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Eth. NABATAEI (Eth.Ναβαταῖοι, Eth. Ἀπαταῖοι, Ptol. 6.7.21; Ναβάται, Suid. s. v.; Ναβαταῖοι, LXX.; Nabathae, Sen. Herc. Oet. 160: the country, Ναβαταία, Strab.; Ναβατηνή, Joseph.), a numerous and important people of Arabia Petraea, celebrated in the classical geographers. Josephus describes the country as comprehending all from the Euphrates to the Red Sea, i. e. the whole of the northern part of the Arabian peninsula ; and inhabited by the descendants of the 12 sons of Ishmael, from the eldest of whom, Nebaioth, this territory is supposed to have derived its name. This is confirmed by the authority of S. Jerome, three centuries later, who writes, “Nebaioth omnis regio ab Euphrate usque ad Mare Rubrum Nabathena usque hodie dicitur, quae pars Arabiae est.” (J. AJ 1.13.4; Hieron. Comment. in Genes. 25.13.) The only allusion to this people in the canonical Scriptures, supposing them identical, is by their patriarchal designation ; and the mention of the “rams of Nebaioth,” in connection with the “flocks of Kedar” (Isa. 60.7), intimates that they existed as a distinct pastoral tribe. But they occur frequently in history after [p. 2.393]the captivity. They were the friends and allies of the Jews in their struggle for independence; for when Judas Maccabaeus, with his brother Jonathan, found them 3 days S. of the Jordan (cir. B.C. 164), they received him amicably, and gave him information which led to the deliverance of the oppressed Jews in Gilead from the Ammonites, under Timotheus (J. AJ 12.8.3; 1 Maccab. 5.24, &c.); and when preparing for an engagement with Bacchides (cir. B.C. 161), the same Jonathan proposed to place all their moveable property in their custody. (Ib. 13.1.2; 1 Maccab. 9.33.) But the earliest and fullest notice of this people and of their country occurs in Diodorus Siculus, who mentions them frequently. In B.C. 312, Antigonus, having recovered Syria and Palestine out of the hands of Ptolemy, resolved on an expedition against the Nabataei, and detached his general Athenaeus on this service, with 4000 light-armed troops and 600 light cavalry. The manners of these Arabs and their country is described by the historian in this connection. They inhabited tents in a vast desert tract, which offered neither streams nor fountains to an invading army. Their institutions, as described by him, bear a striking resemblance to those of the Rechabites in every particular, “to drink no wine, nor to build houses, nor to have vineyard, nor field, nor seed, but to dwell in tents.” (Jer. 35.6--11.) Diodorus mentions that the violation of any of these customs was a capital crime. Their occupations were chiefly pastoral; some possessing camels and others sheep in much greater abundance than the other Arabs, although their number did not exceed 10,000; but they also acted as carriers of the aromatic drugs of Arabia Felix, which were discharged at their great mart at Petra, and by them transported to the Mediterranean, at Rhinocorura. The love of liberty was a passion with them; and their custom, when attacked by a more powerful enemy, was to retire to the wilderness, whither the invaders could not follow them for want of water. They themselves had provided for such emergencies vast subterranean reservoirs of rain water, dug in the clayey soil, or excavated in the soft rock, and plastered, with very narrow mouths,--which could be easily stopped and concealed from sight, but which were marked by indications known only to themselves,--but gradually expanding until they attained the dimensions of 100 feet square. They lived on flesh and milk, and on the spontaneous produce of the country, such as pepper and wild honey, which they drank mixed with water. There was an annual fair held in their country, to which the bulk of the males used to resort for purposes of traffic, leaving their flocks with their most aged men, and the women and children at Petra, naturally a very strong place, though unwalled, two days distant from the inhabited country. Athenaeus took advantage of the absence of the Nabataeans at the fair, to attack Petra; and making a forced march of 3 days and 3 nights from the eparchy of Idumaea, a distance of 2200 stadia, he assaulted the city about midnight, slaughtered and wounded many of its inhabitants, and carried off an immense booty in spicery and silver. [PETRA] On his retreat, however, he was surprised by the Nabataei, and all his forces cut to pieces, with the exception of 50 horsemen. Shortly afterwards Antigonus sent another expedition against Petra, under the command of Demetrius; but the inhabitants were prepared, and Demetrius was glad