The Nabatean Kings


The fall of the kingdom of Judea was followed by the rise of the Nabateans beginning in the fourth century B.C.E. These traders traveled in caravans from Arabia and made their capital Petra, in what is now southern Jordan. They eventually controlled trade in perfumes and spices and built numerous fortresses along the branch of the Spice Route in the Negev Desert.


Aretas I

The first known Nabatean king. His name appears on the earliest Nabatean inscription discovered to date, a 168 BCE carving found in Halutza. He is also mentioned in 2 Maccabees 5:8. The passage relates that Jason, the high priest who established a

Hellenistic polis in Jerusalem, was held prisoner by Aretas I after being forced to leave the city.

Rabel I Aretas I's successor, whose reign began c. 140 BCE. His name is known from a statue dedicated to him in Petra.

Aretas II

Rabel I's successor. His reign began in 120 or I 10 BCE and he ruled until 96 BCE. Aretas 11 was a contemporary of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus, whose expansionist policies were a direct threat to the Nabatean kingdom.

Obodas (Avdat) I

Obodas I ascended the throne in 90 BCE and defeated Alexander Jannaeus in a battle on the Golan Heights-probably the key to the Nabatean return to the Negev. The town of Oboda (Avdat) was named for the victor, who was worshiped as a god even after his death.

Aretas III (87-62 BCE)

Hostilities between the Hasmoneans and the Nabateans came to a head with the rise to power of Aretas III. In 84 BCE he conquered Damascus. He later invaded the Hasmonean kingdom and defeated Alexander Jannaeus at Hadid (a few kilometers east of Ben-Gurion Airport). The latter retaliated by capturing Nabatean cities in Moab and attacking the Bashan and Gilead. Alexander was succeeded by his wife Shlomtzion; after her death, her sons Hyrcanus and Aristobolus fought over the throne, which the latter finally ascended.

Hyrcanus fled to Aretas III, with whom he forged an alliance. In 65 BCE the Nabatean army besieged Jerusalem, but its attack was to end the following year when the Romans appeared in the East. The two Hasmonean brothers took their case to Pompey, who sent Scaurus to Jerusalem to force a Nabatean retreat.

Obodas II

Obodas II's existence was uncertain for years, until an inscription recently found east of the Suez Canal confirmed it. He probably ruled for only a few months.

Malichus I (60-30 BCE)

Obodas II's son. In 40 BCE he helped the Parthians overrun Syria and Palestine. After the Romans expelled the Parthians in 34 BCE, they confiscated Malichus's date groves around Jericho and his Red Sea harbors. Herod also fought Malichus, defeating his army near Philadelphia (present-day Amman).

Obodas III (30-9 BCE)

This king's reign was an era of cultural flowering for the Nabatean kingdom. Under him, most of its temples were built, including that at Avdat. It was during his days that the Romans attempted to discover the sources of the perfume and spice trade.

Aretas IV (9 BCE-40 CE)

Aretas IV was the greatest of the Nabatean kings. During his reign, large religious centers-also serving as banks and clearinghouses-were established on the Hauran, in Petra, and at Avdat. Aretas's daughter married Herod Antipas, tetrarch of the Galilee. When Antipas took another wife, Herodias, Aretas's daughter returned to her father, who went to war against the Jewish tetrarch and defeated him. Antipas appealed to Emperor Tiberius, who dispatched the governor of Syria to attack Aretas. The episode was an important factor in the beheading of John the Baptist. Aretas is mentioned by Paul in connection with his visit to Damascus (2 Corinthians 11:32).

Malichus II (40-70 CE)

In Malichus's time, Nabatean trade dwindled as the Romans diverted the perfume and spice cargos to Egypt. Malichus sent 5,000 horsemen and 1,000 soldiers to help Titus quash the Jewish revolt.

Rabel II (70-105)

Rabel II was the last of the Nabatean kings; Emperor Trajan deemed his death the right moment to annex the Nabatean kingdom. On March 22, 105, it was incorporated into the new Roman province of Provincia Arabia.


Source: Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, Scented Cities: The Nabatean Negev, (Israel: Eretz ha-Tzvi, 1999)