Nabataeans PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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The Nabataeans were a people, but for much of their history they were also a "national transport enterprise." (Keel  II 146).

A story from their early history

in_the_siq.jpgThe earliest mention of the Nabateans is by a soldier-historian named Hieronymus of Cardia, writing after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. (Hieronymus' works have not survived, but he is heavily quoted by Diodorus   of Sicily, a historian of the 1st century BC.) Alexander's young successors, Ptolemy and Seleucus, had become rivals for the huge area he had conquered. Ptolemy had taken Egypt and the biblical land; Seleucus, Mesopotamia and Syria. Alexander's older veteran, Antigonus the One-Eyed, would have none of this. He wanted to reunite Alexander's empire under his wing. Starting from Asia Minor, he took an army southward, conquering all on his route until he reached the northern border of the desert controlled by the Nabataeans. He put his friend Athenaeus in charge of this leg.

The Nabataeans were confident—too confident, it turned out—in the protections afforded by nature. They had the custom of holding an annual trade fair, attended by men only. For safety they used to leave their women, children, and wealth on top of a formidable desert crag called the Rock, which was accessible by a single path. A massive rock near the village of Sela, 30 miles north of Petra, fits the description and distances given by Hieronymus of Cardia.   

On the day of the trade fair, Athenaeus attacked the rock, killing many and robbing much. Some escaped, however, to tell the men at the fair. These mounted their camels, which by far outmatched the horses of the Greeks in the rough terrain. (The Nabataeans had also invented a camel saddle.) They surprised the Greek camp while most were sleeping and took full vengeance, recovering their wealth. They then lodged a protest with Antigonus the One-Eyed.

The latter sent his son Demetrius with even bigger forces, but the Nabataeans, perched on their Rock, were ready this time. After Demetrius was beaten back, a Nabataean shouted: "King Demetrius, what do you want?... We live in the desert and in a land that has neither water nor grain nor wine, nor anything that is counted a necessity of life among you… We therefore beg both you and your father not to harm us but, after accepting our gifts, to withdraw your army and from now on to regard the Nabataeans as your friends. Even if you want to, you cannot stay here for many days since you lack water and all other necessities."  

The wisdom of the message is typically Nabataean. They have Demetrius literally between a rock and a hard place. They can smash him, but that would breed a cycle of violence. Instead, they downplay their victory, sending gifts as though defeated, while pointing out, by the way, how weak the enemy's position is. They defuse the situation. For them true victory is living well, and they are willing to sacrifice narcissistic pride in order to gain that end. Yet they can fight when they have to.

Demetrius went home with the "booty" of his "victory," but soon his one-eyed father was attracted by the asphalt trade. Shaken by earth tremors, asphalt used to rise in large lumps from the bottom of the Dead Sea. (The phenomenon is rare today.) The Nabataeans would row out—each rowboat with an archer to ward off competitors—and break off chunks. They sold these to the Egyptians, who used asphalt for embalming and for sealing ships. Antigonus the One-Eyed this time sent our source, Hieronymus, to take over the trade, but the Nabataeans came out with their archers on rafts of reeds and killed almost all his troops.

Their monopoly on the incense trade and more

Nabataean bowl from PetraHieronymus added this description of the Nabataeans (as quoted by Diodorus): 

They live under the open sky and claim as fatherland a wilderness that contains neither rivers nor goodly springs from which a hostile army might draw water. They have a law forbidding them to sow grain, plant orchards, make wine or build houses. Anyone who does so will be executed. They follow this principle because they believe that anyone who possesses such things in order to get a use from them is vulnerable to powerful men, who can compel their obedience. Some raise camels, others sheep, which they pasture in the wilderness.

And then comes a crucial passage for understanding their success:

Although there are a great many other Arab tribes that use the desert as grazing land, the Nabataeans, though numbering only 10,000 men, far exceed them in wealth..., because many regularly transport frankincense, myrrh and the choicest spices to the sea [the Mediterranean - SL], products that they take over from people who bring them out of so-called happy Arabia. Their country, without water, is impenetrable to enemies, but the Nabataeans fill cisterns and caves with rain water, making them flush with the rest of the landscape. They leave markers there which only they understand. They water their herds only every third day to accustom them to a flight throughout a waterless country.

