's Ancient Civilizations of the World/Pre-Islamic Arabia

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Geography[edit | edit source]

The Arabian Peninsula.

The Arabian Peninsula is located in the Asia continent and bounded by (clockwise) the Persian Gulf on the northeast, the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman on the east, the Arabian Sea on the southeast and south, the Gulf of Aden on the south, the Bab-el-Mandeb strait on the southwest, and the Red Sea on the southwest and west.

The geography of the Arabian peninsula is arid and volcanic, which made agriculture difficult except near oases or springs. Towns on the peninsula were few and far in between and those who did not settle in towns became part of nomadic tribes based on blood kinship. Nomads would often take to attacking trade caravans traveling across the desert from town to town.

History[edit | edit source]

Pre-Historic to Iron Age[edit | edit source]

There were many civilization in the Arab Peninsula before Islam. Of particular importance were:

  • The Ubaid culture(5300-4000 BCE), which is characterized by large village settlements, with multi-roomed rectangular mud-brick houses and the appearance of the first temples of public architecture in Mesopotamia. Moreover, during the Ubaid culture, the movement towards urbanization began. According to Prof. Susan Pollock, "Agriculture and animal husbandry [domestication] were widely practiced in sedentary communities."
  • The Umm an-Nar culture (2600–2000 BCE), which is characterized by circular tombs with well fitted stones in the outer wall and multiple human remains within.
  • The Magan and 'ad civilization. Magan is attested as the name of a trading partner of the Sumerians. It is often assumed to have been located in Oman. The A'adids established themselves in South Arabia (modern-day Yemen), settling to the east of the Qahtan tribe. They established the Kingdom of ʿĀd around the 10th century BCE to the 3rd century CE. The ʿĀd nation were known to the Greeks and Egyptians. Claudius Ptolemy's Geographos (2nd century CE) refers to the place by a Hellenized version of the inhabitants of the capital Ubar.
  • The Thamud civilization were either a tribe or a group of tribes, that created a large kingdom and flourished from 3000 to 200 BCE. Recent archaeological work has revealed numerous Thamudic rock writings and pictures not only in Yemen but also throughout central Arabia. They are mentioned in sources such as the Qur'an, old Arabian poetry, Assyrian annals (Tamudi), in a Greek temple inscription from the northwest Hejaz of 169 CE, in a 5th-century Byzantine source and in Old North Arabian graffiti around Tayma.

South Arabian kingdoms[edit | edit source]

Kingdom of Ma'in (7th century BCE – 1st century BCE)[edit | edit source]

The Minaeans or Maʻin (المعينيون) or were an ancient Arabian culture of Yemen that flourished during the 1st millennium BC. Their Minaean Kingdom was one of important kingdoms in ancient Yemen and Southwestern Arabia. Their capital was Qarnawu/Qarnaw (NW Yemen) along the strip of desert called Sayhad by medieval Arab geographers (and that is called now Ramlat al-Sab`atayn). The Minaeans, like some other Arabian and Yemenite kingdoms of the same period, were involved in the extremely lucrative spice trade, especially frankincense and myrrh.

Kingdom of Saba (9th century BCE – 275 CE)[edit | edit source]

The Sabaeans (khaki), the Kingdom of Hadhramaut (violet), the Late Kingdom of Qataban (light blue), and the Himyarite Kingdom (red), in the 3rd century CE.

The Sabaeans or Sabeans (السبأيون‎) were an ancient people speaking an Old South Arabian language who lived in what is today Yemen, in the south west of the Arabian Peninsula. The ancient Sabaean Kingdom established power in the early 1st millennium BC. It was conquered, in the 1st century BC, by the Himyarites. After the disintegration of the first Himyarite empire of the Kings of Saba', the Middle Sabaean Kingdom reappeared in the early 2nd century. The Sabaean kingdom was finally conquered by the Himyarites in the late 3rd century and at that time the capital was Ma'rib. It was located along the strip of desert called Sayhad by medieval Arab geographers, which is now named Ramlat al-Sab`atayn.

