THE PETRA- MECCA CASE: Did the Nabataean cultural and religious identity exist in the seventh century AD?
This series of articles tries to provide conclusive evidence for the Petra-Mecca case.
Part I showed that, with the usage of archeology, epigraphy and linguistics the origin of the language of the Qur’an can be narrowed down to Hellenistic Syro-Palestine. This article, written by Robert E. Kerr, summarizes almost 100 hundred years of researching the relations between classic Arabic and other Semitic languages. The Arabic language (especially with regard to the primary diagnostic feature, the definite article al-) and script of Arabia Petraea are the precursors of the classical Arabic script and language. This of course does not necessarily mean that the language of the Arab, Saracens or Hagarene invaders in that of the Qur’an.
Part II showed that, as there is no archeological, linguistic or contemporary evidence for the existence of Makkah as a city before 900 CE, the only reasonable hypothesis is that Muhammad's city is situated in Hellenistic Syro-Palestine, in an area familiar with both the Safaitic and Nabatean script - roughly between Petra and Palmyra.
From Nabataean to Kufic script
This new part asserts that a strong Nabataean religious identity still exists as the earliest Qur’ans were written in the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts, 'Kufic', a modified version of the old Nabataean script. The transformation from Nabataean script to Classical Arabic script is first clearly demonstrated in the Arabic tomb inscription of Imru al-Qays from Namara in Southern Syria in 328 – this inscription is in presentable classical Arabic though the script is Nabataean.(1) Kufic developed around the end of the 7th century in Iraq and may have been influenced by other Syriac models.(2)
The transformation from Nabataean to Kufic script strongly suggests that Nabataean culture was carried through the centuries an may have existed – though transformed- at the beginning of the seventh century and have influenced early Islamic literature. If this is the case then we have another line of evidence for the Petra-Mecca case so let's find some proof!
Section I: Manifestation of Nabataean culture in late Classical Era.
The Saracens was the name given by late Roman sources to the Arab speaking tribes who inhabited the ancient lands of the Nabataeans and still used, among others, the Nabataean Aramaic alphabet for their inscriptions. It is very likely that the phrase Saracens, used in sixth and seventh century accounts, was related to the Nabataeans of the Kingdom period or their direct descendants.
The Roman conquest of the Nabataean Kingdom at the beginning of the second century did not change its position. However, over the next two centuries changing trade routes and local earth quakes would lead to a decline. But outsiders observe, almost 200 years later, a continuation of the Nabataean culture and religion.
The destruction of some Nabataean temples did not actually lead to the disappearance of “pagan” worship in Petra during the 4th century. On the contrary, there is the testimony of Epiphanios of Salamis about the main Nabataean god, Dushara, who continued being worshiped in Petra,
namely in the temple of the idol where “they praise the virgin with hymns in the Arab language and call her Chaamu –that is, Core, or Virgin- in Arabic. And the child who is born of her they call Dusares”.(3)
The testimony of Epiphanios, an apologist, has inflicted a debate among contemporary scholars. Some believe this religious tradition is an invention of late paganism which emerged under Christian influence (4) where others see this as a original Nabataean practice (5) or simply a blend of old pagan beliefs and the new dominant Christian faith. It proves that the Nabataean population had not disappeared and still kept their practices of pagan veneration mixed with Christian elements; that is to say, this population was experiencing a cultural transition.
Nabataean identity in late Byzantine era
The conventional view of historians of the Roman Near East has been that the Nabataean culture had died out by the second century A.D. However, recent archaeological discoveries have indicated that an indigenous Semitic people with a distinct ‘Nabataean’ identity persisted well into the Christian-Byzantine period in the southern Levant. The question remains therefore, how truly ‘Nabataean’ had their character remained? Let's consider the available evidence.
Language and Inscriptions
Literature and epigraphy are often the best indicators for an ethnic group. Therefore, investigating the most recently found Nabataean inscriptions is crucial in determining the survival of the Nabataeans. Unfortunately, relatively few Nabataean inscriptions of the early Byzantine period have been found.
Another late Nabataean inscription is an inked graffito on the wall plaster of a building at Oboda dating to the 4th century A.D. which invoked the Nabataean gods Oboda and Dushara. (6) This not only demonstrates the persistent use of the Nabataean language and script, but also a continued veneration of their original pagan religion, through Oboda who remained well-known in the late Roman period. Notice that Oboda was worshiped only in the Negev by local cults and was merely unknown in other Nabataean territories (this needs further examination and evaluation as historians tend to recognize new deities in any inscription they investigate).
