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Volume 16, Number 5September/October 1965

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Notes On The Nabateans

Written by Thomas C. Barger

In 312 B.C., about 10 years after the death of Alexander the Great, a Greek general who had served with Alexander led an expedition against a city called Petra in what is now Jordan. He captured the main fortress, looted it and retired with the city's treasure. As he retreated, however, the defenders of the city counterattacked, in an unexpected night raid, massacred the Greeks and recaptured the treasure. The defenders were called Nabateans and this was their first appearance in recorded history.

Who were the Nabateans? To give an exact answer is difficult; reliable information about them is sketchy. After their initial appearance, for example, they dropped out of historical sight until about 169 B.C., nearly a century and a half later. And even then there is only an unexplained reference to their capture of a certain high priest. Again there is a period of silence until about 100 B.C. when they began to appear with more frequency—in their own inscriptions as well as in Roman, Greek and Jewish sources. Their period of prominence was so short, however, that much of what is believed today has been pieced together as much from conjecture as from evidence.

Apparently the Nabateans were of Arab origin, probably Bedouins out of the Arabian desert, who settled, at least for a time, in a wild, mountainous land south of the Dead Sea and clustered around what is famous today as the "rose-red city" of Petra, a city carved from sandstone and guarded on its eastern approach by a narrow, easily defended defile and a fortress on an immense rock that could be reached only by a single, hand-cut ascent. All around the city were rose-red sandstone formations and the Nabateans expended a great deal of time and effort carving tombs into the cliffs. These tombs had facades representing elaborate temples—Greek-inspired, probably—with small, plain, unadorned chambers cut in behind the "doors" to serve as crypts.

With the well-guarded Petra as a base of power the Nabateans were able to control the important roads to the coast south of the Dead Sea and all of the desert country lying to the east of the towns in what is today Jordan and western Syria. In other words they controlled all the lands east of the settled country ruled by the Jews and Romans and other sedentary peoples. (Including, probably, Damascus, so that it is likely that at the time St. Paul was making his escape by being let down the city wall in a basket, the governor of the city was a Nabatean.) They also maintained access to the Mediterranean through an area due west of Petra that is today known as the Gaza Strip, and extended their control south into what is today Mada'in Salih in Saudi Arabia.

To the Nabateans, control of this territory was probably no less than a matter of survival. Through it ran the ancient caravan routes over which came the main source of the Nabateans' wealth and importance: incense. In that era the Roman Empire and the Greek states used incredible quantities of incense for their civil and religious ceremonies, and nearly all of the incense seems to have come from South Arabia—from what is today southern Yemen and Hadhramaut. Incense comes from the sap of a certain tree found then and to this day in the highlands of those regions.

Because their prosperity depended almost exclusively on incense, however, the Nabateans were bound to suffer if their Roman customers could find a cheaper way of getting it. And the Romans did find a cheaper way. They shipped it on their galleys up the Red Sea to ports closer to Egypt and the Mediterranean. Since the caravans plodding overland could not compete with the swift galleys it was virtually the end of Nabatean wealth and influence. Toward the end of the first century A.D. they began to decline and a century later had disappeared altogether as a separate state and people and their magnificent capital in Petra was left, deserted and empty, to the wind and sun and an occasional Bedouin, for 1,600 years.

Up to this point most of the information is reasonably well documented. But there are other aspects of Nabatean history and culture which are still open to speculation and dispute. One of the most important questions has to do with Mada'in Salih.

There is no doubt that Mada'in Salih was a Nabatean settlement—Charles Doughty's sketches of the stone inscriptions proved that beyond any doubt—but there is disagreement as to whether it was merely an outpost of the Nabateans from which the Nabateans picked up the incense and transshipped it to Petra, or a large thriving settlement strong and self-sufficient enough to dictate terms to the tribes to the south.

The first view stems from the basic belief that the Nabateans were not only of nomadic origin, but were still nomads in the era of Nabatean eminence. It is based on what so far is a failure to find ruins which might indicate a settlement. This theory is helped along by the writings of a Roman called Diodorus, whose sources are unknown but who wrote that the Nabateans were completely nomadic and that they abstained from planting and sowing under threat of death as well as from drinking wine and building permanent homes.

In the absence of data to refute it, this view, of course, must be considered. But other findings suggest quite another story. First of all there have been no excavations in Mada'in Salih and it is entirely possible that there are ruins there—beneath certain dunes and mounds that are certainly not natural. More importantly, ruins in and around Jordan show that the Nabateans were most ingenious in conserving and using water for agriculture and probably had more land in crops than there is now. In Mada'in Salih itself the Bedouins today are cleaning out wells which in size and number suggest that at one time there might have been several square miles of gardens in the vicinity—enough to have supported a sizeable population. Furthermore the Nabateans produced a distinctive pottery of excellent quality and workmanship—all of which means that if the Nabateans were nomads they were most unusual nomads since nomadic people rarely develop water conservation systems or fine pottery.

The other view—that Mad'in Salih was a large, strong settlement—seems more reasonable if only because it is unlikely that the South Arabian tribes would have simply halted their northern advance at a given point because the Nabateans asked them to. It is much more likely that they stopped because the settlement at Mada'in Salih was big enough and strong enough to bar them from going further.

Supporting this view is the interesting fact that the tombs to be found on the sandstone cliffs above the oasis of Al 'Ula—just a few miles south of Mada'in Salih—are not Nabatean tombs. They are similar, but key differences in the pattern and inscriptions found there indicate that the people who carved those tombs were probably South Arabians, not Nabateans. Thus it seems that between Mada'in Salih and Al 'Ula there existed a definite frontier marking the southernmost extension of the Nabatean Kingdom and the northernmost penetration of the South Arabian traders.

If that were the case, however, it would leave the major question about Mada'in Salih unanswered: what happened to it?

It is logical that with the decline of the incense trade—after the Romans conquered the Nabateans—Petra would have declined. It also seems reasonable that if Mada'in Salih were a small outpost of nomads it, too, would have vanished with the end of the incense trade. But if there were a large agricultural settlement there, why would it disappear? The fortunes of Al 'Ula were also dependent on incense, but because of its agriculture it survives to this day, so what happened?

No one can answer that question with any dependable degree of certainty, but there might be a clue in the Koranic story of the prophet Salih in which an "earthquake" shook the valley to punish the villagers for rejecting God's prophet. Geologists see no evidence of an earthquake in Mada'in Salih. But the Koranic word translated "earthquake" can also mean "a calamity from God." Couldn't it have been, for example, a plague that drove the Nabateans away forever?

The only honest answer of course is: no one knows. Which is why Mada'in Salih is perhaps the most fascinating part of the story of the Nabateans.

Thomas C. Barger,  president of Aramco, has enriched an amateur's knowledge of archeology with substantial reading and 30 years of exploration in Saudi Arabia. He added to it this year with a trip to Mada'in Salih and subsequent research into the history of the region.

This article appeared on pages 5-6 of the September/October 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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