Legacy Of The Silent City

In 2008, the ancient city of Hegra became the first archaeological site in Saudi Arabia to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. This classification is only given to ‘Places of Outstanding Universal Value to Humanity’. 

To celebrate Hegra’s fifteenth anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, writer and podcaster Simon Talbot explores the history of this extraordinary location and considers its significant contributions to global society. The Nabataeans were ancient Arab People who were not only contemporaries of classical Egypt, Greece, and Rome but were also their peers in terms of architecture, philosophy, and technical innovation. 

They left few written records of their existence, however, and many details of their culture and beliefs remain to be discovered.

Their list of achievements is impressive

  • Controlled extensive and successful trading networks. 
  • Pioneered the development of Arabic script.
  • Produced outstanding architecture to rival Greece and Rome. 
  • Developed inn ovative water management systems as impressive as any in the ancient world.

Although they faded from history over two millennia ago, the Nabataeans left behind spectacular historical footprints – including the ancient cities of Petra and Hegra.

With tombs carved into vast blocks of buff-coloured sandstone, these remarkable sites inspire awe in all who see them.

The Nabataean capital of Petra in Jordan is rightly one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, following a vote of over 100 million people in 2007. 

However, around three hundred miles to the south, in Saudi Arabia, the Nabataean city of Hegra is also providing archaeologists with some amazing glimpses into this enigmatic world. 

Who were the Nabataeans?

The Nabataeans began as pastoral nomads, herding sheep, goats, and camels across the arid expanse of the Arabian Desert.

It is said that they excelled in surviving this harsh environment. The Nabataeans were famous for their ability to locate and transport water as they made their way between grazing sites.

Where they came from is still something of a mystery. Some scholars suggest that they came from the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula, while others believe they originated along its eastern coast.     
A confederation of several tribes sharing a common purpose, they called themselves the Nabatu - a word which frequently appears in their ancient inscriptions and seems to relate to the controlling and storing of water.

The Nabataeans first definitive appearance in the historical record is in the Historic Library of Diodorus of Sicily. Writing in the 1st century BCE, this ancient Greek historian described the Nabataeans as a mainly nomadic people, but his information was based on accounts that were, by then, over two and a half centuries old.

By the time Diodorus was writing they had become wealthy and powerful merchants, but his ancient narrative provides a vivid window into why the Nabataeans were so respected as desert dwellers. 

“They live in the open air, claiming as native land a wilderness that has neither rivers nor abundant springs from which it is possible for a hostile army to obtain water.

 It is their custom neither to plant grain, set out any fruit-bearing tree, use wine nor construct any house; and if anyone is found acting contrary to this, death is his penalty.

 They follow this custom because they believe that those who possess these things are, in order to retain the use of them, easily compelled by the powerful to do their bidding.

Some of them raise camels, others sheep, pasturing them in the desert.

 While there are many Arabian tribes who use the desert as pasture, the Nabataeans far surpass the others in wealth although they are not much more than ten thousand in number; for not a few of them are accustomed to bring down to the sea frankincense and myrrh and the most valuable kinds of spices.

They are exceptionally fond of freedom; and whenever a strong force of enemies comes near, they take refuge in the desert, using this as a fortress; for it lacks water and cannot be crossed by others, but to them alone, since they have prepared subterranean reservoirs lined with stucco, it furnishes safety.

 As the earth in some places is clay and in others is of soft stone, they make great excavations in it, the mouths of which they make very small, but by constantly increasing the width as they dig deeper, they finally make them of such size that each side has a length of one platform (101 ft 30 m).

After filling these reservoirs with rainwater, they close the openings, making them even with the rest of the ground, and they leave signs that are known to themselves but are unrecognisable by others. 

They water their cattle every other day so that if they flee through waterless places they may not need a continuous supply of water.”

The evolution of the Nabataeans from pastoral nomads to powerful traders was as a result of their controlling access to vital sections of the Incense Route – a number of lucrative trade corridors, along which vast caravans of domesticated camels transported goods north from southern Arabia.

As their influence and resources grew, so did their desire to create a permanent base and expand their territory.

Diodorus suggests that by 312 BCE, this increasingly sophisticated civilisation had begun establishing the capital of a growing kingdom at Petra. It was in this year, he writes, that two successive military expeditions were launched against the city by one of Alexander the Great’s successors. 

