The Nabatean people who founded Petra are described as a pre-Islamic Arab people. Centrally located on the spice trade routes, they achieved fabulous wealth and settled in the city of Petra.

A recent documentary I viewed on this topic explored the methods used for creating the beautiful sculptures, gigantic building facades carved into the sandstone, combining motifs from Babylonian, Greek and Roman architectural traditions. The execution was, however, unique to Petra, being cut sequentially out of the rock itself, top to bottom.

It was mentioned that the Nabateans originated as a Bedouin people. There are many skills associated with Bedouin life - survival and thriving in a harsh environment, openness and hospitality, terrific warrior skills - but monumental sculpture would not be one I would expect.

Is anyone aware of any study on how this came about in Petra? Did they appropriate workers from different parts of the world to execute these wonders? Did the skill evolve among the Nabateans themselves? Is there anything in the archeological record that would point to this development? E.g., small sculptures, tomb sites, etc.


The Nabateans had given up the nomadic life long before the construction of the most famous buildings at Petra, such as the Treasury in the 1st century AD. Petra had been the Nabatean capital for around 400 years at this point, and the Nabateans had been Hellenized since 150 BC--they were even ruled by kings with names like Aretas III Philhellene. By the time the most distinctive buildings in Petra were constructed, the Nabateans were a powerful, Hellenized kingdom caught up in a geopolitical struggle with Herod Antipas and the Emperor Tiberius.

There is archaeological evidence for several centuries of Nabatean architecture before the famous buildings of Petra. For example, Avdat was founded by the Nabateans in the 3rd century BC, and there is evidence of a large acropolis there. Mamshit (1st century BC) is a small city, but particularly well-preserved and has evidence of luxurious architecture. Another site with "characteristic Nabatean rock-cut architecture" can be found in Mada'in Saleh. The UNESCO report on this site notes the presence of 111 monumental tombs. The presence of Nabatean craftsmen is implied by the inscriptions in the Nabatean language on 30 of these monuments. The report further states that:

the site was worked on by the Nabataeans from the 1st century BCE and probably from even earlier.

The UNESCO report mentions two other archaeological sites deeper in Saudi Arabia that display the typically Nabatean rock-cut architecture. Basically, there is plenty of archaeological evidence that the Nabateans had the resources and craftsmanship to construct cities like Petra while relying largely on their own resources.

Despite the wealth and importance of the Nabateans, we apparently don't know much about their society. Much of what we know about older Nabatean culture comes from Strabo. This little knowledge suggests that the Nabateans did much of their construction on their own:

We still know comparatively little about Nabatean society. However, we do know that they spoke a dialect of Arabic and later on adopted Aramaic. Much of what is now known about Nabatean culture comes from the writings of the Roman scholar Strabo. He recorded that their community was governed by a royal family, although a strong spirit of democracy prevailed. According to him there were no slaves in Nabatean society, and all members shared in work duties. The Nabateans worshipped a pantheon of deities, chief among which were the sun god Dushara and the goddess Allat. (source)

Update: @TylerDurden suggested the Smithsonian as a source. This article seems to support native Nabatean craftsmanship. For example:

By the second century B.C., Nabateans dominated the incense trade from southern Arabia. Within several decades, they had assembled a mercantile empire stretching for hundreds of miles. The people who a few generations earlier had been nomads were now producing eggshell-thin pottery, among the finest in the ancient world, as well as grand architecture. . . .

Accustomed to tents, the early Nabateans had no significant building traditions, so with their sudden disposable income they drew on styles ranging from Greek to Egyptian to Mesopotamian to Indian—hence the columns at the Great Temple topped with Asian elephant heads. "They borrowed from everybody" . . .

One of Petra's mysteries is why the Nabateans plowed so much of their wealth into carving their remarkable facades and caves, which lasted long after the city's free-standing buildings collapsed from earthquakes and neglect. The soft stone cliffs made it possible to hollow out caves and sculpt elaborate porticoes, which the Nabateans painted, presumably in garish colors . . .

At its peak, Petra's population was about 30,000, an astonishing density made possible in the arid climate by clever engineering. Petrans carved channels through solid rock, gathering winter rains into hundreds of vast cisterns for use in the dry summers.

  • Many thanks, Mr. Sheds. Spot on what I was looking for. – memphisslim Feb 24 '15 at 18:38
  • Glad that it helped! By the way, feel no pressure to accept my answer right away. Someone else may yet come by with better information than I have. – two sheds Feb 24 '15 at 18:39
  • No pressure. I see all points covered with authoritative citations. – memphisslim Feb 24 '15 at 18:56

Petra was built at a time when the Alexandrian empire was in operation and the Antigonid Dynasty was in power in that area. The southern part of that empire was nearly waterless desert and occupied by nomadic tribes, some of whom were known as Nabataeans. Apparently they formed an alliance with the Antigonids that allowed them to prosper and benefit by the trade with lower Arabia.

The architectural style of Petra is Macedonian Greek with Persian elements. It is likely that the Greeks furnished the Nabataeans with craftsmen and workmen may be have come from diverse places within the empire, especially from Egypt. Certain aspects of the Petra architecture, such as the extensive use of pillasters, is very typical of late Egyptian craftsmanship. Also, note that the Egyptians were very expert at the type of solid sandstone excavations such as those at Petra.

As you surmise in your question, it would seem likely that the wealth of the Nabataeans allowed them to hire the best workers and architects from around the entire Macedonian empire to help build their city. Note that most of it was built at the same time, so it was essentially one gigantic project.

  • Yes, important to include the Egyptian element in this remarkable hybrid. Thanks, Mr. Duden for this additional information. – memphisslim Feb 24 '15 at 20:27
  • I agree there's a Greek influence on Petra, and I know that the city had been settled around 300 BC, but the monumental architecture seems to date to the Roman era. Why do you think the Macedonian Empire was involved? – two sheds Feb 24 '15 at 21:02
  • @twosheds The overall tone of the architecture is clearly Ptolemaic and also we know that the economic heyday of the city was during the Antigonid dynasty. Both facts argue for the building to have been occurring approximately 300 B.C. Of course, since there are no inscriptions, it is hard to confirm this. – Tyler Durden Feb 24 '15 at 21:19
  • I see. I'm still inclined to a later date for their construction. Wiki doesn't date the city's decline until the 2nd century AD. And archaeologists have used inscriptions at other Nabatean sites with similar architecture to date these buildings to the Roman era. – two sheds Feb 24 '15 at 21:26
  • @twosheds The Smithsonian apparently says between 100 BC and 100 AD. – Tyler Durden Feb 24 '15 at 22:07

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