Ancient Arabia

The Arabian peninsula has been at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa since mankind’s earliest migrations, becoming the center of religious awakening that spread out in four directions.

Greek Warriors via Costumes of All Nations (1882)
The Ancient Arab World

Statue of Ammaalay, Saba 1st century BCE; Yemen

Arabia is the name of the country to the west and south of Mesopotamia, a vast arid desert that is home to the birthplace of Islam. In ancient times, the Romans referred to this region with their latin names of there three provinces of Arabia Felix, Arabia Deserta (Happy Arabia and Desert Arabia) and Arabia Petraea (Arabia ruled from Petra). Four thousands of years Arab tribesmen have crossed this land in camel caravans, their ships of the desert, and traded with civilizations since the earliest beginnings of recorded history.

The History of the Arabian Peninsula

Arabian Tribesmen Fighting Persians

The nomadic tribes from Arabia Desert, in Akkadian called Aribi, frequently invaded the surrounding countries -i.e., Arabia Felix and Mesopotamia-, where they sometimes managed to settle. Hardly anything about these isolated ‘people without history’ is known, although it seems certain that they became dromedary riders in the tenth or ninth century BCE. In the Parthian and Roman period, several Arabian dynasties ruled towns in what is now Syria and Iraq: Palmyra, Emesa, Edessa, Hatra, Charax and Gerrha. Arabia Petraea or Nabataea These Arabs lived between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and could not maintain their isolated way of life. They build several towns; Petra became their famous capital.

The oldest reference to these Arabs can be found in the biblical book Genesis, where Arabian merchants buy and sell Jacob’s son Joseph. Other references can be found in the Assyrian king Salmanasser’s account of a battle in 853 BCE and in the reports about a kingdom named Aribi, that is mentioned from Tiglath-Pileser III (ruled 745-727) onward and was an Assyrian vassal until the second half of the seventh century. Later, the Arabs were subdued by the Babylonian king Nabonidus, who made the oasis of Temâ his capital and reached Iatribu (modern Medina).

A piece of Face Armour used by later Arabian Furusiyya Cavalry

A piece of Face Armour used by later Arabian Furusiyya Cavalry

According to the Greek researcher Herodotus, the Persian king Cambyses did not subdue the Arabs when he attacked Egypt in 525 BCE. His successor Darius I 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. There are no indications that these Arabs were no loyal subjects of later Persian kings. After the Macedonian king Alexander the Great had conquered the Achaemenid empire (between 335 and 323), this part of Arabia remained more or less autonomous for centuries; it is called the Nabataean kingdom In 106 CE, however, the part corresponding to modern Jordan was made a province of the Roman empire by the emperor Trajan, who wanted to protect the road from Damascus to Alexandria. There were several cities in this province: from north to south Adraa (modern Dar’â), Dion (unknown), Gerasa (Jarash), Philadelphia (Amman) and Aila (Aqaba).

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Yemen, the Ancient Arabia Felix

An Ancient Arab from the Great Stair Relief in Persepolis, Persia

TArabia Felix In Antiquity, modern Yemen was famous for its incense and cinnamon – the latter being imported from India. There were several minor kingdoms in Arabia Felix:Saba (capital: Marib, later Sana) was the leading power in Yemen under the kings Yathî’amar (last quarter of the eighth century BCE) and Karib’il Watar (first half seventh century). These men may be identical to the kings Itiamara and Kariba’ilu mentioned in Assyrian annals. The famous story of the queen of Sheba’s visit to the Jewish king Solomon (1 Kings 10.1-10) is somehow related to Saba, but is is unclear how. The city state Ma’in was a kingdom of traders, which gained its independence from Saba at an unknown moment before circa 375 BCE. The Minaeans controlled the incense trade. Qataban (capital Timna) had been an ally of Saba, but became its main rival. In the third century, it seized the southwest from Saba; these territories were called Himyar. Hadramaut (capital Šabwa) was situated in the East. The Hadramautians produced incense and traded cinnamon from the port of Qana’. Zufar was situated in modern Oman. Hardly anything about this country is known, because archaeologists have not found texts. The Roman geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria calls its capital Trade center of the Omanians; others have identified this with other towns known from ancient texts, Ubar and Iram. (The latter is mentioned in the Quran as a splendid city, being punished by God for its wickedness; 89.6-13)

