The Nabataeans of Petra

5 mins read

Whence they came, whither they went

The ‘Corinthian Tomb’, one of the spectacular and monumental ‘Royal Tombs’, carved into the living rock of the Jabal al-Khubtha, Petra.


Neil Faulkner has been guiding groups around Petra for the best part of two decades. We asked him to share his thoughts on what it all means.

According to the Old Testament, the land of Edom was under firm Israelite control in the age of Solomon. ‘The weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was 666 talents of gold, and beside that he had of the merchants, and of the traffic of the spice merchants, and of all the princes of Arabia, and of the governors of the country.’

Solomon, it seems, was master of a tributary empire that stretched from the Levantine coast deep into the interior. The civilisation of the coast dominated the barbarism of the wilderness. The lords of ‘the sown’ ruled the nomads of ‘the desert’. The town held the trader in thrall.

Were Petra’s tombs a first step towards urbanism? Here the modest ranks of tombs on the ‘Streets of Façades’ can be seen.

God implied that this was very much part of the natural order of things. Leviticus portrayed a world divided into haves and have-nots, rulers and ruled, the free and the enslaved. ‘Of the heathen that are about you,’ explained Leviticus, ‘of them shall you buy bondmen and bondmaids.’ As far as the ancient Israelites were concerned, the nomads in the interior were destined to be hewers of wood and drawers of water.

By the middle of the 3rd century BC, however, even though roles had not actually been reversed, a very different ‘natural order’ had emerged. Edom – today in southern Jordan – was now controlled not by the lords of the Levantine coast but by the merchants of the Arabian desert. The Nabataeans controlled Edom and paid tribute to no one. Soon they were building a new desert-edge emporium for the sale of the highly prized eastern luxuries which their caravans carried across the desert: the rose-red city of Petra.

An oasis settlement

It is easy to explain the city’s location. The Nabataeans were the Arab caravan-traders of the desert. In the desert, there are three priorities: water, water, and again water – water for people, water for beasts (camels, sheep, and goats), and water for plants (that is, for grazing and garden plots).

Channels and ceramic pipes in the sides of the Siq, the long, winding passage that leads to Petra, carried water down to the city.

The topography of Petra is that of a gigantic semicircle of rock that channels both spring-water and winter floodwater downwards and along a series of natural fissures. Left alone, these streams and surges of precious water simply vanish into the sand. But if the rock is reconfigured by hydraulic engineers, the water may be directed into cisterns, accumulating the trickles from the springs and holding the winter floods captive so as to provide a supply through the long, hot, dry summer months.

Petra has always been a desert-edge oasis. Close by the ancient city is a prehistoric agricultural settlement nine millennia old. The Early Neolithic village at El-Beidha – so ancient it pre-dates the invention of pottery – is among the earliest farming communities known. Why is it here? Because water was relatively abundant during the great global warming that resulted in what used to be called ‘the agricultural revolution’.

Much later, Iron Age peoples – first the Edomites, then the Nabataeans – cut conduits and tunnels, laid lines of earthenware pipes, and carved great water-tanks out of the solid rock to provide a year-round water supply for thousands of people and beasts.

By far the most famous of Petra’s monuments: ‘the Treasury’. Whether it was a tomb remains disputed, but it certainly displays a compelling fusion of Graeco-Roman and Nabataean influences.

Cities of the dead

Given Petra’s fame, it may be surprising to learn that the chronology of the city is woefully inadequate: we still know far too little about its historical development. But it seems reasonable to assume that the availability of water made the site a place for resting and grazing, and therefore a place for social interaction, for the exchange of goods, and for the rituals and rites of passage of an essentially nomadic people.

Though the dating is vague, and no reliable sequence can be proved, we can guess that there were tombs before there were temples, and temples before there were houses. Because people would stop and gather here, they also began to bury their dead here, probably in family mausolea, probably grouped by clan, perhaps with this cliff face belonging to one tribe, that to another.

The ‘Obelisk Tomb’ and, directly underneath it, the ‘Bab as-Siq Triclinium’.

Wealth accumulated. Some larger tombs – all cut out of solid rock – appeared and eventually, certainly by the 1st century BC, some that were so monumental as to rank today among the world’s greatest archaeological wonders.

Around the time the tombs took on a monumental character, huge temple complexes were constructed in the wide wadi between the cities of the dead in the mountains either side. Beyond them – beyond the urban downtown represented by the colonnaded street lined with temples that is the main tourist route across the site today – on the slopes rising on either side, there must have been tiers of grand houses, though so little of ‘everyday’ Petra has been dug that we are hazy about even this.

Nomads no more

What is certain, however, is that Nabataean Petra experienced an ‘urban revolution’, probably at some time between the later 2nd and the earlier 1st century BC. This is a ballpark daterange based on the fact that there appear, in the present state of knowledge, to be hardly any monumental buildings – or, indeed, permanent structures of any kind – that can be dated much earlier.

For sure, historical references to the Nabataeans go back to the late 4th century BC. The historian Diodorus Siculus records a war between the Nabataeans and the Seleucid ruler of Syria in 312 BC. The Greeks were able to storm and loot Petra because the fighting men were away – though the Nabataeans, once alerted, counterattacked, massacred their enemies, and recovered their property.

Facing a second onslaught, most of the Nabataeans packed up their belongings and departed into the desert. The implication seems to be that they were still nomads, so could literally ‘up sticks’ and vanish. Indeed, Siculus virtually says as much, reporting that the Nabataeans ‘neither sow corn, nor plant any fruit tree, nor drink wine, nor build houses’.

Ships of the desert. The key to Petra’s wealth is seen in this depciton of a camel caravan from a mosaic in a Byzantine church in the city.

Nor build houses: Petra must have been a tented emporium in the late 4th century BC; nothing more. And the present state of archaeological knowledge does not really permit us to speak of it as a ‘city’ until another two centuries have passed. The date, though, is less important than the fact of the transition: from nomadic pastoralism to ‘civilisation’ – in the literal sense of urban living.

What is urbanism? It is an accumulation of surplus wealth invested in infrastructure and facilities capable of supporting a large agglomeration of people in a single central place. In the ancient world, it usually involved an accumulation of agricultural wealth to create a centre of elite consumption in the form of monumental architecture, grand houses, and luxury living; but it sometimes involved an accumulation of mercantile wealth to the same effect; and so it was at Petra.

The tumbled columns of the ‘Great Temple’.

There hangs a question. How come the Arab merchants once taxed by Solomon had become a ruling class in their own right, beholden to no one, setting the terms, acquiring agency, shaping their own destiny? How come ‘the heathens’, once enslaved by the Israelites, were now among history’s makers and shakers?

This is an extract from the full article in featured in issue 85 of Current World Archaeology. Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

All images: M Symonds

1 Comment

  1. A really interesting place – one of the things I find so difficult with history articles is placing things into a context with other places, & history of other ‘tribes’ and countries during the same period. This article tells things in a way that begins to show who else was around & what they were doing too – thank you !

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