A Brief History of the Nabateans

Their Capital City Petra and the Ancient Spice Routes From Arabia

The Nabateans are remembered today for their ingenious water aqueducts and impressive architectural buildings in Petra, Jordan.

In the much visited “Rose Red” city of Petra are the remains of a number of magnificent temples, tombs, places of sacrifice and water aqueducts.

Among them are the Treasury and the High Place of Sacrifice, a reminder of the authority the Nabateans once wielded in the region.

Nabatean Settlement

The demise of the Judean kingdom in the sixth century BCE century saw the Nabateans, originally nomads from Arabia, move north and settle in the Biblical lands of Edom, southern Jordan, and make Petra their capital.

Over the following centuries, until the Romans arrived, their power and influence grew and at their peak they controlled the land between Yemen in the south and Damascus in the north and all the trading caravans that moved through it.

They became skilled traders and travelled widely doing business in places as far away as India, China and Rome, but it was thanks mainly to their monopoly of the spice and perfume trade from southern Arabia, (modern Yemen) that they became wealthy.
Alexander the Great

Little was known about them until 312 BCE, when after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire the Seleucid King Antigonus’s sack of Petra was documented.


Strabo (64 BCE-23 CE), a Greek writer, geographer and historian, has left a unique record of the Nabateans. Indeed much of what is now known comes from Strabo.

He said that they were a people governed by a royal family and had a strong and democratic sense of community where all the work was shared among the citizens. No slaves were kept which was unusual for the time. Their language, originally a form of Arabic ultimately gave way to a wider use of Aramaic.

Strabo also notes that they worshiped a number of deities, among them the Sun God Dushara and the Goddess Allat.

Flavius Josephus

Jewish historian Flavius Josephus claimed the Nabateans were descended from Ishmael’s first-born son. Indeed the Bible mentions in Genesis 37:25 a caravan of Ishmaelites, “coming from Gilead with their camels bearing gum, balm and myrrh.”

In 63 BCE the Romans marched on Petra but the Nabatean king Aretas III either defeated them in battle or made peace by offering to pay tribute. History is vague on this subject but either way Petra was left intact.

Within 20 years, after the assassination of Julius Caesar, the situation became chaotic when the Parthian kings of Persia believing the Romans were losing control attacked their garrisons.

Seizing what they thought was a golden opportunity to rid the region of the hated Romans, the Nabateans sided with the Parthians.

Herod the Great

Roman power prevailed, the Parthians were repulsed and the Nabateans were subsequently attacked twice by Roman vassal ruler Herod the Great during the following two decades.

The second assault in 31 BCE overwhelmed the Nabatean forces and allowed Herod, on behalf of his Roman masters, to occupy huge swathes of their land.

As Roman ambitions in the region grew it was perhaps inevitable that they would find a quicker way of transporting the much-needed goods, from Arabia and further afield, to destinations throughout their empire.

Instead of the long journey overland, their galleys carried the goods up the Red Sea to ports in Egypt and the Mediterranean and then onwards and in doing so the economic power of the Nabateans began to slowly dissolve.

Finally in 106 CE Roman emperor Trajan annexed Petra to their ever-expanding empire as the Province of Palaestina Tertia.


It is perhaps inevitable when researching such an early period of history that contradictions in dates, names and spelling will be found among the texts of the many ancient and modern historians who have written about Nabatea.

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