EARLY NABATAEAN HISTORY
 (300 BC - 26 BC)

For centuries, the land of Edom was the crossroads for caravans traveling north and south, as well as some of those traveling east and west. The lands of Edom and Moab were connected by a well traveled path, known as the King's Highway. Along this road, goods from Egypt traveled to Babylon and back, and goods from southern Arabia traveled to the kingdoms in the north. This trade had existed for centuries before the Nabataeans came on the scene.

The Bible tells us the story of the Queen of Sheba bringing gifts to King Solomon, including frankincense and myrrh. Immediately following these verses, the Bible tells us that King Solomon gained tremendous income from taxation. I Kings 10:14-15 records the amount as 666 talents of gold. Footnotes in the New International Version of the Bible calculate this as being around 23 metric tons of gold. Then the Bible tells us that to this total was also added to the tribute paid by the Arab merchants and traders and the leaders of the Arabs. Since many of the caravans traveled up the King's Highway, the land of Edom played an important role in the merchant world. As a result, Edom was conquered by the Israelites, the Assyrians, then the Babylonians (Chaldaeans) and finally the Persians. When the Greeks arrived on the scene, Edom was again the center of attention. When Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, he brought the entire region under Greek control and he began the process of Hellenization. This was the process of bringing Greek language, thought, and culture to all the lands that were under Greek control. Upon Alexander's death, however, the Greek kingdom was divided up between his generals. The Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria fought bitterly over control of the region. It was in 312 BC, early in this struggle, that the Nabataeans were suddenly catapulted onto the stage of world history.

Immediately following the dissolution of Alexander's empire one of his generals, Antigonus The-One-Eyed, briefly rose to a position of power in Syria. He aspired to defeat his rival, Ptolemy, whose power base was in Egypt. Antigonus' plan for success had two components: military and economic, and the mountain top settlement of Selah and the Nabataean people figured in both. By this time the Nabataeans had not only made a name for themselves as one of the principle trading powers in the region, they had also established a monopoly on bitumen which they harvested from the Dead Sea. They shipped this product to Egypt where it was essential in the embalming process. Antigonus felt that if he could gain control of the Nabataean stronghold of Selah, the hub of the major caravan routes in the region, then he would gain control over the frankincense and bitumen industry as well. This would mean that he would not only command access to and from Egypt but he would have in his possession commodities more valuable to the Egyptians than gold.

However, Antigonus did not take into consideration the resistance that the Nabataeans would put up. The historian, Diodorus Siculus, records how Antigonus dispatched his friend, Athanaeus, along with 4,000 infantry and 600 cavalry to Selah to conquer the Nabataeans and gain control of the Gaza-Sinai trade route, thus checking Egypt's access to Syria and Arabia.

The expedition reached Selah under cover of night and discovered that most of the male population was away at a market, most likely in nearby Busheira, the capital of Edom, leaving the women and children on the top of Selah mountain for protection.

The Greek army attacked and killed a number of old men, women, and children and made off with a number of prisoners, 500 talents of silver, as well as quantities of frankincense and myrrh. Within an hour the Nabataean men had returned, taken stock of the situation, and were in hot pursuit of the invaders. Athanaeus, not believing that the Nabataeans would return so soon, had been careless in setting out guards. This proved to be a fatal mistake. He and his army were massacred. Only 50 of the cavalry were able to escape.

With their people and property recovered, the Nabataeans returned to their rock fortress and drafted a protest note to Antigonus. This set the pattern for their preferring to deal with their powerful neighbors through diplomacy rather than confrontation. Antigonus blamed the whole affair on his friend, the dead Athanaeus, whom he claimed had acted without orders. While drafting this letter, he was busily organizing a second attack, this one to be led by his son Demetrious-the-Besieger. But Antigonus had not deceived the Nabataeans. The Greek army marched for three days across the trackless desert. As soon as Nabataean spies sighted Demetrious' troops, they set off fire signals that flashed from mountain to mountain. Being forewarned, the Nabataeans deposited what they could not carry, on Selah under a strong guard. Then they gathered up their flocks and the rest of their possessions and fled into the desert. After a one-day battle, Demetrious failed to take the rocky fortress.

Then one of the Nabataeans called down to Demetrious from the mountainside. "King Demetrious, which desire or purpose leads you to fight us? We live in the desert where there is neither water nor grain, nor wine nor anything else which could be of use to you. We do not want to live as slaves, and have therefore chosen to live in the desert, in a country where there is a shortage of everything which other people prize. We have decided to live like the beasts in the field and cause you no harm. Therefore we appeal to you and your father to leave us unharmed and, in return for presents which we want to give you, withdraw your troops and in the future consider the Nabataeans as friends. For even if you wanted to, you could not stay more than a few days in this country, for you have no water and no provisions and cannot force us to lead a different life. If you do, all you will have are a few rebellious slaves who cannot change the way they live." Demetrious agreed and was given lavish presents and an escort out of the desert. His father's great plan had failed miserably.

Antigonus was later succeeded by another of Alexander's generals. This general, known as Seleucius, founded a dynasty that renewed and continued the struggle between Syria and Egypt for control of the region, until both were conquered by the Romans.

