Most famously known for the exquisite remains of the rock-carved city of Petra, the Nabataeans were an Arabic people who inhabited Northern Arabia and the Southern Levant during antiquity. Prior to Trajan’s conquest of the region in 106 AD, the Nabataeans had been an autonomous people who had lived in the area since settling in the 4th century BC, formerly being a nomadic tribe prior to this date. Owing to the geographical location of their settlements, and their unchallenged knowledge of the rare and precious oases that scattered the region, the Nabataeans were in a lucrative position to control the trade routes heading west from India and China, and north from southern Arabia. In turn they became a wealthy and prosperous people who created a unique style of art that displayed this confluence of cultures.
Although there are certainly Hellenistic influences, Nabataean artistic production has a unique and visually identifiable form and character. As with most ancient cultures, Nabataean art served a primarily religious function, particularly the stone carvings and sculptures that were used to represent the different deities worshipped in the region. Having its roots in aniconic religious beliefs, early Nabataean art was however mostly floral and geometric in design, shunning the use of figurative images. Only in later Nabataean history, and especially under Roman rule, do we see a change from these themes of decoration.
By far the most significant of all Nabataean art was their fine ware ceramics, the defining feature of which is their “egg-shell” thin walls, a feature unique among the contemporary Hellenistic and Roman pottery production. Created on a fast spinning potter’s wheel, these ultra thin walls are a testament to the expertise of the Nabataean potters and their ability to make pottery of exceptionally high quality. The other significant feature is the local red clay from which the ceramics were made, giving the pottery a distinctive colour. On to this vibrant background, darker coloured floral and leaf designs were painted, the almost exclusive theme for Nabataean ceramic decoration. The golden age of this pottery production lasted from the beginning of the 1st century BC until the Roman occupation in 106 AD, after which there was a sharp decline in quality.
Well known to the Ancient Romans was the richness of the land in silver and gold that was inhabited by the Nabataeans, as mentioned by the geographer Strabo in the first century AD, and the abundance of theses materials allowed for large-scale production of jewellery in a variety of different forms. As a part of their religious beliefs, the Nabataeans would pierce their ears and noses so as to wear certain jewellery that would protect them from sickness, evil and bad luck. Similar to other societies, the display of jewellery, and the materials from which it was made, was also a sign of status and wealth. However, unlike many other contemporary civilisations, the jewellery of Nabataea is noticeably nonfigurative in form, relying more on techniques such as patination and filigree work.
Formed of both bronze and stone, a number of gods and goddesses are represented in the sculptural output of the Nabataeans, not only deities of local origin, but also some of Greek, Roman or Middle Eastern origin, such as Tyche and Dionysius. It is this form of early Nabataean art that shows the clearest Hellenistic influence, not only in their subject but also in their style, with sculptures often displaying the naturalistic features so synonymous with Hellenism. However, later sculpture takes a decidedly different approach and becomes very stylised, with facial features becoming flat and cartoonish. As well as the anthropomorphic figures created by the Nabataeans there was also a large output of sculpture showing zoomorphic themes such as camels, elephants, ibexes and birds.