The Nabateans in the Negev
Curator: Renate Rosenthal-Haginbottom

Preface (from the exhibition catalogue): Ofra Rimon, museum curator and director

The exhibition ‘The Nabateans in the Negev' presents archaeological finds discovered in the Negev cities of Elusa, Nessana, Rehovot-in-the-Negev, Sobata, Oboda, and Mampsis, as well as at way stations and fortresses along the Nabatean ‘Spice Route’ – or more accurately, the ‘Incense and Spice Route’– through the Negev Desert and the Arava Valley. The remains uncovered at these Nabatean sites, along with finds attributed to the Nabateans revealed in neighboring countries, are evidence of their prosperity and economic success resulting from their position as middlemen in the incense and spice trade, especially during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Their economic success influenced their culture and way of life – converting them from their nomadic traditions to life in permanent settlements and cities. Later, during the Byzantine period, the Nabateans abandoned their pagan beliefs and became Christians, as evidenced by the remains of magnificent churches in their cities. The present exhibition concentrates on the material culture from the Nabatean sites in the Negev and the Arava, and does not deal with Nabatean architectural remains.
The scarcity of written sources – which leaves many questions concerning the Nabateans unanswered – coupled with the impressive remains of their material culture uncovered in the desert cities, especially Petra in Jordan, has inspired the imagination of generations. In the 1950s and 1960s, Israeli youth were captivated by the mysterious ‘Red Rock' – Petra – and risked their lives just to view the wonders of this place. Consequently, it was forbidden to play the song ‘The Red Rock’ (words by Haim Hefer, tune by Yohanan Zarai), on the radio for fear that it would inspire additional young people to endanger their lives. Even today, after many years of research, a veil of mystery still surrounds the Nabateans, and scholars are in disagreement over various aspects of Nabatean history, including the question of their ethnicity, the circumstances surrounding their conversion to Christianity, the reasons for their sudden appearance on the stage of history in the second half of the first millennium BCE, and their disappearance in the second half of the 1st millennium CE.
When dealing with the Nabateans of the Negev, one cannot but be impressed by the outstanding work of Prof. Avraham Negev, scholar of Nabatean archaeology. Avraham Negev, Professor Emeritus of the Archaeological Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, devoted most of his years of research to the study of the Nabateans – their history, language, inscriptions, coins, pottery, art, and architecture. Masters of the Desert, his book on Nabatean culture, expresses his great appreciation for the Nabateans. (At present, Negev is working on another book which will summarize his research of the Nabatean cities in the Negev.) In this book, one encounters not only his respect for the Nabateans and their culture, but also his deep identification with them. The fruit of years of research, including many years in the Negev itself, the work is devoted to revealing the hidden secrets of this culture. He writes, for example: “I first met the Nabateans towards the end of my academic studies, when I was busy with my thesis on Jewish symbols in the Second Temple Period. I was particularly bothered by the question of the existence of a definitive Jewish art. I was attempting to study the ways in which cultural influences are absorbed, a topic very difficult in itself. I assumed at the time that if I could find a people who appeared on the stage of history in a relatively late period, from a completely different environment from that to which they arrived, it would facilitate this research. It was natural that I would alight upon the Nabateans, who apparently fulfill these conditions. From that day, I have never left the Nabateans for a single day” (Negev 1983: 83). He also writes: “The main difficulty in locating sites and structures and their identification at Elusa lies in the thick layers of sand and dust which cover the site and in the few visible remains. However, with time I learnt to understand the special anatomy of this place, and on numerous occasions I was able to feel beneath my feet the beating heart of the buildings” (ibid.: 19).
Among his students, who through him became acquainted with the Nabatean culture and became scholars of Nabatean history themselves, was the curator of the present exhibition, Dr. Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom. Renate received both her bachelor's degree and doctorate from the Archaeological Institute of the Hebrew University, gained appointment on the teaching staff, and participated in the Institute’s archaeological expeditions and research of the Nabatean sites at Sobata, Mampsis, Oboda, and Rehovot-in-the-Negev. The present exhibition and the accompanying catalog bring together Prof. Avraham Negev and Dr. Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom and their studies, along with the present generation of archaeologists and their discoveries in the Nabatean sites of the Negev and the Aravah.
From a personal point of view, the exhibition ‘Nabateans in the Negev’ and the coins presented here are a return to the end of the 1960s, when I was a student of Prof. Avraham Negev at the Archaeological Institute, and through him became acquainted with the wonderful culture of the Nabateans. Professor Negev assigned me the task of studying 2,000 coins from a hoard of 10,500 discovered at Mampsis. My modest contribution to Nabatean research was the identification of a small group of Roman coins on which appear Nabatean inscriptions, evidence that these coins were first minted as Nabatean coins. The coins date from the reign of the Nabatean king, Rabbel II (70-106 CE). After the annexation of the Nabatean kingdom by the Roman Empire (106 CE), the coins fell into Roman hands and were re-used for the minting of Roman coins (Negev 1971a: 115-119).
