Stone Block Gods
In the Greco-Roman world as well as the Parthian East, people have always accorded the gods with human form. Those of us who studied Greek mythology in school should know a little of how human the gods seemed to be. The Nabataeans on the other hand represented their gods in the form of stelae. These stelae could take the form of rocks set upon end, blocks, or shapes carved into a stone wall, or elaborately carved square djin blocks set up at the entrance to their cities.
There are several excellent examples of djin rocks across from the Obelisk tomb, at the entrance to Petra. Visitors should be sure to stop and see these rocks, as they may be the equivalent to Nabataean idols. Along the siq that leads into Petra, smaller blocks are carved into the walls of the siq. Throughout Petra and on the road to Al Beidha other stelae can be seen carved into the walls of the mountains. (Left: Located on the road between Petra and Al Beidha)
Maximus of Tyre comments in his book Philosophoumena in the 2nd century AD, “*The Arabs serve I know not whom, but I saw this statue which was a square stone.*”
The Suda Lexicon, which was compiled at the end of the tenth century, refers to older sources which have since been lost. It states: “Theus Ares (Dushrara); this is the god Ares in Arabic Petra. They worship the god Ares and venerate him above all. His statue is an unworked square black stone. It is four foot high and two feet wide. It rests on a golden base. They make sacrifices to him and before him they anoint the blood of the sacrifice that is their anointment.”
While the Nabataeans did not accord their gods with physical representations and include them in their art forms, they did enjoy art in a number of other forms: tomb facades, painted pottery, oil lamps, coins, and jewelry.
In early Nabataean history, the Nabataeans had gods with Arabic names. Some of these were: (1) Al Qaum - the warrior god who guards the caravans, (2) Al Kutbay - the god of learning, commerce, writing, and divination (3) Allat - the goddess of spring and fertility (4) Al Uzza - the powerful and (5) Manawat - the god of destiny or fate.
Later in Edom, they also adopted the Edomite god Dushara (Dushares) - lord of the mountains.
The historian Strabo mentions that the Nabataeans worshiped the sun and set up altars to it in their homes. He added that they made daily libations on these altars and used incense. The archeologist, Philip Hammond, comments that: “the god of the people was Dushares, ‘Lord (dhu) of the Shara (Mountains)’. The exact nature of this deity, whether it was a mountain or a solar object like the sun, is still not entirely clear, in terms of the original concepts held about him.” As a contrast, the Sabeans of southern Arabia worshiped the sun cradled in the crescent of the moon.
As Hellenization began to take place around the Nabataean Empire, some archeologists feel that the Nabataeans began to identify their gods with Greek gods. Dushara was identified with Zeus, Al Kutbay with Hermes/Mercury. AlQaum with Ares/Mars, Manawat with Nemesis, Allat was with Athena/Minerva, and Al Uzza with Aphrodite, Urania/Venus, and Caelestis.
Sometimes Allat was equated with Aphrodite, Urania/Venus and Caelestis as well. Al Uzza was also linked to the Egyptian goddess, Isis. Representations of Isis-Al Uzza are thought to be carved on the Treasury in Petra.
During this time of Hellenization, Nabataean deities were sometimes depicted in figurative form like those of the Romans. Traditionally, however, Nabataeans worshiped their own gods in symbolic form such as square block or triangular baetyls, sacred meteorites, or abstract stone blocks or pillars, sometimes enhanced with schematic eyes and nose.
This practice of depicting divinity in abstract form reflects the traditions of the desert Arabs and such West Semitic peoples as the Phoenicians and Canaanites.
The Nabataean Pantheon
The god A-lQaum
This god was known as the warrior god who guards the caravans. He was also known as the “Protector of the Clan.” He is said to have drunk no wine, which was typical of the non-agricultural desert gods. In order to fit in with western civilization, AlQaum was later associated with the Greek/Roman god Ares or Mars. Large numbers of inscriptions bearing his name have been found, and some archeologists think he was a key god to the Nabataeans, protecting them at night. As a night god, he protected the souls of the sleepers in the form of stars, accompanying them on their nightly journey through the heavenly realms, as well as guiding caravans in the desert by means of the stars.
The god Al-Kutbay
Al Kutbay was the god of learning, commerce, writing, and divination. The name Al Kutbay comes from the Arabic ktb which means ‘to write.’ This god was revealed for the first time in 1959 by J. Strugnell when he discovered two carvings at the foot of Jebal Rumm. On the southwestern granite cliff, the two carvings are side by side and are dedicated to Al Uzza and Al Kutbay.
The inscription reads “Al Kutbay, the one who is in Gaia” (modern Wadi Mousa, at the eastern entrance to Petra.) Then later this same god was recognized in the Lihyanite graffiti of Dedan, a major caravan station between Mecca and Hegra.
