Where did the Petra we visit come from?
We are on more solid ground searching for the Nabateans when we look at the geopolitics of the Old Testament Iron Age (1st M BCE). The world of Israel, Judah, Ammon, Moab and Edom. The southern borders of Edom would have been the interface where nomadic Nabateans met the settled Iron Age Holy land. Petra proper, and several other strategic sites in the area, were initially Edomite settlements. The relationship between Edom and the Nabateans seems to have been more peaceable than with its immediate western neighbours (‘Over Edom I will cast out my shoe’ Psalm 60).
The 6th century BCE Babylonian sack of Jerusalem allowed Edomites, who might well have allied themselves with Nebuchadnezzar, to move west and control more of the areas where the hugely lucrative Arabian trade routes cut through the Negev desert fringe to the Mediterranean. The origin of this trade was increasingly controlled by the Nabateans.
Babylonian rule disintegrated Edomite influence over her old southern border, and by the 4th century BCE Nabateans controlled Petra - making it a safe, mountain top, well-watered depot at the end of their strenuous desert crossings. Its new name was Rakmu.
As Hellenism replaced the power of Persia as the regional controlling force in the 4th century BCE, and itself started to fragment in the 3rd century, it was then the Kingdom of Petra was carved out, and the city built from the living sandstone. Imagine, just about everything we see in Petra was created in less than 200 years.
What were the factors driving this change? Income and a chance to increase regional power and therefore increase income was perhaps among the most significant.
There are several observations on Nabateans running through classical authors accounts, and here we need to add Josephus, a contemporary source. Still seen as the ‘other’ by the Hellenised and Roman east, a few Nabatean practices strike our sources as odd. Burial customs and hearsay talk on male and female relationships for example.
Descriptions of the structure of the elite, for instance, tell that the ‘King’ served his guests (something that is entirely acceptable, even required, for the honour of a host in today’s Bedu societies) but raises the Hellenistic eyebrow. This fits well with the traditional nomadic origins of the Nabateans themselves.
As the Nabateans absorbed more foreign influences, the hospitality and tribal structure aspect of their culture they kept. Other aspects they allowed to change.
All sources agree on one thing though, Nabatean business acumen was an essential trait, as was their keenness to increase wealth. Taking advantage of collapsing Seleucid control and the resulting chaos caused by the Maccabean revolt, Nabateans seized control of significant chunks of Jordan, southern Syria and Israel.
It was this that led to a massive reorganisation of Petra and a rapid increase in the complexity of the Nabatean socio-political, economic and cultural world. Petra grew into a permanent centre for administration and defence of this new kingdom, and the royal home of the Kings and Queens that headed it, during life, and after.