"Of dead kingdoms I recall the soul, sitting amid their ruins." ~Nathaniel Parker Willis
“There is a point on the road, whether approaching from north or south, at which, rounding a corner, travelers catch their first glimpse of the wild and grand mountains at whose heart lies the hidden capital of the ancient Nabataeans.”…”Here, amid extravagant forms of nature, they created some of the most prodigious works of man that were in perfect harmony with their setting. It is the interplay between nature and art - each extraordinary in its own right - that gives Petra its special magic” (Taylor 2001: 80).
There is a long, narrow canyon in Petra called the Siq. Passing through it, tourists behold the most iconic structure in the ancient city: The treasury, Al-Khazneh - which is actually a mausoleum. It was built at the beginning of the 1st century AD during the reign of King Aretas IV. If one were to look only at this Neo-corinthian mausoleum, the Nabataeans appear extremely Hellenized- firmly plugged into the broader Greco-Roman, mediterranean world. We can see the Dioscuri, the twin gods Castor and Pollux, who guided the souls of the dead to the Elysian Fields, carved into each side of the lower order. Above them, on the upper order, we can see Amazons wielding axes, beside winged victories, and above them all, at the top of the facade, a female figure, accompanied by motifs associated with the Greek goddess Tyche, as well as the Egyptian goddess Isis. This figure could also be associated with Aphrodite, and the Nabataean goddess al-‘Uzza (Taylor 2001: 91-92).
Such cosmopolitan influences recur across Petra’s monuments. An amphitheater can be found not far from Al-Khazneh, conforming to Vitruvian standards for the design of a Roman theatre. Even the figurative art itself found on many of these monuments is a departure from the largely abstract, non-figurative works made by the Nabataeans in earlier centuries. Take this relief carving. On the lower half, you can see a rectangular, abstract depiction of the Nabataean god Dushara. On the upper half, a human image of the Greek god Dionysus is carved. One half is traditionally Nabataean, the other is greco-roman. There are many distinctly Nabataean designs scattered among the melange of foreign motifs. For example, cultic niches filled with rectangular betyls representing Nabataean deities can be found around the city (Raymond 2008). And beyond the self-conscious public monuments of Petra, Nabataean houses are scattered haphazardly, ignoring the greco-roman pension for orderly, rectilinear city plans. “The residential areas on the contrary must have resembled a ‘petrified nomads’ camp’.” (Stucky 1995:197) Even in these houses, though, we can find the mediterranean influences. For instance, Pompeiian style wall murals appear, and many individual houses are laid out in the style of Roman villas.
The Nabataeans flourished for hundreds of years before Petra was built. Their origins remain mysterious. One theory suggests they were simply the descendants of an earlier people of ancient Jordan, the Edomites. According to another theory, they migrated West from the fringes of Mesopotamia, where ancient Arabic dialects were spoken during the Neo-Assyrian period. Another line of thinking suggests they originated in the northern portion of the Arabian peninsula (Raymond 2008). Whatever the case, by the late fourth century B.C., they had established themselves in southern Jordan, and over the next several centuries their trade connections and influence spiderwebbed across the region.
The earliest secure historical references to the Nabataeans describe a people used to a nomadic, pastoral way of life. Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the 1st century B.C. but passing on the experiences of Alexander’s officer Heironymus from 312 B.C., states that: “They range over a country which is partly desert and partly waterless”… “They live in the open air, claiming as native land a wilderness that has neither rivers nor abundant springs”… “Some of them raise camels, others sheep, pasturing them in the desert”… “Whenever a strong force of enemies comes near, they take refuge in the desert, using this as a fortress; for it lacks water and cannot be crossed by others, but to them alone, since they have prepared subterranean reservoirs lined with stucco, it furnished safety”…
Arabia was one of the primary arteries by which the ancient world traded incense - most notably frankincense and Myrrh, as well as balsam and laudanum. For millennia, aeromatics had flowed across the desert from as far away as India and the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula to supply the religious rituals of the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Persians, Parthians, Greeks, Romans, and others. Bitumen was also traded, used for embalming, and for waterproofing boats and pottery.
