BMCR 2005.10.45

Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans

, Petra and the lost kingdom of the Nabataeans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. 224 pages : illustrations (chiefly color), maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 0674008499 $22.95.

The book was first published in the UK 2001, by I.B. Tauris. The 2002 edition by the Harvard UP indicates that the book was received with great enthusiasm by English readers. Since P. Hammond, The Nabataeans: Their History, Culture and Archaeology, Gothenberg 1973 (129 pp., 4 maps, no illustrations), and I. Browning, Petra, London 1974 (richer in illustrations, and popular), no book on this fascinating topic, addressed to the general audience rather than to the specialist, has been written for English readers.1 A. Negev, ‘The Nabateans and the Provincia Arabia’, in: Aufstieg und Niedergang des Römischen Welt (= ANRW II, 8. Band, Berlin and New York 1977, pp. 520-648, and his Nabatean Archaeology Today, New York 1986, were addressed to scholars; and so also J. Patrich, The Formation of Nabatean Art: Prohibition of a Graven Image among the Nabateans, The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem and E.J. Brill, Leiden 1990, which gives only a brief historical survey.

This is an excellent book for the intelligent reader seeking an introduction to this field. The author, a writer and a photographer, has done a fine job, reflecting her love of the subject matter. Her enthusiasm was shared by many — individuals and institutions, who assisted her in the field, in the editing process (and even in covering the publication costs; the richly illustrated book, printed on high quality paper, is quite inexpensive). JT is well acquainted with the sites, with scholars working there and their writings, and with the local people. Many scholars read and commented on individual chapters, or on the entire manuscript. She visited the sites, guided by locals, and often spoke or corresponded with the archaeologists in charge. All these guaranteed accuracy and timeliness. And indeed, both texts and photographs — of high quality and artistic spirit — portray the recent state of affairs and acquaintance with a variety of opinions.

The book has nine chapters, arranged in a chronological and thematic order, a short prelude on Alexander the Great and Frankincense (pp. 10-12), and an epilogue about the Nabataeans in the Islamic World (pp. 212-215). Then follow the notes, referring mainly to literary sources and to more recent works, a glossary, a chronological chart, select bibliography and a detailed and helpful index. Three maps — of the Valley of Petra (with useful labels), the Nabataean kingdom, and trade routes from the Arabian Peninsular to Rome — are included (pp. 6-7).

Since there is not a single book on Petra or on the Nabataeans in the BMCR archive, I thought it would be useful to integrate in the present review references to more recent books on the Nabataeans. Chapter 1: “They came from Arabia …” (pp. 13-28), deals with the origins of the Nabataeans, an ancient Arab people, their control of water, and of the northern section of the incense trade with the kingdoms of South Arabia, the people of Saba, Ma’in, Qataban and Hadhramaut. The question of origin is a debated issue,2 fairly mentioned in the book (p. 14). The survey on the kingdom of the south include illuminating aerial photos of the ‘Old City’ of Marib, the ancient capital of the Sabaean kingdom (p. 62), the Marib dam (pp. 20-21), Shabwa, capital of the incense growing kingdom of Hadhramaut, and of its harbor, Qana bay (pp. 24-25). The incense was drops of resin issued from local trees, Boswellia Sacra (illustrated in p. 18). Chapter 2: “… into a habitation of dragons” (pp. 29-42), deals with settlement in Edom, and the emergence of the Kingdom. Chapter 3: “Friends, Foes and Neighbours” (pp. 43-58), examines the relations with Egypt, Syria and Judaea,3 and chapter 4: “Days of Glory, days of Dust,” (pp. 59-78), covers the period from independence to Roman annexation in 106 CE. The historical narrative in these three chapters, with references to the principal Greek sources — Diodorus of Sicily, Strabo of Amasea, Flavius Josephus, Pompeius Trogus and Uranius — follows basically the excellent synthesis of G. Bowersock, Roman Arabia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1983. But the chronological list of kings (p. 219), correctly assigns to Obodas II (whose existence is suggested by the coins) the regal years 62-59. This new chronology was derived from a Nabataean inscription found in Egypt and published only 5 years later.4

Chapter 5: “The Miracle of Petra” (pp. 79-120), narrates the development of the capital. Enormous archaeological work has taken place at the site in the last twenty years, mainly in expeditions from the USA, France, and Swiss-Liechtenstein, in cooperation with the Department of Antiquities of Jordan. The fast advance5 may make some observations in any book on archaeological finds obsolete, but the description of the major structures in Petra center included in the book are still relevant: the colonnaded street and the arched gate, Qasr al-Bint,6 the Temple of the Winged Lions, the theater, the so-called “Great Temple”7 with the adjacent complex of garden with an island pavilion set inside a pool, and the houses of ez-Zantur.8 The author does mention different opinions about the interpretation of the “Great Temple”, a royal audience hall converted to an odeum-like bouleterion according to many scholars, rightly I think. The tomb facades, especially the most elaborate among them, the Khazneh, and ed-Deir, are also described in this chapter.9 The order is both geographical, from the Siq10 to the city center, and thematic, temples, dwellings, tombs. In this chapter, perhaps more than in previous ones, the superb photographs are a welcome supplement. Plans, and cross-sections of the structures described, would have been useful as well.