Once established, the Nabataean kingdom went on to reach as far north as Damascus – in what is now Syria.
In the middle of the 1st century BCE, it extended to its southernmost point when it reached Hegra.

Why did the Nabataeans choose Hegra?

The exact reasons for the Nabataean expansion south remain a mystery, as they left very few written records. Many scholars believe that they wanted to control trade via the Red Sea and needed to establish both a coastal and an inland base from which to do it.

Ancient sources refer to a fortified port city at the northern end of the Red Sea, named Leuke Kome, into which trade goods arrived from the east. 
Many of these goods were then transported overland to Petra and onwards to the Mediterranean coast, from which they could be shipped to the wealthy territories of Greece and Rome.

It was this route that the Nabataeans wished to command.

The exact location of Leuke Kome is hotly debated by modern archaeologists, but by the middle of the 1st century BCE, this vital harbour was certainly under Nabataean control – with officials charging a 25% tax on all goods passing through it. 

As for Hegra, it occupied a strategic location on the land route north between Leuke Kome and Petra, perfect for controlling the passage of goods arriving by ship. An ancient caravan route known as the Darb al-Bakrah ran northwards from the city and inscriptions have been found – sometimes by the same person many miles apart – proving that it was well-used.

Hegra also possessed some geological advantages that meant it was an ideal source of food and shelter for travelling merchants – which came at a price!  

Despite its desert location, Hegra had all-year-round access to water, standing as it did on an alluvial plain at the foot of a mountain range composed, in part, from a porous volcanic rock known as basalt. 

This range offered a certain amount of protection from the elements – strong winds and sandstorms were common – but more importantly, the rainwater which flowed down from its heights fed the wells and wadis essential to human habitation. 

Volcanic soil

In addition to being well irrigated, the volcanic soil of the region was also mineral rich and supported a thriving agricultural environment. There is archaeological evidence that date palms grew in profusion along with olives, pomegranates, figs, walnuts, lentils, peas, peaches, and plums. There were also fields of wheat, barley and – unusual in the Arabian Peninsula – cotton. Hegra had everything needed to support permanent habitation, in the form of food, water, building materials and fuel. 

Not surprisingly, the site was already occupied.

There is archaeological evidence that the Lihyanites, a tribal group with a small kingdom based around the nearby city of Dadan, had been present at Hegra for at least two centuries.

Around three hundred so-called ‘Owl Coins’ have been found at the site, dating from around the 2nd century BCE. Archaeologists have given the coins this name because many display the engraved image of an owl. The style of the engravings and the fact that the owl was, by then, well-established as a symbol of the Greek goddess Athena, suggest the possibility of connections between Hegra and the ancient kingdoms of the Mediterranean at this time. 

During the 1st century BCE – around the time that Rome was transitioning from a republic to an empire – the Nabataean ruler, King Aretas IV, extended his kingdom to encompass parts of the Arabian Peninsula, including Hegra.

 Known as the ‘Friend of his people’ Aretas’s reign saw Hegra grow in wealth and importance, becoming the Nabataean second city. He co-ruled alongside his two wives – images of both queens have been found engraved on coins unearthed at the site. 

Nabataean Hegra was a collection of mostly mud brick buildings spread out across fifty-two hectares. Parts of the city were densely populated with single-storey, flat-roofed homes running alongside narrow, winding thoroughfares in closely packed neighbourhoods. 

Larger, higher-status, buildings stood in less urban areas, accessed by small alleyways. The remains of ornate paving stones have been discovered that only hint at the city’s beauty.

Wider, open spaces scattered throughout the site could have been used as public squares, marketplaces, or gardens.  

The city was surrounded by a three-kilometre-long defensive wall with several gateways – one of which was an ornate, monumental door flanked by twin towers.

Separated from the lush oasis by a seasonally dry riverbed or ‘wadi,’ the people of Hegra got their water from one of one hundred and thirty wells. These also irrigated the farmland, which gave them food to eat and wood to build with.

In the centre of the city stood an impressive sanctuary, carved into a block of solid sandstone, and topped with a structure built around four white columns.

Inscriptions near to the sanctuary refer to a deity known as ‘Ilah Shemayya  – ‘The God of the heavens’. As no mention of this name has yet been found anywhere else in the Nabataean kingdom, it could very well be that this particular god was unique to Hegra.
The inhabitants ate a diet rich in cereals, barley, legumes and, of course, dates. They also ate the meat of sheep, goats, fish and even – butchery marks on bones have revealed – dromedaries.