Around 168 BC, in the time of Judas Maccabeus, the apocryphal Book of Maccabees refers to Aretas, ruler of the Arabs (or Nabataeans as we known them today.) Aretas is known as Aretas I as no previous rulers were known to exist before that time, except perhaps some mention of a ruler who may have been Rabbel I. Some time later, Josephus tells us that the people of Gaza were attacked (around 100 BC) by the Hasmonean ruler, Alexander Jannaeus. Up until this point, Gaza had acted as a principle seaport on the Mediterranean for Nabataean merchants. The people of Gaza appealed for help to Aretas II (100 - 96 BC), the ruler of the Nabataeans. Aretas, however, did not respond in time and Gaza was taken. While this may appear as a puzzling situation, for Gaza was a very vital port in the Nabataean trading empire, Aretas II was active in other ways. He expanded Nabataean territory to the north, which would later prove to have been a very prudent move. Sometime later, he seems to have negotiated a way for the Nabataean merchants to continue to use Gaza as a port city, since Alexander Jannaeus does not appear to have occupied Gaza (Philip Hammond, The Nabataeans, pg. 16). A later Roman source credits Aretas II with 700 sons.

During the first century BC, Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily wrote about the Nabataeans. He based his work on the eyewitness account of Hieronymus of Cardia who wrote his account in the late 4th century BC when Alexander the Great's empire was being carved up between his ambitious generals.

Diodorus describes the Nabataeans as nomads who: "range over a country which is partly desert and partly waterless, though a small section of it is fruitful... Some of them raise camels, others sheep, pasturing them in the desert... they lead a life of brigandage and overrunning a large part of the neighboring territory they pillage it. Some had penetrated to the Mediterranean coast where they indulged in piracy, profitably attacking the merchant ships of Ptolemaic Egypt." (Presumably from Gaza)

It is interesting to note that by the 4th century BC, the Nabataeans had moved from being merchants and pirates in the Red Sea to also operating out of ports on the Mediterranean Sea where the European powers began to experience losses to their ships. During this period the Nabataeans either used appeasement or formed alliances with which ever of the combatants could give them the best advantage. When necessary they would fight but only as a last resort. Gradually they expanded their sphere of influence west into the Negev to Wadi al-Arish and beyond into Egypt where they maintained an outpost in Wadi Tumilat. Following their caravans north, they occupied many major centers on the desert route.

Obodas I became the next ruler of the Nabataeans, (96-86 BC) and he continued his father's expansion by moving on northward into Syria as Seleucid rule disintegrated. Obodas managed to ambush Alexander Jannaeus near Gadara, just east of the Sea of Galilee. Using a mass of camel riders, he forced Jannaeus into a deep valley where the Nabataeans completed the ambush and gained their revenge over loosing Gaza.

Around 86 BC Seleucid ruler Antiochus XII Dionysus mounted an invasion against Obodas I. Both Antiochus and Obodas died in battle but the Seleucid army was utterly defeated. The Nabataean Empire, however, was saved. Obodas was buried in the Negev, at a place that was renamed in honor: Obodat (modern Avdat). Such was his renown that it is believed that he was deified after his death.

As Seleucid rule disintegrated in the north, Aretas III (86 - 62 BC), a son of Obodas I continued Nabataean expansion and in 85 BC occupied the great city of Damascus at the request of its citizens. Now Aretas III was not only the ruler of the nomadic Nabataeans but also the ruler of the world class city of Damascus. Suddenly the backward nomadic Nabataeans were thrust onto the stage of world politics.

Aretas' nomadic desert background was obviously a difficult issue, so to change his image from that of a backward nomad and desert brigand he tried to underline that he was heir to the Greek Seleucids. Aretas had coins minted with his image in the Greek style and his name in Greek instead of the Nabataean Arabic. To make his Hellenistic pretensions still clearer, he gave himself the epithet 'Philhellene.' The impact of these changes was so powerful, that 85 BC marks the pivotal change when Nabataeans started to rapidly move from being nomadic to becoming urban dwellers. The Nabataeans ruled Damascus for over a dozen years. Then, soon after 72 BC, the Armenian King Tigranes (son of Mithradites VI of Pontus) took Damascus and the Nabataeans retreated peacefully. Tigranes then vacated Damascus in 69 BC to deal with a Roman threat against his own capital, and the Nabataeans occupied it again, and controlled it for a number of years. We know this from the Biblical record that tells us that Damascus was under a Nabataean governor during the time of the apostle Paul. (2 Corinthians 11:32-33) The death of Alexander Jannaeus' widow, Alexandra, in 67 BC ultimately changed everything for the Nabataeans. Alexandra's elder son, Hyranus II, was driven from his throne by his brother Aristobulus and, amazingly enough; he took refuge in the court of Aretas III at Selah. Aretas' espousal of Hyranus' cause soon brought the Nabataeans face to face with the rising power of Rome.

