Beginner's Guide to the Nabataean Civilization

Frankincense Trade and Water Control in the Arabian Desert

El Khazneh - The Treasury at Petra
El Khazneh - The Treasury at Petra. Tomb of the Nabataean King Aretas III, ruled 84-61 BC. Colin Tsol

The Nabataeans (or Nabtu as they refer to themselves in Aramaic inscriptions) were the Iron Age communities of traders in aromatic resins and spices who lived in and controlled the arid regions of southwest Asia between 312 BC and AD 106. They settled in the southern part of the Levant and northern parts of Arabia as early as the 5th century BC and became a thriving kingdom around the end of the first century BC / first century AD.

During their 400-year-long heyday, the Nabataeans dominated and grew wealthy from the Mediterranean spice trade, resulting from their shrewd control of water in the Negev and Arabian deserts, and their construction and control of crucial caravanseries and oases along the Incense Trade Route. The marvelous city known as Petra served as the center of control for the northern outlets of the Incense Trade that conveyed spices and other exotic goods from southern Arabia to eastern Mediterranean. Petra's eclectic architecture and unique blend of cultural traits reflect that central role.

  • See Nabataean chronology and Kings of the Nabataean Civilization

The Capital of Petra

Petra was the capital of Nabataea, founded by the Nabataeans about 300 BC. Petra was in a strategic location that gave access to the Red Sea, Egypt, the Mediterranean coast and Syria. The Negev separated Petra from Ptolemaic Egypt, and since the Nabataeans knew where the water sources were, they had an advantage over foreign armies who attempted to enter Arabia.

By the first century AD the city was immensely wealthy, and filled with temples, houses and public spaces, including theaters, a nymphaeum (monument dedicated to water nymphs), and a "paradeisos" or Persian garden complete with an ornamental pool and artificial island. The rapid growth and success of the city perched within a rocky desert prone to flash floods is nothing less than phenomenal.

Roman roads were constructed through the city and merchant ships piled high with trade goods worked the waters of the waters surrounding the Arabian peninsula. Numerous settlement complexes made up of temples, villages and agricultural fields sprang up between Petra and the Dead Sea. After the Roman Emperor Trajan annexed all of Nabataea and its trade networks, Petra continued to flourish, and the Byzantine occupation of the city continued through the 7th century AD.

Tombs and Temples

If people have heard anything about the Nabataeans, it's the tombs, even if they don't know it. The most recognizable element is el-Khazneh or The Treasury, which was used as set decoration for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This sandstone facade was not the resting place for the holy grail as that movie argued, but a tomb built for King Aretas III (ruled 84-61 BC) and it is the fanciest of what are hundreds of Nabataean tombs carved in the sandstone outcrops near Petra.

Some debate (see Khairy) does exist about whether these carvings should be classed as tombs or temples or tomb/temples, since they were clearly used for ancestor worship for centuries after the deaths of the kings and other important individuals.

Certainly the tombs had multiple meanings, and their architecture reflects that. Built between the first century BC until the beginning of the second century AD, the tomb architecture blended features from the clients of the Nabataean state: Greeks, Romans, Indians, Assyrians.

Water Control

Recent archaeological research using satellite imagery and ground penetrating radar has confirmed what scholars had long suspected: the Nabataeans ruled over the Arabian deserts because of they engineered a massive water control system, which had its beginnings in cisterns hewn near desert road systems.

The complex water system included dams, cisterns, and an extensive, interlaced above-ground ceramic pipeline system that moved water into the city from springs such as Ain Musa as many as 8 kilometers (five miles) away.

Estimates are that 2 liters (about .5 gallon) per person per day was required for the city to continue: and it flourished, with underground systems supporting ornamental pools and lush agricultural gardens to support its people.

The Spice Trade

There's no doubt about it: the immense wealth that led to the construction of Petra and the dominance of the Nabataeans over the eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian peninsula was their control of the spice and aromatics trade. The aromatics trade involved the commercial exploitation and transfer of frankincense and myrrh into the Roman world and other Mediterranean customers.


This article is a part of the guide to Ancient World History, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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