The merchandise and produce that traversed the great deserts separating the Mediterranean from the Orient often were traded and carried by the Nabataeans. This lucrative commerce meant that their capital city, Petra, became an exotic and prosperous center of ancient civilization.
The Nabataeans migrated as Arab wanderers from the northwest Arabian Peninsula and occupied the land of the Edomites. By the fourth century b.c.e. they controlled the southern region of the Transjordan, the southern Negev Desert, and Wadi Arabah.
Unlike many of their Arab predecessors, they settled into cities and formed into a political state under a monarchy, 11 kings of which have so far been identified. They established their domain as the intermediary trading power in the Middle East, dominating the trading routes going north and south from Arabia to Syria, and having an interest in east-west trade as well.
Nabataean goods have been found as far west as Spain. Precious items of their cargoes included frankincense and myrrh from Arabia, balsams and bitumen from the Dead Sea area, and silk and gems from Asia. To protect their routes they constructed hundreds of caravan stations throughout the deserts.
They were also famous for their sophisticated water-gathering technology that enabled them to support relatively heavy populations and sustain desert agriculture on a scale unmatched until modern times. Nabataean cities thrived in otherwise waterless areas.
The capital city Petra greatly benefited from trade and technology. It reached its height in the first century c.e., tucked away in a remote desert valley of present-day Jordan. Its climate was ideal for preservation of the architectural structures, often carved into the rocky cliffs: Some 800 structures of tombs and cult survive in addition to the many more conventional Greek-styled temples and secular buildings.
The evidence for Petra’s advanced culture is also found in its inscriptions, coins, ceramics, and decorative art. The Nabataeans borrowed Aramaic as their language, perhaps because it was the lingua franca of trade in the region, but their language retained many Arabic words. Their script is the basis for modern Arabic.
Many letters and business documents have been found—including very many Byzantine manuscripts—but no early extensive literary texts remain to describe the civilization’s ideology, social structure, and even history. Speculation must come from external sources and from the material remains.
The earliest references to the Nabataeans come from the biblical stories about the Maccabees and later from Roman historians. The Persian Empire effectively left them alone, and the Seleucid Empire was unable to absorb them. Under Aretas IV (c.9 b.c.e.–c. 40 c.e.), their borders reached as far north as Damascus.
There were some tensions between them and the Judaeans during the reign of the Herods, but the Romans apparently left them alone and independent until the end of the first century c.e. In 106 c.e. Trajan decided to colonize the entire area. Though the kingdom ceased to exist at that time, nonetheless Petra seems to have continued largely unaffected for another 250 years.
Only a succession of earthquakes and Islamic invasions brought oblivion to the Nabataeans for the outside world. Except for a brief visit by crusaders in the late Middle Ages, Petra and its civilization were not opened again to outsiders until modern times.