Amongst other significant literary discoveries there are three important collections of inscribed artifacts clearly demonstrating that whilst Greek persisted as the lingua franca of the Second and Third Byzantine provinces of Palestine (formerly part of the Roman Province of Arabia), Nabataean-Aramaic personal names remained predominant.
During the earlier part of the twentieth century, several inscribed and dated funerary stelae were collected from the cemetery of Zoara in the Ghor es-Safi (on the south-eastern shore of the Dead Sea). Subsequent excavations of the adjacent Sanctuary of Lot at Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata in the late 1980s and 1990s, and recent investigations in the Ghor es-Safi, have additionally provided over 400 early Byzantine-period inscriptions. These have shown that a vibrant early Christian community existed in this region from the 4th to the 7th centuries A.D. Although most of these inscriptions were written in Greek, roughly half of the personal names contained with in them were of Nabataean origin, though in Hellenized forms.
There is evidence that suggests an enduring influence of Nabataean religious practices on later creeds. For instance, it can been postulated that Nabataean ‘high places’ not only continued to be used for religious purposes during the early Christian-Byzantine period, but also that they may have become the inspiration for the raised chancel or bema
in church architecture.
A similar Nabataean origin can be claimed for the omphalos-shaped chancel post tops in early Byzantine-period churches. The aniconic representation of gods by the Nabataeans seems to have had an influence on early Byzantine-Christian dogma with the iconoclastic movement of the 7th century A.D. This is particularly apparent in Judaism and Islam which still retain similar prohibitions relating to the realistic representations of human or animal forms. Although these religious traits may not be exclusively ‘Nabataean’, they do show that their Arabian-based influence continued well into the Christian societies of the 7th and 8th centuries A.D.
This influence relates to the continued existence of pagan cults in Petra. If we follow the account of late sources, such as Sozomenus (400-450), who claims that there were still pagans in many cities, like the inhabitants of Petra in Arabia, who fought relentlessly in favor of their temples.(7) (8) Recent excavations provide evidence of the continued usage of the temples in the city of Petra during the late Byzantine era as walls were reconstructed with late Byzantine styling patterns.
Another issue is how the paganism of the cults in Petra should be interpreted. Obviously some Christian Nabataeans were not that dedicated to the dogma of the trinity as the papyri from Nessana and Petra demonstrate: parts of the trinity were modified in official documents. Most likely the pagan cults had a deep understanding of ancient Jewish theology as Flavius Josephus writes in the first century CE:
“(…) through Arabia; and when he came to a place which the Arabians esteem their metropolis, which … has now the name of Petra, at this place, which was encompassed with high mountains, Aaron went up one of them in the sight of the whole army, Moses having before told him that he was to die, for this place was over against them… and died while the multitude looked upon him” (Antiquities, IV, 4, 7).”
Flavius Josephus refers to Jebel Haroun, a mountain southeast of Petra, where prophet Aron died. Apparently Aron, and thus Mozes, was already associated with Petra or Nabataean religion long before the arrival of Christianity. The Petra Papyri mentions the “House of our Lord the Saint High Priest Aaron” which alludes to Aaron, the brother of Moses. This discovery contributed to the start of excavations on the top of Jebel Haroun and indeed, a small construction which houses a tomb was discovered.
Some dozens of meters below the summit where the tomb is, the excavations have brought to light an impressive monastic and pilgrimage complex dedicated to Aaron: a basilica consecrated to the brother of the prophet, a small chapel with a cross-shaped baptistery excavated in the rock, rooms for pilgrims, and so on. The complex dates from the 5th century and remained active, even if undergoing some restructuring, at least until the Umayyad era.(9) This is another example of the influence of Nabataean religious practices on later creeds as Jebel Haroun became a centre of pilgrimage for Christians, Jews and Muslims.
But we have saved the best for last. The continuation of Nabataean culture following the fall of the kingdom demonstrates the power of the indigenous society as a whole and their wish to associate themselves with the culture of the past. This is achieved by the continuation of their main cult, i.e., the worship of Dushara, and the representation of the deity both as the traditional Nabataean betyl and as a male figure in the form of a Nabataean king. His cult clearly continued well into the Roman period and possibly as late as the Islamic period. Safaitic inscriptions dating to the 5th and 6th centuries AD indicate that Dushara's cult remained strong, at least on the fringes of the province.
Art and Architecture
Excavations of the ancient Zurrabah pottery kilns near Petra revealed that Nabataean pottery prototypes were being made from the 1st to 6th centuries A.D. (10) More recently, excavations at Humeima, Wadi Mousa, Mada’in Salih and Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata have also brought to light the continuous production of pottery in the Nabataean tradition during the 5th and into the 6th centuries A.D.
