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Religion in Nabataea Accettola, Anna


Religion in Nabataea was a confluence of native and foreign deities and practices which spread across the Arabian desert. Ranging from the worship of betyl blocks to figural sculpture, sacred high places to Greco- Roman temples, priestly worship in sacred places to traveling pocket-sized 'eye-idols,' religious practice adapted readily to the many needs of its people and the cultural heterogeneity which permeated the region. While the concept of a “Nabataean religion” is inauthentic, a general understanding of the polytheistic religious practice within the area controlled by the Nabataean king can be reconstructed from material evidence and the few remaining literary sources. Aniconic blocks are the most common aspect of Nabataean worship, in Petra and throughout the region. These rectangular blocks, sometimes including eye stones or engravings called ‘eye-idols,’ were often dedicated to the primary deities of Nabataean polytheism, specifically Dushara and al-Uzza. Ritual feasting was also an important aspect of religious tradition, as was common in other Near Eastern and Semitic religious groups. These feasts took place commonly in triclinia as part of sacrificial and funerary ceremonies. Sacrifices, perhaps of live animals, but more likely of clay figurines, were fundamental aspects of these ceremonies. Egyptian, Persian, and Greco- Roman influences were clearly prominent in the art and architecture of main Nabataean cities, including figural depictions of deities which was unusual for the aniconic traditions of the Nabataeans. While foreign deities were often amalgamated with Nabataean deities, such as Dushara-Zeus-Dionysus and al-Uzza-Isis- Aphrodite Ourania, the syncretization remained largely in public urban spaces. In practice, religious traditions seem to have remained unchanged even with the on-going contact with foreigners. Few foreign influences have been found in private spaces, sacred high places, or rural areas. As Nabataeans spread into the Mediterranean, for political and economic purposes during the later part of the Hellenistic period, their worship of the high god Dushara traveled with them. Cultic sites and altars dedicated to Dushara have been found as far away as Puteoli, Italy. This is likely due to the strong connection between Nabataean kingship and Dushara. While the king played a role in religious practice, much still remains unknown about the roles of worshippers and the organization of religion in Nabataea due to the lack of written records by contemporary, Nabataean sources.

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