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The Nabataeans, Petra

The Nabataeans, a nomadic Arab people from north Arabia, began to settle in the Petra area from the late 7th century BC. They seem to have arrived slowly and integrated peacefully with the settled Edomites, who were, at that time, themselves in the process of migrating to a new homeland in southern Palestine.

They were no doubt attracted initially, as previous occupants had been, by the plentiful water supply and the natural defensive position of the land surrounded by mountains. By the late 4th century BC the Nabataeans were firmly established in the Petra area, though with their nomadic traditions it is unlikely that they began building until they had been settled for some time.

The Nabataeans

However, by the 2nd century BC, Petra has become the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, encompassing an area which today covers approximately 102 kilometers. For many years, it remained the only large Nabataean city, although in the late 1st century AD, Bosra (in present day Syria) seems to have been developed as an alternative capital.

The inhabitants of Petra supported themselves by agriculture and raising livestock. They built terraces, the walls of which are still to be found in what is now desert, in order to cultivate vines and olive trees and bred camels, sheep, goats and horses.

Climate and conditions including rainfall, did not differ significantly from today, but the Nabataeans were extremely skilled in water management, storing this precious resource in great rock-cut cisterns or channeling the plentiful natural supply from its source, Uyon Mosa (Moses Springs), some kilometers away to the heart of the city. Remains of pipes, channels and cisterns can still be seen throughout Petra.

Caravan City
The Nabataeans growing prosperity came from Petra's location at an important junction on the incense, spice and silk trade routes, which linked China, India and Southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.

As a caravan city, Petra provided a perfect stopping place with a plentiful supply of water and became a vast entrepôt for exotic goods from all over the World. Its inhabitants grew wealthy by imposing taxes on goods which passed through the city and in return offered protection from marauding tribes. There is a certain irony in this, as no doubt in their earlier nomadic days, the Nabataeans themselves would have been caravan raiders.

Nabataean rock-carved inscriptions, Turkmanian Tomb - Petra

Once settled, the Nabataeans realized that trade required peace and security, so they adopted a policy of avoiding confrontation wherever possible with neighbors jealous of their wealth. An interesting local product in which the Nabataeans traded was bitumen from the Dead Sea. This was used for caulking ships and by the Egyptians for embalming the dead.

The Nabataean Language
The Nabataeans spoke a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ, and wrote with a distinctive Nabataean calligraphy, the fine brush strokes which were perhaps influenced by the soft sandstone of Petra on which it was often written.

Unfortunately, although various rock-carved inscriptions (usually marking the passage of a shepherd or invoking a God) have been found, not only in Petra but also throughout the Nabataean Kingdom, so far no archives have been discovered. Such archives must have existed, as both the important trading and building activities of the Nabataeans would have required them.

Although many of the remains of Petra, its tombs, temples, high places, stone God-blocks (betyles) and cultic niches clearly had a religious function, we know relatively little about the beliefs of the Nabataeans.

They seem to have had a comparatively small pantheon of Gods, the chief two being Dushara, who was male and whom they probably adopted from the Edomites, and his female counterpart Al-Uzza, whom they no doubt brought with them from Arabia under her original name of Allat.

Al-Uzza was a deity of springs and water and both she and Dushara appear to have been fertility Gods. In later times Dushara became assimilated to Dionysus, the Greek God of wine. It is easy to see how this came about, as one of the Nabataean rites associated with the dead was the celebration of funerary banquets at which wine was served, often in rock-cut dining rooms, known as "triclinia" which were situated near to tombs.

Similarly, Al-Uzza later became assimilated to the Greek Goddess Aphrodite and the Egyptian Goddess Isis. The existence of several High Places indicates that animal sacrifice to the Gods was common practice. These sacrifices would have been regarded as renewing man's relationship with the Gods, with blood as the symbol of life. The dead seem to have been buried in family tombs with few funerary offerings.

The Lion Monument (or fountain), Petra. The lion was associated with the goddess Al-Uzza.

Little is known of Nabataean domestic architecture. In Petra there were certainly houses carved, like the tombs, into the rock. Excavations have also revealed houses built of limestone blocks with roofs made of stone slabs supported by arches. What is certain is that the Nabataeans were originally much better at building in stone. Building was an art they learnt relatively late in the development of their civilization.

Apart from the magnificent architecture of the tombs and temples, the great artistic achievements of the Nabataeans lies in their pottery, produced in large quantities, shreds of which are to be found all over the area.

As we saw, the manufacture of pottery may be a skill the nomadic Nabataeans learned from the Edomites. Apart from the coarse everyday ware, Nabataean pottery is distinguished by the thinness of its walls, which were sometimes only 1.5 mm thick. It was a pinkish/red color, often decorated by hand with dark brown flower and leaf designs.

The typical egg-shell, shallow open bowls they produced are very difficult to make on the potters wheel, demonstrating how skilled their craftsmen were. A kiln was recently excavated at Wadi Mosa indicating that Petra itself was a center of production. The quality of this pottery declined from the late 3rd century AD onwards, maybe as a result of larger scale production.

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