Another inscription in Wadi Es Siyyagh, on the way to the main spring of Petra, mentions ‘in front of Kutbay, this very god.’ The same name appears in a piece of Safaitic graffiti in Basta, situated on the caravan road from Petra near to the villages of Ayl and Sadaqa located between Petra and Ma’an. This caravan station is well known for its extensive ruins, and is located at the meeting of the Roman Via Nova Traiana road and the Suez-Ma’an caravan route.
It was probably the Nabataean caravan merchants who brought the worship of Al Kutbay to Egypt. At the Qasr Gheit site in Egypt, two Nabataean temples have been excavated. The western temple, dated to the 1st century BC, is described as “characteristically Egyptian both in ground plan and architectural elements.“ An altar-base, which was found in this temple, is inscribed with a Nabataean dedication which reads: ‘from Hawyru son of Geram to Al Kutbay.’
Plain baetyls were inserted into the niches of this temple. The central temple was a square cella (central chamber) enclosed by a wall, and was Nabataean in plan. It had good parallels to the temple of the Winged Lions of Petra, the temple in Wadi Rumm, and in the temple of Sahul, near Khirbet Ed-Dharih.
According to the Annals of Sennacherib (8 century BC), the god Ruldaiu (Ruda) was worshiped by the Arabs. He can be identified with Ortalt of Herodotus (5th century BC) and with Aktab-Kutbay of the Lihyanites and Nabataeans.
At the spring of ‘Ain esh-Shallalet there is a baetyl of al-Kutbay. It is about 30 by 15 cm. in size and is lodged in an arched niche. This idol is plain, except for the molding at the top and bottom and for the slight traces of stellar eyes. The prominence of the eyes is a characteristic feature of the Arabian idols or funeral stelae. They are often symbolized in Petra by squares in relief and inlaid in some cases with a precious material.
As Hellenization swept through the Nabataean Empire, Al-Kutbay began to be associated with the Roman gods of Hermes/Mercury. At Petra and Khirbet et-Tannuer, several sculptures, attributed to Hermes-Mercury, were discovered, such as a double-faced pilaster panel, discovered south of the arched Gate of the Qasr el-Bint.
The goddess Al-‘Uzza
Al-‘Uzza was the goddess of power. The chief goddesses of the Nabataean pantheon were Al-‘Uzza, Allat, and Manawat. Under Hellenization, Al-‘Uzza was later identified with Aphrodite, Urania/Venus Caelestis, and also linked to the Egyptian goddess, Isis.
Representations of Al-‘Uzza are carved on the Treasury at Petra. The baetyl of al- Uzza-Aphrodite is carved to the left of al-Kutbay. She is also mentioned in the Bosra inscription as a deity of the city, and her cult continued at Mecca until the coming of Islam.
Some archeologists feel that the female goddesses in Petra are all Al-Uzza, but others feel that they are Isis, the Egyptian supreme goddess. The problem with this is that Isis does not appear in any Nabataean god-lists, nor in any known theophoric names. Yet, her attributes and aspects appear to be present in Nabataean temples.
On the other hand an Osiris (Isis) fragment from the Temple of the Winged Lions in Petra has been found, and Nabataean inscriptions have been located in Egypt. These provide us with evidence of how far the Nabataeans traveled and traded, and give us clues of how the Nabataean sculptors could have borrowed traits from Osiris (Isis) in Egypt that they applied to their own goddess, Al ‘Uzza.
At Et-Tannur (located in Wadi Hasa, on the northern border of the Inner Kingdom), archeologists found that the supreme female goddess was also associated with vegetation and grain. Her symbols also included: leaves, fruits, cornucopia, and the usual cereal grain stalks.
These aspects also indicate other connotations: fertility, and hence love; vegetation, and hence funerary relationships. The result of the accumulation of these attributes makes her appear to be a “supreme“ goddess; Mistress of Earth and, for that matter, Mistress of the Underworld, as well. As she also appears on the Nabataean zodiac, she also becomes the Mistress of Heaven in many archeologists’ writings.
When all of these factors were taken together, several archeologists concluded that a single goddess is involved and that she is, indeed, a “supreme“ goddess, under various aspects, and with a multitude of attributes and symbols, such as being portrayed in feline form.
