NABATAEANS, a people of ancient Arabia, whose settlements in the time of Josephus (Ant. i. 12. 4; comp. Jerome, Quaesl. in Gen. xxv.) gave the name of Nabatene to the border-land between Syria and Arabia from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Josephus suggests, and Jerome, apparently following him, affirms, that the name is identical with that of the Ishmaelite tribe of Nebaioth (Gen. xxv. 13; Isa. Ix. 7), which in later Old Testament times had a leading place among the northern Arabs, and is associated with Kedar (Isa. Ix. 7) much as Pliny v. u (12) associates Ndbataei and Cedrei. The identification is rendered uncertain by the fact that the name Nabataean is properly spelled with t not / (on the inscriptions, cf. also Arabic Nabat, Nabit, etc.). Thus the history of the Nabataeans cannot certainly be carried back beyond 312 B.C., at which date they were attacked without success by Antigonus I. Cyclops in their mountain fortress of Petra. They are described by Diodorus (xix. 94 seq.) as being at this time a strong tribe of some 10,000 warriors, pre-eminent among the nomadic Arabs, eschewing agriculture, fixed houses and the use of wine, but adding to pastoral pursuits a profitable trade with the seaports in myrrh and spices from Arabia Felix, as well as a trade with Egypt in bitumen from the Dead Sea. Their arid country was the best safeguard of their cherished liberty; for the bottle-shaped cisterns for rain-water which they excavated in the rocky or argillaceous soil were carefully concealed from invaders. Petra (q.v.) or Sela' was the ancient capital of Edom; the Nabataeans must have occupied the old Edomite country, and succeeded to its commerce, after the Edomites took advantage of the Babylonian captivity to press forward into southern Judaea. 1 This migration, the date of which cannot be determined, also made them masters of the shores of the Gulf of 'Akaba and the important harbour of Elath. Here, according to Agatharchides (Geog. Gr. Min., i. 178), they were for a time very troublesome, as wreckers and pirates, to the reopened commerce between Egypt and the East, till they were chastised by the Greek sovereigns of Alexandria.
The Nabataeans had already some tincture of foreign culture when they first appear in history. That culture was naturally Aramaic; they wrote a letter to Antigonus " in Syriac letters," and Aramaic continued to be the language of their coins and inscriptions when the tribe grew into a kingdom, and profited by the decay of the Seleucids to extend its borders northward over the more fertile country east of the Jordan. They occupied IJauran, and about 85 B.C. their king Aretas (Haritha) became lord of Damascus and Coele-Syria. Allies of the first Hasmonaeans in their struggles against the Greeks (i Mace, v. 25, ix. 35; 2 Mace. v. 8), they became the rivals of the Judaean dynasty in the period of its splendour, and a chief element in the disorders which invited Pompey's intervention in Palestine. The Roman arms were not very successful, and King Aretas retained his whole possessions, including Damascus, as a Roman 1 See EDOM, and (for the view that Mai. i. 1-5, refers to the expulsion of Edomites from their land) MALACHI.
vassal. 1 As " allies " of the Romans the Nabataeans continued to flourish throughout the first Christian century. Their power extended far into Arabia, particularly along the Red Sea; and Petra was a meeting-place of many nations, though its commerce was diminished by the rise of the Eastern trade-route from Myoshormus to Coptos on the Nile. Under the Roman peace they lost their warlike and nomadic habits, and were a sober, acquisitive, orderly people, wholly intent on trade and agriculture (Strabo xvi. 4). They might have long been a bulwark between Rome and the wild hordes of the desert but for the^ shortsighted cupidity of Trajan, who reduced Petra and broke up the Nabataean nationality (105 A.D.). The new Arab invaders who soon pressed forward into their seats found the remnants of the Nabataeans transformed into fellahin, and speaking Aramaic like their neighbours. Hence Nabataeans became the Arabic name for Aramaeans, whether in Syria or Irak, a fact which has been incorrectly held to prove that the Nabataeans were originally Aramaean immigrants from Babylonia. It is now known, however, that they were true Arabs as the proper names on their inscriptions show who had come under Aramaic influence.
See especially on this last point (against Quatremere, Journ. asiat. xv., vol. ii., 1835), Noldeke in Zeit. d. morgenldnd. Gesell. xvii. 705 seq., xxv. 122 seq. The so-called " Nabataean Agriculture " (Falaha Nabaflya), which professes to be an Arabic translation by Ibn Wabshiya from an ancient Nabataean source, is a forgery of the 10th century (see A. von Gutschmid, Z. d. morgenl. Ges. xv. i seq.; Noldeke, ib. xxix. 445 seq.). Complete bibliographical information is given by E. Schurer in his sketch of Nabataean history appended to Gesch. d. Jud. Volkes (1901, vol. i. ; cf. Eng. edition, 1890, i. 2, pp. 345 sqq.) ; to this may be added the article by H. Vincent, Rev. bibl. vii. 567 sqq., and, for more general information, R. Dussaud, Les Arabes en Syrie (1907). For early external evidence see H. Winckler, Keil. u. Alte Test.* p. 151 seq.; M. Streck, Mitten, d. vorderasial. Gesell. (1906). pt. iii., and Klio, 1906, p. 206 seq. The Nabataean inscriptions (see SEMITIC LANGUAGES) are collected in the Corpus Inscr. Semiticarum of the French Academy, pt. ii. ; see also the Academy's Repertoire d'epigr. sent. ; and the discussions, etc., in the writings of Clermont-Ganneau (Rec. d'archeol. Orient.) and M. Lidzbarski (Handbuch d. nord-semit. Epig.; Ephemeris f. sent. Epig.). For English readers the selection in G. A. Cooke, North-Semitic Inscriptions (Oxford, 1903) is the most useful.
(W. R. S.;S. A. C.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)