Chapter 6: “The delicate magic of life” (pp. 121-146), is devoted to the Nabataean gods and places of worship other than the temples dealt with earlier.11 The gods were mostly represented as standing stones — betyls, but anthropological representations are known as well.12 Among the deities venerated by the Nabataeans Ba’al-Shamin, the lord of Heaven is included, and rightly so. He had a principal temple in Si’a in the Hauran. Since first being surveyed by H.C. Butler early in the 20th c., many English speaking scholars had erroneously conceived this site to be Nabataean, and that an adjacent temple was dedicated to Dushara — the supreme Nabataean god. This concept faced objections by J. Starcky, E. Will, and the French team headed by J.M. Dentzer who had worked there for years.13 JT is careful here (pp. 134-35) to avoid such confusion. She correctly comments that the alleged temple of Dushara was actually dedicated to Seia — the local Tyche.14 One can speak about certain Nabataean influence, but refrain from conceiving the art of the Hauran as Nabataean.

Chapter 7 (pp. 147-172), is devoted to the language, which was Arabic for daily use and Aramaic for official correspondence, to the script, which was a variant known as Nabataean of the Aramaic script, and to graffiti, which are generally accompanied with petroglyphs.15 The Nabataean inscriptions are abundant mainly in Sinai, and numerous burial inscriptions were found in Hegra/ Mada’in Salih,16 the Southern outpost of the Nabataeans, in present Saudi Arabia. Fewer came from Petra. North Arabian “Thamudic” graffiti, reflecting other North Arabian tribes, who held nomadic life, were common in the Nabataean realm.

Chapter 8 (pp. 173-190), is devoted to Babatha, a Jewish woman of Mahoza, a settlement on the southern end of the Dead Sea. Her archive was found in a Cave of the Letters, in Nahal Hever, near Ein Gedi, where she fled with other members of her family, seeking refuge during the Bar Kokhba revolt. In these letters there are references to transactions and legal contracts with Nabataeans. One of her orchards adjoined a grove of king Rabel II. It is also said that copies of certain documents were deposited for display in the Aphrodiseion of Petra, presumably the Temple of the Winged Lions. The city council mentioned in some of the papyri seems to have convened in the odeum-like bouleterion mentioned above. The Roman governor held assizes in Petra. In this chapter, more than in the others, JT’s qualities as a writer are evident, depicting a vivid picture of the life, loves and litigations of this woman. It is written not as an historical narrative but more as lively reportage or a novel.

Chapter 9: “Afterglow of Empire” (pp. 191-111), deals with the Nabataeans and Christianity in the Byzantine era, as expressed in the Negev sites, mainly Oboda, Sobota and Kurnub/Mampsis, with their Late Antique dwellings, stables and churches. In recent years churches were excavated also in Petra, the largest decorated with magnificent mosaic floors.17 Here an archive of non-literary papyri was found. In spite being burnt, a significant number of documents were restored.18

The glossary (pp. 218-19) of terms of architecture and art, and some Arabic words, will serve the amateur well. The chronological chart refers also to historical events in the Greco-Roman world and in Judaea, and the select bibliography, skillfully selected, will assist further reading.

The book, skillfully written, richly illustrated, and reasonably priced, will serve well its purpose to promote updated knowledge of a fascinating ancient Arab culture beyond the limited circle of professional scholars. The author and the publishers should be congratulated for this achievement.


1. Also available for the English reader is the useful pocket-size booklet, written by two French archaeologists and translated: Ch. Augé and J.-M. Dentzer, Petra — Lost City of the Ancient World, Discoveries (tr. from the Fr. 1999 edition by L. Hirsch and D. Baker), Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers 2000. This is not the place to provide an exhaustive list, but it should be noted that there are also some more general or album-like English publications. A more updated collection of 22 essays written by experts is: G. Markoe (ed.), Petra Rediscovered: The Lost City of the Nabataeans, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York 2003. (Actually it has two parts, one on the Nabataeans in general [pp. 19-111], and the second on Petra [pp. 112-261].) German readers got several years earlier T. Weber & R. Wenning (eds.), Petra. Antike Felsstadt zwischen arabischer Tradition und griechischer Norm (Zabern Bildbände zur Archäologie, Sonderhefte der Antike Welt), Phillip von Zabern, Mainz 1997, in a slightly larger format, and similarly well illustrated, with 14 chapters written by different scholars, updated on the more recent archaeological work. In the same series, but more narrow in its subject, is the more recent E. Netzer, Nabatäische Architektur (Zabern Bildbände zur Archäologie, Sonderbände der Antike Welt), Phillip von Zabern, Mainz 2003, an excellent study, with several suggestive ideas on Nabataean architecture.