At the Temple of the Winged Lions in Petra, a considerable number of cultic materials have been recovered which demonstrate the importance of Al ‘Uzza. Some of the materials include: a ring-seal showing a nude goddess, a crowned female goddess riding a dolphin, dolphin frieze decorations, drilled cowry shells of a variety sacred to Venus, feline capital decorations and feline statuette fragment, a bronze feline head, and “Eye-Idol“ blocks. (See illustration on page 154)
By the time of Greek contact with Egypt, it was convenient for the Egyptians to accept cross identification of their gods with foreign deities in order to enhance their own stature. In this way, during the Graeco-Roman period, the cult of Isis had spread throughout the civilized world and she acquired distinct aspects, attributes, and symbols. The Egyptian goddess Isis possessed the powers of a water goddess, an earth goddess, a grain corn goddess, and a queen of the Underworld.
By absorbing the other local Egyptian deities, Isis achieved a position for which there could be no other competition. Greek, and then Hellenistic, and finally Roman contact opened even wider opportunities for her to be identified in other pantheons under different names. So it is, that Isis, the Egyptian goddess, can be identified in some way with al-Uzza in Petra.
Isidorus, in the 1st century BC, declared that all foreign local names for any goddesses actually referred to Isis, (as does Apuleius later on).
As Isis became the supreme goddess of heaven, earth, the underworld, and the sea, her symbols became grain, poppies, the cornucopia, the zodiac, fish, the tyche, crown, lions, ships, pinecones, and even a distinctive knot on her garment.
Other bits of information regarding the Isis cult are found in ancient literature. Apuleius notes that, at the temple to Isis at Cenchreae, the image of the goddess was veiled by curtains. Solmsen cites a reference by Tibullus to “painted panels“ in temples of the Isis cult in Rome, presumably like those in the House of Mysteries and elsewhere at Pompeii.
Anude goddess riding a dolphin on a ring seal found in Petra was identified as Atargatis, the goddess of the Winged Lions Temple. This is questionable because an inscription above the spring in Wadi Es Siyyagh reads: “Atargatis of Manbig.” Manbig is Hierapolis, which is located in Northern Syria. Rather, the temple is probably that of Al-Uzza. The Nahl Hever Scrolls mention that al-Uzza had, in the 2nd century AD, a temple in the Petra.
Archeologists have found dolphins associated with this goddess at Et Tannur, Khirbet Brak, Abda, and Wadi Rumm. In Petra, they found a ring seal with the Mistress of the Sea wearing a crown and riding a dolphin
The symbol of the dolphin was sometimes used by the ancients to portray the goddess who frolics around seafaring vessels, “protecting” and “guarding” them on their way. It is an apt symbol for she who rules the waves. This can be compared with the widespread use of the bull as a symbol for gods of power. The dolphin appeared as a symbol as early as the Sinope coin (6th century BC), and was later attested by Aristotle in 330 B.C. While some people have expressed their amazement that desert nomads would have a dolphin figure identified with their goddess, those familiar with the sea-going exploits of the Nabataeans realize how well this fits with their history.
The goddess Manawat
Manawat was considered to be the goddess of destiny or fate. Under Hellenization, Manawat was associated with the Greek/Roman goddess Nemesis/Fate.
As with Al Uzza, Manawat similarly does not emerge to any major role among the Nabataeans, judging from the relative infrequency with which she was invoked in ancient inscriptions. Her major domain would seem to have been around Hegra, although she, as Al-‘Uzza, survived until the coming of Islam. Her image does not appear among the pre-Islamic “idols“”at Mecca, however, and she may never have been represented there.
The goddess Allat
Allat was known as the goddess of spring and fertility. Under Hellenization Allat was later identified with the Greek/Roman goddess Athena/Minerva, and sometimes with Aphrodite or Urania/Venus Caelestis.
Inscriptions mentioning Allat range from Hegra in Saudi Arabia to the Hauran in Syria. They include terms of reverence and adoration lasting until the Islamic period. Even at the founding of Islam, an image of Allat, along with one of Al-‘Uzza, were to be found at Mecca. Some historians claim that respect, if not approval, of this ancient goddess was shown by Mohammed himself, and by other early followers of the Muslim prophet.
The god Dushares
Dushares was known as the lord of the Shara Mountains. These mountains surround Selah and Petra along the edge of Wadi Arabah.
Dushares was a principal god of the Nabataeans and seems to have been a god of the daytime. Shaj al-Qaum, on the other hand was the nighttime god, protecting the souls of sleepers and accompanying them on their nightly journey through the heavenly realms. Initially and traditionally, Dushares was represented in an aniconic form such as a square block, as is represented by the baetyls of Petra.
In 106 AD, after the reorganization of the Nabataean kingdom in conjunction with several adjacent cities of the Decapolis as the Roman province of Arabia, the cult of Dushares continued to prosper. The coins of the province’s major cities in the imperial age bear eloquent witness to the strength of this great Nabataean deity. More than that, they reveal not only the prevalent aniconic representations of Dushares but a human face for him as well.
