Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nabatean security

Raise your hand if you know who the Nabateans were. OK, now that we've established that, the Nabateans were an ancient people who lived in much of what's now Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. (I'm no expert, but the article on Wikipedia seems pretty good.)

So what do the Nabateans have to do with security? Separation of duties, security by obscurity, and perimeter security. Let me explain. I spent last week in Israel, mostly visiting family, but also doing some sightseeing. And like any security engineer with a "security mindset", I thought about security as I saw some of the ancient sites.

As I learned in my visit to Avdat, there was an ancient route for transporting spices and perfumes from what is now Yemen to Greece. The perfume makers kept their technology a secret, but needed to get the product to market. The Nabateans knew how to cross the desert safely, which the perfume makers didn't know. But they didn't know how to safely cross the Mediterranean, which the Greeks knew. So each group had their role, with strongly enforced separation of duties. (Nabateans would be killed for drinking alcohol, which I presume was a method of ensuring that they didn't spill the beans.)

So how did the Nabateans cross the desert safely? First, they established cisterns to hold the water, since oases aren't entirely reliable. They camouflaged them, so they wouldn't be found by other desert wanderers. Second, they marked their route using a series of large stones, but again they were set up in such a way that they could only be followed by one who knew the secret to interpretation. In other words, security by obscurity.

And perimeter security? The Nabateans got fabulously wealthy through the perfume and spice trade, and eventually built the city of Petra (in modern Jordan). Petra is several respects. The "buildings" weren't actually buildings, but rather elaborate caves carved into the rock walls. But for purposes of this discussion, the important thing is that Petra is in a very narrow valley with high walls - the only way to attack the city was by coming in at one narrow entrance to the valley, which could be defended relatively easily - a simple perimeter defense, just as a firewall is (incorrectly) believed to provide that feature today.

[For those considering visiting Avdat and/or Petra, I highly recommend doing it in the spring or fall - the summertime is far too hot to make these comfortable vacation destinations!]


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