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The Nabataeans

The Lost City of Petra, in Modern Day Jordan eas the seat of the Ancient Arabian Kingdom of Nabataea

The Lost City of Petra, in Modern Day Jordan eas the seat of the Ancient Arabian Kingdom of Nabataea

The lost City of Petra, was the long-hidden site that was revealed to the Western world by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. Its famous description“a rose-red city half as old as time” is the final line of a sonnet by the minor Victorian poet John William Burgon, which won the Newdigate Prize for poetry, given at Oxford, 1845. Burgon had not actually visited Petra, which remained inaccessible to all but the most intrepid Europeans, guided by local guides with armed escorts, until after World War I.

The Nabataeans , were a trading people of ancient Arabia, whose oasis settlements in the time of Josephus gave the name of Nabatene to the borderland between Syria and Arabia, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. Their loosely-controlled trading network, which centered on strings of oases and the routes that linked them, had no securely defined boundaries in the surrounding desert.

For the ancient Arabian people known as the Nabataeans, history arrived in 312 BC, when an army of Greek mercenaries crossed the Syrian desert into present-day Jordan and headed toward the southern tip of the Dead sea. When they reached their destination, their commander – a general named Hieronymus of Cardia – couldn’t believe his eyes: scores of Arabic-speaking tribesmen were camped on the shore, with pack-camels couched and reed rafts beached, waiting for what they called the thawr – the word was Arabic for “bull” – to appear in the middle of the sulfur- smelling waters.

Bearded head of Nabataean priest, Petra, circa first century A.D.

Bearded head of Nabataean priest, Petra, circa first century A.D.

The Nabataean origins remain obscure. On the similarity of sounds, Jerome suggested a connection with the tribe Nebaioth mentioned in Genesis, but modern historians are cautious about an early Nabatean history. The Babylonian captivity that began in 586 BC opened a power vacuum in Judah, and as Edomites moved into Judaean grazing lands, Nabataean inscriptions began to be left in Edomite territory (earlier than 312 BC, when they were attacked at Petra without success by Antigonus I). Petra or Sela was the ancient capital of Edom; the Nabataeans must have occupied the old Edomite country, and succeeded to its commerce, after the Edomites took advantage of the Babylonian captivity to press forward into southern Judaea. This migration, the date of which cannot be determined, also made them masters of the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba and the important harbor of Elath. Here, according to Agatharchides, they were for a time very troublesome, as wreckers and pirates, to the reopened commerce between Egypt and the East, until they were chastised by the Ptolemaic rulers of Alexandria.

The Nabataeans had already some tincture of foreign culture when they first appear in history. That culture was naturally Aramaic; they wrote a letter to Antigonus in Syriac letters, and Aramaic continued to be the language of their coins and inscriptions when the tribe grew into a kingdom, and profited by the decay of the Seleucids to extend its borders northward over the more fertile country east of the Jordan. They occupied Hauran, and in about 85 BC their king Aretas became lord of Damascus and Coele-Syria. Nabataeans became the Arabic name for Aramaeans, whether in Syria or Iraq, a fact which has been incorrectly held to prove that the Nabataeans were originally Aramaean immigrants from Babylonia. Proper names on their inscriptions suggest that they were true Arabs who had come under Aramaic influence. Starcky identifies the Nabatu of southern Arabia as their ancestors. However different groups amongst the Nabateans wrote their names in slightly different ways, consequently archeologists are reluctant to say that they were all the same tribe, or that any one group is the original Nabataeans.

