Powerful Women Of Ancient Arabia

The eyes of Hinat gaze at us across time; her handsome, defined features carrying a look of stern melancholy that suggests a weight of responsibility. Hers is a face as familiar yet as distant as a face can be, instantly relatable despite being more than 2,000 years old. Because Hinat is the scientifically modelled likeness of a Nabataean woman buried in one of Hegra’s iconic ancient tombs. We may only be able to piece together fragments of Hinat’s story, but what Hegra is teaching us about Nabataean society suggests that she enjoyed significant respect and independence.

The Nabataeans were among the last pre-Islamic civilisations to leave their mark on the oasis valley of AlUla, a place with a heritage that stretches across 7,000 years of continuous human settlement. Neolithic peoples carved enigmatic rock art and built monumental structures that still inspire a sense of awe and wonder; the successive kingdoms of Dadan and then Lihyan harnessed the oasis for agriculture and built the thriving city of Dadan that is gradually revealing its story to archaeologists. And, from what evidence suggests was around the 1st century BCE, AlUla attracted the attention of the Nabataeans. 

A nomadic people who were the architects of Petra in modern Jordan, the Nabataeans were accomplished water managers and master traders, combining their skills to control the Incense Route across the Arabian desert, particularly the movement of near-priceless frankincense from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean. A vibrant new city at Hegra emerged.

It was here that Hinat lived, in a bustling commercial and cultural centre whose enormous wealth is strikingly evident today. The people of Petra and Hegra shared cultural ties that are most apparent in the distinctive tombs they carved out of the sandstone. Finely decorated facades speak of Nabataean wealth and artistry, their design and detail reflecting the cultural mix of Persian, Greek, Egyptian, and Roman influences that came with international trade. 

“This is the tomb Hinat daughter of Wahbu made for herself and her children and descendants forever,” reads the inscription above the mausoleum where some 78 individuals have been discovered, including the one upon which Hinat is modelled. But the inscription gives us more than a name: it tells us that women in Nabataean Hegra had the legal right to inherit, own, and dispose of property—and the money to commission their monumental tombs. 

This insight contributes to our growing understanding of Nabataean society: the prominence of female deities in their pantheon, the inclusion of women on their coinage, and evidence that women were literate and encouraged to take up professions. It seems that from princesses to priestesses to businesswomen, Nabataean women enjoyed a legal and financial independence that was largely unusual for the time.

But the legacy of strong, independent women lives on in modern Hegra. Today, Hinat’s story is brought to life for visitors by specially trained storytellers, rawis, many of whom are local women. Schooled in the languages of the world and the constantly emerging history of Hegra, they bring the stories of ancient AlUla to life. The pride they take in their chosen profession reflects the pride they have in AlUla: their words, like the face of Hinat, are bringing the past to life.