2. J.T. Milik, ‘Origines des Nabateens’, Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan I, Amman 1982, pp. 261-65; Y. Eph’al, The Ancient Arabs. Nomads on the Borders of the Fertile Crescent 9th-5th Centuries B.C., Jerusalem 1982, pp. 221-27; E.A. Knauf, “Nabataean Origins,” in: M.M. Ibrahim (ed.), Arabian Studies in Honour of Mahmoud Ghul. Symposium at Yarmouk University. December 8-11, 1984. Wiesbaden 1989, pp. 56-61; J.R. Bartlett, “Fom Edomites to Nabataeans: The Problem of Continuity.” Aram Periodical 2 (1990), pp. 25-34; D. Graf, ‘The Origin of the Nabataeans’, Aram Periodical 2 (1990), pp. 45-75; J. Retsö, “Nabataean Origins — once again.” PSAS 29 (1999), pp. 115-118.

3. Here, on p. 56, we find a 13th c. relief depicting the massacre of the innocents. There are some similar anachronistic illustrations (pp. 52 and 57) that could have been left out.

4. R.N. Jones, et al., “A Second Nabataean Inscription from Tell esh-Shuqafiya, Egypt”, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 269 (1988), pp. 47-59; Z.T. Fiema and R.N. Jones, ‘The Nabataean King-List Revised: Further Observations on the Second Nabataean Inscription from Tell esh-Shuqafiya, Egypt’, ADAJ 34 (1990), pp. 239-248.

5. For an update of the most recent excavations in Petra center see: Markoe, supra, note 1, and the various articles in: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 324 (2001), pp. 1-112; Petra. A Royal City Unearthed, Near Eastern Archaeology 65/4 (2002).

6. See now the final architectural report: F. Zayadine, F. Larché and J. Dentzer-Feydy, Le Qasr al-Bint de Petra. L’architecture, le décor, la chronologie et les dieux. Édition Recherche sur les Civilisations, Paris 2003.

7. There are many preliminary reports about this impressive structure. Here we’ll mention just M.S. Joukowsky, Petra Great Temple, Vol. 1, Rhode Island 1998, pp. 226-231 and 268-273. The results of more recent works are to be found in Markoe, supra, note 1, and infra, note 8.

8. On the dwellings in areas I-III of ez-Zantur see the final reports: A. Bignasca et al., Petra, Ez Zantur I: Ergebnisse der schweizerisch-liechtensteinischen Ausgrabungen 1988-1992. [Terra Archaeologica II]. Mainz: Philip von Zabern 1996. S. G. Schmid and B. Kolb, Petra, Ez Zantur II: Ergebnisse der schweizerisch-liechtensteinischen Ausgrabungen. [Terra Archaeologica IV]. Mainz: Philip von Zabern 2000, Teil 2. A useful summery, including the remains of the more elaborate mansion in area IV is given by B. Kolb in chapter 20 of Markoe, supra, note 1, pp. 230-238.

9. The best study on the architecture of the tombs facades and their association with Alexandrian architecture and the frescoes of the Pompeian Second Style is: Judith McKenzie, The Architecture of Petra [British Academy Monographs in Archaeology #1]. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1990. Penetrating suggestions about the chronological-typological development of the various types are given by Netzer, supra, note 1, Abb. 53 and 54.

10. The most updated report on the archaeological work in the Siq and its hydrological system, in conjunction with restoration works carried on there is: U. Bellwald et al., The Petra Siq. Nabataean Archaeology Uncovered, Petra National Trust 2003.

11. The best study on the Nabataean religion, published contemporarily with the book under review is: J.F. Healey, The Religion of the Nabataeans. A Conspectus, Leiden 2001. On the intriguing issue of the alleged relationship between the supreme Nabataean god Dushara and Dionysos see now: J. Patrich, “Was Dionysos, the Wine God, Venerated by the Nabataeans?” Aram Periodical 17 (2005), pp. 95-113.

12. On this topic see Patrich, supra, note 1, pp. 50-113; R. Wenning, “The Betyls of Petra,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 324 (2001) 79-95.

13. J.M. Dentzer (ed.), Hauran I. Recherches archéologiques sur la Syrie du Sud à l’époque hellénistique et romaine [Bibliothèque archéologique et historique 124], 2 vols., Paris 1985; Jacqueline Dentzer-Feydy, Jean-Marie Dentzer, Pierre-Marie Blanc (eds.) Hauran II. Les installations de Si’ 8: Du sanctuaire à l’établissement viticole. Beyrouth, Institut franais d’archéologie du Proche-Orient, 2003.

14. On this important observation, ignored by so many, see J. Dentzer, ‘A propos du temple dit de ‘Dusares’ à Si”, Syria 56 (1979), pp. 325-332. A reference would have been in place here.

15. See now the useful survey of M.C.A. Macdonald, “Languages, Scripts, and the Uses of Writing among the Nabataeans,” in: Markoe, supra, note 1, pp. 37-56, with farther references.

16. J. Healey, The Mada’in Salih Tomb Inscriptions, Oxford 1993.

17. Z.T. Fiema et al., The Petra Church, Amman 2001.

18. J. Frösén, A. Arjava, M. Lehtinen (eds.), The Petra Papyri I, Amman 2002.