Petra Treasury

The Nabatean

The Nabataeans, an Arab tribe, first appeared in the sixth century BC in the desert located to the east of Jordan, and came from the south-east of the Arabian Peninsula. They settled first in Petra and subsequently expanded their territory to the Horan and Levant and finally announced Bosra as their capital.

According to historical records, they are descendants of (Bnayut) the son of Ismail bin Ibrahim. Ismail had twelve boys who formed a tribe, most of whom were located in Najad. The father of the Nabataeans remained at Mount Shammar but was forced to run from the Ashurbanipal to Wadi Araba between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba.

During the fourth century BC the Nabataeans lived as nomads in tents, spoke Arabic, loathed wine and did not have any interest in agriculture, but by the second century, they developed into an organized society.

The Greek historian Herodotus referred to Nabataean history in his writing, where the Nabataeans fist appeared in 312 BC and prayed to Oratol.

As the Nabataeans grew in power and wealth, they attracted the attention of their neighbors to the north. The Seleucid King Antigonus, who had come to power when Alexander’s empire was divided, attacked Petra in 312 BC. His army met with relatively little resistance, and was able to sack the city. The quantity of booty was so great, however, that it slowed their return journey north and the Nabataeans were able to annihilate them in the desert. Records indicate that the Nabataeans were eager to remain on good terms with the Seleucids in order to perpetuate their trading ambitions. Throughout much of the third century BC, the Ptolemies and Seleucids warred over control of Jordan, with the Seleucids emerging victorious in 198 BC. The Nabataeans remained essentially untouched and independent throughout this period.

Although the Nabataeans resisted military conquest, the Hellenistic culture of their neighbors influenced them greatly. Hellenistic influences can be seen in Nabataean art and architecture, especially at the time that their empire was expanding northward into Syria, around 150 BC. However, the growing economic and political power of the Nabataeans began to worry the Romans. In 65 BC, the Romans arrived in Damascus and ordered the Nabataeans to withdraw their forces. Two years later, Pompey dispatched a force to cripple Petra. The Nabataean King Aretas III either defeated the Roman legions or paid a tribute to keep peace with them.

The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC augured a period of relative anarchy for the Romans in Jordan, and the Parthian kings of Persia and Mesopotamia took advantage of the chaotic situation to attack. The Nabataeans made a mistake by siding with the Parthians in their war with the Romans, and after the Parthians’ defeat, Petra had to pay tribute to Rome. When they fell behind in paying this tribute, they were invaded twice by the Roman vassal King Herod the Great. The second attack, in 31 BCE, saw him take control of a large swath of Nabataean territory, including the lucrative northern trading routes into Syria

Nonetheless, the Nabataeans continued to prosper for a while. King Aretas IV, who ruled from 9 BCE to 40 CE, built a chain of settlements along the caravan routes to develop the prosperous incense trade. The Nabataeans realized the power of Rome, and subsequently allied themselves with the Romans to quell the Jewish uprising of 70 CE. However, it was only a matter of time before Nabataea would fall under direct Roman rule. The last Nabataean monarch, Rabbel II, struck a deal with the Romans that as long as they did not attack during his lifetime, they would be allowed to move in after he died. Upon his death in 106 CE, the Romans claimed the Nabataean Kingdom and renamed it Arabia Petrea. The city of Petra was redesigned according to traditional Roman architectural designs, and a period of relative prosperity ensued under the Pax Romana.

The Nabataeans profited for a while from their incorporation into the trade routes of the Roman Near East, and Petra may have grown to house 20,000-30,000 people during its heyday. However, commerce became less profitable to the Nabataeans with the shift of trade routes to Palmyra in Syria and the expansion of seaborne trade around the Arabian Peninsula. Sometime probably during the fourth century CE, the Nabataeans left their capital at Petra. No one really knows why. It seems that the withdrawal was an unhurried and organized process, as very few silver coins or valuable possessions have been unearthed at Petra.

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