Many fragments of ostrich eggshells have been discovered and it is safe to assume that the goats would also have been used for their milk.

Another Greek historian named Strabo – writing in the early 1st century CE – painted a vivid picture of the sophisticated culture of the Nabataeans around this time.

“The Nabataeans are a sensible people, and are so much inclined to acquire possessions that they publicly fine anyone who has diminished his possessions and also confer honours on anyone who has increased them. 
Since they have but few slaves, they are served by their kinsfolk for the most part, or by one another, or by themselves; so that the custom extends even to their kings. 

They prepare common meals together in groups of thirteen persons; 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. 

The king is so democratic that, in addition to serving himself, he sometimes even serves the rest himself in his turn.
They worship the sun, building an altar on the top of the house, and pouring libations on it daily and burning frankincense.
They go out without tunics, with girdles about their loins, and with slippers on their feet — even the kings, though in their case the colour is purple.”

In his writings, Strabo was complimentary about how Nabataean society was ordered and well- administered, with some officials having titles such as ‘governor’ and ‘commander.’ These titles have been found on some of the tomb inscriptions at Hegra, confirming his observation. 

Archaeologists have discovered further evidence of Hegra’s sophisticated Nabataean society in the form of ancient leather used to make sandals, pottery drinking vessels and a piece of preserved cloth bearing the portrait of a man.

Household items such as combs, needles and wooden boxes and jewellery such as glass beads, bracelets and finger rings have also been found – each new find adding a little more to our understanding of the Nabataeans and their world.

Some of the finds reflect Hegra’s role as an international trading centre. 

Archaeologists have unearthed alabaster jars which probably came from southern Arabia, glassware from Egypt and Mesopotamia, glazed pottery from the Mediterranean and shells from the coast of the Red Sea.

Voices of the Dead

Many of the most outstanding archaeological finds at Hegra have been made at its over one hundred monumental tombs, which have been carved from the sandstone outcrops which surround the city. 
They are spread out across an area of over thirteen kilometres and occupy a prestigious position overlooking the city.

They are distinctive examples of ancient funerary architecture in that they are not built in three dimensions - like the pyramids, which you can walk all the way around – but have been carved into the rock face as a two-dimensional structure. 

Adding to their individuality are elements of other cultures with whom the Nabataeans had contact, which can be seen chiselled into their facades.

There are Greek-style columns, Roman pediments, Egyptian sphinxes, and possible representations of the Mesopotamian god, Humbaba. These all sit alongside carved images of wildlife, such as lions and snakes or ceremonial motifs like rosettes and vases.

The tombs were multi-generational, containing the remains of communal and familial groups that had been interred over a period of many years.  

But the greatest source of evidence and one of the many important differences between Hegra and Petra are the inscriptions carved into their walls. 

There are considerably more examples of rare Nabataean tomb inscriptions here than have been found elsewhere in the Nabataean kingdom. In fact, while the famous tombs at Petra are mostly anonymous, archaeologists studying those at Hegra know far more about the identities of the Nabataean dead.

There are considerably more examples of rare Nabataean tomb inscriptions here than have been found elsewhere in the Nabataean kingdom. In fact, while the famous tombs at Petra are mostly anonymous, archaeologists studying those at Hegra know far more about the identities of the Nabataean dead.

Of the four hundred examples of ancient text discovered at the site so far, thirty-eight have either been found on the facade of a tomb or inside the burial chamber.  

The tomb inscriptions display variations of the same basic information, giving the name of the person who owned the tomb and often their profession, as well as the names of their relatives and sometimes even the name of the tomb carver. Examples of professions recorded here include military officers and governors, a physician, and an omen diviner.

It should be noted that some of the named tomb owners were women, which indicates that in Nabataean society, wealthier women at least had the legal right to own burial property and to pass on the use of it to their descendants.   

Some inscriptions tell us who was entitled to use the tomb in future and list what actions were forbidden, such as using it for unauthorised burials, removing any of the bodies or selling it to another party.

Those found guilty of such misdemeanours were heavily fined, with money going to either the king, the church – such as it was – or occasionally an individual priest or city governor.

For anyone not scared of the law, some of the texts offered dire supernatural warnings of what would happen to those who disturbed the dead. The following was carved within a family tomb, near the burial niche of a woman named ‘Wushūḥ’:

‘And may Dūsharā, the god of our lord and all the gods curse for eternity anyone who removes this Wushūḥ from this burial niche.
And may the curse of Dūsharā and of all the gods witness this’.

