The Creation of the Nabataean Kingdom

Holy Land Unveiled

The Creation of the Nabataean Kingdom is an amazing story in the chronicles of the Land of Israel. The Nabataean Arabs did not emerge as a political power suddenly. In fact, their rise instead went through two main phases. The first was the Nabataean taking control over trade routes and various tribes and towns. Also, Antigonus’ operations in the region were guaranteeing their presence in Transjordan by the end of the fourth century BCE. Simultaneously, the Nabataeans had probably moved across the Arava Valley to the west into the Desert Negev. Before establishing urban centers, the Nabataeans demonstrated on several occasions their impressive and well-organized military prowess; by successfully defending their territory against larger powers.

The Creation of the Nabataean Kingdom: The Second Phase

The second phase saw the creation of the Nabataean political state in the mid-3rd century BCE. Now kingship is regarded as a characteristic of a state and urban society. The Nabataean institution of kingship came about as a result of multiple factors. Such as the indispensability of trade organization and war. Also, the subsequent outcomes of the Greek expeditions on the Nabataeans played a role in the political centralization of the Nabatu tribe. In any case, the earliest evidence of Nabataean kingship comes from a Nabataean inscription in the Hauran region; which mentions a Nabataean king whose name was lost.

The Creation of the Nabataean Kingdom and the Hasmoneans

Aretas I, is regarded as the first explicitly named king of the Nabataeans. The book of II Maccabees mentions him as “the tyrant of the Arabs” (169-168 BC). His first appearance in history is in II Maccabees, where the Jewish high-priest Jason, driven by his rival Menelaus, sought the protection of Aretas. Around the same time, the Arab Nabataeans and the neighboring Jewish Hasmoneans had maintained a friendly relationship, the former had sympathized with the Hasmoneans, who were being mistreated by the Seleucids.

The Nabataeans enjoyed extensive economic and political independence. Expressed for example, by minting coins during the second century BCE. Petra was included in a list of major cities in the Mediterranean area to be visited by a notable from Priene, a sign of the significance of Nabataea in the ancient world. Also, Petra alongside Alexandria, is considered to be a supreme city in the civilized world.

The Nabataeans were allies of the first Hasmonean during their struggles against the Seleucid monarchs. Later they became rivals of their successors; the Judaean Hasmonean dynasty, and a chief element in the disorders which invited Pompey’s intervention in Judea. The Port of Gaza was the last stop for spices that were carried by trade caravans before shipment to European markets. Thus giving the Nabataeans considerable influence over the Gazans. So the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannaeus decides to besiege the city of Gaza around 100 BCE; on the grounds that the Gazans had favored the Ptolemies over the Judaeans in their recent battles. Finally, Gaza’s inhabitants are put to the sword by Jannaeus and the city of Gaza is conquered.

The Creation of the Nabataean Kingdom and Alexander Jannaeus

So the Hasmoneans, under Jannaeus, launched a campaign that captured several territories in Transjordan north of Nabataea. And along the road to Damascus, including northern Moab and Gilead. Thus the territorial acquisitions threatened Nabataean trade interests. First to Gaza and then to the Seleucids in Damascus. The Nabataean King, Obodas I fought to restore the areas. Finally, Obodas managed to defeat Jannaeus in the Battle of Gadara around 93 BCE. When he ambushed him and his forces in a steep valley where Jannaeus was lucky to escape alive.

After Obodas’ victories over the Judaeans and the Greeks, he became the first Nabataean king to be worshipped as a god by his people. But the expanding Roman Empire was slowly surrounding the Nabataean kingdom; The Romans already conquered Egypt and annexed Judea. Still, the Nabataean kingdom preserves its formal independence; becoming a client kingdom under Rome.

Herod the Great became King of Judea in 37 BCE. He understands the great value of cooperating with the Nabataeans. Especially by collecting the export taxes from ports like the one in Gaza. So he opens the maritime ports to the Nabataean trade. On other hand to the Nabataeans, this was essential too. Since the most important trade goes straight through the Negev desert. So as a result they were significantly shorter than the ones passing via the Sinai Peninsula.

The Creation of the Nabataean Kingdom: The Nabatean Towns

The Nabataean towns were there for one main purpose: to control the complex trade routes. Since those routes passed through the desert; they were literally infested with rubbers waiting to ambush these precious goods. So the Nabataeans erected an army and built army camps along those trade routes. One of those camps was in Avdat. The Nabataeans built along the roads, khans, and fortresses. Some of these roads were even paved and marked with milestones. Such a branched system of trade routes needs treasure houses. I mean, the merchants need to deposit their large amount of money they are crying somewhere. And this way they are eliminating the need to carry huge sums of money when they travel.

The Creation of the Nabataean Kingdom: Temples as Banks

So the Nabataeans used the old and known methods in the ancient world. And that is building temples and using them as banks as well. When you had large populations traveling the temple had a central role. Next to the Nabataeans temples, you had inns and restaurants. Usually, people they came to worship at the temple were staying a couple of days. Furthermore, a big Nabataean city like Avdat even had a farm where they raised camels. And like other Semites, the Nabataeans believed greatly in the afterlife. Many died on the roads, while leading a convoy or guarding them. So this is why you can find in the Nabataeans cities cemeteries where they were burying the dead.

On the private tours that I am giving about the Nabataeans Avdat is one of my favorites places to visit. In Avadat you can get a full perspective on what it was a Nabataean city. We can visit the Acropolis, where the Temple is located. The Roman camp is nearby. And lastly, see from the inside Nabataeans homes. We know that their homes are bigger than the average home in the ancient world.

 The Creation of the Nabataean Kingdom: Roman Annexation

Before Roman control in 106 CE, the area had been ruled by Rabbel II. He is the last king of the Nabataeans, who had ruled since 70 CE. When he dies the Third Cyrenaica legion moves north from Egypt into Petra. While the Sixth Ferrata legion, a Syrian garrison unit, moves south to occupy Bostra. During the reign of Roman emperor Trajan, in the year 106 CE, the last Nabataean king died. Maybe that is what’s prompting the official annexation of Nabataea to the Roman Empire

But it is unknown the formal reasons and the exact manner of annexation. In fact, the conquest of Nabataea can be best described as casual. An act by Trajan to consolidate control of the area before acting on his designs for territory across the Tigris and eventually into Mesopotamia proper. There is no evidence of any pretext for the annexation. Moreover, Rabbel II had an heir by the name of Obodas there was a little fighting going on. In fact, this could be attested since Trajan did not adopt the appellation “Arabicus”.

Although it is clear that by 107 CE Roman legions were stationed in the area around Petra and Bosra. As a papyrus found in Egypt clearly mentions it. The Roman Empire turned the Nabataean into a  province. They are naming it Arabia Petraea. Trade seems to have largely continued thanks to the Nabataeans’ undiminished talent for trading.


Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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