Archaeology and Material Culture of Nabataea and the Nabataeans
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0282
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0282
The Nabataeans were an Arab people who inhabited northwest Arabia over two thousand years ago. Their center was the city of Petra, located in what today is the southern part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. They appear in Greek accounts around 312/311 BCE when the armies of Antigonus Monophthalmos attempted to raid the small, but well-defended kingdom of traders in their capital of Petra. They were reportedly a small, but extremely wealthy, Arab people who transported aromatics, frankincense, and myrrh from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean coast and Egypt. They were skilled stone cutters, a craft developed in the Hellenistic period when they hewed and plastered large cisterns for their exclusive use along desert tracks in the Negev. The Nabataeans became an important element in the geopolitical deposition of the southern Levant at a time when Rome was becoming increasingly involved in the region. They controlled trade routes in the desert regions of the Negev and Sinai Peninsula and extended their rule northward into Syria and southward to the Red Sea coast of Arabia. Their control of the Negev led to the establishment of towns along the main route between Petra and Gaza, called the Incense Road, as well as along other major tracks. By the Roman era they were also master potters, producing exquisite, thin-walled vessels that took the place of glass. In the increasingly competitive markets of the Augustan era, they responded by producing perfumed oils packaged in ceramic unguentaria produced at Petra that they marketed abroad. The increased revenues that they received in an era of high international demand allowed the Nabataeans to indulge in the monumental architecture that can still be viewed with awe today. Nabataea was a client state during the reign of Augustus, and it was ruled by a series of native kings until its annexation by Rome in 106 CE, upon which its territory became the Roman province of Arabia. Loss of self-rule does not seem to have affected the prosperity of the Nabataeans or the production of pottery and aromatics at Petra, and their role in international trade continued until Roman collapse in the region in the 3rd century CE. Nabataean language, culture, and religion continued under Roman rule well into the Late Roman and Early Byzantine periods. In those periods, their written language—Aramaic—was transformational, leading to the development of written Arabic as known today.
A little over 200 years ago, in August 1812, the Swiss explorer J. L. Burckhardt rediscovered Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabataeans. His discovery was facilitated by the German explorer, U. J. Seetzen, whose own research ended with his tragic death a year earlier. A thorough review of the history of the rediscovery of Petra is provided in Lewis 2007. Since Burckhardt’s brief visit, the monumental rock-cut tombs of Petra have caught the imagination of Westerners, and eventually the entire world, making the abandoned, isolated city situated in the red sandstone massif southeast of the Dead Sea one of the most well-known archaeological sites worldwide. Early research of the rediscovery of Petra includes Burckhardt 1822 and Brunnow and von Domaszewski 1904–1909. Exploration of northwestern Arabia also provides important details of Nabataean sites and inscriptions noted prior to modern development in the region (Jaussen and Savignac 1909, Jaussen and Savignac 1914). Unlike their Judean neighbors to the north, the Nabataeans left little behind that can enlighten us concerning their society and religious practices. Only brief, often inaccurate descriptions of them reported in Greek, Roman, Jewish, and ecclesiastical sources; fragmentary epigraphic evidence; and the mute remains and artifacts revealed through archaeological research shed any light on this fascinating people of Arabian origin. In spite of this relative dearth of material, the extant historical background can be found in Bowersock 1983, which remains a standard history of the Nabataeans. Source material concerning their history is also compiled in Retso 2003 and Millar 1993. General works about Petra and the Nabataeans include Taylor 2005, and Nehmé and Villeneuve 1999.
Bowersock G. E. Roman Arabia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.
This is basic reading of historical sources concerning the Nabataeans although since it was published, more recent archaeological and epigraphic research provides updated details.
Brunnow, R. E., and A. von Domaszewski. Die Provincia Arabia. Strasbourg, France: Trübner, 1904–1909.
Die Provincia Arabia is the product of one of the earliest and most impressive research efforts in the region, one dominated by the Nabataeans and the Romans in the post-annexation period. It includes an early mapping of the Petra area that is still referenced by researchers today.
Burckhardt, J. L. Travels in Syria and the Holy Land. London: J. Murray, 1822.
This book contains documentation of the earliest visit to Petra by a Westerner in modern times.
Jaussen, A., and R. Savignac. 1909: Mission archéologique en Arabie (mars–mai 1907); De Jérusalem au Hedjaz, Médain-Saleh. Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1909.
This is the first publication of the explorations of Jaussen and Savignac in the northwestern Arabian Peninsula.
Jaussen, A., and R. Savignac. Mission archéologique en Arabie II: El-ʻEla, d’Hégra à Teima, Harrah de Tebouk. 2 vols. Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1914.
These volumes provide some of the earliest and most accurate details of Nabataean sites in the northwestern Arabian Peninsula and particularly regarding the site of Hegra-Madâ’in Sâlih. Vol. 1 is text and Vol. 2 is an atlas.
Lewis, N. N. “The Rediscovery of Petra, 1807–1818.” In The World of the Nabataeans: Volume 2 of the International Conference the World of the Herods and the Nabataeans Held at the British Museum, 17–19 April 2001. Edited by K. D. Politis, 9–24. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.
This article gives a thorough review of the rediscovery of Petra and some early discoveries that are no longer extant.
Millar, F. The Roman Near East, 31 BC–AD 337. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
This book provides a comprehensive treatment of ancient Nabataea—later the Provincia Arabia—based on the documentary evidence of inscriptions and papyri as well as neighboring lands, such as Judea, in the Roman period.
Musil, A. Arabia Petraea. Vienna: A. Holder, 1907.
The Czech researcher Alois Musil published one of the first scientific surveys of the sites in the Negev, Arabah, and Petra and it is still used by archaeologists today.
Nehmé, L., and F. Villeneuve. Pétra: Métropole de l’Arabie antique. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1999.
This is a seminal treatment about Petra by two seasoned archaeologists who have carried out excavations at Nabataean sites in Jordan for decades.
Retso, J. The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads. London: Routledge Curzon, 2003.
This book contains a rich source of primary sources concerning the ancient Arabs and thus the Nabataeans. It should be noted that Retso holds a revisionist view of the definition of “Arab” in ancient and modern history and, as such, this has influenced his view of the ancient Nabataeans in ways that are not necessarily accepted by all researchers of the subject.
Taylor, J. Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Taylor offers a readable and highly illustrated volume with excellent photographs of Petra and about the Nabataeans.
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