By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
…[G]reat must have been the opulence of a city, which could dedicate such monuments to the memory of its rulers… (Burckhardt, 431)
IN 2019, OVER A MILLION tourists visited the spectacular ancient site of Petra in the Jordanian desert, about 98 miles (157 km) south of Jerusalem.
Surrounded by rugged mountains and accessible only through a narrow gorge, Petra was the capital of the Nabataeans, a desert Arab tribe that built a wealthy, powerful kingdom. Controlling caravan routes carrying precious incense and spices to the markets of Gaza and Damascus, Petra dominated its region from the third century BCE until it was annexed by Rome in 106 CE.
At its height, Petra held as many as 30,000 residents and boasted a theater seating 8,000. Aristocrats and merchants competed to carve grand tombs into the surrounding pink sandstone cliffs, mixing Egyptian, Greco-Roman and Mesopotamian architecture. Nabataean coinage offers a unique window into the lives of these remarkable people.
Initially, Nabataeans used the coins of trading partners, particularly Ptolemaic Egypt and Phoenician Tyre. Early Nabataean coins are anonymous, overstruck on bronzes of the first three Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt from 303 to 221 BCE. In the ancient world, small change was always in short supply; coins remained in circulation for many decades, so “late third to early second centuries BCE” is a rough estimate. These coins crudely copied gold staters of Alexander the Great: helmeted head of Athena on the obverse, standing figure of Nike, goddess of victory, on the reverse. “Apparently unique,” a worn silver drachm with this design brought $475 USD against a $100 estimate in 2014.
The first Nabataean ruler to issue coins bearing his name and portrait was Obodas I (ruled c. 96-86 BCE). Only a few examples his silver drachm exist; one brought $18,000 in a recent New York auction – possibly a record for a Nabataean coin. The reverse bears the king’s name and title in Greek, surrounding an eagle on a thunderbolt–an image copied from Ptolemaic silver. Seleucid king Antiochus XII fell in battle invading Nabataea in 86 BCE. Nabataeans venerated Obodas as a god after his death that year. A town in the Negev desert, Avdat, was named for him. His brother, Aretas III, became king.
Aretas III captured Damascus from the declining Seleucids in 85 BCE, and bronze coinage in his name was struck there. His diademed portrait appears on the obverse, and a seated figure of Tyche, city goddess of fortune, appears on the reverse, with the Greek inscription ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΡΕΤΟΥ ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝΟΣ: “Of King Aretas, lover of the Greeks”.
On rare examples, an engraver, unfamiliar with the Semitic name Haritat, (rendered in Greek as Aretas,) transcribed it as Aristos (“the best”).
Damascus was captured in 72 BCE by the Armenian king Tigranes II, but retaken by Aretas three years later, remaining under Nabataean control until 64 BCE when the Roman general Pompey established the province of Syria.
Aretas appears on a historic denarius issued at Rome in 58 BCE by M. Aemilius Scaurus, who, as governor of Syria, invaded Nabataea in 62 BCE. The Romans failed to capture Petra. Scaurus agreed to withdraw in exchange for 300 talents of silver (nearly two million denarii). The coin depicts King Aretas kneeling beside a camel, offering an olive branch as a token of peace. This was the first Roman coin on which an issuing official boasted of personal achievement, rather than the achievements or glory of his ancestors. The most famous building in Petra, the iconic “Treasury”, may have been carved as the tomb of Aretas III.
Malichus (Malikho) succeeded Aretas III in 60 BCE. He may have been a cousin of King Herod the Great of Judaea (whose mother, Cypros, was a Nabataean princess). He reigned for almost 30 years, but apparently only issued coins during the last few years, probably to pay troops.
His silver coins are dated by regnal year, although on many surviving examples dates are off the edge. He replaced Greek text on Nabataean coinage with Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew. Nabataeans spoke an Arabic dialect among themselves, but Aramaic, the administrative language of the Persian Empire, was used for formal inscriptions.
Malichus adopted a lightweight “Ptolemaic” standard for his coinage, with a silver didrachm (or half shekel) (6.9g) and a drachm (or quarter shekel) (c.3.1g), along with bronze small change in large (9.5g), medium (4.4g) and small (<4g) denominations, valued at four, two and one units, respectively (we don’t know what the unit was called). The silver was of high purity, 95% or better. An example of the quarter shekel, “possibly the second known,” brought $4,000 in a recent US auction. A rare small bronze with a reverse bearing the image of a right hand, palm outward (symbol of a protective deity) sold for $1,000 in 2009.
A son named Obodas succeeded Malichus in 30 BCE.
