Apart from appearing in the historical records of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, the Nabateans kept no historical records 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 Nabateans were a civilization of tent-dwelling nomads who amassed great wealth as traders. The earliest records of the Nabateans indicate that they lived as traders, porters and nomads in the deserts of present-day Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia – and that they inhabited the region as early as the 6th to 4th centuries BC.
The Romans later annexed the Nabatean Kingdom in 106 AD. and what remained of their history soon disappeared into the sands of Arab time.
The lack of a clear historical record makes it difficult to speak of Nabataean origins with any degree of certainty. However, this does not prevent historians from sketching rough ideas about where the Nabateans might have come from.
The city of Petra
Hewn out of sandstone and hidden deep in a mountain cleft, the splendor of Petra – the Nabataean capital that is often called the City of Roses – sits at the end of a narrow, 1,200-metre-long passage. This shadowy path, flanked by 100-meter-high pink sandstone canyon walls, suggests that the Nabateans would rather be hidden than seen. They probably chose the rocky citadel of Petra as their capital because it allowed them to blend in naturally with the desert surroundings, while also serving as a fortified fortress to protect their traded goods from hostile neighbors – such as the Greeks and Romans.
However, the Nabateans did not come from the city of Petra. In fact, historians know that the Nabateans lived as nomads in the regions of northwest Arabia for hundreds of years before the first permanent structures appeared at Petra. In his work, The Nabateans and HistoryRobert Wenning writes:
“One gets the impression from Jerome of Cardia’s famous report on Petra and the Nabateans that Petra in 311 BC was not yet the seat of the tribe and certainly not the religious center of the Nabateans. Therefore, you should not misinterpret the site during this period. It can be described as a campsite with a few people in charge of the incense stores and the dromedary herds in the vicinity […].”
“There is no reason to deny the nomadic nature of the Nabateans. Archaeological evidence shows that the Nabateans lived mostly in tents and possibly in rock caves until the Augustan period [approximately 43 B.C. to A.D. 18] when they started building houses. Petra must be seen as a great tent site for a long time in the earlier periods.
The Nabateans and Petra
It can also be argued that the Nabataeans – because of their love of freedom and their preference for a nomadic life – did not consider Petra their “home” even at the height of their wealth. According to Nabatea.net, Petra may have had 20,000 to 30,000 inhabitants. But most lived in tents in the countryside, smaller villages, caravans or merchant ships.
Whether or not the Nabateans saw Petra as a permanent home, it is clear that they did not 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 secure fortress to trade, trade and organize their vast desert kingdom.
Historians agree that the nomadic Nabateans inhabited northwestern Arabia at least from 4th century BC and probably as early as the 6th century BC. So where did the Nabateans come from before that time if not Petra?
4 theories of Nabataean origin
Rather than trying to prove one theory of Nabataean origins over another, let’s look at the four most widely accepted theories that historians have proposed:
1. Theory of Arab origin
The most widely accepted theory among modern scholars is the theory of Arab origin. This theory, which Ian Rezzo wrote about in the 1988 article “Nabataean origin – again”, suggests that the Nabataeans were an Arab tribe that moved from southern Arabia and Yemen to northwestern Arabia and Jordan sometime in the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. The Arab origin theory is based on linguistic, cultural and historical evidence—including the fact that the Nabateans spoke an Arabic dialect and practiced an Arabic form of spirituality.
2. A confederation of tribes
The next most popular theory is that the Nabateans were a confederation of Arabs, Arameans, Edomites, and other cultures and tribes who united under a common leadership to form a kingdom. As described in the aforementioned 2007 book by Robert Wenning, The Nabateans in historythe theory is based on historical and genetic evidence that suggests the Nabataeans interacted with and absorbed many cultures and peoples in the area—including Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, Hellenes, and Romans.
3. Babylonian and Aramean immigrants
Another theory is that the Nabataeans were a group of Babylonians and Arameans who migrated to Arabia – possibly for political and economic reasons – and eventually adopted an Arab identity. This theory is described in JF Healey’s 2001 book. The religion of the Nabateans, and is based on archaeological and written evidence. According to Healy, the Nabateans used an Aramaic-derived script and were in contact with Babylonian culture, suggesting that they themselves may have been of Babylonian and Aramaic origin.
4. Theory of Persian origin
As explored in DF Graf’s 1997 work. Rome and the Arabian Frontier, the Persian origin theory holds that the Nabateans were Persian colonists who settled in Arabia during the Achaemenid Empire (550 to 330 BC). The theory holds that the colonists later rebelled against the empire. The theory makes historical sense, but lacks direct evidence to support it.
Although it is not entirely clear where these wealthy, camel-bound, freedom-loving nomads came from, the theories presented in this article about the origins of the Nabateans are the best we have today. Until more Nabataean mysteries are revealed, we can’t be sure of anything.
Who knows, maybe in the not-too-distant future an adventurous archaeologist will unearth a cache of ancient Nabataean stories—written in the Nabataean script and hidden deep in the heart of a pink mountain, just like Petra itself.