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Volume 32, Number 2March/April 1981

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A Kingdom of Traders

Written by Philip C. Hammond
Photographed by Michael Grimsdale

Classical historians and archeologists have long overwhelmed us with the importance of Rome. Lately, though, they seem to have realized that the Romans, despite great achievements, were not alone in the ancient world. In the last 20 years, for example, the scholars have begun to pay attention to a people who made more than a passing impact upon the ancient world: the Nabateans.

A pre-Islamic Arab group, the Nabateans, or "Nabatu," made their first impact on the ancient world as Red Sea raiders, but then, defeated too often, became nomads who next appear herding their goats and sheep along the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula and moving ever northward toward less populated areas. By the early part of the fourth century B.C., they had reached areas previously occupied by a group known as Edomites, who, for reasons unknown, had themselves moved westward after several hundred years of sedentary occupation.

Gradually advancing into this territory -in today's Jordan - the tribal groups who made up the Nabatu found a land-locked site which offered security, pasturage and access to the major trade routes of the ancient Middle East - a paramount factor since the Nabatu, who had traversed the southern ends of those routes, had sensed the importance of controlling them. The site in which they settled, characterized by a towering mountain within a rock-girt valley, had been known in Edomite times as Sela' — "Rock"— but the Nabatu renamed it Rekumu when they settled in. Today it's called Petra

By the late second century B.C. the Nabateans had consolidated themselves, politically and socially, into a kingdom - a hereditary monarchy, resembling a shaikhdom - under one Harith I (Aretas I), called tyranos. That ominous title soon changed, however; it became basilaos, the more common Greek equivalent for "king", and eventually melek, a Nabatean word reflecting the final realization of the people's own background and language, and the culture's own quasi-democratic characteristics. Strabo tells us, for instance, that the king served guests with his own hands and remained standing throughout the meal in order to make sure they were well fed, and the kingdom's coins were reminders that their king "loved his people," and was the "restorer and supporter" of the nation.

By the Roman Period, the Nabateans had already begun to make Rekumu - Petra - a place of beauty. By then they had constructed the main theater, with a capacity of more than 8,500 people, a paved main street with a colonnade, domed baths, and at least two magnificent temples to the local gods, along with a city now full of other public buildings and private homes.

Decoration in Petra rivaled distant Pompeii, the columns and orders were taken from the best architectural authorities of the day, and the construction was virtually all of quarried stone. In addition, over 850 monumental tomb facades dotted the faces of every cliff, outcrop and mountain in the area. Some were simple, but some rose over 120 feet, with multiple stories and, often, with chambers which had required the removal of tons of stone.

The Nabatu had not neglected security either. The north and south ends of Petra's valley were sealed off by walls-with watch towers, guard posts, and other defensive installations - and the front door was defended by the vast, narrow cleft known today as the "Siq," a narrow passage meandering almost a mile between towering cliffs, and provided with a high dam to divert flood waters and preclude direct assault. Already, Roman legions had marched toward Petra, and though they had been bought off once and had been pulled back the second time, to face internal crises in Rome, the growth of the Nabatean kingdom almost guaranteed a third expedition and thus demanded "preventative" defense.

At the same time, the needs of the people had to be met, and from the skill of Nabatean engineers came masterpieces of hydraulic and agricultural development: aqueducts, runnels, catchment basins, diversion dams, reservoirs, pressure-piped water for the city, devices to retain moisture on the hillsides, terraces to increase production and intensive cultivation of the suburban plains.

From this strange urban center in the midst of nowhere, this once pastoral culture expanded until Petra became the hub of a civilization embracing over 1,000 sites scattered from Madain Salih, 500 miles from Jiddah, in today's Saudi Arabia, (See Aramco World, September-October 1965) to the upper edge of the Dead Sea, with brokers and agents equally scattered along the Arabian Gulf, Egypt, and on into Greece and Rome.

By the early first century the "city" controlled some 25 percent of the gross national product of Rome itself, with the goods of India, China, Persia and the Arabian Peninsula, most importantly frankincense and myrrh from the south-passing through Nabatean hands. Profiting from their days as wandering nomads, the Nabateans came to control this international trade by carrying their wares on their own caravans, along their own closely guarded routes, using their own rest stops and depots, and collecting their own taxes. Rarely before, if ever, had a single Middle Eastern kingdom so completely dominated mercantile endeavors so profitably.