There is some confusion over numbering this king since rare coins bearing the portrait of the king alone were formerly attributed to a short-lived Obodas II (c. 60-62 BCE), while coins showing king and queen together were assigned to “Obodas III” (30–9 BCE). Martin Huth argues that there was no earlier short-lived ruler and “Obodas III” is simply the second ruler of that name (pp. 214-17). Obodas II did not depict a queen on his rare early coinage (about six pieces known). A didrachm dated Year 2 (29/28 BCE) shows the king and queen together on the obverse, with an eagle reverse, but only the king is named in the inscription.
On silver drachms beginning in Year 10 (21/20 BCE) the queen appears alone on the reverse and we learn her name, Hagaru. These coins may mark a special event, such as the birth of a son.
Obodas II was apparently a lazy ruler, who took little interest in military or diplomatic affairs. As a result, Nabataea suffered repeated defeats at the hands of Herod the Great, the Roman client king of Judaea who ruled from 37 to 4 BCE.
Since 2002, some Nabataean lead coins have come to light. Uninscribed, they date from the time of Obodas II or later. Their monetary function is uncertain. Lead is soft, and these small pieces (about 1.5 gram and 13 mm) are poorly preserved. The obverse shows a bearded god, perhaps Zeus, identified with the Arabian storm god, Hadad. On the reverse is a charging bull.
Syllaeus (Shullay in Nabataean) is an enigmatic figure in Nabataean history.
His career is documented by references in the Greek geographer Strabo (lived c. 64 BCE–24 CE) and the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus (lived 37–100 CE). In 26 BCE, Emperor Augustus ordered the prefect of Egypt, Aelius Gallus, to explore Arabia to locate sources of precious incense so vital to pagan worship. A thousand Nabataean troops led by Syllaeus, a high official of royal ancestry, accompanied the expedition. Strabo, who was present on the march, reported that Syllaeus deliberately led the Romans through the worst desert terrain, to weaken and exhaust them (Barkay, 67). Failure of the mission preserved Nabataea’s incense monopoly.
When Obodas II died without an heir in 9 BCE–possibly from poison–Syllaeus made a bid for the throne. Another claimant, an aristocrat named Aeneas, seized power in Petra, taking the throne name Aretas IV. Syllaeus appealed to Rome to determine the succession. During this confused period, the mint continued striking coins with the obverse portrait of Obodas II, undated, but bearing a wreath on the reverse with the Aramaic letters shin (for Shullay) and het (for Haritat), indicating a sort of uneasy joint reign. Some later coins bear a laurel-crowned portrait of Aretas but still retain the initial of Syllaeus.
By 6 BCE, Syllaeus lost the favor of Augustus. He was brought to Rome, convicted of murdering Obodas II and dramatically executed, being thrown from the Tarpeian Rock.
Eventually recognized as king by Rome, Aretas IV ruled for an extraordinary 49 years, taking the epithet Philopatris (“lover of his people”; rahem ammeh in Aramaic.) It was a glorious age, when many of the most spectacular monuments of Petra were carved. Most surviving Nabataean coins date from this reign; over 50 different types in silver and bronze.
Until Year 24 (15/ 16 CE), Aretas appears on coins with his first wife Huldu, who is named in the inscription and identified as “queen of the Nabataeans”.
A second wife, Shaqilath (or Shuqaylat), appears that year on a bronze coin possibly issued to commemorate the wedding. On the obverse, the king stands in military garb holding a spear. On the reverse the queen stands in a long pleated dress, raising a hand to her chin. On some silver drachms, the portrait of Aretas occupies the obverse and Shaqilath the reverse. Toward the end of the reign, the royal couple appears together on the obverse, while the king alone is depicted on the reverse. On common small bronzes (about 4 grams) the king and queen appear together on the obverse, while a pair of crossed cornucopiae (a symbol of abundance) bracket their names on the reverse.
Malichus II was the son of Aretas IV; his birth date and identity of his mother are uncertain. He came to the throne in 40 CE and ruled for 31 years. In 67 CE, when the Romans mobilized troops to suppress the Jewish revolt, Malichus provided a thousand cavalry and 4,000 archers (Barkay, 107).
During his reign, the alloy in his drachms, which are quite scarce, fell as low as 47% silver. The coins are often too small for the dies, so inscriptions and dates are rarely complete. The king’s portrait with long, flowing hair appears on the obverse, and his wife (Shaqilath II, clearly a different woman from queen Shaqilath, wife of Aretas IV) on the reverse, identified in the inscription as “Shaqilath, his sister, queen of the Nabataeans”. Some Ptolemaic kings of Egypt married their sisters or half-sisters, and Nabataeans may have adopted this custom from them.
The last Nabataean king, Rabbel II, son of Malichus II and Shaqilath II came to the throne in 70 CE and ruled for 36 years. His mother was queen regent during the early years of his reign, appearing on the coinage. About year 11, his sister Gamilat replaces her, on coins of declining weight and workmanship. Toward the end of Rabbel’s reign, a second sister, Hagaru, replaces Gamilat.
