Aram. The script developed by the Nabataeans is similar to the Heb. script of the time, but the letters are strangely elongated vertically—a practice which allows for close packing of the letters.

The principal Nabataean deity was a god named Dushara (Hellenized form, Dushares), symbolized by a block of stone or obelisk. At Tannur the chief god was Hadad, the Syrian storm-god, equivalent of the Gr. Zeus. Atargatis, equivalent of the Gr. Artemis, appears to have been a type of fertility goddess. Evidence of the religious practices of the Nabataeans can be seen in the “high places” (openair sanctuaries of the gods), such as the Conway High Place and the Great High Place of Robinson at Petra, with processional ways, altars, and pools or lavers. Places for the ritual sacrifice of animals are also found, e.g., above Ed Deir in Petra.

As archeological research continues, esp. in the Negev and Trans-Jordan, more information can be expected about the Nabataeans who in many respects were one of the most remarkable and vigorous people in the eastern Mediterranean world during the Rom. period.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

nab-a-te’-anz, nab-a-the’-anz (Nabataioi; in 1 Macc 5:25 Codex Sinaiticus reads anabatais hoi, V, Anabattaiois; the King James Version Nabathites, more correctly "Nabataeans"):

1. Locality and Early History:

A Semitic (Arabian rather than Syrian) tribe whose home in early Hellenistic times was Southeast of Palestine, where they had either supplanted or mingled with the Edomites (compare Mal 1:1-5). In Josephus’ day they were so numerous that the territory between the Red Sea and the Euphrates was called Nabatene (Ant., I, xii, 4). They extended themselves along the East of the Jordan with Petra as their capital (Strabo xvi.779; Josephus, Ant, XIV, i, 4; XVII, iii, 2; BJ, I, vi, 2, etc.). Their earlier history is shrouded in obscurity. Jerome, Quaeat in Ge 25:13, following the hint of Josephus (Ant., I, xii, 4), asserts they were identical with the Ishmaelite tribe of Nebaioth, which is possible, though Nebaioth is spelled with the Hebrew letter taw ("t") and Nabateans is spelled with the Hebrew letter teth ("t). They were apparently the first allies of the Assyrians in their invasions of Edom (compare Mal 1:1 ff). They were later subdued by Sennacherib (Sayce, New Light from the Ancient Monuments, II, 430), but before long regained their independence and resisted Ashurbanipal (Rawlinson, note, at the place). According to Alexander Polyhistor (Fr. 18), they were included in the nomadic tribes reduced by David. Their history is more detailed from 312 BC (Diod. Sic. xix), when Antigonus I (Cyclops) sent his general Athenaeus with a force against them in Petra. After an initial advantage, the army of Athenaeus was almost annihilated. Demetrius, the son of Antigonus, was sent against them a few years later, with little success, though he arranged a friendship with them. The first prince mentioned is Aretas I, to whom the high priest Jason fled in 169 BC. They were friendly to the early Maccabees in the anti-Hellenistic struggle, to Judas in 164 BC (1 Macc 5:25) and to Jonathan in 160 BC (1 Macc 9:35).

2. A Strong Kingdom:

Toward the end of the 2nd century BC on the fall of the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Dynasties, the Nabateans under King Erotimus founded a strong kingdom extending East of the Jordan (in 110 BC). Conscious now of their own strength, they resented the ambition of the Hasmonean Dynasty--their former allies--and opposed Alexander Janneus (96 BC) at the siege of Gaza (Josephus, Ant, XIII, xiii, 3). A few years later (90 BC) Alexander retaliated by attacking Obedas I, king of the Nabateans, but suffered a severe defeat East of the Jordan (Josephus, Ant, XIII, xiii, 5; BJ, I, iv, 4). Antiochus XII of Coele-Syria next led an expedition against the Nabateans, but was defeated and slain in the battle of Kana (Josephus, Ant, XIII, xv, 1-2; BJ, I, iv, 7-8). Consequently, Aretas III seized Coele-Syria and Damascus and gained another victory over Alexander Janneus at Adida (in 85 BC).

3. Conflicts:

The Nabateans, led by Aretas (III (?)), espoused the cause of Hyrcanus against Aristobulus, besieged the latter in Jerusalem and provoked the interference of the Romans, by whom under Scaurus they were defeated (Josephus, Ant, XIV, i, 4 f; BJ, I, vi, 2 f). After the capture of Jerusalem, Pompey attacked Aretas, but was satisfied with a payment (Josephus, ibid.), and Damascus was added to Syria, though later it appears to have again passed into the hands of Aretas (2Co 11:32). In 55 BC Gabinius led another force against the Nabateans (Josephus, ibid.). In 47 BC Malchus I assisted Caesar, but in 40 BC refused to assist Herod against the Parthians, thus provoking both the Idumean Dynasty and the Romans. Antony made a present of part of Malchus’ territory to Cleopatra, and the Nabatean kingdom was further humiliated by disastrous defeat in the war against Herod (31 BC).

4. End of the Nation:

Under Aretas IV (9 BC-40 AD) the kingdom was recognized by Augustus. This king sided with the Romans against the Jews, and further gained a great victory over Herod Antipas, who had divorced his daughter to marry Herodias. Under King Abias an expedition against Adiabene came to grief. Malchus II (48-71 AD) assisted the Romans in the conquest of Jerusalem (Josephus, BJ, III, iv, 2). Rabel (71-106 AD) was the last king of the Nabateans as a nation. In 106 AD their nationality was broken up by the unwise policy of Trajan, and Arabia, of which Petra was the capital, was made a Roman province by Cornelius Palma, governor of Syria. Otherwise they might have at least contributed to protecting the West against the East. Diodorus (loc. cit.) represents the Nabateans as a wild nomadic folk, with no agriculture, but with flocks and herds and engaged in considerable trading. Later, however, they seem to have imbibed considerable Aramean culture, and Aramaic became at least the language of their commerce and diplomacy. They were also known as pirates on the Red Sea; they secured the harbor of Elah and the Gulf of `Akaba. They traded between Egypt and Mesopotamia and carried on a lucrative commerce in myrrh, frankincense and costly wares (KGF, 4th edition (1901), I, 726-44, with full bibliography).