The Sabaeans, like the other Yemenite kingdoms of the same period, were involved in the extremely lucrative spice trade, especially frankincense and myrrh. They left behind many inscriptions in the monumental Musnad (Old South Arabian) alphabet, as well as numerous documents in the cursive Zabur script. In the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Augustus claims that:

By my command and under my auspices two armies were led at about the same time into Ethiopia and into Arabia, which is called the Blessed [?]. Great forces of each enemy people were slain in battle and several towns captured. In Ethiopia the advance reached the town of Nabata, which is close to Meroe; in Arabia the army penetrated as far as the territory of the Sabaeans and the town of Mariba.

The Sabaeans are referenced in the Book of Job for slaughtering the livestock and servants of the eponymous character.

Kingdom of Hadhramaut (8th century BCE – 3rd century CE)[edit | edit source]

A Griffin from the royal palace at Shabwa, the capital city of Hadhramaut.

The first known reference to the Hadramaut civilization are carved inscriptions dating from the 8th century BCE. It was first referenced by an outside civilization in an Old Sabaic inscription of Karab'il Watar from the early 7th century BCE, in which the King of Hadramaut, Yada`'il, is mentioned as being one of his allies. When the Minaeans took control of the caravan routes in the 4th century BCE, however, Hadramaut became one of its confederates, probably because of commercial interests. It later became independent and was invaded by the growing Yemeni kingdom of Himyar toward the end of the 1st century BCE, but it was able to repel the attack. Hadramaut annexed Qataban in the second half of the 2nd century CE, reaching its greatest size. The kingdom of Hadramaut was eventually conquered by the Himyarite king Shammar Yahri'sh around 300 CE, unifying all of the South Arabian kingdoms.

Kingdom of Awsan (8th century BCE – 6th century BCE)[edit | edit source]

The ancient Kingdom of Awsan in South Arabia , with a capital at Hagar Yahirr, was one of the most important small kingdoms of ancient South Arabia.

Archaeological excavations in the mid 1990s, date a resurgence of the city to the end of the 2nd century BCE lasting until the beginning of the 1st century CE. About 160,000 m² were encircled by walls, and the foundations of dwellings built of fired brick have been noted. Culture depended on annual flood irrigation in spring and summer, when flash floods down the wadis temporarily flooded the fields, leaving light silt that has since been wind-eroded, revealing the ancient patterns of fields and ditches. Radiocarbon dating of irrigation sediments in the environs suggest that essential irrigation was abandoned in the first half of the 1st century CE, and the population dispersed. This time the site was never rebuilt.

Hagar Yahirr was the center of an exceptionally large city for South Arabia, influenced by Hellenistic culture, with temples and a palace structure surrounded by mudbrick dwellings, with a probable site for a souq or market and a caravanserai serving camel caravans. The city seems to have been destroyed in the 7th century BCE by the king and mukarrib of Saba Karib'il Watar, according to a Sabaean text that reports the victory in terms that attest to its significance for the Sabaeans.

Kingdom of Qataban (4th century BCE – 3rd century CE)[edit | edit source]

Qataban was one of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms which thrived in the Beihan valley. Like the other Southern Arabian kingdoms, it gained great wealth from the trade of frankincense and myrrh incense, which were burned at altars. The capital of Qataban was named Timna and was located on the trade route which passed through the other kingdoms of Hadramaut, Saba and Ma'in. The chief deity of the Qatabanians was Amm, or "Uncle" and the people called themselves the "children of Amm".

Kingdom of Himyar (2nd century BCE – 525 CE)[edit | edit source]

The Himyarite Kingdom or Himyar (مملكة حِمْيَر) was historically referred to as the Homerite Kingdom by the Greeks and the Romans. Established in 110 BC, it took as its capital the modern day city of Sana'a after the ancient city of Zafar. The Kingdom conquered neighbouring Saba (Sheba) in c.25 BC, Qataban in c.200 CE, and Hadramaut c.300 CE. Its political fortunes relative to Saba changed frequently until it finally conquered the Sabaean Kingdom around 280 CE.