The arid nature of Hegra’s climate has ensured that what remained in the tombs after two millennia and countless intruders was often well-preserved. Archaeologists have found human bones, hair, and skin in some tombs. 

They have also unearthed tantalizing fragments of what was interred with the tomb’s occupants, including the wood of coffins, the cloth and leather of burial shrouds and the pottery shards of offering jars.  
Jewellery was also found, including a necklace made from dates strung along a palm leaf thread.

The spaces between each of the desiccated fruits indicated that they were probably still fresh when the necklace was placed around the deceased’s neck.

Chemical analysis of remains found in the tombs has revealed that the Nabataeans coated their dead with a mixture of fat, resin, and vegetable gums before burial to slow down the decomposition process. 

What they believed happened after death, however, remains at present unclear. With very little written evidence, there is still much to be discovered about Nabataean belief systems.

A Place of Brotherhood

A short distance to the northeast of the necropolis is an area known as ‘Jabal Ithlib’ which provides some tantalizing clues as it appears to have been an important location for those following Nabataean beliefs. 

Numerous niches are carved into the rock. These probably held small ceremonial objects shaped like rectangular stone slabs called  ‘betyls’. 

The word ‘betyl’ is derived from the Semitic bet-el, which means ‘house of god’ and it was believed that the stones could provide direct access to the deity they were representing.

At Hegra there are examples of a particularly Nabataean style of carving known as ‘eye-betyls’ because instead of being featureless slabs of stone, these have a stylised representation of a face etched into their surface. 

The area of ‘Jabal Ithlib’ is, however, probably best known for the meeting hall carved into the rock, known as the ‘Diwan’.

This space is accessible through a narrow forty-meter-long corridor between two high rocks – bringing to mind the Siq through which one of the most iconic views of Petra can be enjoyed.

The ‘Diwan’ was where members of ceremonial brotherhoods, which were important in Nabataean religion, met and feasted.

It is believed based on contemporary accounts that brotherhoods met in groups of no more than twelve and reclined to eat on couches in the Roman style. According to Strabo, wine was drunk – although no more than eleven cups – and music was provided.

A terracotta figurine found at Petra shows three female musicians playing the lyre, a stringed instrument, and a double flute respectively – perhaps this convivial activity had been influenced by contact with Greco-Roman civilisations.

The End of an Era

For centuries, the Nabataeans co-existed with the Roman Empire as an independent partner. They occasionally supplied the Romans with soldiers and were generally aligned with their imperial agendas.

However, in 106 CE, the Roman emperor Trajan annexed Arabia, including the Nabataean kingdom, and made it part of Rome’s new Arabian province  – ‘Provincia Arabia.’

Hegra became a populated urban centre of the empire or ‘civitas’ and an important part of Rome’s desert frontier – the ‘Limes Arabicus’. 

The change in status, though, did not outwardly affect the city. Apart from the sanctuary at its centre being rededicated to ‘Jupiter of Damascus,’ Hegra remained much as it had been. 

Unlike some Romanised territories that became virtual copies of each other, Hegra retained its identity – there was no Roman forum, public theatres, or paved roads. The fact that in 175 CE, the governor of the city was a Nabataean by the name of ʿAmr son of Ḥayyān’ indicates that local people remained in positions of The most important addition to the city was the construction of a substantial military fort along the southern wall.

Hegra was the Roman Empire’s most southerly outpost, and a strong military presence was needed to not only keep it secure and well-ordered, but to enforce the collection of taxes from those passing through.

Legionnaires who were stationed here were known as ‘stationarii’ and their job was to patrol the nearby roads and check the documents of those entering the city. Evidence of their presence has been found in the form of coins, fragments of armour, horse harnesses, and a clothing fastener known as a ‘fibula.’

Like a lot of Roman sites, the inhabitants also left graffiti. An army official by the name of ‘Gloriosus’ was so pleased to have safely reached - or safely survived – this remote province that he wrote a message of thanks on the main gate to “The immortal gods, the leaders of the empire, the hospital engineers, the ‘fortune that brings you back’ and Mars the protector.”

A plaque, also written in Latin, commemorates repair work carried out upon rampart walls or a temple – there is some debate as to which – and reads:

“In honour of Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, most great conqueror of the Armenians, Parthians, Medes, Germans, Sarmatians, the city of the Hegrans has restored at its own expense the [rampart or temple] that collapsed from dilapidation under Julius Firmanus, legate of Augustus propraetor. 

