During the late Hellenistic and Early Roman imperial era, an Arab kingdom centered at Petra in Edomite Transjordan established itself as one of the prominent native independent political powers in the region of the Levant. The territory under its control extended from southern Syria through most of Transjordan, the Negev of Palestine, the Sinai, and the northwestern part of the Hijaz. Strabo, the Roman geographer, and the Jewish historian Josephus offer the fullest discussions of Nabatean history and culture, in the absence of any indigenous Nabatean literary sources. More than four thousand Nabatean Aramaic inscriptions do offer valuable direct testimony from the native population, but the majority are laconic graffiti containing mere stereotyped formulae at best; the few lengthier texts are mostly funerary. Archaeological remains of the material culture suggest that the Nabateans possessed accomplished technical skills. Especially of note is their distinctive hellenized architecture, reflected in rock-cut tombs and temples; peculiar eggshell-thin ceramics of exceptionally high quality; and the hydrological techniques they employed in developing agriculture in the extensive desert landscape they occupied.


The view that the Nabateans of the classical era are related to the Iron Age people known as the Nabaioth in the Hebrew Bible or the Nabatu of Assyrian texts remains controversial, but linguistic and historical evidence suggest the identification is not without some basis. These indications suggest their homeland was in the region of northeastern Arabia, adjacent to the Persian Gulf. They appear to have migrated westward in the Achaemenid Persian period to settle finally in Petra. [See Petra.] The movement was along the North Arabian trade route that connected Babylonia and Egypt and proved to be a vital commercial link even in the Roman era. Of more entrepreneurial importance was their control of the valuable commerce of the frankincense and myrrh of South Arabia transported to the Levant by Minaean and Gerrhean merchants. By 312/11 BCE, the fortune and reputation of the Nabateans were already well established, attracting the interests of Antigonus the One-Eyed, one of the successors of Alexander the Great, who sent his army to Petra in hope of confiscating its wealth. The enterprise failed. According to the Zenon papyri of 259 BCE, the Nabateans also resided in the neighborhood of the Hauran in Syria and were merchants of aromatics with Ptolemaic agents in Moabite Transjordan. By the second century BCE and afterward, they had spread into the Hijaz, the Negev, and Sinai to the borders of Egypt. Their expansion is best perceived as an extensive political alliance of various peoples united under the rule of the Petraean dynasts. [See Negev; Sinai.]

Royal Dynasty.

During the Hellenistic era, a series of kings is known from literary and epigraphic sources beginning with Aretas I (c. 170 BCE), Rabel I (?), Aretas II (c. 100 BCE), and Obodas I (93–85). Under Aretas III (85–62), Nabatea became a Roman client-state and Malichus I (62–30) was involved with such notable figures as Caesar and Mark Antony. His successor, Obodas II (30–9), was the ally of Augustus, and these relations were continued by the later kings until the reign of the emperor Trajan. Under Aretas IV (9 BCE–40 CE), the Nabatean kingdom flourished and reached its zenith; his reign remains the best known of all the Nabatean dynasts. The reigns of his successors, Malichus II (40–70 CE) and Rabel II (70–106 CE), are more obscure, but the common depiction of this period as one of political and economic decline remains at issue. Because the period between Pompey and Augustus is the best known, the formative character of the monarchy has been seen as a result of Roman rule. However, the Nabatean dynasty reflects all of the aspects of a typical Hellenistic Macedonian monarchy of the Egyptian Ptolemaic type. The kings adopted the traditional titulary slogans of their Hellenistic counterparts on coins and inscriptions: Aretas III was known as philhellenos; Aretas IV as “friend of his people,” or the equivalent in Greek of philodemus, but perhaps better understood as philopatris; and Rabel II as “the one who has given life and deliverance to his people,” or the sōtēr, “savior,” of his people. The monarchs also adopted royal consanguineous marriages, typical of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt; intermarriage with the Herodian dynasty is also known. Evidence for a royal dynastic cult is clear from the known apotheosis of Obodas and Malichus; that of the other kings can be inferred from the pseudotheophoric “servant” names combined with the names of the kings and queens and used by many court officials, military personnel, and artisans. After the Roman annexation In 106 CE, the royal family faded from existence and the Nabatean realm was integrated into the new province of Arabia. The Babatha family archive from the Dead Sea documents the transition from the reign of Rabel II to Roman rule. [See Dead Sea Scrolls.]

Settlement Pattern.

