The Nabateans were probably originally Bedouin tribes from the Arabian Peninsula who migrated north to the Negev desert.  As trade between the Greek Hellenist Empire and the east increased in the third century BCE they established network of settlements and oases through the desert to facilitate the ever growing numbers of caravans traversing the area.

These caravans were loaded with spices and silk, incense and perfumes, gold, iron and copper, ivory and exotic animals from India, China and the Far East. By the second century BCE these tribes united and established a Nabatean kingdom encompassing the entire desert area. Aretas, the first king, is mentioned in II Mac 5:8 and over the next century the Nabateans and the Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea were in constant conflict.

Throughout the rule of King Herod in Judea, the Nabatean Kingdom flourished, although vassal to Rome. The caravans unloaded their ware at the new port of Caesarea and both Kingdoms prospered and benefitted from the levies and taxes imposed.

With the death of Herod this came to an end as Rome began to import the wares directly from the east thereby decreasing the volume of caravans crossing the desert and the use of the port of Caesarea. By the beginning of the second century the Nabatean kingdom was incorporated into the new Roman province of Provincia Arabia alongside Provincia Palaestina, formerly Judea.

To provide for the needs of the Roman soldiers in the new province the Nabatean oases now became well provided way-stations. Highly developed run-off rain water collection turned such places as Nitzana, Avdat, Mamshit, Shivta, Nitzana and Halutza into lucrative agricultural settlements growing wheat and grapes. Grape presses revealed in archeological excavation indicate a wine production.

In the fourth century, as Christianity spreads through the Roman Empire the pagan temples were converted to churches, also revealed in the archeological excavations. Both Mamshit and Avdat are National Parks and the excavations are open to the public.

The best known Nabatean site is undoubtedly Petra. Situated in Jordan, Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom. This remarkable city is carved into the red rock. The facades of the buildings fascinate the visitors as they walk through the narrow ravine.

The Nabatean towns cease to exist after the Moslem conquest in the seventh century.  Wine was forbidden so the grapevines were destroyed. Agriculture was not part of the culture of the conquering Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula so the farming ceased. Desert sands covered the largely forgotten Nabatean cities until they were uncovered in the twentieth century by the archaeologists’ spades.

Text content copyrights: Bein Harim Ltd., Beryl Ratzer (

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