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The Nabataeans and the Lost City of Petra

What happened to the Nabataeans and the ruins of Petra? Recent discoveries contradict what Roman historians have claimed about these desert nomads.

By Jeremy Hillpot
Apr 18, 2023 6:00 PMApr 19, 2023 8:48 PM
The Nabataeans and the lost city of Petra
Al Khazneh (The Treasury) at old city Petra. Jordan (Credit: Vova Shevchuk/Shutterstock)


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The camel-mounted warriors of Nabataea were so skilled that they brutally slayed nearly 4,600 Greek soldiers during a single battle in 312 B.C. The Nabataean merchants held a monopoly on Silk Road trade at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia for hundreds of years. And the Nabataean porters had secret reservoirs of water and supplies that only the Nabataeans could find.

Then, in A.D. 106, the great civilization of Nabataea “peacefully” came to an end. Or did it? According to ancient Roman chroniclers, the Nabataeans were “annexed” by Rome without much resistance. But more recent archeological discoveries suggest that the end of this culture may not have been as peaceful as the Romans claimed.

So, what really happened to the Nabataeans? How did this freedom-loving civilization — which valued the vast expanse of the desert above all other luxuries — come to its fall? Let’s start by exploring who the Nabataeans were.

Who Were the Nabataeans?

The Nabataeans were a distinct society of wealthy desert nomads that appeared in modern-day Jordan beginning around 400 B.C. Over the course of hundreds of years, the Nabataeans became extravagantly wealthy as merchants and trusted desert porters in the area.

Charging as much as 25 percent on top of the goods they handled, the Nabateans used their knowledge of the desert to safely and reliably move products like frankincense, myrrh, bitumen (pitch or tar) and spices from one end of their territory to the other.

But as successful as the Nabataeans were, their neighbors didn’t always view them positively. Writing in 30 to 20 B.C., Roman historian Diodorus described the Nabataeans as “pillagers” and “pirates.”

Read more: Where Did the Nabataeans Come From?

The Ruins of Petra

Unfortunately, the Nabataeans didn’t leave much to speak for themselves in terms of their own written histories, but they have left us some important clues. The impressive architecture of the Nabataeans — carved into the ruins of Petra — is an enduring testament to their great wealth, power and cultural elegance during the last two centuries B.C. Clearly, they were a great deal more than just pillagers, pirates and roaming nomads.

According to Brown University, “Nabataean Classical monuments reflect the international character of the Nabataean economy through their combination of native tradition and the classical spirit.” Today, visitors to the ruins of Petra find clear evidence of Egyptian, Greek and other influences throughout their architectural works.

Archeologists have also discovered the so-called Safaitic inscriptions, which are ancient inscriptions carved into rock in the regions of northern Arabia. Some of these inscriptions offer important clues to the truth of Nabataean history — a truth that was largely unknown or ignored by ancient chroniclers.

Read More: Are the Egyptian Pyramids Aligned with the Stars?

The Fall of the Nabataean Empire

From the earliest days of Nabataea, we see that envy may have led to their downfall. Covetous of Nabataean dominance over Silk Road trade, the Greeks tried and failed to conquer them on several well-known attempts in the centuries leading up to 100 B.C.

Despite their clashes with the Greeks, the Nabataeans grew in strength and wealth. Nevertheless, Rome was growing more powerful in the region. Soon, Nabataea and Rome would form a partnership, with Nabataea paying taxes to Rome as a vassal state. During these years, Rome and Nabataea worked together as military allies in Arabia and Egypt.

Pompey the Great

When the Armenians took control of Damascus from the Nabataeans in approximately 70 B.C., the Roman General Pompey defeated the Armenians in Damascus in the mid-60s B.C. Famously known as Pompey the Great, he then set his sights on Petra.

However, instead of outright conquering the Nabataeans, General Pompey allowed the Nabataean king, Aretas III, to remain in power, and even let him retain Damascus — all in exchange for paying taxes to Rome as a vassal state of the empire.

Read more: Scientists Have Fully Sequenced the DNA of a Pompeii Victim for the First Time

Conquering Nabataea: Was It Peaceful or Not?

After Pompey’s campaigns, Roman influence grew so powerful in areas surrounding Nabataea that they eventually conquered Egypt in 30 B.C. Despite being surrounded by Roman territory, the Nabataeans persisted as an independent, tax-paying client state of Rome.

The Roman Emperor Trajan

This relationship continued until they succumbed to the Roman Emperor Trajan in A.D. 106. Historians believe that the death of the last Nabataean king, Rabbel II Soter, in A.D. 106, motivated Rome to incorporate Nabataea into its Arabia Petraea province.

The question is: Did the Nabataeans resist the Romans with violence? The traditional view of many historians — including ancient Roman chroniclers — is that the Roman annexation was peaceful.

However, Paolo Cimadomo at the University of Haifa recently used both written and archeological evidence to suggest that the Nabataeans may have violently resisted the Romans, perhaps even for hundreds of years after the acquisition of Petra. Was this the reason why the Romans named the province Arabia Petraea, to scrub the Nabataean name from these newly acquired lands?

Rabbel II Soter

Cimadomo writes that it is likely that Rabbel II Soter had two legitimate heirs to the Nabataean throne who may not have given up the kingdom without a fight. Cimadomo also cites multiple Safaitic inscriptions (ancient inscriptions carved into rock in the region of Nabataea) in which the writers describe a “war of the Nabataeans” and “the year of the struggle between the Romans and the Nabataeans.”

In one instance, an inscription mentioned “the year [in which] Malichos king of Nabataea smote thirty centuries (three thousand) of Roman soldiers.” Why do Roman historians fail to reference this war?

Read more: Ancient Egypt’s Fiercest Female Rulers

The Lost City of Petra

Like all mysteries from the ancient past, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened to the Nabataeans. However, if you consider the freedom-loving nature of this ancient nomadic society — which preferred the vast expanse of the desert to the luxuries of domestic life — it seems entirely possible that they returned to the desert life they loved.

From the protection of the desert, the Nabataeans could have mounted resistance with surprise raids and guerrilla-style attacks. Also, the brutal reaction of the Nabataeans — when they slayed nearly 4,600 Greek soldiers in 317 B.C. — supports the notion that they would not have given up their kingdom without a fight.

According to Cimadomo, “The area [near Petra] was never completely suppressed and was to prove a continuous and ultimately unresolved problem for Roman governors, as testified by later literary sources.”

In the years that followed the fall of Petra, any Nabataean resistance that may have occurred did not stop the Roman emperor Hadrian from visiting Petra in A.D. 131 and anointing the city after himself, Hadriane Petra.

Even if the Nabataeans caused a host of trouble for the Romans, aside from their ruined buildings and a few stone carvings in the desert, the lost city of Petra is no longer available to tell us the truth.

Read more: 5 of the World’s Wonders That You Can See Today

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