From the royal capital at Petra and the Edomite heartland, Nabatean settlements radiated in all directions. To the south, the port at Leuke Kome on the Red Sea in Midian and inland settlement at Hegra (Meda'in Saleh) in the Hijaz provided bases for transporting South Arabian aromatics on to Petra and elsewhere. [See Meda'in Saleh.] From Aila (῾Aqaba), routes led northwest to Gaza and north to the Petra. [See ῾Aqaba.] For the latter, Nabatean road stations and settlements at Khirbet al-Kithara, Khirbet al-Khaldeh, Quweira, Ḥumeima, and Sadaqa sustained traffic to the royal capital. [See Khaldeh; Ḥumeima.] The Nabatean temple at Wadi Ram in the Ḥisma was also the center for Nabatean settlers in the desert region. From Petra, another route led west through the Negev via the cities of Oboda/Avdat, Mampsis/Kurnub, Neṣṣana, Sobata/Subeita, and Elusa/Ḥaluṣa; it formed the basis for trade at the ports of Gaza and Rhinocorura on the Mediterranean coast. [See Avdat; Kurnub; Subeita; Ḥaluṣa.] Numerous Nabatean inscriptions in the Sinai and the eastern desert of Egypt attest to a substantial Nabatean presence in the area. To the East, a route through the Arabian desert, via the oasis at Dumah al-Jandal (modern Jawf), led to the Persian Gulf and the emporium at Charax Spasinou. To the north through Transjordan, the Nabateans also had a string of settlements in Edom and Moab that extended to Bosra and Damascus, where goods could be transported to the ports along the Phoenician coast. [See Edom; Moab; Bosra; Damascus; Phoenicia.] While the Nabatean presence in the hellenized Decapolis region was not substantial, they neither excluded nor avoided the region. [See Decapolis.] Both Philadelphia (Amman) and Gerasa/Jerash were the locations of Nabatean communities, and the Hauran of southern Syria has yielded numerous inscriptions and sporadic finds of Nabatean pottery. [See Amman; Jerash.] Safaitic inscriptions also attest to Nabatean influence in the region, suggesting that the indigenous population was under the sway of the Nabatean kingdom. [See Safaitic-Thamudic Inscriptions.]

Political and Military Organization.

The titles of civil and military officials are borrowed from Greek (strategos, chiliarch, and hipparch) and Latin (centurion) and reflect the development of the military system along the lines of a standard professional army of the Hellenistic type. The strategoi were regional district governors and military commanders. Such officials are attested at Sidon in Phoenicia, Dmer and Canatha in southern Syria, Madaba and Umm er-Rasas in Moabite Transjordan, and Hegra (Meda'in Saleh); the Nabatean communities in Edomite Transjordan, the Negev, and perhaps the Sinai, must have been organized in similar fashion, but the evidence is lacking. [See Sidon; Madaba; Umm er-Rasas.] There are suggestions that the position was hereditary. For example, the sons of Damasippos at Hegra, Rabîb'el and Ganimu, and his grandson Maliku, were all strategoi at Hegra; another grandson, Damasi, led a revolt later against the ruling dynasty in Petra in the early years of Rabel II's reign. The chiliarchs must have been in charge of infantry units of approximately a thousand men. The hipparchs were commanders of cavalry units of approximately five hundred horsemen. Almost all of the officials with this title are concentrated near Bosra in the far north and Hegra in the far south of the kingdom, but an individual designated the chief of the cavalry (rb pršy') is known from Petra. The title may represent the Semitic equivalent of the hipparch or an official of inferior rank in the cavalry unit. Two individuals are designated by the Latin title of centurion, one at Hegra and the other at Leuke Kome, evidently in charge of protecting officials charged with collecting tariffs on trade. In addition, several individuals are designated the chief of the camp (rb mšryt') at Petra, Dumah al-Jandal, Luhita, and Abarta', officials perhaps comparable to the stratopedarch or praefectus castrorum of the Roman army. [See Meda'in Saleh.]

In conflicts with Hellenistic armies and the Hasmonean and Herodian dynastic forces, the Nabatean royal army performed fairly efficiently, despite the castigating remarks of Strabo and Josephus about their effectiveness. After the Roman annexation of the kingdom In 106, most of the Nabatean army was transformed into regular Roman military units, comprising at least six regiments of cohortes Ulpiae Petraeorum and perhaps several alae regiments of cavalrymen and dromedarii, sometime between 114–116, in connection with Trajan's Parthian campaign. Afterward, these units served in Cappadocia, Syria, and Palestine, and probably their homeland of Arabia as well. [See Cappadocia.]