In 1976, the Israel Museum mounted the exhibition ‘Nabatean Coins,’ curated by Prof. Ya’akov Meshorer, whose doctoral dissertation was devoted to the study of Nabatean coinage (Meshorer 1975). Professor Meshorer has also contributed an article on Nabatean coinage in the present catalog of the exhibition in the Hecht Museum. We express our gratitude to all those who participated in the preparation of the exhibition, especially to its curator, Dr. Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom, who helped realize the idea of an exhibition on the subject of the Nabateans.
We also wish to express our appreciation to the scholars who contributed to the catalog of the exhibition, especially Prof. Avraham Negev. Thanks are due to the staff of the Israel Antiquities Authority: Hava Katz, Michael Sabanne, Adi Ziv-Sodri, Orit Shamir, Donald Ariel, Yigal Israeli, Tali Erickson-Gini, and Rachel Bar-Natan. We would like to make special note of the wonderful cooperation of the Antiquities Authority staff, who were so excited with the opportunity to exhibit to the general public the Nabatean material uncovered in the excavations.
We are further grateful to the Antiquities Authority for putting at our disposal their important collection of finds, including textiles, basketry, and large amounts of pottery, originating from the salvage excavations carried out by Dr. Rudolph Cohen at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s.
We also wish to thank Beni Sekay, Hillel Geva, Dr. Mazar, and Daphna Zoran of the Archaeological Institute of the Hebrew University and the Israel Museum and its curators: Yael Israeli, Dudi Mevorach, and Dr. Haim Gitler. Finally we thank the Department of Museums of the Israel Ministry of Education and the management of the Hecht Foundation.
About the Nabateans, Renate Rosenthal-Haginbottom, curator of the exhibition (from the exhibition catalogue)
Historical Background
Who were the Nabateans? It is easier to define who they were not: they were definitely not an ethnic identity or a nation or state in the 19th-century concept. They defined themselves by tribe and family. They had a strong sense of personal freedom and considered themselves a society of free Arabs, for whom the king was primus inter pares – the first among equals. He ruled the city of Petra in the manner of a Hellenistic sovereign and remained at the same time the sheikh of the tribe, and indeed the majority of the people living in his realm were not Nabateans. On the other hand, Nabatean inscriptions have come to light in areas that were never part of the kingdom and date from a time when it no longer existed.
The few ancient authors who mention the Nabateans have partly or fully misunderstood the political, social, and economic “stratigraphy” of their society. A reliable source on Nabatean society is the 1st century BCE Greek scholar Diodorus Siculus, who, drawing from the writings of earlier historians, informs us of “.....Arabia. The land is situated between Syria and Egypt, and is divided among many peoples of diverse characteristics. Now the eastern parts are inhabited by Arabs, who bear the name of Nabateans and range over a country which is partly desert and partly waterless, though a small section of it is fruitful” (Bibliotheca II,48,1-2). On their way of life Diodorus says: “They are exceptionally fond of freedom...” (XIX,94,1). “Consequently the Arabs who inhabit this country, being difficult to overcome in war, remain always unenslaved; furthermore, they never at any time accept a man of another country as their overlord and continue to maintain their liberty unimpaired” (II,48,4). The Nabatean economy is also described: “Some of them raise camels, others sheep, pasturing them in the desert. While there are many Arabian tribes who use the desert as pasture, the Nabateans far surpass the others in wealth although they are not much more than ten thousand in number; for not a few of them are accustomed to bringing down to the sea frankincense and myrrh and the most valuable kind of spices, which they procure from those who convey them from what is called Arabia Eudaemon”, i.e. Arabia, the Blessed (XIX, 94, 4-5).
Considering the significant Nabatean economic and cultural impact, historical information from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE is rather meager. Apart from mention of Aretas, the first Nabatean king, in the Second Book of the Maccabees 5: 8-10 and in an inscription from Elusa (169 BCE), a continuous succession of rulers extends from 120/110 BCE until 106 CE, the year of the formation of Provincia Arabia. Territorial and administrative changes were introduced in the late third century CE under the emperor Diocletian and about a hundred years later Petra and the south of the province, as well as the Negev, became the nucleus of the Provincia Palaestina Tertia. In the 5th century CE, Christianity spread and many churches were constructed. On the basis of Nabatean names recorded in inscriptions and papyri, it appears that the autochthonic population did not change in the Byzantine period.
