The Nabateans are of Arab descent, as their personal names, certain Arabic words incorporated in their vocabulary, and a recently discovered inscription found in the vicinity of Oboda (Avdat) reveal. The Oboda inscription is written partly in Aramaic and partly in Arabic but rendered entirely in Aramaic letters. The earliest inscriptions written with certainty by Nabateans are in Aramaic, the official language of the Persian Empire. Almost all of the Nabatean-Aramaic inscriptions deal with matters of religion. The earliest inscription, in archaic Aramaic script, dates to 168 BCE and comes from Elusa (Ḥaluṣa) in Israel's central Negev desert. It refers to a shrine in honor of Aretas, king of the Nabateans. The Aslah inscription (c. 90 BCE) found at Petra, in Jordan is also in archaic script and mentions a shrine dedicated to Obodas I, son of Aretas II. It dates to about 67 BCE and was engraved on the base of a statue of King Rabel I.
The bulk of the Nabatean inscriptions come from the vicinity of Petra, the capital of the Nabatean kingdom; Egra (Meda'in Saleh) in northern Arabia; and the Hauran, in southern Syria. Most belong to the reigns of Aretas IV (9 BCE–40 CE), Malichus II (40–70 CE), and Rabel II (70–106 CE). Very few of the texts found at Petra are of any length. The longest is an undated epitaph referring in detail to components of a large funerary monument. Another fairly long and detailed inscription is engraved on what was apparently the base of a statue dedicated to Rabel II. It provides a detailed genealogy of the Nabatean royal house. Most of the inscriptions found in the region of Petra are, however, brief invocations by pilgrims that are engraved along paths leading to open-air high places. In one of these the names Garshu and Raqmu—the Semitic names of Gerasa (Jerash) and Petra—are mentioned.
The northern Arabian group of Nabatean inscriptions comprises some thirty lengthy epitaphs and hundreds of rock inscriptions engraved by pilgrims and soldiers (Cooke, 1903; Jaussen and Savignac, 1909). The detailed funerary inscriptions, written in an elegant cursive script, were engraved on the facades of monuments (there is a direct relationship between the architectural quality of the monument and the length of the inscription). The funerary inscriptions were copies of documents deposited in an office or temple; copies were also distributed among members of the family who had the right of burial. The epitaphs (and the documents) contain the name or names of those who had the monument made, the names of those with the right of burial; a date by regnal years (most monuments were made in the reigns of Aretas IV, Malichus II, and the first five years of Rabel II); a curse on anyone who desecretes the monument; and the amount of the fine to be paid by violators—either to the treasury of a temple or temples or to the treasury of a secular authority (the king or regional governor), and the name or names of the sculptors who made the monument.
The shorter inscriptions were engraved either on the rocks surrounding Petra, where funerary feasts took place, or in the vicinity of Egra, at a place called the Tombs of the Soldiers. Numerous inscriptions were written by soldiers—mostly cavalrymen—in Greek and Latin. The Aramaic-Nabatean inscriptions mention generals in the cavalry and infantry and other military officials.
The inscriptions found in the Hauran were probably engraved by members of the tribe of Obaishat (Gk., Obaisenoi). They consist of dedicatory inscriptions from the temple of Ba῾al Shamin at Seeia (built between 33/32 and 2/1 BCE) that mention the building's architectural features, shrines, statues, and other cult objects. One epitaph (c. 270 CE) is for Fero, the teacher of Gadimat, king of Tanuh.
A small group of inscriptions comes from the central Negev, mainly from the religious center at Oboda (Avdat). Some were dedications of the temple and one mentions descendants of Aretas IV. Of special interest is a group of mason's marks engraved by the temple's builders.
The rock inscriptions of southern Sinai (some three thousand graffiti), constitute a discrete group. Most are short invocations containing the word šlm, “peace,” or a short blessing; the name of the engraver; sometimes also the name of the deceased's brother or brothers, father, and, more rarely, grandfather and ending with another blessing. Only a few are dated (the dates range from 150/51 to 267/68 CE. In a group of inscriptions found at Jebel Moneija, near the oasis of Feiran, the officials of a temple are mentioned (two classes of priests, supervisors of animal victims sacrificed in Nabatean temples, and a scribe).
A few Nabatean inscriptions were found in Wadi Tumilat, in eastern Egypt; a few others were found at various sites within the boundaries of the Roman Empire.
- Cantineau, Jean. Le Nabatéen, vol. 2. Paris, 1932. See pages 11–25.
- Cooke, G. A. A Textbook of North-Semitic Inscriptions. Oxford, 1903.
- Jaussen, Antonin, and Raphael Savignac. Mission archéologique en Arabia, vol. 1. Paris, 1909.
- Negev, Avraham. The Inscriptions of Wadi Ḥaqqaq, Sinai. Qedem, vol. 6. Jerusalem, 1977.
- Negev, Avraham. “A Nabatean Sanctuary at Jebel Moneijah, Southern Sinai.” Israel Exploration Journal 27 (1977): 219–234.
- Negev, Avraham. Personal Names in the Nabatean Realm. Qedem, vol. 32. Jerusalem, 1991. Contains an extensive bibliography.