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Encyclopedia > Nabatean
Petra, the Nabataean capital

The Nabataeans, a people of ancient Arabia, whose settlements in the time of Josephus gave the name of Nabatene to the border-land between Syria and Arabia from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Josephus suggests, and Jerome affirms, that the name is identical with that of the Ishmaelite tribe of Nbioth, which in later Old Testament times had a leading place among the northern Arabs, and is associated with Kedar much as Pliny associates Nabataei and Cedrei. The identification is rendered uncertain by the fact that the name Nabataean is properly spelled with i not t. Thus the history of the Nabataeans cannot certainly be carried back beyond 312 BC, at which date they were attacked without success by Antigonus I. They are described by Diodorus as being at this time a strong tribe of some 10,000 warriors, pre-eminent among the nomadic Arabs, eschewing agriculture, fixed houses and the use of wine, but adding to pastoral pursuits a profitable trade with the seaports in myrrh and spices from Arabia Felix, as well as a trade with Egypt in bitumen from the Dead Sea. Their arid country was the best safeguard of their cherished liberty; for the bottle-shaped cisterns for rain-water which they excavated in the rocky or argillaceous soil were carefully concealed from invaders. Petra or Sela was the ancient capital of Edom; the Nabataeans must have occupied the old Edomite country, and succeeded to its commerce, after the Edomites took advantage of the Babylonian captivity to press forward into southern Judaea. This migration, the date of which cannot be determined, also made them masters of the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba and the important harbor of Elath. Here, according to Agatharchides, they were for a time very troublesome, as wreckers and pirates, to the reopened commerce between Egypt and the East, till they were chastised by the Greek sovereigns of Alexandria.

The Nabataeans had already some tincture of foreign culture when they first appear in history. That culture was naturally Aramaic; they wrote a letter to Antigonus in Syriac letters, and Aramaic continued to be the language of their coins and inscriptions when the tribe grew into a kingdom, and profited by the decay of the Seleucids to extend its borders northward over the more fertile country east of the Jordan. They occupied Hauran, and in about 85 BC their king Aretas became lord of Damascus and Coele-Syria. Allies of the first Hasmonaeans in their struggles against the Greeks, they became the rivals of the Judaean dynasty in the period of its splendor, and a chief element in the disorders which invited Pompey's intervention in Palestine. The Roman arms were not very successful, and King Aretas retained his whole possessions, including Damascus, as a Roman vassal. As allies of the Romans the Nabataeans continued to flourish throughout the first Christian century. Their power extended far into Arabia, particularly along the Red Sea; and Petra was a meeting-place of many nations though its commerce was diminished by the rise of the Eastern trade-route from Myoshormus to Coptos on the Nile. Under the Roman peace they lost their warlike and nomadic habits, and were a sober, acquisitive, orderly people, wholly intent on trade and agriculture. They might have long been a bulwark between Rome and the wild hordes of the desert but for the short-sighted cupidity of Trajan, who reduced Petra and broke up the Nabataean nationality. The new Arab invaders who soon pressed forward into their seats found the remnants of the Nabataeans transformed into fellahin, and speaking Aramaic like their neighbors. Hence Nabataeans became the Arabic name for Aramaeans, whether in Syria or Iraq, a fact which has been incorrectly held to prove that the Nabataeans were originally Aramaean immigrants from Babylonia. It is now known, however, that they were true Arabs, as the proper names on their inscriptions show, who had come under Aramaic influence.

External link

  • Dan Gibson's comprehensive Nabataean site, which could be used to bring this entry up to date (http://nabataea.net/nab6.html)


This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopędia Britannica.

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