Trade Routes
In the 1st millennium BCE the burning of incense became part of daily life in the Mediterranean basin. Consumer demand for frankincense (called olibanum), used in ritual and medical practices, grew rapidly and prices soared to exceeding heights. The aromatic gum resin was obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia carterii, which grow in southern Arabia (Dhofar and Hadhramaut) and Somalia. From there it was transported by ship to the harbor of Qana and then by camel caravans northward to the Mediterranean coast and beyond. During the time of the Nabateans, their center and holy precinct of Petra served as a place of reloading, with one route crossing the Negev to the port of Gaza and another leading through Damascus to Mesopotamia in the east and Phoenicia in the west. Gaza developed into a prosperous city, and already in the 3rd century BCE, when the Egyptian official Zenon visited the city, he encountered an officer in charge of the incense trade.
While frankincense was the main trading commodity, other aromatics and spices were also traded. Arabian balsam was used mainly in healing preparations and as an addition to incense; myrrh was an ingredient of perfumes, cosmetics, and medicines, and necessary for embalming; labdanum was used in perfumery. Indian, Chinese, and Oriental spices like pepper, cinnamon and cassia, cardamon and ginger were in great demand. Indigo, the blue dye obtained from plants of the genus Indigofera, may also have been imported, since the color occurs on textiles from Nabatean sites (see Shamir this volume). These commodities were brought by ship to the ports in southern Arabia from India and the Far East and transported overland to the Mediterranean by the Nabateans, who served as intermediaries.
The area of the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden with the Bab el-Mandeb passage, was controlled by the Sabeans, the inhabitants of one of the four main states of Arabia Felix, which emerged in the 8th century BCE along the south-north trade route running parallel to the Red Sea for a distance of some 200 km. This was the principal connection that came to be known as the “spice and incense route," yet it was only part of an extensive network of routes connecting the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. Another major route from Qana through the Wadi Hadhramaut and the Sabean capital of Shabwa led across the Arabian Peninsula and to the port of Gerrha on the Persian Gulf. The Nabateans gained control of the northern Arabian Desert, the Negev, and the Sinai Peninsula in the Persian period. Inscriptions provide evidence that Nabatean merchants traveled further west to the Aegean Islands (Delos, Cos) and reached the Bay of Naples (Puteoli, modern Pozzuoli), thus establishing trade connections with the Romans. The historian, Strabo (63 BCE-19 CE), visited Egypt at about the time when Augustus sent an expedition, under the command of the prefect Aelius Gallus, from Egypt to Arabia and Ethiopia (24 BCE). The aim of the Roman expedition was to forcefully participate in the enormous trade profits enjoyed by the Arabs. The expedition failed, the Roman army suffered heavy casualties, and an unknown number perished in the desert of southern Arabia. The Romans held the Nabateans responsible and accused them of treacherous behavior. Nevertheless, the event heralded a shift in the incense and spice route towards Egypt, as reported by Strabo who mentions the old route through Petra as well as the new route via the west coast of the Red Sea and the Nile: “Now the loads of aromatics are conveyed from Leuke Kome to Petra, and thence to Rhinocolura, which is in Phoenicia near Egypt, and thence to the other peoples; but at the present time they are for the most part transported by the Nile to Alexandria; and they are landed from Arabia and India at Myos Hormos” (XVI,4,24). Eventually, the rerouting of the trade caused the decline of Nabatean economic prosperity, resulting in Roman occupation and annexation to the Provincia Arabia in the year 106 CE. By that time the Greek seafarer Hippalus had understood the system of the monsoon wind cycles and it became possible to sail from Egypt through the Red Sea to southern Arabia and India. This was the Roman opportunity to control transportation and trade and push the Nabateans aside.
Chronological Table (after Knauf 1997: 15)
312 BCE Petra (“the Rock”) is mentioned in Greek sources
169 King Aretas is mentioned in the Book of Maccabees and in an inscription from Elusa
The Nabatean kings
120/110-96 Aretas II
c. 96-85 Obodas I
85/84 Rabbel I
84-62/60 Aretas III
84-72 Aretas the Philhellene, King of Coile Syria
c. 96-85 Obodas I
62 Aretas, client of Rome
62-60 Obodas II (?)
60-30 Malichus I
30-9 Obodas III
9 BCE-40 CE Aretas IV
9 BCE-16 CE Huldu I, queen
9-6 BCE Syllaios, co-regent
16-40 CE Shaqilat I, queen
40-70 Malichus II
Shaqilat II, queen
70-106 Rabbel II
70-75 Shaqilat II, regent
76-101 Gamilat II, queen
102-106 Hagiru II, queen
106 Malichus III (?)
106 End of Nabatean kingdom and formation of Provincia Arabia