Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
Aside from their appearance in the historical records of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, the Nabataeans didn’t keep historical documents of their own. This leaves much of their history and culture open to creative interpretation — including their origins.
What we do know is that the Nabataeans were a civilization of tent-dwelling nomads who amassed great wealth as merchants. The first accounts of the Nabataeans show that they lived as traders, porters, and nomads in the deserts of modern-day Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia — and that they inhabited the region as far back as the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C.
Later, the Romans annexed the Nabataean Kingdom in A.D. 106, and what remained of their history soon disappeared into the sands of Arabian time.
The lack of a clear historical record makes it difficult to speak of Nabataean origins with any amount of certainty. However, this doesn’t prevent historians from sketching rough ideas of where the Nabataeans may have come from.
Cut into sandstone and hidden deep inside a mountain cleft, the opulence of Petra — the Nabataean capital that’s often called the Rose City — sits at the end of a narrow, 1,200-meter-long passageway. This shadowy path, flanked by 100-meter-high canyon walls of rose-colored sandstone, suggests that the Nabataeans would rather be hidden than seen. They likely chose the rocky citadel of Petra as their capital because it allowed them to blend naturally into the desert surroundings while serving as a fortified stronghold to protect their traded goods from hostile neighbors — such as the Greeks and Romans.
Still, the Nabataeans didn’t come from the city of Petra. In fact, historians know that the Nabataeans lived as nomads in the regions of northwestern Arabia for hundreds of years before the first permanent structures in Petra appeared. In his work, Nabataeans and History, Robert Wenning writes:
“One gets the impression from the famous report of Hieronymus of Cardia about Petra and the Nabataeans that Petra in 311 B.C. was not yet the seat of the tribe and certainly not the religious center of the Nabataeans. Therefore, one should not misinterpret the site during this period. It may be described as a campsite with a few people in charge of the frankincense stores and the herds of dromedaries in the surrounding area […].”
“There is no reason to deny the nomadic nature of the Nabataeans. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that the Nabataeans lived predominantly in tents and possibly in rock-cut caves until the Augustan period [approximately 43 B.C. to A.D. 18] when they started to build houses. Petra should be seen as a great tent site for a long time during the earlier periods.”
One might further argue that the Nabataeans — due to their love of freedom and preference for nomadic life — didn’t consider Petra as their “home” even at the height of its opulence. According to Nabatea.net, Petra could have had 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants. But most lived in tents across the countryside, smaller villages, caravans or trading ships.
Regardless of whether the Nabataeans saw Petra as a permanent home, it’s clear that they didn’t originate from the Rose City. Instead, Petra grew to become the focal point of these nomadic people for the practical reasons of needing a safe and protected stronghold for trade, commerce and organizing their vast desert kingdom.
Historians agree that the nomadic Nabataeans were inhabiting northwestern Arabia at least by the 4th century B.C. and possibly as early as the 6th century B.C. So, where did the Nabataeans come from before this time if it wasn’t Petra?
Instead of trying to prove one Nabataean origin theory over another, let’s look at the four most widely accepted theories that historians propose:
The most widely accepted theory among modern scholars is the Arab origin theory. This theory, which Jan Retsö writes about in the 1988 article “Nabataean Origins — Once Again,” suggests that the Nabataeans were an Arab tribe that moved from southern Arabia and Yemen to northwestern Arabia and Jordan at some time during the 6th and 4th centuries B.C. The Arab-origin theory is based on linguistic, cultural and historical evidence — including the fact that Nabataeans spoke an Arabic dialect and engaged in an Arabian form of spirituality.
The next most-popular theory is that the Nabataeans were a confederation of Arabs, Arameans, Edomites and other cultures and tribes that unified under common leadership to form a kingdom. As described in Robert Wenning’s above-quoted 2007 book, Nabataeans in History, the theory is based on historical and genetic evidence suggesting that the Nabataeans interacted with and absorbed many cultures and peoples in the area — including Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Hellenes and Romans.
Another theory is that the Nabataeans were a group of Babylonian and Arameans who migrated to Arabia — possibly for political and economic reasons — and ultimately assumed the Arab identity. This theory is described in J.F. Healey’s 2001 book, The Religion of the Nabataeans, and it’s based on archeological and written evidence. According to Healey, the Nabataeans used an Aramaic-derived script and were in contact with Babylonian culture, which suggests that they may have been of Babylonian and Aramean origin themselves.
As explored in the 1997 work of D.F. Graf, Rome and the Arabian Frontier, the Persian origin theory claims that the Nabataeans were Persian colonists who settled in Arabia during the Achaemenid Empire (550 to 330 B.C.). The theory alleges that the colonists later rebelled against the empire. The theory makes historical sense but lacks direct evidence to support it.
Although it isn’t entirely clear where these affluent, camel-bound and freedom-loving nomads came from, the theories presented in this article about Nabataean origins are the best we have today. Until more Nabataean mysteries are uncovered, we can’t be certain of anything.
Who knows, maybe in the not-too-distant future, an adventurous archeologist will dig up a storehouse of ancient Nabataean histories — written in the Nabataean script and hidden deep inside the heart of a rose-colored mountain, just like Petra itself.