300 years BCE, an Arab tribe of merchants moved out of the deserts of Arabia into the ancient country of Edom. Most of the Edomites had left, due to the migration of peoples during the Nebuchadnezzar. As the Arab tribe, also known as Nabataeans slowly expanded their empire, they became the owners of the Negev and the ancient Edomites homeland. Soon this area became known as Nabataea, and from this new empire, the Nabataeans began gathering wealth and building a merchant kingdom. For centuries, the Nabataeans never built a single house or a single temple.

When they chose the site of Petra to build their glorious empire, it was a dry canyon, and possibly a place where they left their dead. It seems that the Edomites never occupied this site. The Edomite capital was Busheira, located south of present-day Tafila. Some Nabataean had settled near the Edomite capital city, occupying a flat mountain that was known as Selah.

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Since this was probably the location of massacres, the Edomites would have never came close to the place, leaving the Nabataeans alone to their own devices. The Nabataeans initially made a small tent settlement atop this mountain to serve as a refuge and a safe place to store their women, children, and goods when they were away buying and selling. This mountain-top refuge, known as Selah, would play an important role in the years that followed. Nabataean became a variety of Western Aramaic that was spoken in and the city of Petra. Petra is located on the east bank of the Jordan River and on the Sinai Peninsula. Years after Petra was built, the kingdom became a very known trade route. Once Petra was built Aramaic became the international language and script of trade, the Nabataeans used both Nabataean and Aramaic as their written language.

This made the Nabateans a more intellectual kingdom where many merchants found themselves going. Their camel caravans crossed Arabia and their ships plied the Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and even the Indian Ocean. Eventually, Nabataean merchants and explorers would visit almost every known place on the globe. The Nabataean script was developed from Imperial Aramaic script in 2nd century BCE and was a heavy influence on Arabic, especially by the 4th century CE, when the Arabic language was created. Later the Nabataeans variant of the Aramaic script evolved to a more cursive style with ample use of ligatures to join the letters of words together. During the 5th and century ACE, the Arabic script developed from cursive versions of Nabataean. One of the earliest inscriptions in the Arabic language was written in the Nabataean alphabet.

This writing form would later evolve into the “Arabic” writing that is still in use by Arabs today. Nabataean is therefore considered a part of the Arabic script. Though it may not be as similar as it is to Arabic, the Nabataean script was an ancestor of Hebrew, Kharosthi, Phoenician, Sabaean, Samaritan, South Arabian, and Syriac. This makes it incredibly important in the middle east and to understand where these languages originated. The main source of evidence of the Nabataean script comes from inscriptions made on tombs, and from graffiti written on rocks and boulders throughout the Middle East. Stone inscriptions in the Nabataean script have been found in Petra, the capital of the Nabataean kingdom and in Damascus and Medina.

Nabataeans and other tribes would scratch their names and sometimes a message, such as a lament for a loved one, on rocks. Nabataeans must have had a high degree of literacy because many of the inscriptions were written by shepherds. At the time literacy was not as widespread among everyday person. the Nabataeans created a new writing form to add to those who use the writing and reading in their day to day life. They had developed a running “cursive” script, which was used for both more polished inscriptions and the more common graffiti.There are thousands of graffiti carved onto rocks and canyon walls clearly demonstrate that almost every Nabataean could read and write.

The Egyptians wrote on the walls of their temples, the Jews wrote on scrolls and the Babylonians wrote on clay tablets. Kings and rulers over the centuries wrote down their triumphs and exploits. The Nabataeans, however, seem to refuse to write. Their temple walls are bare. Their cities contain no libraries, and to date, archaeologists have found only a few scraps of writing. There are multiple instances when the Nabataeans could show their literacy through, one of the most important times was when the Nabataeans sent their famous diplomatic letter written to Antigonus, Diodorus the historian notes that it was written in ‘Syrian letters’ Syrian in this context is Aramaic, the trade language used at that time by the Seleucids.

This is important because it demonstrates that the Nabataeans were capable of producing a letter in another language. This had the effect of the Nabataeans being smart, making it easier for Nabataeans to earn respect in other countries. Josephus an ancient Jewish historian claimed that the Nabataeans lived through the whole country extending from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. He refers to this area as Nabatene or the area that the Nabataeans ranged in. Josephus goes on to say that it was the Nabataeans who conferred their names on the Arabian nations. Josephus lived and wrote during the time that the Nabataeans were in existence, and supposedly, he obtained his information directly from the Nabataeans themselves.After multiple years of fame and riches, the Nabataean was conquered by the Roman empire. This, however, did not change the Nabataeans script nor culture, because at the time they had noticed how their culture was very strong, understandable and though they didn’t know it, it would inspire languages and concepts.