The wealthy of the Greco-Roman world wanted frankincense and myrrh for a number of reasons: they believed them to have medicinal value; they burned them as a pleasing odor to their gods; the strong aroma also diminished the general stench in ancient cities, especially the smell of charred flesh at funerals. (More on their uses.) These spices came from the southern end of Arabia, Yemen today, known to the Romans as "blessed" or "happy" Arabia. Between Happy Arabia and Gaza, which was the nearest port on the Mediterranean coast, lay 1650 miles of desert.

Pliny reckoned this as 65 camel stages. And who occupied the strategic spot on this route? Who had camels? And most important: Who knew how to guide the runoff from winter rains into secret cisterns? The Nabataeans. They were, in short, the right people at the right place at the right time, and the right time lasted about 350 years.

With the help of Pliny and Strabo,  we can follow the spice route. The frankincense, myrrh and aloe produced in Happy Arabia went to Qana on the Gulf of Aden (see map below). Then camel caravans took them to Shabwa, where the merchants were obliged to pay a temple tax. Then they went to Timna, capital of Qataban. (Strabo also mentions a route from Shabwa to the Persian Gulf at Gerrha, whence the spices could be shipped to India, Mesopotamia, Antioch and the Holy Land.) After paying more taxes to a king at Timna, the caravans headed north to Petra and thence to Gaza. From here the spices went by ship to purchasers in Alexandria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. All along the route the merchants kept paying taxes, as well as costs for upkeep. By the time they got to Gaza, writes Pliny, they had spent 688 denarii per camel. According to Jane Taylor (p. 27), 688 denarii would amount to about $4200 today.

Trade routes before Augustus

Taylor's reckoning continues: A camel can carry 180 kilograms (almost 400 pounds) on a long-distance journey. The trader would sell his incense at Gaza for 7.35 denarii per kilogram (following Pliny, who puts the price at about half the price in Rome). Subtracting expenses, he would wind up with a profit of 613 denarii per camel load—roughly $3800 at today's prices. Since the Nabataeans probably used thousands of camels, they must have been making millions.

The Nabataeans handled more than frankincense and myrrh. They received a large chunk of the India trade. The reason had to do with events to the north of them. Normally, the bulk of the India trade went by ship into the Persian Gulf. Much then crossed the desert to Petra, but another part continued up the Euphrates or the Tigris, reaching Antioch's harbor on the Syrian coast. In the 2nd century BC and much of the 1st, there was warfare on this northerly route. First, the Parthians hampered the Seleucid attempt to control Mesopotamia. (The Seleucids looked south for new trade routes. ) Second, in 64 BC Pompey of Rome conquered Asia Minor and the Levant. Eleven years later, Marcus Crassus attempted to bring Mesopotamia and Parthia into the Roman Empire. He discovered too late that the Parthians had something Rome lacked: armored horsemen on armored horses. In 36 BC Marc Antony made another attempt, barely escaping back to Syria. Because of their heavy cavalry, the Parthians long remained Rome's formidable enemy in the East.    

For much of the period, then, between 150 and 30 BC, the routes from Mesopotamia to Antioch were extremely problematic. As a result, the Nabataeans got an even bigger than usual piece of the India trade and accumulated their first great wealth. This is the situation pictured in the map above. Note the centrality of Petra. It is no coincidence that Petra's first great monuments appear in the 1st century BC.
Augustus, around 26 BC, tried to get his hands on Happy Arabia for the sake of the incense and spices. (Strabo, a contemporary of the events, gives a detailed account in Book 16, Chapter 4, pars. 22-24.) The Romans took as their guide a Nabataean named Syllaeus, who brought a thousand warriors with him. The Nabataeans did not want Rome to succeed in grabbing this major source of their wealth. Syllaeus took the worst possible paths, wearing the Romans down with disease and hunger, so that they stopped just short of the goal. Augustus would not send troops so deep into the desert again.

While becoming rich, the Nabataeans underwent a social revolution. Although (if we believe Hieronymus of Cardia) they had earlier outlawed agriculture and the building of houses, on the grounds that such possessions made people vulnerable to the mafia, they were now the mafia. Former camel stations, such as Avdat, Nessana and Elusa in the Negev, became cities. Trade remained the basis of their economies.