The terrain northwest of Petra was particularly rugged and dangerous for caravan travel as they were forced to make their way up from one of the lowest points on earth, the Arabah Valley south of the Dead Sea, to the Negev Highlands, over 800 m above sea level. To protect their trade routes, the Nabataeans built networks of cisterns, wells, and other water-works, and established garrisoned forts across the Negev Desert, where trade caravans could stop and resupply. For example, at Humeima, water was brought to a series of vaulted cisterns by way of almost 30km of covered channels drawing water down from springs in the Shara Mountains (Taylor, 2001: 51). At Orhan-Mor, the Nabataeans established a major stopping-point as early as the 3rd century B.C. (Bar-Oz et al. 2022). This site, like many, would be co-opted by the Romans when they annexed the region, who largely continued to work through the Nabataeans.
According to Pliny, as traders cross the Arabian Desert, “all along the tour they keep paying, at one place for water, at another for fodder, or the charges for lodging at the halts, and the various octrois [tolls]” (Pliny Natural History XII, 32, 63-65). Many of the caravansaries and supply depots of the Nabataean trade system have seen little excavation, though these might help us peer into the lives of this people, particularly during the murky, early centuries B.C..
Up in high wadis there are shrines and petroglyphs across Northern Arabia attesting to the presence of the Nabataeans (Corbett 2012). From the rock art and inscriptions scattered across the Sinai peninsula, we can see the variety of deities worshipped by them, and the other Arabic-speaking peoples of the region. The traditional Nabataean gods: Dushara, Al-Uzza, and al-Kutba feature frequently. So do many other gods. Allah, the supreme pre-islamic god of Northern Arabia features. So do El, Ba’al, and other Canaanite gods. Yahweh also features in these inscri ptions. In fact, many have pointed to the cultural variation we see in Nabataean rock art as an example of the pluralistic nature of their society.
“These examples demonstrate just how much social diversity existed in the Nabataean realm. Rather than the Nabataean royal god Dushara, a wide array of local traditional deities are attested from the Hawran to the Hijaz” (Graf 2004:150)
Based on such evidence researchers characterize the Nabataeans as a political framework created by various Arab groups, rather than as it’s own ethnic category.
As their wealth and influence grew, “the Nabataean kings had to present both themselves and their city as equal partners in the international community, which at the time meant adopting the styles, tastes and the mores of “western” Hellenistic civilization” (Corbett 2022). Their prosperity as an independent kingdom, however, didn’t last; in 106 A.D., the Romans annexed Nabataea. Its territories becoming the newly formed Province of Arabia. In some ways, then, the rise of the Nabataean kings and the construction of Petra seem like the beginning of the end, not a high point. Rather than understanding the Nabataeans through their relationship to the Greco-Roman world, maybe it’s better if we don’t think of them first for their monuments, kings, and coins. Maybe the heart of Nabataean civilization lies beyond Petra, in the desert.
Bar-Oz, G., Galili, R., Fuks, D., Erickson-Gini, T., Tepper, Y., Shamir, N., & Avni, G. (2022). Caravanserai middens on desert roads: A new perspective on the Nabataean–Roman trade network across the Negev. Antiquity, 96(387), 592-610. doi:10.15184/aqy.2022.40
Corbett, G. J. (2012). Desert traces: Tracking the Nabataeans in Jordan's Wādī Ramm. Near Eastern Archaeology, 75(4), 208–219. https://doi.org/10.5615/neareastarch.75.4.0208
Corbett, G. J. (2022, November 7). Solving the enigma of Petra and the Nabataeans. Biblical Archaeology Society. Retrieved December 23, 2022, from https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-near-eastern-world/solving-the-enigma-of-petra-and-the-nabataeans/
Graf, D. F. (2004). Nabataean Identity and Ethnicity : the Epigraphic Perspective. In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan (Vol. 8, pp. 145–155). essay.
Raymond, H. A. (2008). Cultic Niches in the Nabataean Landscape: A Study in the Orientation, Facade Ornamentation, Sanctuary Organization, and Function of Nabataean Cultic Niches (Order No. 28110109). Available from ProQuest One Academic.(2535877017).https://www.libproxy.uwyo.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/cultic-niches-nabataean-landscape-study/docview/2535877017/se-2
Stucky, R. A. (1995). The Nabataean House and the Urbanistic System of the Habitation Quarters in Petra. In Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan (Vol. 5, pp. 193–198). essay.
Taylor, J. (2001). Petra and the lost kingdom of the Nabataeans. I. B. Tauris.
