The People of Petra

Part of the Petra exhibition.

The Nabataeans: A Desert People

City of Petra in Jordan
Photo: © Jordan Tourism Board, North America

The story of the city of Petra is veiled in mystery. It starts with a group of Arabian nomads called the Nabataeans, who led fruitful lives as desert traders. Scant clues exist to reveal exactly where these migrants originated, but it is clear that they had acquired control of the ancient incense and spice trade throughout the Arabian Peninsula by the first century BC.

What remains unclear is why these successful, nomadic merchants settled down, shifting to an urban lifestyle. As city dwellers, the Nabataeans took pride in their prosperity. Inscriptions carved in stone list religious offerings of silver and gold, and monumental rock-cut tombs at Petra and the city of Hegra reveal that the Nabataeans had great wealth and power. Petra was their crown jewel, the thriving capital of Nabataea.

Goatskin Tents to Grand Facade

Bearded male head

The early Nabataeans disliked houses, believing that buildings and immobility would enslave them to a more powerful people. For reasons not fully understood, they shifted from a pastoral life to an urban existence, settling in Petra sometime in the third century BC. Goatskin tents gave way to more permanent and elegant residences protected within a remote fortress of rock. "This place is exceedingly strong but unwalled, and it is two days' journey from the settled country," wrote the Greek historian Diodorus.

Youthful male head

Starting as a defensive stronghold where the Nabataeans safeguarded precious goods and their families, Petra evolved into a commercial center by the first century BC. By then the Nabataeans had acquired control of the caravan trade of incense and other luxuries to the Mediterranean region. As business grew, merchants needed a centralized hub. Petra was strategically located at the intersection of two commercial routes. One extended west from Asia, and the other headed north from southern Arabia.

The Nabataeans: A Desert People

Plaque with Nabataean inscription

Like graffiti in any urban setting, Nabataean stone inscriptions provide glimpses of their original writers. The common written language of the Nabataeans was a form of Aramaic--the most widespread language of the ancient Near East. The Nabataeans wrote on scrolls made of leather and papyrus, materials that have long since disintegrated. What have survived are more than 4,000 stone inscriptions written in Nabataean. Details gleaned from these texts reveal who built Petra's grand monuments, the identity of people buried in the tombs, and which gods the Nabataeans worshipped and honored.

More than 80 percent of the inscriptions recovered from Petra are signatures. Some were grouped together at temples and ritual sites, where participants would sign their names as a permanent record of their religious devotion. Found throughout the ancient Near East, Nabataean inscriptions testify to the widespread cultural presence of this people.

Lingua Franca

At the height of Petra, 100 BC-AD 100, Nabataean writing was widely used throughout the surrounding region. A dialect of Aramaic, Nabataean may have served as the basis for later classical Arabic script.

Writing Tools

Scribes crafted stone inscriptions using hammers and chisels. The looping links, or ligatures, of Nabataean script suggest that this dialect of Aramaic first developed on paper and that scribes copied the same style when carving inscriptions.

How Do We Know?--The Anatomy of Nabataean

To understand how the Nabataean written language may have evolved, researchers compared several Aramaic alphabets. Letters resemble each other, but they may appear in a variety of forms. Written from right to left, the Nabataean language consisted of 22 consonants. Like similar scripts, such as Hebrew, the vowel sounds are only inferred, making it difficult to sound out the ancient language.