They built Petra, but who were the Nabataeans?
2007-07-10 0:00


It took over 2,000 years, but the Nabataean people have finally received international praise for creating one of the most remarkable civilisations of the ancient world.

Originally a nomadic people from southern Arabia, the Nabataeans arrived in what is now Jordan around the 6th century BC. Over time, they abandoned their nomadic ways and established Petra as the centre of a lucrative trade route that connected China and India to Rome and Greece through southern Arabia. Maintaining control of this trade, particularly the commerce in incense and spices, was the lifeblood of their kingdom, which reached its zenith during the 1st century BC.

Although Petra proved to be the perfect natural fortress, surrounded by rugged sandstone mountains, building a kingdom in this arid environment required the Nabataeans to become highly developed in water conservation and they succeeded in irrigating their land with an extensive system of dams, canals and reservoirs.

Much of what is now known about their culture comes from the writings of the Roman scholar Strabo. It is thought that they originally spoke a dialect of Arabic but later adopted Aramaic, which was widely used in the Hellenistic world. Although the people were governed by a royal family, it is said that a strong spirit of democracy prevailed and that the workload was shared among the community. Like much of the ancient world, they worshipped a pantheon of deities, chief among them being the sun god Dushara and the goddess Allat.

Their kingdom eventually declined with the shift in trade routes to Palmyra in Syria and the expansion of seaborne trade from the Arabian Peninsula to Egypt. Sometime during the 4th century AD, the Nabataeans finally abandoned their capital at Petra and migrated north.

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Petra - the 2000 year old Nabataean city deep in Jordan

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