Diodorus of Sicily, 12 vols., Loeb Classical Library, 1933—1967
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 10 vols., Loeb Classical Library, 1938—1962.
However many nations live in the world today, however many countless people, they all had but one dawn." ~Anonymous, Popul Vuh
Every step you take has already been taken. Every story has already been told. The land is not newly discovered, so old with legends you might mistake them for rocks." ~Craig Childs
The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." ~Henri Bergson
Archaeologists may not always see the trees, but we capture the forest with great clarity" ~Robert Kelly
The past is never dead; it's not even past." ~William Faulkner
No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.” ~Douglas Preston
If you go into a museum and look at antiquities collected there, you can be sure that the vast bulk of them were found not in buildings but in graves." ~Leonard Woolley
Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.” ~Robert Macfarlane
We always stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them." ~David Anthony
That which always was, and is, and will be everliving fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away." ~Heraclitus
Shamanism is not simply a component of society: on the contrary, shamanism, together with its tiered cosmos, can be said to be the overall framework of society." ~David Lewis-Williams
Opened are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts." ~Utterance 220 of the Pyramid of Unas
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." ~Rudyard Kipling
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains." ~John Muir
The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time." ~Garrett Hardin
Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world." ~Iain McGillchrist
The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril." ~Niall Ferguson
Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." ~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared." ~Alfred Russel Wallace
Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences." ~Sebastian Junger
Except in geographical scale, tribal warfare could be and often was total war in every modern sense. Like states and empires, smaller societies can make a desolation and call it peace." ~Lawrence Keeley
The first people were aware of the signs and signals of the natural world. Their artifacts were projectiles, blades, and ivory sewing needles, either used on animal products, or made from them, or used to procure them. The world around them was a cycle of animals of all sizes, from voles and falcons to some of the largest mammals seen in human evolution." ~Craig Childs
The number of herbivores sets a cap on the number of carnivores that can live in a region. Of course, adding an additional predator of fairly large body size, like a modern human, would produce repercussions that would ripple though all the other predators in the area and their prey." ~Pat Shipman
When viewed globally, near-time extinctions took place episodically, in a pattern not correlated with climatic change or any known factor other than the spread of our species." ~Paul S. Martin
However splendid our languages and cultures, however rich and subtle our minds, however vast our creative powers, the mental process is the product of a brain shaped by the hammer of natural selection upon the anvil of nature."
Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion- and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow."
We are fire creatures from an ice age." ~Stephen Pyne
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified." ~Edward Abbey
Men and women, empires and cities, thrones, principalities, and powers, mountains, rivers, and unfathomed seas, worlds, spaces, and universes, all have their day, and all must go." ~H. Rider Haggard
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be- though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain- because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone." ~ Oswald Spengler
All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance."
In the long paleontological perspective, we humans must be considered invasive in any locale except Africa." ~Pat Shipman
Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy." ~Richard Francis Burton
Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its own lifespan and brings about its corruption." ~Ibn Khaldun
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." ~Gustav Mahler
As for man, his days are numbered. Whatever he might do, it is but wind." ~The Epic of Gilgamesh
There is a cave in the mind."
Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come." ~Joseph Campbell
I feel again a spark of that ancient flame." ~ Virgil
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." ~Clifford Geertz
In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." ~Carl Jung
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." ~Arab proverb
Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land." ~Hiram Bingham
You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things- to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." ~Edmund Hillary
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going into the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity." ~John Muir
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’." ~Lain McGillchrist
The Sphinx will always have to be looked after."
Yes, the pyramids have been built, but if you give me 300,000 disciplined men and 30 years I could build a bigger one."
Civilizations exist by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can get. The older she gets the more interested he is in her."
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been."
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain."
I have never been able to grasp the meaning of time. I don't believe it exists. I've felt this again and again, when alone and out in nature. On such occasions, time does not exist."
Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. "~Joseph Campbell
In my experience, it is rarer to find a really happy person in a circle of millionaires than among vagabonds."
Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs, and wooden shoes coming up."
Back home, I'm always focusing on something happening in the future. On expeditions, time stops, and you become like a stone age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are part of the universe."
Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
The Land is not old. It only changes, becoming one thing and the next. We are the ones who ascribe age, the brevity of our lives demanding a beginning, middle, and end."
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."
The only thing that belongs to us is the time."
To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way." ~Steven Rinella