Rabbel’s bronze coins, issued in two denominations, closely follow the types of his father’s coins but are more carelessly engraved and struck.
In 106 CE, the Roman emperor Trajan occupied Nabataea and established the province of Arabia Petraea. Bostra (or Bosra) in Syria became the provincial capital. Shortly after this, Petra issued tiny (1.4 gram) anonymous bronzes, probably valued at a half quadrans (it took 128 to equal a silver denarius). A veiled bust of Tyche appears on the obverse. The reverse bore a large Greek letter “∏” above a smaller “M”, standing for “Petra Metropolis”.
Under Roman rule, Petra occasionally struck provincial bronze coinage, notably during the reigns of Hadrian (117-138 CE), Commodus (177-192 CE), and Elagabalus (218-222 CE). Damaged by an earthquake in 363 CE and abandoned in the seventh century, Petra was lost to history until a Swiss adventurer rediscovered it in the early 19th century.
Collecting Nabataean Coins
Late in 2019, the United States State Department signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), with the Kingdom of Jordan, threatening the ability of Americans to legally acquire Nabataean coins. Such coins are legally bought and sold in Jordan at an annual Amman Coin Fair. Coins openly sold to tourists at Petra are mostly surface finds, not the result of systematic looting. Nabataean coins are commonly found in Israel (a coin of Malichus II was found at Masada, dropped, perhaps, by a Nabataean archer supporting Vespasian’s siege), and in Sinai, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and as far away as Cyprus (Harvey, 155). It is doubtful whether import restrictions can lawfully be placed on coins just because they were minted within the borders of modern Jordan.
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 CNG Electronic Auction 291, 21 November 2012, Lot 142. Realized $95 USD (estimate $100).
 CNG Electronic Auction 321, 26 February 2014, Lot 229.
 CNG Auction 105, 10 May 2017, Lot 434. Realized $18,000 USD (estimate 30,000). Resold in 2018, realizing $15,000.
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 79, 17 September 2008, Lot 449. Realized $630 USD (estimate $300).
 In 1971, the British Museum acquired a unique silver tetradrachm of the same design. The coin is not on display, but a photo can be seen here.
 CNG Electronic Auction 445, 5 June 2019, Lot 403. Realized $550 USD (estimate $300).
 The building you think of when you think of Petra. Featured in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
 For the first year of a reign, coins are dated “Year 1”. “Year 2″ begins on the king’s first anniversary. Euro coins of Vatican City are still dated by the regnal year of the current Pope.
 CNG Auction 111, 29 May 2019, Lot 393. Realized $4,000 USD (estimate $5,000).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 81, 20 May 2009, Lot 626. Realized $1,000 USD (estimate $1,000).
 Roma Numismatics E-Sale 42, 6 January 2018, Lot 221. Realized £2,600 [about $3,524 USD] (estimate £2,000).
 CNG Auction 108, 16 May 2018, Lot 375. Realized $3,000 USD (estimate $1,000).
 Roma Numismatics E-Sale 53, 7 February 2019, Lot 401. Realized £110 [about $143 USD] (estimate £100).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 75, 23 May 2007, Lot 536. Realized $400 USD (estimate $300).
 Roma Numismatics E-Sale 36, 27 May 2017, Lot 176. Realized £650 [about $831 USD] (estimate £300).
 CNG Auction 85, 15 September 2010, Lot 520. Realized $290 USD (estimate $200).
 CNG Electronic Auction 293, 19 December 2012, Lot 149. Realized $310 USD (estimate $100).
 CNG Electronic Auction 413, 31 January 2018, Lot 157. Realized $120 USD (estimate 75).
 CNG Triton XI, 8 January 2008, Lot 331. Realized $180 USD (estimate $300).
 CNG Mail Bid Sale 75, 23 May 2007, Lot 546. Realized $925 USD (estimate $500)
 Ira & Larry Goldberg Auction 59, 30 May 2010, Lot 2231. Realized $550 USD (estimate $400-600).
 CNG Electronic Auction 382, 7 September 2016, Lot 173. Realized $130 USD (estimate $100).
 Gorny & Mosch Auction 265, 14 October 2019, Lot 550. Realized €190 [about $209 USD] (estimate €150).
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Harvey, Craig A. “A Possible Hoard of Judaean and Nabataean Coins from Cyprus”, American Journal of Numismatics 27 (2015)
Hoover, Oliver D. “A Reassessment of Nabataean Lead Coinage in Light of New Discoveries”, Numismatic Chronicle 166 (2006)
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Huth, Martin and Oliver D. Hoover (editors). Coinage of the Caravan Kingdoms: Studies in Ancient Arabian Monetization. New York (2010)
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