Who made the desert bloom?

A kingdom that flourished in the Southern parts of Palestine (the Negev) and Jordan (Karak, Madaba, and Petra) and left an indelible mark is that of the Nabateans.  The Jerusalem Post put it thus on January 4, 2001:

“Avdat, as the largest Nabatean center in the Negev, symbolizes the huge, rugged niche they carved for themselves here. They resisted conquest from several regimes before becoming part of the Roman Empire by conquest (in 106 CE). They adapted themselves to shifting conditions over several hundred years, changing their whole way of living when needed. They created a network of fantastic, advanced, agricultural installations that made the desert bloom with gardens, field crops and vineyards. They managed to control major trade routes and set the pace and price for merchandise, taxes and tariffs while coping with much larger and stronger kingdoms.  They hewed a city out of solid rock [their capital Petra] and designed incredibly delicate, ornate pottery.  And then they disappeared as an independent kingdom, culture and people.”

Ofcourse history does tell us who the Nabateans are, how they “made the desert bloom with gardens, field crops and vineyards,” and what happened to them (they certainly did not disappear as a people).  Good summaries are found in Nelson Glueck’s “Deities and Dolphins: The Story of the Nabataeans” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Incorporated, 1965) and Philip C. Hammond’s “The Nabataeans: Their History, Culture & Archaeology” Coronet Books 1973).  Here is the rest of the story.

Nabateans were a peaceful people who were situated in a position between other Kingdoms and tribes and prospered on farming, herding, and trading (everything from spices to cloths to animals and to minerals). Their Kingdom and their buildings boomed especially between 300 BC and 100-150 AD. During the 3rd century BC, the Nabateans built their first four cities in the Negev (Avdat, Shivta, Halutza and Nitzana) along the path of the trade route that crossed the desert to what is today Gaza. Their tribes of Saba where the ones who first settled in what became later Beer Saba’ in Arabic or Beersheva in Hebrew (Beer means well in both languages). Their capital Petra (now in Southern Jordan) is a marvel of human construction and engineering. The port city of “Elath” (Eilat) in Southern Palestine (now Israel) is Arabic Nabatean from Al-latt (a pagan Arabic goddess mentioned in the Qur’an). Nabateans are also mentioned in connection with new testament events:  King herod spurns the daughter of the Arab Nabatean king Aretas (Al-Harith), Queen Zenobia (Zannuba, Zaynab), her husband Odenatus (‘Udhayna(t)), son Vaballatus (i.e. wwahbullatt; again from al-latt).

Their farming techniques were so advanced and were critical to allowing them to establish and protect trade routs across the deserts.  Scholars believe it was the first true farming of desert areas (they constructed dams in dry Wadi systems to capture flash flooding etc.). Nabateans also settled in the Negev and actually “made the desert bloom” roughly during roman times.

The Nabateans merged their own Semitic Arabic dialect with the closely related Aramaic.  According to Jean Starcky the reasons for this adaptation is that “This Aramaic [later Syriac] language was indeed the lingua franca chosen by the Persians [to communicate with the Western part of their vast empire]” (“The Nabateans: A Historical Sketch” in The Biblical Archaeologist Volume XVIII December 1955). Evolution of the Aramaic script by these Nabateans was the first recorded Arabic writing (Beatrice Gruendler “Development of the Arabic Scripts: From the Nabatean Era to the First Islamic Century according to Dated Texts” Scholars Press, 1993). The ‘imrulqays inscription in Nabatean script is the earliest recognizable classic Arabic script. It is also thought that John the Babtist mentioned in the new Testament was one of those Arab/Nabatean people.  Some went as far as arguing that the Romans executed him fearing a Jewish-Arab alliance in a time (around 30 AD) of strong anti-Roman revolts.

Nabatea became a prosperous Roman province. The area remained under Roman rule for until it was conquered by the Byzantines who ruled it for almost 4 centuries (from 300 A.D. to 634 A.D.). The inhabitants converted to Christianity building some of the first examples of churches including beautifully decorated (mosaic floors for example) ones at Madaba, Siyaghah, Ma’in, Amman Citadel, Jerash, Rihab, Umm el-Jimal, Umm Qais, Tabqat Fahl, Dhiban and Umm er-Risas. Many churches were plundered during the Persian attacks between 614-629 A.D.. The locals were thus most receptive to the advent of Islam in the sixth century as a stabilizing force and while many converted, a large portions of tham retained Byzantine Christianity especially around Madaba and Karak (now in Jordan) and around Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala (now in Palestine). Movement by inhabitants between these areas of Nabatea was recorded as late as the 17th and 18th century (e.g. families in Beit Sahour who come from the South and East parts of Nabatea and families in Karak who come from the Negev).  This suggests a cohesiveness of the community even into the 18th century. The farming and trading methods (including wells and dams in Wadis, knowledge of local fauna and flora, goat and sheep husbandry, camel and donkey caravans) continue to this date among the Arabic Nabateans in the Negev and in Jordan.  Over 40 of their places of residence (housing some 15,000 people with Israeli citizenship) are on the list of “unrecognized villages” in the state of Israel.  But that is another story.

(Dr. Mazin B. Qumsiyeh is Chair of the Media Committee, The Palestine Right to Return Coalition)

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