Aksumite occupation of Yemen (525 – 570 CE)[edit | edit source]

The Aksumite occupation of the South of the Arabian Peninsula is connected with Dhu Nuwas, a Himyarite king who changed the state religion to Judaism and began to persecute the Christians in Yemen. Outraged, Kaleb, the Christian King of Aksum with the encouragement of the Byzantine Emperor Justin I invaded and annexed Yemen. The Aksumites controlled Himyar and attempted to invade Mecca in the year 570 CE. Eastern Yemen remained allied to the Sassanids via tribal alliances with the Lakhmids, which later brought the Sassanid army into Yemen, ending the Aksumite period.

Sassanid period (570 – 630 CE)[edit | edit source]

The Persian king Khosrau I united forces with the semi-legendary Himyarite king of Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan to drive the Ethiopian Aksumites out of Yemen. Southern Arabia became a Persian dominion under a Yemenite vassal and thus came within the sphere of influence of the Sassanid Empire. After the demise of the Lakhmids, another army was sent to Yemen, making it a province of the Sassanid Empire under a Persian satrap. Following the death of Khosrau II in 628, the Persian governor in Southern Arabia, Badhan, converted to Islam and Yemen followed the new religion.

North Arabian Kingdoms[edit | edit source]

Kingdom of Qedar (8th century BCE – c. 2nd century CE)[edit | edit source]

The Qedarites (also Kedarites/Cedarenes, Cedar/Kedar/Qedar, and Kingdom of Qedar) were a largely nomadic, ancient Arab tribal confederation. Described as "the most organized of the Northern Arabian tribes", at the peak of its power in the 6th century BC it controlled a large region between the Persian Gulf and the Sinai Peninsula.It is unclear when the Qedarites ceased to exist as a separately defined confederation or people. Allies with the Nabataeans, it is likely that they were subsumed into the Nabataean state around the 2nd century AD.

Biblical tradition holds that the Qedarites are named for Qedar, the second son of Ishmael, mentioned in the Bible's books of Genesis (25:13) and 1 Chronicles (1:29), where there are also frequent references to Qedar as a tribe. The earliest extrabiblical inscriptions discovered by archaeologists that mention the Qedarites are from the Neo-Assyrian Empire. There are also Aramaic and Old South Arabian inscriptions recalling the Qedarites, who further appear briefly in the writings of Classical Greek and Roman historians, such as Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, and Diodorus.

The Achaemenids in Northern Arabia[edit | edit source]

Achaemenid Arabia corresponded to the lands between Egypt and Mesopotamia, later known as Arabia Petraea. According to Herodotus, king Cambyses II of the Achaemenid Empire did not subdue the Arabs when he attacked Egypt in 525 BCE. His successor Darius the Great does not mention the Arabs in the Behistun Inscription from the first years of his reign, but mentions them in later texts. This suggests that Darius conquered this part of Arabia.

Interestingly, Arabs were not considered as subjects to the Achaemenids, as other peoples were, and were exempt from taxation. Instead, they simply provided 1000 talents of frankincense a year. They also helped the Achaemenids invade Egypt by providing water skins to the troops crossing the desert.

Nabateans (37 – c. 100 CE)[edit | edit source]

2nd century BC Nabatean tomb at Petra, in Jordan.

The Nabataeans, also Nabateans (الأنباط‎), were ancient peoples of North Arabia, whose oasis settlements in 37 – c. 100 CE, gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Arabia and Syria, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Their loosely-controlled trading network, which centered on strings of oases that they controlled, where agriculture was intensively practiced in limited areas, and on the routes that linked them, had no securely defined boundaries in the surrounding desert. Roman Emperor Trajan conquered the Nabataean kingdom, annexing it to the Roman Empire creating the province of Arabia Petraea, where their individual culture, easily identified by their characteristic finely-potted painted ceramics, became dispersed in the general Greco-Roman culture and was eventually lost.