to withdraw his army on receiving such gifts as were most esteemed among them. (Diod. 19.44-48, comp. 2.48.) In the geographical section of his work the author places them on the Laianites Sinus, a bay of the Aelanitic gulf, and describes them as possessing many villages, both on the coast and in the interior. Their country was most populous, and incredibly rich in cattle; but their national character had degenerated when he wrote (cir. B.C. 8). They had formerly lived honestly, content with the means of livelihood which their flocks supplied; but from the time that the kings of Alexandria had rendered the gulf navigable for merchant vessels, they not only practised violence as wreckers, but made piratical attacks from their coasts on the merchantmen in the passage through the gulf, imitating in ferocity and lawlessness the Tauri in Pontus. Ships of war were sent against them, and the pirates were captured and punished. (Ib. 3.42, comp. Strabo xvi. p.777.) The decrease of their transport trade and profits, by the new channel opened through Egypt, was doubtless the real cause of this degeneracy. The trade, however, was not entirely diverted; later writers still mention Petra of the Nabataei as the great entrepôt of the Arabian commerce (Arrian, Periplus, p. 11, ap. Hudson, vol. i.), both of the Gerrhaei of the west, and of the Minaei of the south of that peninsula. (Strabo xvi. p.776.) The account given by Strabo agrees in its main features with the earlier record of Diodorus Siculus; and he records at length the deception practised on his friend Aelius Gallus by Syllaeus, the procurator (ἐπίτροπος) of the Nabataei, under the king Obodas; a false friend of the Romans, through whose territory he first led them on leaving Leuce Come, where they had landed. The policy of Syllaeus illustrates the remark of Strabo (xvi. p.783), that the Nabataeans are prudent and acquisitive; so much so, that those who wasted their property were punished, and those who increased it rewarded by the state. They had few slaves among them; so they either waited on themselves, or practised mutual servitude in families, even in the royal family. They were much addicted to feasting, and their domestic manners marked considerable progress in luxury and refinement, from the rude simplicity of the primitive times described by the more ancient author (p. 783, seq.). He mentions that they were fire-worshippers, and sacrificed daily to the sun on their house-tops. Their government may be styled a limited monarchy, as the king was subject to be publicly called to account, and to have to defend himself before the people. Their cities were unwalled, and their country fruitful in everything but the olive. The limits of their country are not clearly defined; Strabo places them above the Syrians, with the Sabaei, in Arabia Felix (xvi. p. 779); but this must be a corrupt reading, and is inconsistent with his other notices of them. Thus he speaks of the promontory near Seal Island--the peninsula of Mount Sinai--as extending to Petra of the Arabs called Nabataei (p. 776), which he describes as situated in a desert region, particularly towards Judaea, and only three or four days' journey from Jericho (p. 779). The approach to Egypt from the east, towards Phoenice and Judaea, was difficult by way of Pelusium, but from Arabia Nabataea it was easy. All these and similar notices serve to show that, from the age of Antigonus to this period, the Nabataei had in [p. 2.394]habited the land of Edom, commonly known as Idumaea, and intimate that there was no connection whatever between the Idumaeans of Petra in the Augustine period, and the children of Esau; they were, in fact, Nabataeans, and therefore, according to Josephus and other ancient anthorities, Ishmaelite Arabs. How or when they had dispossessed the Edomites does not appear in history, nor what had become of the remnant of the Edomites. (Robinson, Bib. Res. vol. ii. pp. 558, 559.) But while Judas Maccabaeus was on terms of friendship with the Nabataei, he was carrying on a war of extermination against the Edomites. (J. AJ 12.8.1; 1 Maccab. 