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Nabateans traders traveled widely. They had contact with the civilizations of Europe, Egypt, Africa, Mesopotamia, Southern Yemen, Persia, India, and even places such as China. These connections opened doors to the greater world around them, fostering an impressive borrowing of advantageous lifestyle elements. Such extensive borrowing clouds the issue of which Nabataean cultural attributes are really “Nabataean” in origin. Certainly features were adopted, adapted, and innovated from things they saw in other locations. Regardless of the confusion, it is clear that the native abilities of the Nabataeans resulted in the creation of a unique mosaic of art, architecture, religion, and technology. In the face of Hellenistic and Roman influences, the Nabataeans maintained a high level of political independence and were freer than many neighboring societies to interpret outside elements in a distinctly Nabataean manner.

An appreciation of technological sophistication is evident in many aspects of Nabataean life such as architecture, ceramics, metallurgy, chemistry, mathematics, construction, water collection and distribution, shipbuilding, navigation and even toxicology. As they borrowed, adapted, and interpreted, they mastered many different skills and arts and thus created a unique Nabataean worldview and culture.

Water Catchment Systems

The Nabataeans greatest accomplishment was probably their system of water management. They developed a system to collect rainwater using water channels, pipes, and underground cisterns. Added to this, they developed very strong, waterproof cement, some of which is still in existence to this day.

They also developed sophisticated ceramic pipelines and reservoirs using gravity feeds (siphons or inverted siphons), that served the developing urban centers. Outside of the cities, dams closed off wadis to collect water during the rainy season, while stone circles or terraces retarded runoff from slopes and trapped valuable topsoil so that their irrigation lines could feed crops.

The well made reservoirs point to the fact that the Nabataeans must have been developing this skill during earlier years, perhaps back to the time of the Babylonians, or even the Assyrians. Perhaps they learned some of their skill from the people of southern Arabia, who were creating waterworks during the Iron Age.

Herodotus, when writing about the Nabataeans tells us, that he believed they could find water anywhere in the desert. He mentions that Cambyses used an Arab to bring him water in the desert as he moved his army against Egypt. The Nabataeans refused to tell the army where water came from, but they showed up at regular intervals in the desert, with their camels loaded with water skins, enabling the army to pass across the desert into Egypt. The Nabataeans made up a story by explaining that there was a wonderful river in the desert and that they used a water duct made of sewn ox-hides to transport the water over many miles. Herodotus thought that the story was not very credible. (History III.5, 7-9) What probably happened was that the Nabataeans, in exchange for financial return, simply supplied the army with water from their secret cisterns that were scattered along the caravan route; which would most likely be the route that the army took. By telling stories, however, they could keep their water sources secret and at the same time, profit handsomely, a typical Nabataean trait.

From the descriptions of Herodotus and Diodorus-Hieronymus, it seems that the Nabataeans had a well-developed water collection system in place as early as 600 BC.

Petra clay water conduit

Nabatean of Petra water clay conduit system

A part of the Siq, the only entrance to Petra. On the rock walls are still visible gabalus granted it the status of traces of the conduit which brought the precious water of Wadi Mousa right to the colony, in the early 3rd century.

Nabatean Pantheon

The Nabataeans represented their gods in the form of stelae. These stelae could take the form of rocks set upon end, blocks, or shapes carved into a stone wall, or elaborately carved square djin blocks set up at the entrance to their cities.

While the Nabataeans did not accord their gods with physical representations and include them in their art forms, they did enjoy art in a number of other forms: tomb facades, painted pottery, oil lamps, coins, and jewelry.

Nabatean god block found in temple in Petra Block God found in a temple at Petra

A cavern in perta filled with nabatean god blocks Cavern is filled with three God Blocks

Nabatean god block  in petra Block God near the Lion Monument in Petra


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