Language and Script.

Of the more than four thousand published Nabatean Aramaic inscriptions, the oldest are from the Late Hellenistic era, from Petra (96/5, 70/69), Bostra (51–47) in the Hauran, and Tell el-Shuqafiya (77) in Wadi Tumilat between the modern Suez Canal and Nile River in Egypt, where a recent text is dated to 35/4 BCE, to the reigns of both the Ptolemaic ruler Cleopatra VII Philopater and Malichus I. [See Aramaic Language and Literature; Nabatean Inscriptions.] The largest concentration of dated texts is from the tombs at Hegra, which provide important insights as well for the architectural analysis of the tombs at Petra, which have only a single dedicatory inscription. Ironically, the largest concentration of inscriptions is in the forlorn and desolate area of Wadi Mukatteb in the Sinai, where thousands have been recorded. No Nabatean text exists at Petra after its annexation by Rome In 106, although a number of texts dated to the Roman provincial era of Arabia are known from the periphery of the old Nabatean kingdom. The latest dates to 356, from the Hijaz. Although the language of these texts is Aramaic, there are a number of Arabic loanwords utilized for political and religious institutions; the vast majority of personal names in the Nabatean onomasticon are also Arabic, spelled according to the peculiar orthographic practices of Imperial Aramaic of the earlier Persian era. The paleography of the script, with its peculiar ligatures and style, eventually develops into that of the Classical Arabic script. [See Arabic.] It is also apparent that some Nabateans used the North Arabian scripts and dialects known as Safaitic and Thamudic (see above). Recent bilingual texts in these pre-Islamic Arabic dialects and Aramaic indicate the Nabatean community was complex, diverse, and basically polylingual, providing a substantial basis for understanding Aramaic as only the formally adopted language of a largely Arabic population.

Economy and Society.

Of primary importance for the Nabatean economy was the commerce in aromatics from South Arabia and spices from the Far East. Their activities and fame as traders and merchants extended across the Mediterranean and as far east as Han dynasty China, which knew Petra as Rekem (Chinese, Li-kan). In the fourth century BCE, the Nabateans were already profiting greatly from this exotic commerce, and their activities as merchants in these goods was still recognized by Roman writers in the second century CE. Finds of their typical painted eggshell fineware have been found along the eastern coasts near Bahrain, the ports of Oman and Yemen, and at sites such as Qaryat al-Fau in Saudi Arabia, along the incense route leading north to Petra. [See Bahrain; Oman; Yemen; Qaryat al-Fau.] Their Aramaic inscriptions have been found scattered across the Mediterranean at such places as Tenos, Rhodes, Cos, Delos, and Miletus in the Aegean, and Puteoli and Rome in Italy. [See Miletus.] The development of agriculture in the Nabatean realm has been viewed as a late development resulting from a decline in commerce when Rome absorbed much of the Red Sea traffic. It is also a product of the social evolutionary anthropological model that characterizes the transition from nomadic pastoralism to sedentary life as a gradual and late development. [See Pastoral Nomadism.] In contrast to this cultural scheme, the earliest descriptions of the Nabateans indicate that they possessed advanced technical ability and ingenuity. Their engineering skill is revealed in their developing hydrological systems to support settlements on the desert fringe. [See Hydrology.] Such achievements at Ḥumeima in the Ḥisma desert of southern Jordan are particularly impressive and date to the first century BCE, rivaling the later developments in the Negev. In similar fashion, horse breeding must have been a necessity for maintaining the cavalry of the Nabatean army as early as Aretas III—both Petra and Amman seem to have been prime regions for these activities in the Hellenistic era. Furthermore, the art and architecture of the Nabatean realm also reveals creative adaptations of classical styles.