5.3.) It is worthy of remark, however, that the Idumaeans with whom Hyrcanus was in alliance, over whom Aretas reigned, and from whom Herod was sprung, are expressly said to be Nabataeans (Ant. 14.2.3, 3. §§ 3, 4), whose alliance was refused by Pompey, on account of their inaptitude for war. And this identity is further proved by Strabo, who writes that the Idumaeans and the lake (Asphaltides) occupy the extreme west(?) corner of Judaea:--“These Idumaeans are Nabataeans; but being expelled thence in a sedition, they withdrew to the Jews and embraced their customs.” (xvi. p. 760.) This recognition of the Nabataean origin of the later Idumaeans, proves that the name is to be regarded as a geographical, rather than as a genealogical designation. Pliny (6.32) throws little light upon the subject, merely making the Nabataei contiguous to the Scenite Arabs, with whom they were more probably identical, and stating that the ancients had placed the Thimanaei next to them (i. e. on the E.); in the place of whom he names several other tribes, as the Tavcni, Suelleni, Arraceni, &c. (Ibid.) But the statement of Josephus that the Nabataei extended from the Euphrates to the Red Sea, is confirmed by the fact that the name is still to be found in both those regions. Thus the name Nabat is applied to a marshy district, described by Golius as part of the “palustria Chaldaeae,” between Wasith and Basra, which was called “paludes Nabathaeorum,” (Golius, cited by Forster, Geog. of Arabia, vol. i. p. 214 n.*), while at the other extremity the name Nabat is given to a town two days beyond (i. e. south) of El-Haura in the Hedjaz, by an Arabian geographer (Sóiouti, cited by Quatremere, Mémoire sur les Nabatéens, p. 38), near where Jebel Nâbit is marked in modern maps. The existence of this name in this locality is regarded by M. Quatremère as an additional argument for the identity of El-Haura with Leuce Come, proving that the country of the Nabataei did actually extend so far south. The fact of the origin of the Nabataeans from Nebaioth the son of Ishmael, resting as it does on the respectable authority of Josephus, followed as he is by S. Jerome (Quaest. Hebr. in Genes. tom. ii. p. 530), and all subsequent writers in the western world, has been called in question by M. Quatremère in the Mémoire above referred to; who maintains that they are in no sense Ishmaelites, nor connected by race with any of the Arab families, but were Aramaeans, and identical with the Chaldaeans. He cites a host of ancient and most respectable native Arabic authors in proof of this theory; according to whose statements the name Nabats or Nabataeans designated the primitive and indigenous population of Chaldaea and the neighbouring provinces, probably those whom Eusebius designates Babylonians in contradistinction from the Chalaeans. They occupied the whole of that country afterwards called Irak-Arab, in the most extended sense of that name, even comprehending several provinces beyond the Tigris; and it is worthy of remark, that Masoudi mentions a remnant of the Babylonians and Chaldaeans existing in his day in the very place which is designated the marshes of the Nabataeans, i. e. in the villages situated in the swampy ground between Wasith and Basra. (Ib. p. 66.) Other authors mention Nabataeans near Jathrib or Medina, which would account for the Jebel Nibât in that vicinity; and another section of them in Bahrein, on the eastern coast of the peninsula, who had become Arabs, as the Arab inhabitants of the province of Oman are said to have become Nabataeans. (Ib. p. 80.) This settlement of Nabataeans in the Persian Gulf may be alluded to by Strabo, who relates that the Chaldaeans, banished from their country, settled themselves in the town of Gerrha, on the coast of Arabia (xvi. p. 766); which fact would account for the commercial intercourse between the merchants of Gerrha and those of Petra above referred to; the Nabataei of Petra being a branch of some family also from Babylon and perhaps driven from their country by the same political revolution that dispossessed the refugees of Gerrha. However this may have been, it must be admitted that the very ingenious and forcible arguments of M. Quatremère leave little doubt that this remarkable people, which appears so suddenly and comparatively late on the stage of Arabian history, to disappear as suddenly after a brief and brilliant career of mercantile activity and success, were not natives of the soil, but aliens of another race and family into which they were subsequently merged, again to reappear in the annals of their own original seats. (Ib. pp. 88--90.) Reland gives a different account of the identity of the names in the two quarters. (Palaestina, p. 94.)


hide References (6 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (6):
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 12.8.1
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 1.13.4
    • Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 12.8.3
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 6.32
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 19.44
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 19.48
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