The Nabataeans and the lost city of Petra

The camel warriors of Nabatea were so skilled that they brutally killed nearly 4,600 Greek soldiers during a single battle in 312 BC. Nabatean merchants held a monopoly on trade along the Silk Road at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia for hundreds of years. And the Nabatean porters had secret reservoirs of water and provisions that only the Nabataeans could find.

Then, in AD 106, the great civilization of Nabatea “peacefully” came to an end. Or did you? According to ancient Roman chroniclers, the Nabateans were “annexed” by Rome without much resistance. But more recent archaeological discoveries suggest that the end of this culture may not have been as peaceful as the Romans claimed.

So what really what happened to the nabataeans? How did this freedom-loving civilization, which valued the vast expanse of the desert above all other luxuries, come to its downfall? Let’s begin by exploring who the Nabateans were.

Who were the Nabateans?

The Nabateans were a distinct society of wealthy desert nomads who appeared in present-day Jordan around 400 BCE. Over the course of hundreds of years, the Nabateans became extravagantly wealthy as traders and trusted desert porters in the area.

Charging whole 25 percent on the goods they dealt in, the Nabataeans used their knowledge of the desert to safely and reliably transport products such as frankincense, myrrh, bitumen (tar or pitch), and spices from one end of their territory to the other.

But as successful as the Nabateans were, their neighbors did not always look favorably on them. Writing in 30 to 20 BC, the Roman historian Diodorus describes the Nabataeans as “robbers” and “pirates”.

Read more: Where did the Nabateans come from?

The ruins of Petra

Unfortunately, the Nabateans didn’t leave much to speak for themselves in terms of their own written histories, but they did leave us with some important clues. The imposing architecture of the Nabataeans—carved into the ruins of Petra—is a lasting testament to their great wealth, power, and cultural elegance during the last two centuries BCE. It is clear that they were much more than mere thieves, pirates, and wandering nomads .

According to Brown University“The Nabataean classical monuments reflect the international nature of the Nabataean economy through the combination of local tradition and classical spirit.” Today, visitors to the ruins of Petra find clear evidence of Egyptian, Greek, and other influences in their architectural works.

Archaeologists have also discovered the so-called Safaite inscriptions, which are ancient rock-cut inscriptions in the regions of northern Arabia. Some of these inscriptions offer important clues to the truth of Nabataean history, a truth that was largely unknown or ignored by ancient chroniclers.

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The Fall of the Nabatean Empire

From the earliest days of Nabatea we see that envy may have led to their downfall. Greedy with Nabataean dominance of the Silk Road trade, the Greeks tried and failed to conquer them on several well-known experiments over the centuries leading up to 100 B.C

Despite their clashes with the Greeks, the Nabateans grew in power and wealth. Nevertheless, Rome became increasingly powerful in the region. Soon Nabatea and Rome would form a partnership, with Nabatea paying taxes to Rome as a vassal state. During these years, Rome and Nabatea worked together as military allies in Arabia and Egypt.

Pompey the Great

When the Armenians took control of Damascus from the Nabateans in ca 70 BC., the Roman general Pompey defeated the Armenians in Damascus in the mid-60s BC. Known as Pompey the Great, he then set his sights on Petra.

However, instead of completely conquering the Nabateans, General Pompey allowed the Nabatean king Aretas III to remain in powerand even allowed him to hold Damascus – all in exchange for paying taxes to Rome as a vassal state of the empire.

Read more: Scientists have fully sequenced the DNA of a victim from Pompeii for the first time

The Conquest of Nabatea: Was it Peaceful or Not?

After Pompey’s campaigns, Roman influence became so strong in the regions around Nabatea that eventually they conquered Egypt in 30 BC Although surrounded by Roman territory, the Nabateans continued to exist as an independent client state paying taxes to Rome.

Roman Emperor Trajan

This relationship continued until they succumbed to the Roman Emperor Trajan in 106 AD. Historians believe that the death of the last Nabataean king, Rabelais II Soter, in 106 AD motivated Rome to included Nabatea in his province of Arabia Petraea.

The question is, did the Nabateans resist the Romans with violence? The traditional view of many historians – including ancient Roman chroniclers – is that the Roman annexation was peaceful.

However, Paolo Cimadomo at the University of Haifa recently used both written and archaeological evidence to suggest that the Nabateans may have fiercely resisted the Romans, perhaps even hundreds of years after the acquisition of Petra. Was this the reason why the Romans called the province Arabia Petraea to erase the Nabatean name from these newly acquired lands?

Rabel II Soter

Cimadomo writes that it is likely that Rabelais II Soter had two legitimate heirs to the Nabataean throne who may not have given up the kingdom without a fight. Cimadomo also cites multiple Safaite inscriptions (ancient rock-cut inscriptions in the region of Nabatea) in which the writers describe a “war of the Nabateans” and “the year of the struggle between the Romans and the Nabataeans”.

In one case an inscription mentions “the year [in which] Malichus, king of Nabatea, defeated thirty hundred (three thousand) Roman soldiers. Why do Roman historians not mention this war?

Read more: The fiercest female rulers of ancient Egypt

The lost city of Petra

Like all mysteries of the ancient past, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened to the nabataeans. However, if you consider the freedom-loving nature of this ancient nomadic society – which preferred the vast expanse of the desert to the luxuries of domestic life – it seems entirely possible that they returned to the desert life they loved.

From the protection of the desert, the Nabateans could mount resistance with surprise raids and guerrilla-style attacks. Also, the brutal response of the Nabateans – when they killed nearly 4,600 Greek soldiers in 317 BC – supports the idea that they would not give up their kingdom without a fight.

According to Chimadomo, “The area [near Petra] it was never fully suppressed and was to prove a continuing and ultimately intractable problem for Roman rulers, as later literary sources attest.

In the following years of the fall of Petraany Nabataean resistance that may have occurred did not prevent the Roman Emperor Hadrian from visiting Petra in AD 131. and to anoint the city after him, Adrian Petra.

Even if the Nabateans caused a lot of trouble for the Romans, apart from their ruined buildings and a few stone carvings in the desert, the lost city of Petra is no longer there to tell us the truth.

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