Palmyra and Roman Arabia[edit | edit source]

Map showing roman emperor Trajan control of northwestern Arabia, 117 CE.

There is evidence of Roman intervention in northern Arabia dating to the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). During the reign of Tiberius (14–37 CE), the already wealthy and elegant north Arabian city of Palmyra, located along the caravan routes linking Persia with the Mediterranean ports of Roman Syria and Phoenicia, was made part of the Roman province of Syria. The area steadily grew further in importance as a trade route linking Persia, India, China, and the Roman Empire. During the following period of great prosperity, the Arab citizens of Palmyra adopted customs and modes of dress from both the Iranian Parthian world to the east and the Graeco-Roman west. In 129, Hadrian visited the city and was so enthralled by it that he proclaimed it a free city and renamed it Palmyra Hadriana.

Remember that the Roman province of Arabia Petraea was created at the beginning of the 2nd century by emperor Trajan. It was centered on Petra, but included even areas of northern Arabia under Nabatean control. Recently has been discovered evidence that Roman legions occupied Mada'in Saleh in the Hijaz mountains area of northwestern Arabia, increasing the extension of the "Arabia Petraea" province. The desert frontier of Arabia Petraea was called by the Romans the Limes Arabicus. As a frontier province, it included a desert area of northeastern Arabia populated by the nomadic Saraceni.

Qahtanites[edit | edit source]

In the 6th century CE, Arabia Petraea was a border province between the Roman and Persian empires, and from the early centuries CE was increasingly affected by South Arabian influence, notably with the Ghassanids, Lakhmids and Kindites migrating north from the 3rd century. This was the last major migration of non-Muslims out of Yemen to the north and southwestern borders.

Greeks and Romans referred to all the nomadic population of the desert in the Near East as Arabi. The Greeks called Yemen "Arabia Felix" (Happy Arabia). The Romans called the vassal nomadic states within the Roman Empire "Arabia Petraea" and called unconquered deserts bordering the empire to the south and east Arabia Magna (Larger Arabia).

Bedouin tribes[edit | edit source]

Consisted of major clans and the tribes were nomadic. The lineage followed through males, since the tribes were named after the males ancestors. Thus, much of the information available relating to the early lineages of the predominantly desert-dwelling Bedouin Arabs is based on biblical genealogy. The several different Bedouin tribes throughout Arabian history are traditionally regarded as having emerged from two main branches: the Rabi`ah, from which amongst others the Banu Hanifa emerged, and the Mudhar, from which amongst others the Banu Kinanah (and later Muhammad's own tribe, the Quraysh) emerged.

Religion[edit | edit source]

There are some materials on which to base a description of pre-Islamic religion, particularly in Mecca and the Hejaz (a region in the west of present-day Saudi Arabia). The book The biography of the Prophet, originally compiled by Ibn Ishaq, around 740 A.D, gives an insight into the conditions pervailing in Mecca around Prophet's time. The Qur'an and the hadith, or recorded oral traditions, give some hints as to this religion. Islamic commentators have elaborated these hints into an account that, while coherent, is doubted by academics in part or in whole.

Many of the tribes in Arabia had practiced Judaism. Christianity is known to have been active in the region before the rise of Islam, especially unorthodox, possibly gnostic forms of it. Before the emergence of Islam, the Ka'aba in Mecca housed the idols of 360 Arab deities and would eventually be destroyed by the followers of Muhammad, when the prophet took the city in 630 CE. Muhammad came from a group of Arab monotheists following in the Abrahamic tradition, known as the Hanifs.

Attribution[edit | edit source]

"Pre-Islamic Arabia" (Wikipedia)