The principal national god of the Nabateans was Dushares (“belonging to Shara,” Edom's mountain range). Other divinities in the pantheon included the goddess Allat, al-Uzza, al-Kutba, Shai al-Qaum, and Ba῾al Shamin. Their representations normally were in the betylic form of a rectangular stela (albeit with stylized eyes, nose, and mouth), rather than anthropomorphic form, suggesting to some that there was a cultural inhibition or even prohibition against depicting divinities in human fashion (Patrich, 1990). Other sculptural representations in Hellenic iconographic form suggest the practice was not uniform. Some of the best-preserved sanctuaries are at Petra, Khirbet et-Tannur, and Wadi Ram in Edom; Qaṣr Rabba and Dhat Ras in Moab; and Si in the Hauran. Shrines and cultic centers are abundant throughout the realm, indicating that the Nabateans absorbed the indigenous cults of the Edomites, Moabites, and Syrians into their pantheon. Even the Egyptian cult of Isis flourished at Petra from at least the Augustan era into the later Roman imperial period. Although there is evidence that Petra came increasingly under the sway of Christianity by the fourth century, there are no traces of the new religion in the Nabatean Aramaic inscriptions.

[See also Arabian Peninsula, article on The Arabian Peninsula before the Time of Islam; Palestine, article on Palestine in the Persian through Roman Periods; Syria, article on Syria in the Persian through Roman Periods; and Transjordan, article on Transjordan in the Persian through Roman Periods.]


  • Bowersock, Glen W. W. Roman Arabia. Cambridge, Mass., 1983. Superb overview of political developments in the region.
  • Dentzer, Jean-Marie, ed. Hauran I: Recherches archéologiques sur la Syrie du Sud à l'époque hellénistique et romaine. 2 vols. Bibliothèque Archéologique et Historique, vol. 124. Paris, 1985–1986. Basic archaeological investigation of Nabatean southern Syria.
  • Gatier, Pierre-Louis, and Jean-François Salles. “Aux frontières méridionales du domaine nabatéen.” In L'Arabie et ses mers bordieres, edited by Jean-François Salles, pp. 173–190. Paris, 1988.
  • Graf, David F. “The Nabataeans and the Hisma: In the Steps of Glueck and Beyond.” In The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman, edited by Carol L. Meyers and Michael O'Connor, pp. 647–664. Winona Lake, Ind., 1983.
  • Graf, David F. “The Origin of the Nabataeans.” ARAM 2 (1990): 45–75. Synthesis of the recent research on the question of the beginnings of Nabatea.
  • Graf, David F. “The Nabataean Army and the Cohortes Ulpiae Petraeorum.” In The Roman and Byzantine Army in the East, edited by Edward Dabrowa, pp. 265–311. Cracow, 1994.
  • Graf, David F. “The Roman East from the Chinese Perspective.” In Palmyra and the Silk Road. Damascus, 1995. Discusses the relevant Chinese texts related to Petra and the Near East.
  • Gruendler, Beatrice. Development of the Arabic Scripts. Harvard Semitic Series, 43. Atlanta, 1993. Basic study of the evolution of the Nabatean script into Arabic script.
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  • Healey, John F. The Nabataean Tomb Inscriptions of Meda'in Salih. Journal of Semitic Studies, Supplement 1. Oxford, 1993. New edition of older texts, integrating recent linguistic evidence.
  • Meshorer, Ya῾acov. Nabataean Coins. Qedem, vol. 3. Jerusalem, 1975. Basic study now updated by Schmitt-Korte (below).
  • Negev, Avraham. Personal Names in the Nabatean Realm. Qedem, vol. 32. Jerusalem, 1991.
  • Patrich, Joseph. The Formation of Nabatean Art. Leiden, 1990. Provocative study of the iconoclastic tradition in Nabatea.
  • Schmitt-Korte, Karl, and Mike Cowell. “Nabataean Coinage, Part I: The Silver Content Measured by X-Ray Fluorescence Analysis.” Numismatic Chronicle 149 (1989): 33–58.
  • Schmitt-Korte, Karl, and Mike Cowell. “Nabataean Coinage, Part II: New Coin Types and Variants.” Numismatic Chronicle 150 (1990): 105–133.
  • Schmitt-Korte, Karl, and Martin Price. “Nabataean Coinage, Part III.” Numismatic Chronicle 154 (1994): 67–131.
  • Wenning, Robert. Die Nabatäer: Denkmäler und Geschichte. Novum Testamentum et Orbis Antiquus, 3. Göttingen, 1987. Basic bibliographic index of Nabatean archaeology.
  • Wenning, Robert. “Eine neuerstelle Liste der nabatäischen Dynastie.” Boreas 16 (1993): 25–35.
  • Wenning, Robert. “Die Dekapolis und die Nabatäer.” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 110 (1994): 2–35.
  • Zayadine, Fawzi, ed. Petra and the Caravan Cities. Amman, 1990. Splendid collection of articles on Nabatean religion and culture.

David F. Graf