During the years, leading up to the forming of the Roman Empire, the Nabataeans managed to become one of the most successful commercial societies in the Middle East (as part of the Roman empire). They used their knowledge of sea routes and caravan routes so that they were able to form a solid link between eastern goods and western markets. In an amazing way, they managed to take their caravans through the desert, unaffected by the local tribes who controlled wells and grazing land.In 200 BCE,  a pirate clan called the Nabatu were trading minerals and transporting them toother middle eastern countries. They exported their goods through the Qedarite centers of Northern Arabia  and Tayma. Early Nabataean pottery has also been found in small towns on the Persian Gulf, along with the coasts of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. There are also ancient references to the Nabatu as being located along the western side of the Arabian Peninsula and in the Sinai. These Nabatu pirates who sailed the Red Sea plundering and trading vessels.

Later they established bases in a number of seaports, including the port city of Aila (modern day Aqaba), which is only 40 miles from Petra. While we may think of the Nabataeans were people who transported goods in the desert by camel, the Nabataeans liked the idea of sea trade, and they built and maintained a large and impressive merchant marine.the mysterious Nabataeans developed a method of transporting goods in the desert, without needing to use the local water wells. Since the local tribes, who were sometimes hostile, controlled these water wells, the Nabataeans developed water collection systems that provided them with water in the desert, at places unknown to others. Using their widespread presence and their system of caravan routes and watering stops, the Nabataeans built an impressive trade empire in the heart of Arabia.When the Nabataeans did start building their fully own city, they called it Rekem.

This city would become so famous that its name would be recorded in the records of Chang Ch’ien, envoy to the Chinese Emperor Wu-ti, as well as in the records of the civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Rome, and Byzantium where the city was known by its Roman name, Petra. So, using the old Edomite territory as their hub, they set up a trading empire that surpassed anything seen before on the face of the earth. Through their system of merchants and trade, they began importing goods from the east and selling them in the west. In the next few centuries, they would import such goods as spices, animals, iron, oil, copper, sugar, medicines, ivory, perfumes, cotton, ginger, cinnamon, silk, minerals and gold for the kingdoms of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

On the other hand, they sold out to India and China henna, storax, lots of spices, cloth, silk gauze, silk damask, glass, orpiment, gold, and silver. They also were responsible for the transfer of ideas and concepts between the great eastern and western civilizations.the Nabataeans managed to gain a kind of mischief on most of these trade goods.

As they highered the prices, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans began to get angry. Some complained that their empires were close to bankrupt. Others mobilized their armies to crush the Nabataeans. However, the Nabataeans managed to escape, usually without entering battle. the Nabataeans were incredibly carefully hiding all the evidence, fearing that the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans would discover their secrets and crush their empire.

And, so the Nabataeans have remained a very anonymous civilization, with many of their lies and deceptions lasting until this present day.What we now know about Nabataean culture comes from the writings of early historians like Strabo, Josephus, Pliny, and Diodorus of Sicily. These historians give us slight into the Nabataean culture and life, as well as an outline of their history as seen by others. Few Nabataean manuscripts survive to this day, outside of the Petra Scrolls, which are records of legal dealings during the Byzantine Empire, when the Nabataean Kingdom was already in decline.Diodorus Siculus, who wrote Bibliotheca Historica, writes the following about the Nabataeans whom, like all historians of his day, he simply calls ‘Arabs’:”Here it is worthwhile to recount the institutions of these Arabs, by the practice of which they seem to protect their liberty. Their country has neither rivers nor copious springs from which it is possible for a hostile army to get water.

They have a law neither to sow corn nor to plant any fruit-bearing plant, nor to use wine, nor to build a house. This law they hold because they judge that those who possess these things will be easily compelled by powerful men to do what is ordered them because of their enjoyment of these things. Some of them keep camels, others sheep, pasturing them over the desert. Of the Arabian tribes, there are not a few who graze the desert and these are much superior to the others in the amenities of life, being in number not much more than 10,000.

For not a few of them are wont to bring down to the sea frankincense and myrrh and the most costly of spices, receiving them from those who convey them from what is called Arabia Felix. They are conspicuously lovers of freedom and flee into the desert, using this as a stronghold. They fill cisterns and caves with rainwater, making them flush with the rest of the land, they leave signals there, which are known to themselves, but not understood by anyone else. They water their herds every third day so that they do not constantly need water in waterless regions if they have to flee.

“Diodorus’s thought of the early Nabataeans describes them as nomadic people who have arrived from the desert, and who carry with them their desert ways.


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