This book’s appearance and title are deceptive. It is in fact beautifully illustrated with the author’s photographs, but there the resemblance to a coffee table book ends. It is a serious popular history of the Nabateans, with good notes and bibliography. I suspect that the impetus for the rather “Harry Potter-ish” title came from the publisher, rather than the author, in the attempt to give the book more popular appeal.
This is not a guide book for Petra; there is in fact a just one chapter dealing specifically with Petra – in context with its role in the history of the Nabateans. After speculating on the origins of the Nabateans in the early part of the first millenium BCE, the narrative starts at the time of Alexander the Great and expands on the first documented accounts of the Nabateans – from Hieronymus of Cardia and the Zenon Papyri. The Nabateans’ transformation, during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, from nomads and spice traders into a kingdom controlling large parts of the Hejaz, much of what is now the Kingdom of Jordan, and the Negev westward to the Mediterranean can only be deduced from the contrast between the earliest accounts and the later archaeological and historical record. The first archaeological evidence comes from an inscription dated to 168 BCE found in Elusa (Halutsa) – just south west of Beersheba – one of the 6 cities that the Nabateans built in the Judean Negev. The role of the Nabateans in the subsequent history of the region – their various alliances and rivalries first with the Hasmonean rulers of Judea and then with Herod the Great and his successors – is well documented in the appocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, and in the writings of Josephus Flavius. For one more accustomed to seeing the Nabateans as “bit players” in the history of Judea, reading their history was a refreshing shift of perspective.
After maintaining its independence for more than 150 years after the rest of the Near East had become part of the Roman empire, the Nabatean kingdom was finally absorbed into the empire during the time of Trajan in 106 CE. It is not clear whether this happened peaceably or not; the author may not have used the most recent scholarly conclusion, that the military camp at Oboda (Avdat) is in fact Roman – not Nabatean, in citing it as evidence for the former. None the less, subsequent archeological and literary sources show the Nabateans as active citizens of the empire, and their capitals at Petra and Bostra soon became important Roman cities. The kingdom may have been “lost”, but the author recounts the history of the Nabateans through the Byzantine period and into early Muslim period; she even speculates on their possible survival into recent times as a tribe of Bedouins. For most people – among them, certainly this reader – this book will tell them everything they ever want to know about the Nabateans.