As much as they created a blend of Arab culture with Mediterranean, the Nabateans also blended inherited elements of the ancient religions of Egypt, Syria, Canaan, Assyria and Babylon with elements of the Greek and Roman pantheons, to create specifically Petran forms of worship.

Central to their religion was rock. Jehovah, the god of the Israelites, was said to inhabit a blank rock called Bet-El (“House of God”) – and this insistence on non-figurative representation was shared by many Levantine and Arabian peoples. It was passed on to the Nabateans, in contrast to the Egyptians’ and Assyrians’ lavish portrayals of gods and goddesses. Concepts such as “the Lord is my rock” also appear many times in the Old Testament, implying an extension of the “House of God” idea so that the rock actually represents the deity itself. Nabatean deities were thus often represented simply by squared-off rocks, termed “god-blocks”. In addition, a later development gave the rock a third aspect: that of the altar, the contact point between the divine and the material.

At the head of the Nabatean pantheon was Dushara, “He of the Shara” (the mountains around Petra), later identified with the Greek god Zeus and the Syrian Hadad. The fact that his name is so closely tied to the locality indicates that he may originally have been an Edomite, rather than a Nabatean, god. To the Nabateans, Dushara was the sun, the Creator, and he was often represented by an obelisk – the visual materialization of a beam of light striking the earth. With the mingling of Semitic and Mediterranean ideas, Dushara also came to be associated with Dionysus, god of wine, and so began to assume human form, bedecked with vines and grapes (as at the Nabatean temple on Jabal Tannur).

At Dushara’s side were Atargatis, the goddess of fertility, of grain, fruit and fish; Allat (which means simply “The Goddess”), who represented the moon; Manat, the goddess of luck and fate, suggested to have been the patron deity of Petra and possibly the goddess worshipped at the Treasury; and al-Uzza (“The Mighty One”), assimilated with the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Roman goddesses Diana, deity of water and fertility, and Venus, embodied by the evening star and representing spiritual and erotic love. Allat, al-Uzza and Manat are all mentioned by name in the Quran, implying that their cult was still active and popular in Mecca as late as the seventh century, the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Nabateans also had many smaller gods, including al-Kutbay, god of writing; She’a-al-Qawm, the patron deity of caravans; Qos, originally an Edomite god; and Baal-Shamin, a Phoenician god especially popular in northern Nabatea, who had a temple somewhere near the modern mosque in the centre of Wadi Musa town.

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