Origins and Growth.

The consensus of modern scholarship no longer relates the Nabateans to the biblical Nebaioth, the firstborn son of Ishmael (Gen. 25.13, 16; 28.9; 36.3), nor with the Nabatu/Nabaiati of Assyrian records. Rather, they are seen to have originated somewhere in the Arabian peninsula, emerging by at least the fourth century BCE and described by Diodorus Siculus as a sedentarized group of traders occupying the ancient Edomite site known as Petra (Map 11:G5). Pliny adds some scant details of previous Red Sea island occupation and suggests an original tribal territory between those of the Qedar and Dedan tribes.

By the first century BCE, the group had become fully sedentary, urban, and monarchically organized, controlling the major north‐south trade routes of Coele‐Syria and northern Arabia. As a result of commerce, their sphere of influence extended far beyond their political borders, and their trading connections embraced the major luxury suppliers and markets of both east and west. Although frankincense and myrrh, along with Dead Sea balsams and bitumen, appear foremost in the list of their commercial products, such items as silk, gems, spices, and pharmaceuticals were probably also traded. With the trading routes went also other installations, resulting in more than a thousand sites known to have been established by Nabateans.

Their capital city, Petra, rapidly achieved a sophisticated urbanism, prompted by competition with surrounding people. A monarchic form of government (eleven kings have thus far been identified) further advanced their position as a true political state. The Nabateans seem to have reached their height under Aretas IV (90 BCE–40 CE), whose ethnarch attempted to arrest Paul at Damascus (2 Cor 11.32).


Although the extant examples of Nabatean are basically Aramaic, they contain a large number of Arabisms. The script gradually developed into a semicursive, ligatured form, which ultimately served as the basis for the modern Arabic script.

Hundreds of Nabatean inscriptions have been found, including letters and contracts. No literary works, however, have as yet been recovered, leaving vast gaps in knowledge concerning the ideology, social structure, and even commercial history of the people.


Despite the lack of documentary data, the material remains of the Nabateans have furnished substantial evidence of high technological skill. Hydraulic engineering, architecture, ceramics, numismatics, metallurgy, along with sculpture and decorative art, are attested throughout Nabatene areas. Especially at Petra, such skills are seen at their best, for the capital city was embellished by succeeding rulers, in addition to being militarily secured and made more generally habitable. Likewise throughout the kingdom, different types of desert‐adapted water systems for both agriculture and culinary purposes are found.

Architecturally, the Nabateans show an eclecticism to be attributed to their broad trading connections. Most obvious are the more than eight hundred funerary, cultic, and other architectural features at Petra, and the smaller number, mainly tomb façades, from Medain Selah. The vast majority of these installations are carved into cliff faces, but built structures are being uncovered by recent excavations at a variety of sites. At Petra these have included public secular and religious structures, along with private residential buildings.

Ceramics also reached an extremely high technical and decorative level by the first century CE. Most impressive was the development of a fine, thin red‐painted pottery, generally used for open plates. This type has become the principal marker for identifying Nabatean sites throughout the area. Of equal importance, however, were more commercial ceramic vessels, such as unguentaria for oils and related products, which were developed for trade throughout the Roman empire; these have been identified as far west as Spain.

Coinage and other metal production are also noticeably represented at Petra. Coin production among the Nabateans possibly began as early as 90 BCE, and continued until the beginning of the second century CE.

Sculpture, in the round and in relief, along with castings of figurines, lamps, and other objects, appear in great quantities and types, some with marked artistic excellence, at Petra, Et‐Tannur and elsewhere. Fresco, appliqué, and other decorative art examples, including the decoration of architectural orders, are also beginning to come to light.

Nabatene functioned as a virtually independent kingdom throughout the Roman period, until the need to consolidate the Near East led Trajan to incorporate the area formally into the empire. In 106 CE Roman forces entered Petra and the Nabatean kingdom ceased to exist. Nabatean life and culture were scarcely affected, however, and continued with little real evidence of Roman or Christian impact.

On the evening of May 19, 363 CE, Petra was struck by a disastrous earthquake and the city fell into ruins. With that calamity, the Nabateans, as such, disappeared from recorded history. Yet their cultural, linguistic, technological, and artistic influence continued, and permeated Near Eastern culture for generations to follow.

Philip C. Hammond