Alexander Jannaeus felt relaxed, surrounded by his soldiers, this morning outside of Gadara (modern day Umm Qays, Jordan), feeling confident of his skills as assertive ruler of the Hasmonean kingdom, having successfully managed to obtain victories and avoid crucial defeats. The war with Ptolemy some six years earlier almost ended in a devastating defeat for Alexander, but thanks to his strategic decisions and ability to reason with Cleopatra, he managed to turn failure into success. Or at least so he told himself. True, for a while he needed to keep a low profile, but with her death he was free to return to conquest, conquering several cities such as Gadara, Raphia, and Anthedon. And Gaza! Though some told him that Gaza would be problematic, since it could turn the southern Arab Nabataean kingdom against him, he didn’t worry, camel-riders might do well in the desert, but this was the Judean homeland. Arethas II, the Nabataean king did respond as warned, and a war broke out between the Judean Hasmonean kingdom and the Arab Nabataeans in the south and east. But Arethas II was old, and Alexander cared not much about Arethas’ son, Obodas (or Abdath as he was known among the Nabatu, the Nabataeans). This, however, would be something he would regret within the end of this, for Alexander Jannaeus, faithful day.
Obadas, who ruled the Nabataeans from 96 BCE until 85 BCE , would make things right that day. By the end of the battle, which surely surprised the Hasmonean ruler and his army, only luck kept Alexander Jannaeus alive. He barely managed to flee the battle with Obodas, who with his camel-riding cavalry managed to defeat the Hasmonean army. Alexander would return to Jerusalem only to be met by strong opposition, which would turn into outright conflict with the Pharisees of the time, and Obodas, in return, would secure Nabataean control over Gaza, Moab, and Gilead. This victory over the Hasmonean ruler, as well as his victory over the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus XII Dionysus, would change the way the Nabataeans viewed him, from merely being a king to becoming a god.
That Obodas became deified we know from a couple of pieces of evidence. One is an inscription in Petra, the once capital of the Nabataean civilization, which states about an image that “this is the image of the god Obodas (Abdath alaha), made by Hunaynu son of Hutayshu, son of Petammon.”
Another evidence is the temple built in honor of “Zeus Obodas”, built during the reign of Arethas IV (r 9 BCE – 40 CE) in the desert city of Avdat (or Oboda), a city which was named in honor of Obodas I. And a city which is said to be his resting place as well.
The city existed for several centuries, and survived Roman annexation, Byzantine rule and earthquakes, but it was the Muslim conquest which eventually would leave the city empty, turning into a ruin, only to be rediscovered in the 19th century. But through all this the temple of Zeus Obadas, the deified king, would remain as a tribute to an Arab king, who managed to best both a Jewish and a Hellenist ruler.
We don’t know much about the Nabataeans, and what we know is mostly focused around their population centers, Petra and Bosra, and relations to other people. But thanks to the city honoring the Nabataean god-king, we can get a better understanding of the Nabataeans, both in respect to the civilization as a whole, but also to Nabataean Negev and their role in the history of this amazing place.