Who were the Nabataeans?
The Nabataeans are a tribe of people descended from Nabioth,
the eldest son of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. They were a merchant
people who lived in Arabia, initially using camel
caravans for trade and later ships
called 'dhows' with which they sailed the world
carrying on a worldwide trade in exotic items.
What years were they?
The Nabataeans began their trade in very ancient times, but only
came into prominence in ancient records around 300 BC when they
carved out a political kingdom in the area of ancient Edom.
They later sold their 'kingdom' to the Romans in 106 AD, and
became the merchants of Rome carrying on trade within and beyond
the Roman Empire for many centuries afterwards. Around 600 AD,
Mohammad, the son of a Nabataean merchant, united Arabia again,
beginning a new empire which was focused around religion (Islam)
and military might rather than economics and trade.
How big was the Nabataean Empire?
- In 85 BC the Nabataeans controlled an area
of 2,350,000 square kilometers. At that time the Greek
Empire had collapsed and Roman Empire
was just getting to its feet, so the Nabataean Empire was the
largest empire in Europe or the Middle East. (At its height the
Roman Empire occupied just over 5 million square kilometers.)
During this same time period the land of India
was divided into several competing empires with the Decan area
in the south of India rising to prominence. However, the Decan
area was smaller than the Nabataean Kingdom. The only kingdom
larger than the Nabataean Kingdom in 85 BC was the Han Dynasty
of China which controlled over 4 million
square kilometers. This is probably why Chinese explorers visited
Nabataea and mention it in their records.
What were the main Nabataean cities?
Petra was the capital city, religious
center, tribal burial grounds, and the focus of a bi-annual pilgrimage.
Today it lies in a ruinous state, but is visited by thousands
of visitors who are amazed at the architecture and apparent wealth
of the city.
Busheria and nearby Sela were the economic
center for many years.
Bosra, a Syrian city, later became the
Damascus was the most northern city, first occupied in 85 BC
giving the Nabataeans total control over all eastern trade with
Europe and North Africa.
Meda'in Saleh was a southern city in
In the Negev there were a collection
of cities that controlled that region.
How powerful were they?
The Nabataeans did not invest in a large army but relied on their
wealth and their wits. However, at any given time the Arab tribes
could be called upon to unite and defend the kingdom.
What are they famous for?
They are remembered for the incense route
which moved tons of incense from southern Arabia to the temples
and home of Europe and North Africa. This later became a maritime route. They were also the
merchants who traveled between the Egyptian,
Greek, and Roman Empires on one hand and India, China, and the
spice islands on the other.
The Nabataeans also explored much of the world. Their explorers
carved their initials in rocks where-ever
they went, leaving their marks across Asia, Africa, Australia,
South America and North America as far north as Colorado.
The Nabataean Empire disappeared in 106 AD, although Nabataean
merchant families continued to exercise great power through trade
The Nabataean Empire was re-united under Muhammad in 600 AD,
and became Islamic in nature. Various caliphs and leaders ruled
from various locations during the following centuries, but the
empire was never really united under one political head for any
length of time.
Today, most Muslims or Arabs have never heard of the Nabataeans.
Most Westerners have no idea that it was once a great empire.
When was the Golden Age of Nabataea?
Actually there were several Golden Ages. During the first Golden
Age, (100 BC - 100 AD) the Nabataeans were ruled by democratically
elected rulers. They developed great cities, architecture, and
a worldwide system of trade. This was their economic Golden Age.
Later, around 540 AD Abdul Mutalib, a Nabataean merchant attempted
to reunite the empire but failed. His grandson, Muhammad later
united the empire by introducing a new religion. This empire
then experienced a religious and military Golden Age.(800 - 1000
AD) From 900 - 1100 AD the city of Baghdad rose to prominence
and the empire experienced a scientific Golden Age. After this
the empire slowly crumbled and was ruled by successive competing
powers. Today it is once again fragmented.
Why does this website exist?
We would like the world to know about the ancient Nabataean Empire.
It was different from other empires, in that its base was originally
economic not political or military. It had a profound influence
on the world during it's time, and in many ways, Nabataeans are
still with us today. They include powerful Islamic rulers, wealthy
oil sheiks, masses of desperately poor, and some fantastically
rich and powerful merchant families in Europe. What ties them
all together? A bit of desert, and some long forgotten history.