Architectural elements have been found at several early Byzantine churches in Palestinae Tertia which share close affinities to classical Nabataean styles. (11) At Elusa in the Negev (12) and at Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata characteristically Nabataean ‘dogtooth’ designs together with Christian crosses are found on capitals and lintels. [Figs. 9, 10] Nabataean ‘horned’ capitals also continued to be carved in the Byzantine period.
Seventh century A.D. mosaic pavements have been uncovered in the churches of Saint Lot at Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata and Moses on Mount Nebo, Siyaga which exhibit floral patterns reminiscent of painted decoration on Nabataean fine-ware pottery. The mosaic at Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata is inscribed and dated to A.D. 691, well into the Umayyad period. It is intriguing to consider this as the result of an earlier Nabataean artistic influence.
Section II: Manifestation of Nabataean culture in early Islamic literature
To trace Nabataean influence on early Islamic literature, especially the ahadith, we have to travel back in time and consult the work of Strabo, a Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian.
A single classical source, the Geography of Strabo (16.4.26) mentions Nabataean banquets and the meals served there at the beginning of the Christian era: “They prepare common meals together in groups of thirteen per-sons; and they have two girl-singers for each banquet. The king holds many drinking-bouts in magniﬁcent style, but no one drinks more than eleven cupfuls, each time using a diﬀerent golden cup”.
Strabo's casual reference to singing is somewhat confirmed in some Nabataean inscriptions associated with triclinia (dining rooms with banquet couches extending around three sides of a table) as Strabo uses the phrase symposium as do the Palmyrene Greek texts do. (13)
The Nabataean banqueting rituals ( symposium rituals) are known in Aramaic terminology. The Aramaic word for triclinium is smk' and appears in inscriptions in Petra as well in Palmyra. (14)
The large number of banqueting rooms in Petra attest to the importance of banquets in Nabataea and thus artistic performances. A exquisitely decorated Nabataean limestone from Petra displays a male double-flute player flanked by tow women playing a lure and an identified stringed instrument. Various types of banqueting rooms (also known as biclinia) can be seen all around the city of Petra. Most often these rooms are found as part of large tomb complexes or open-air sanctuaries but can also be part of housing areas.
Sizes differ, from a small cave of just 5 * 5 meter to a large hall of 12 * 12 meter (15) or in the open air as part of an open-air sanctuary. Banqueting rooms were generally used for gatherings in which family, cultural and funeral associations would come together for drinking and dining. The numerous banqueting rooms in Petra confirm the importance of banqueting and thus the tradition of singing girls in Petra. The question remains if these meetings held in these triclinia or biclinia had an official or cultic basis, or whether their use was divided between cultic and profane.
Banqueting room in Petra
Anyway, the tradition of singing girls at banquets and usage of instruments is reflected in the hadith:
It was narrated from Abu Malik Ash’ari that the Messenger of Allah said:
“People among my nation will drink wine, calling it by another name, and musical instruments will be played for them and singing girls (will sing for them). Allah will cause the earth to swallow them up, and will turn them into monkeys and pigs.”
Book 47, Hadith 3499, Narrated Abu Umamah:
that the Messenger of Allah said: "Do not sell the female singers, nor purchase them, nor teach them (to sing). And there is no good in trade in them, and their prices are unlawful. It was about the likes of this that this Ayah was revealed: 'And among mankind is he who purchases idle talk to divert from the way of Allah (31:6).'"
'A'isha reported: Abu Bakr came to see me and I had two girls with me from among the girls of the Ansar and they were singing what the Ansar recited to one another at the Battle of Bu'ath. They were not, however, singing girls. Upon this Abu Bakr said: What I (the playing of) this wind instrument of Satan in the house of the Messenger of Allah and this too on 'Id day? Upon this the Messenger of Allah said: Abu Bakr, every people have a festival and it is our festival (so let them play on).
It was narrated that Abu Husain, whose name was Khalid Al-Madani, said:
“We were in Al-Madinah on the Say of 'Ashura and the girls were beating the Daff and singing. We entered upon Rubai' bint Mu'awwidh and mentioned that to her. She said: 'The Messenger of Allah entered upon me on the morning of my wedding, and there were two girls with me who were singing and mentioning the qualities of my forefathers who were killed on the Day of Badr....
It was narrated from 'Urwah that he narrated from Aishah that Abu Bakr As-Siddiq :
Entered upon her and there were two girls with her beating the duff and singing, and the Messenger of Allah was covered with his garment. He uncovered his face and said: "Let them be there, O Abu Bakr, for these are the days of 'Eid." Those were the days of Mina and the Messenger of Allah (was in Al-Madinah on that day."