These works were undertaken by Pomponius Victor, centurion of the Third Cyrenaic Legion, and his fellow Numisius Clemens, responsibility for the construction being assumed by Amru son of Haian, first citizen of their city.”

Historians have deduced that because the plaque refers to the emperor Marcus Aurelius as the conqueror of the Samaritans and does not refer to his son Commodus, it was written between 175 and 177 CE.

It also reveals that the Roman legion may have carried out the repairs, but the work was paid for by the people of Hegra on the instructions of their ‘first citizen.’  

The relationship between Rome and Hegra seems to have been harmonious; but in the centuries to come, the fortunes of both civilisations would begin to decline.

It is believed that by the 4th century CE, there was no longer a Roman military presence in Hegra. Changing trade routes – possibly as a result of Roman annexation – gradually eroded the city’s commercial importance and financial power. 

Without adequate resourcing, mudbrick buildings fell into disrepair and those made from stone were slowly dismantled as the stone was reused.    

From Petra outwards, Nabataean civilisation was deteriorating as Roman rule, commercial collapse and a series of devastating earthquakes took their toll. By the seventh 7th century CE, the once magnificent Nabataean culture had virtually disappeared and Hegra was slowly being abandoned and forgotten.
Until now.

A Gift For All Humanity

Hegra’s classification as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is more than just confirmation of its historical importance – it recognizes the city’s contribution to humanity.

When in 2022 the remarkably reconstructed features of one of the skeletons discovered in the Nabataean rock tombs were unveiled, we could literally look into the face of our shared history.

She was named ‘Hinat’ in honour of the woman who, according to the following inscription carved above the entrance, was the original owner of the tomb.

“This is the tomb which Hinat daughter of Wahbu made for herself and for her children and her descendants forever. And no-one has the right to sell it or give it in pledge or write for this tomb a lease. And whoever does other than this, his share will revert to his legitimate heir. In the twenty-first year of King Maliku, King of the Nabataeans.”

The inscription was written around 60 or 61 CE, although it is likely that the woman known as ‘Hinat’ was buried later than this date. 

Whatever her identity, she has become a vivid point of human contact between us and the past.
The everyday struggles and triumphs of Hegra’s ancient inhabitants have parallels with millions of people living today. In meeting Hinat and uncovering the story of this long-hidden city, we are uncovering the story of ourselves.

One of the characteristics UNESCO World Heritage Sites all share is that they define what it is to be human. Hegra grew from a harsh environment to become a thriving cultural and commercial centre because of human courage, innovation, collaboration, and community – all elements that make us who we are.

And Hegra is not the Nabataeans’ only gift to the world.

Their written script was derived from an ancient Near Eastern language called Aramaic. Such was its prestige that by the 4th century CE, its lettering was being used to transcribe the spoken words of the Arab people.

Over time, it evolved into what we now know as modern Arabic script.
Thanks to the Nabataeans, who left so much of their language carved into the stonework of Hegra, the world has benefited from two millennia of Arabic literature and scholarship. The legendary Arabic explorer Ibn Batutta visited Hegra in the 14th century. He found it deserted but well-preserved, writing:

“Here, in some hills of red rock, are the dwellings of Thamud. They are cut in the rock and have carved thresholds. Anyone seeing them would take them to be of recent construction. [The] decayed bones [of the former inhabitants] are to be seen inside these houses”.

Without the Arabic script inspired by the Nabataeans, Batutta’s words may never have survived the passage of time, and today 6.5% of the world’s population would communicate very differently.

The story of Hegra is far from over. Archaeologists, historians, and teams of specialists from across the globe are still uncovering more and more about its remarkable past.

The city and, in particular, its tombs are living archives, providing Saudi visitors with a vivid window into their national heritage and the rest of the world with inspiration to always strive for knowledge.

UNESCO recognises that Hegra represents a chapter in the shared history of humanity that connects people from across time, and across the globe, and that by unlocking the past, we can help to shape our future. 

Happy anniversary.

Simon Talbot   |   Date: 27 December 2023

Simon Talbot
Simon Talbot is a writer, broadcaster and podcast host who has been sharing his enthusiasm for history and culture since 2007. His words have guided visitors around some of the most prestigious museums, art galleries and historic sites in the world and his voice has been heard on BBC radio. He lives in the East of England and likes castles.

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