Station: [12] The History of the Nabataeans

Nothing is known about the beginnings of Nabataean history. The "Nabataioi" were first mentioned by name shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, during the time when Alexander's generals fought over the succession to his empire. Demetrius of Macedon, nicknamed Poliorketes, the Besieger, conquered the city of Petra in 312 BC. The region had previously existed on the fringes of the then international political stage, but he was aware of its economic resources.

The Nabataeans negotiated, paid tribute and provided hostages, and thus managed to avoid being occupied by Demetrius. Nevertheless, greedy eyes were turned on the region. The Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria and Mesopotamia had taken note of the seemingly inhospitable Nabataean territory.

But the Nabataeans were skilled negotiators and even achieved some military successes. That allowed them to maintain their independence for another four centuries. At the height of the Nabataeans’ power, their sphere of influence extended from Damascus in the north to Hegra in present-day Saudi Arabia.

The turning point came with the decline of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Rome entered the scene and tried to take advantage of the tensions in Syria. On his expedition to the east, Pompey dispatched one of his generals into Nabataean territory to conquer it for Rome. But the Nabataeans managed to come to an agreement with the Romans. By paying the enormous sum of 300 talents in tribute, they were able to avoid Roman occupation. 300 talents was the equivalent of more than 8,000 kilograms or eight metric tons of pure silver!

But that confrontation had weakened the Nabataeans. Over the next 150 years, they struggled to maintain a fragile peace with Rome. When the Roman Empire again expanded under Emperor Trajan, it proved the end of Nabataean independence. In 106 AD, the governor of Syria turned Nabataea into a Roman province and called it Arabia. So the first, and longest surviving, pre-Islamic state in Arabia didn’t come to an end with a bang, following a major campaign, but with a whisper – by incorporation into the Roman Empire, an event that barely registered in the historical sources.