Loss of the Trade Monopoly

The Nabataeans lost their monopoly on trade for several reasons. First, Augustus made peace with the Parthians, and the northerly route became usable once more. With regard to goods that were destined for Rome, it no longer made sense to send them south to Petra and then north again. Why not just go straight across via the Euphrates-Aleppo-Antioch connection? This was roughly what happened to much of the India-Rome trade. ("Roughly," I say, because the desert city of Palmyra, newly developed by Arab tribes, proved powerful enough to divert the traffic its way.) The northerly route attracted more and more commerce. Wadi Sirhan, a well-watered north-south route through the desert, came into greater use. Its traffic bypassed Petra. (See map below.)

That was one factor in Petra's decline. There was another. Shortly after Augustus' death in 14 AD, the Romans discovered a secret that Arab mariners had probably kept for centuries. If instead of hugging the south Arabian shore, you put out from Egypt to the open sea between May and October, the monsoon winds will carry you to India in about three months, and likewise in reverse between November and April. Using this principle, the Romans took control of the maritime trade with Indian cities. They could also stop near the entrance of the Red Sea, picking up frankincense and myrrh. Although there were pirates to contend with near the coast (each merchant vessel had security guards), this method was much more efficient than overland shipment by camel. A single ship could hold the equivalent of many camel loads.

What really hurt the Nabataeans, however, was this: The Romans used harbors on the western shore of the Red Sea from which they shipped the goods on a short overland journey to the Nile, whence they continued to Alexandria by boat. Thus the Nabataeans lost much of the vital Egyptian trade. Strabo records the change:

The loads of aromatics are conveyed from Leuke Kome [on the east coast of the Red Sea - see map below] to Petra, and thence to Rhinocolura [near Gaza]…and thence to the other peoples; but at the present time they are for the most part transported by the Nile to Alexandria; and they are landed from Arabia and India at Myus Harbour [Myos Hormos]; and then they are conveyed by camels over to Coptus in Thebaïs [Thebes], which is situated on a canal of the Nile, and then [north] to Alexandria (Geography, Book 16, Ch. 4, 24).  

The situation is indicated by the map below. In line with Ball , I have not included a "Silk Road" from China. 

NE trade routes after 70 AD

Yet the Nabataeans continued to thrive. For one thing, they did not lose all their trade. Moreover, they profited from the long peace that settled over much of the Empire under Augustus: the Pax Romana. They gladly took part, becoming a kind of client state to Rome. In the words of Ball (p. 62) "...with Rome seeing to external security, the Nabataeans could get on with the important business of making money." The long, stable reign of Augustus had, as its counterpart, the long, stable reign of the Nabataean king, Aretas IV (9 BC - 40 AD). Under his rule the kingdom reached its greatest extent, encompassing Sinai and the Negev, most of Jordan,the Hauran, Wadi Sirhan and tne northeast section of the Red Sea coast.

To this period of expansion we may date Paul's report in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33:

"In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands."

What is more, after losing the monopoly over the southern trade, the Nabataeans diversified. The same ingenuity that had created secret reservoirs to supply desert caravans could develop elaborate hydraulic systems, including dams to collect runoff, ceramic pipes and siphons. They planted orchards and vineyards in the desert. They prepared whole hillsides so that the runoff from winter rains flowed into the fertile valleys. In an area with only 100 mm. of annual rainfall they could grow crops requiring 500 mm.  

The general northward shift of trade led to the development of Nabataean Bostra in the Hauran (see map above). It sat at a junction joining Palermo (gateway to Mesopotamia), Damascus and Gerasa (gateways to the Mediterranean). The area around Bostra was rich in viticulture. The last of their kings, Rabel II, shifted his capital from Petra to Bostra in 93 AD.  

In 106 AD, upon Rabel's death, Trajan annexed the Nabataean realm to Rome, apparently without need for a conquest. (Roman coins called Arabia adquisita, not capta.) He incorporated it into the new Provincia Arabia, whose capital he set at Bostra. The change probably made little difference at first in the lives of ordinary Nabataeans. Their army joined the Roman auxiliaries. But Trajan paved a road of 250 miles from the provincial capital at Bostra through Petra to Aela (Aqaba) on the Red Sea. This Via Nova Traiana, coupled with the Roman use of the monsoon winds, deprived the Nabataeans of their economic niche. They continued to prosper, but they had lost the monopoly that once distinguished them among the nations.