It’s no wonder, of course, that distant Rome, as well as such neighbors as Herod the Great, began to envy Nabatean control of the great north-south, east-west trade routes, nor that the Nabateans developed amazing political skills as well as business acumen. While every other major local kingdom of the Middle East was being absorbed by Rome, Nabatea alone seems to have survived - for over 170 years after the arrival of the general Pompey who came to "liberate" the Middle East.

Nabatean methods varied over the years. Earlier, as noted, Rome's first advance was thwarted by bribery; the legions were "bought" by Antipater of Idumea, the desert area of ancient southwest Palestine, whose wife was Nabatean, and who needed allies to strengthen his fight against the Hasmoneans in Jerusalem, his political rivals. Then later, when an investigative team was sent out to determine what part of greater Arabia to conquer first, it was led in circles for six months by the "scout" provided by the Nabatean king, Obodath. And when Antony kindly gave away Nabatean balsalm groves in the Dead Sea Valley to Cleopatra - Herod rented them back -the Nabateans refused to pay the rent.

On another occasion, Augustus (Caesar) decided upon the royal succession and sent a crown - but the king had already ascended the throne without consultation. Even in "cooperation" with the Romans, the Nabateans seemed to come out ahead. During the Jewish War of A.D. 70 the Nabatean king Malichus sent "help" to the Roman army. Unfortunately, the Nabatean troops were a bit too efficient for the Roman commander and he sent them back to Petra.

Mighty Rome, of course, was seldom balked for long and eventually the Romans struck at Nabatean through her commerce -the very lifeblood of the kingdom – by diverging trade routes in the south to Alexandria and trade routes in the north to Palmyra. Gradually, as a result, Nabatean power diminished - the last king even moved to Bosra in Syria - and in A.D. 106, the legions of Trajan marched through the Siq — apparently without resistance and apparently with the connivance of Nabatean nobles.

But the story did not end there. The acumen of the Nabateans, which had brought them to such pinnacles of progress, did not fade simply because of foreign invasion. As recent excavations at Petra have disclosed, the economic level of the Nabatu does not seem to have diminished after A. D. 106. Instead, new buildings were erected - once attributed to the "the Romans", but, in fact, strikingly similar to classical Nabatean decoration - and as late as the fourth century the old trade lines across Sinai and across the Red Sea were converging at Tell el-Shuqafiya in the northwestern Delta area of Egypt - on their way to Rome's transit center at Alexandria.

Less obvious, and now becoming more widely recognized, was the continuation of Nabatean influence in the arts and crafts. Again, recent excavations at Petra strongly refute change during the Byzantine period there - and the countless numbers of "Byzantine" structures seen throughout southern Syro-Palestine look very much like their earlier "Nabatean" counterparts. Here and there a cross was added to the vine foliage designs, once a symbol of the god of the Nabateans, but the Nabatean influence lingered on. Dams, reservoirs, and water systems of all sorts continued to be built as the Nabateans had always built them.

Pottery forms and decoration mirror the same perseverance as do other craft arts following the fall of Petra. And in Egypt, even Coptic art is said to owe a debt to Nabatean art - as business continued - as usual across Sinai and the Red Sea.

How many vestiges of art, engineering and architecture passed into early Islamic times, from the pre-Islamic Arab Nabateans, remains to be investigated. But whether direct contact can be determined is irrelevant, for around the budding Islamic culture, throughout all of southern Syro-Palestine and Egypt, craftsmen and artists were surrounded with the vestiges of the Nabatean influence. Even Arabic script echoes the increasingly ligatured letters of Nabatean inscriptions, as against the more pictographic scripts of the Thamudians and others of the peninsula. The Nabatu, in short, did more than build the "rose-red city;" they also established an astonishing network of trade routes, outwitted the Roman Empire and paved the way for advances in art, literature, architecture and hydraulics that would not come until Petra, and the civilization it represented, had sunk into the archives of history and the silence of the desert.

Philip C. Hammond is a professor of anthropology at the University of Utah.

This article appeared on pages 36-41 of the March/April 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1981 images.