It was narrated that Ibn'Abbas said:
'Aisha arranged a marriage for a female relative of hers among the Ansar. The Messenger of Allah came and said: Have you taken the girl (to her husbands house)?” They said: “Yes.” He said: “Have you sent someone with her to sing?” She said: “No.” The Messenger of Allah said: “The Ansar are People with romantic feelings. Why don't you send someone with her to say: 'We have come to you, we have come to you, may Allah bless you and us?'”
The Messenger of Allah came (to my apartment) while there were two girls with me singing the song of the Battle of Bu`ath. He lay down on the bed and turned away his face. Then came Abu Bakr and he scolded me and said: Oh! this musical instrument of the devil in the house of the Messenger of Allah. The Messenger of Allah turned towards him and said: Leave them alone.....
We can learn from these single hadith that in Muhammad's environment certain elements of Nabataean culture were still practiced, 500 years after its kingdom was conquered by Roman emperor Trajanus. And that's not the end of the story – the tradition of the professional singing (slave) girls was continued into the Islamic era. During the Umayyad and Abbasid periods there were large numbers of so called al-Qiyan
(singing slave girls) who often composed songs to the accompaniment of musical instruments. In most cases these singing girls were courtesans or concubines of the ruling elite.(16)
Author al-Jahuz writes in his epistle on singing slave girls (17) that an accomplished singing girl had a tradition of more than four thousand songs. Among these singing girls three genres of poetry were preeminent:
- Love poetry (ghazal)
- Verse-capping competition
- Short, informal panegyric verse for their masters. Hail to the Master!
Muhammad ibn Abdallah al-Mansur, the third Abbasid Caliph, reigning from 775 to 785 had a daughter, princess 'Ulayya, who was a singer-poet. Her poetry and songs dealt with the themes of courtly love and wine.(18) This leads to another interesting question: why would an so called Islamic Caliph allow his daughter to specialize in Dionysian poetry and songs about wine and love and perform publicly? That seems rather strange. Or not of course knowing that his father was born in Humeima, just south of Petra.
Recent archaeological surveys and excavations at Petra, the Negev, Meda’in Saleh and the Dead Sea region have shed more light on the twilight of the Nabataeans. They have revealed some compelling evidence for ‘Nabataean’ cultural continuity beyond the 2nd century A.D. Evidence for this continuity include religious practices, funerary customs, language, inscriptions, art, architecture and apparel. These, together with the literary testimony, combine to make a compelling argument for a Nabataean cultural continuity into the very late Byzantine period.
Strong evidence for religious continuity are inscriptions from the sixth century referring to Dushara. The worship of this main deity formed the identity of the Nabataean cultural identity in the late Byzantine era, that was nevertheless strongly influenced by Christianity and Byzantine traditions and cultural practices.
The hadith provides strong evidence for the embedding of Nabataean customs and traditions into early “Islamic” or Arabic culture. The practice of banqueting, singing girls and musical instruments is mentioned in the hadith. Other events mentioned in the hadith may have Nabataean roots - new research will have to provide answers.
Nabataean cultural and religious traditions survived until at least the beginning of the seventh century. The modernized Nabataean script was adopted for the copy process of the Qur'an, the hadith mentions ancient Nabataean rituals and customs that were practiced at the Islamic and Omayyad court in Baghdad – where the ruling family originated from the Nabataean city of Humeima, 45 kilometers south of Petra.
This all provides an excellent new line of evidence for the Petra-Mecca case.
- 1 A Brief Introduction to The Arabic Alphabet, John F. Healey, G. Rex Smith, 2012, ISBN 978-0-86356-881-7
- 2 The Early Alphabet, John F. Haley, page 55
- 3 Panarion 51, 22, 11, in Healey, 2001, p.103
- 4 Bowersock, 1990, 26
- 5 Zayadine, 2003, 60
- 6 Erickson-Gini and Israel 2003: 11, fig. 30
- 7 Sozomenus 7.15.11-12
- 8 New Perspectives on Late Antiquity in the Eastern Roman Empire, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Carmen Blánquez Pérez, page 39
- 9 Fiema, 2002, 46-47
- 10 Amr 1991:321
- 11 Patrich 1988: 105, ill. 152
- 12 Negev 1986: 128, fig. 66
- 13 Tarrier 1995, 174-175
- 14 The Religion of the Nabataeans: A Conspectus, John F. Haeley, 2001
- 15 Netzer 2003: page 59
- 16 Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1, page 866
- 17 Risalat ak-Qiyan, al-Jahiz, circa 850
- 18 Hillary Kilpatrick, 1990, page, page 175