When the Roman leader, Pompey annexed Syria in 64 BC, his legate Marcus Aemilius Scaurus immediately turned his attention to Judea. He was financially persuaded that a Jew by the name of Aristobulus had a claim as the Jewish high priest, so Scaurus ordered Aretas and his army to cease supporting Hyranus II and return to Selah. Aretas did so, unwilling to risk his troops and his country for the sake of Hyranus. Scaurus returned to Syria with his bribe, but Aristobulus, not content with this bloodless victory pursued the Nabataeans and defeated them with the loss of 600 lives.

Pompey, the Roman leader had planned to move next against the Nabataeans when the continuing feud among the Jewish rulers deflected his attention away. In 63 BC Pompey personally took control of Jerusalem and sent Aristobulus and his family (the Jewish high priest) to Rome in chains. Hyranus was then confirmed as high priest and ethnarch, but denied the title of king.

Having settled the Jewish trouble, Pompey now turned his attention to the wealthy Nabataeans. He dispatched Aemilius Scaurus, who marched through a dry and desert land. His army soon became hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. The expedition was called off at the last moment when a rider appeared on the scene reporting to the Romans of the murder of Mithradites VI, the king of Armenia, by his son Tigranes. Pompey immediately wanted to disengage from the Nabataeans to deal with this last vestige of the Pontic threat. The wily Nabataeans seized the opportunity and offered the Romans 300 talents of silver if they would leave. Pompey accepted and in doing so set a tempting precedent for later Roman generals who wished to improve their personal finances.

Around 62 BC, another Obodas seems to have become a Nabataean ruler, the only evidence being a handful of coins. His heir, Malichus I (59 - 30 BC) played a dangerous game of politics in the hectic changes of early Roman rule. He judged rightly by backing Julius Caesar against Pompey, but then missed his footing in joining Caesar's assassins and their Parthian allies against Antony and Octavian. However, with a skilful blend of wealth and diplomacy learned from his predecessors, he was able to buy his kingdom out of subjection to Rome.

When Antony was given the eastern areas of Rome's dominions, the opportunistic Cleopatra demanded as a gift, both Judea (a dependency ruled by Herod the Great) and the still independent kingdom of the Nabataeans, who were now considered allies of Rome.

Despite Antony's infatuation, it was one of the few of Cleopatra's many requests that Antony turned down, though he may have given her a strip of Nabataean land by the Red Sea. Antony was later defeated by Octavian (soon to be known as Emperor Augustus) at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and he and Cleopatra ended their lives with suicide. This left the Nabataeans to be their own masters.

In order to prove their alliance with Rome, in 47 BC, Malichus I honored a request from Julius Caesar to provide him with 2000 cavalry during the Roman dictator's Alexandrian campaign.

Obodas III then became the ruler in 30 BC, and ruled until 9 BC. Strabo's 'Geography', written in the early 1st century AD tells about Nabataean life under Obodas III.

'The Nabataeans are a sensible people, and are so much inclined to acquire possessions that they publicly fine anyone who has diminished them, and also confer honors on anyone who has increased them. Since they have but few slaves, they are served by their kinsfolk for the most part, or by one another, or by themselves, so that the custom extends even to their ruler. They prepare common meals together in groups of thirteen persons, and they have two girl-singers for each banquet. Their leader holds many drinking-bouts in magnificent style, but no one drinks more than eleven cupfuls, each time using a different golden cup. The ruler is so democratic that, in addition to serving himself, he sometimes even serves the others in his turn. He often renders an account of his leadership in the popular assembly, and sometimes his method of life is examined."

Strabo reveals how the Nabataeans had changed in the intervening years. Strabo's information came from his friend Athenodorus, a Stoic philosopher, tutor of Caesar Augustus, and a native of Petra. These excerpts from Strabo's Geography describe Petra approaching the zenith of its power:

"The capital of the Nabataeans is called Petra. It is situated on a spot which is surrounded and fortified by a smooth and level rock, which externally is abrupt and precipitous, but within there are abundant springs of water both for domestic purposes and for watering gardens. Beyond the city-enclosure, the country is for the most part a desert. Athenodorus . . . used to relate with surprise that he found many Romans and also many other strangers residing there . . . frequently engaged in litigation, both with one another and with the natives; but that the natives had never any dispute amongst themselves, and lived together in perfect harmony... A great part of the country is fertile and produces everything except oil of olives. Instead of it they use the oil of sesame."

On the other hand, Strabo didn't think much of the Nabataean military. He mentions that they Nabataeans "are not very good warriors on land, rather being hucksters and merchants, not like their fighting at sea." One can infer from Strabo that the Nabataeans were not only known as desert dwellers and rascals but also as seamen. We will examine this in more detail in chapter five.

Strabo adds that Obodas did not care much about public and military affairs. He seems to have given much of his authority to his very active minister, Syllaeus, who some believe may well have been responsible for later poisoning him.

copyright 2002 CanBooks

 Who were the Nabataeans?  The Muslim Invasion
 Arabia in Ancient History  The Crusades
 Early History  Rediscovery
 Middle History  The Hagarites/Gerrhaeans
 Late History  The Twelve Tribes of Ishmael
 The Fall of Petra
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