These coins are the only explicit and unambiguous guide archeologists have today. The earliest appearance of a figure of Dushares is on a coin from Bostra commemorating the future emperor Commodus as Caesar (AD 177). The figure on this coin does not replace the baetyls of Dushares either at Bostra or, as far as we know, anywhere else.
On the face of the coin is a young man with long flowing hair similar to the style that was popular among Nabataean kings. Under Roman rule, Nabataean kings ceased to exist, so this coin demonstrates an ingenious portrait of a cross between a Nabataean king and the god Dushares.
This coin must have passed Roman inspection because the next surviving image of Dushares as a young man occurs on a coin from Bostra of Caracalla as Caesar, in 209⁄210 AD. The features are again striking with an even greater profusion of flowing hair than before.
Another coin of the same year and struck on the same obverse die bears a reverse of Dushares as a baetyl in the middle between two smaller baetyls on a platform. This scene can be observed more clearly on Bostra bronzes of Elagabalus, depicting with greater detail the cult at Bostra. The central and larger baetyl is that of Dushares, whose name appears on the coin. The two smaller baetyls flank him on either side and probably represent attendant deities. Some archeologists have wondered if these three gods comprised an Arabian trinity.
The baetyls stand on a raised platform to which access is gained by a flight of steps. This presentation of the baetyl of Dushares at Bostra is not unlike those found in other cities, even where the shape of the baetyl itself is markedly different. At Adraa, for example, the baetyl identified as that of Dushares is a large round dome, but the platform on which he sits is similar to the one at Bostra. One of these texts inscribed on the Qasr at-Turkman in Petra names “Dushara” as “the god of our lord,” and his representation sits on a platform, just as on the coins.
An inscription found in the Siq in Petra tells us of officials who were in charge of religious festivals that were associated with Dushares. Along with this, some Nabataean graffiti refers to people who were classified as priests.
Some scholars feel that the ancient Nabataean pantheon may have become: Al-Qaum, the male god of the night (moon), Dushara, the god of the day (sun) and the goddess Al-Uzza (stars). Al Uzza and Allat had very similar baetyls, and were probably two names for the same goddess. Inscriptions bearing their names are not found in the same area. In one area the goddess is known as Al Uzza and in other areas as Allat. Eventually Allat may have taken supremacy as the name of this goddess. In this case the trinity would have been expressed as: Al-Qaum, Dushara, and Allat.
On the other hand Wilhelm Froehner described the three Arab gods as Ares, Dushares, and Theandrios, as found on a gem in Nazareth. This representation of Dushares between the two gods Ares and Theandrios may give us the identification of the other two baetyls in the shrine of Dushares at Bostra.
As we mentioned, the Arabian Ares was a hellenized form of the god Al Qaum, and is already attested locally in an inscription from the area of Qanawat on the Jebal Druz. There are numerous instances of depictions of Ares on his camel, with a raised arm holding a spear, similar to that on the Bostra coin. He can be observed in greater detail, facing the opposite way on a well known relief at Palmyra in which he rides together with his companion Azizos who rides a horse. Stephen of Byzantium, who wrote Ethnica, reported that the Nabataean King Aretas IV once questioned the oracle. The oracle said he should look for a place called Auara, and when Aretas arrived and lay awake, he saw a sign, a figure dressed in white, riding on a white camel. This account may help us understand how Ares on his camel could be identified as Al Qaum and revered by the Nabataeans.
The third god on the Froehner gem, and possibly the third baetyl in the shrine of Dushares at Bostra, bears the striking name of Theandrios (“god-man”). So far no one has come up with a believable theory of how the female Allat was transformed into the male Theandrios. Some have suggested that the impact of Christianity may have had some influence on this remarkable change.
Another example of this trinity is found on the coinage of Characmoba (Kerak). Only four copies of a bronze of Elagabalus are known, but they are clear enough to provide us with an image depicting a shrine of Dushares with the three baetyls seated on their thrones, complete with a ladder as at Adraa and Bostra.
The seated pose of the god causes no difficulties and can be compared with the seated god in profile on the coins of Philippopolis (Shahba). This god has now been identified as Allat, similar to the statue of Allat at Palmyra and the Suweida image of the same goddess (now in the Damascus Museum).
And so it seems that there may be a case for claiming that in time the Nabataean trinity in the south of Arabia developed into Al Qaum, Dushara, and Allat while the same trinity was represented in the north as Ares (Al Qaum), Dushares, and Theandrios (Allat).
Many bronzes of the god Dushares were issued under Elagabalus, the first native Arab to sit on the Roman throne. It seems to imply a resurgence of Arab pride over the accession of the first native Arab to the throne of the Roman Empire. In promulgating the religion of his homeland, this emperor actually took the baetyl of his god with him to Rome.