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Ancient Arabian Beliefs

Statue of Victory (Amman) holding celestial disk with head of Tyche (Fortune)

Arabian mythology comprises the ancient, pre-Islamic beliefs of the Arabs. Prior to the arrival and initial codification of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula in 622 CE, year one of the Islamic calendar, the physical center of Islam, the Kaaba of Mecca, did not hold only the single symbol of “the God” as it does now.

The Kaaba was instead covered in symbols representing the myriad demons, djinn, demigods and other assorted creatures which represented the profoundly polytheistic environment of pre-Islamic Arabia. We can infer from this plurality an exceptionally broad context in which mythology could flourish. Relation with Islamic mythology Stories of genies, magic lamps, flying carpets, and wishes contained in tales from the Arabian Nights and other works have been passed down through the generations. Islamic mythology has probably been influenced to a large degree by Arabian mythology and the two are often difficult to distinguish. The two differ, in that Islam prohibits sorcery.

Many Islamic elders have told their children bedtime stories about a snake that is mentioned in Islamic Hadith as punishment for missing prayer in hope that their children will establish what has been made obligatory to them. The concept of the Evil Eye is considered by some to be mentioned in the Qur’an, in Surat al-Falaq (in which one is told to seek refuge “from the mischief of the envious one as he envies”), and is held to be true by millions of Muslims. The Hand of Fatima is sometimes used to neutralize the effect of Evil Eye, though its use is forbidden in Islam, as are all talismans and superstitions. Among traditional muslims, various verses from the Qur’an such as an-Nas and al-Falaq are sometimes recited for blessing, or protection from such superstitions.

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The Holy City of Mecca

An Map Showing the Hajj, or Pilgrimage to The Holy City of Mecca

Mecca (Makkah in Arabic) is the center of the Islamic world and the birthplace of both the Prophet Muhammad and the religion he founded. Located in the Sirat Mountains of central Saudi Arabia and 45miles inland from the Red Sea port of Jidda (Jeddah), ancient Mecca was an oasis on the old caravan trade route that linked the Mediterranean world with South Arabia, East Africa, and South Asia.

By Roman and Byzantine times it had developed into an important trade and religious center, and was known as Macoraba. The sacred land in which Mecca and Medina are located, known as the Hijaz, is the western region of the Arabian peninsula, a narrow tract of land about 875 miles long east of the Red Sea with the Tropic of Cancer running through its center. The land is called Hijaz, meaning barrier, because its backbone, the Sarat Mountains consist of volcanic peaks and natural depressions creating a stark and rugged environment dominated by intense sunlight and little rain fall. According to ancient Arabian traditions, when Adam and Eve were cast from Paradise they fell to different parts of the earth; Adam on a mountain on the island of Serendip, or Sri Lanka, and Eve in Arabia, on the border of the Red Sea near the port of Jeddah. For two hundred years Adam and Eve wandered separate and lonely about the earth. Finally, in consideration of their penitence and wretchedness, God permitted them to come together again on Mt. Arafat, near the present city of Mecca (previously called Becca or Bakkah, meaning narrow valley). Adam then prayed to God that a shrine might be granted to him similar to that at which he had worshiped in Paradise. Adam’s prayers were answered and a shrine was built. (This is a pre-Islamic legend and the Koran, the Islamic Holy Scripture, says nothing whatsoever of Adam’s connection with Mecca or of a shrine he prayed at). Adam is said to have died and been buried in Mecca and Eve in Jeddah by the sea which still bears her name, Jiddah, meaning maternal ancestor in Arabic. This shrine passed away during the era of the flood, at which time the body of Adam began to float on the water while the Ark of Noah circumambulated around it and the Ka’ba seven times before journeying north where it landed after the flood.

The Prophet Abraham, the founder of all three monotheistic religions in Ancient Arabia

The Prophet Abraham, the founder of all three monotheistic religions in Ancient Arabia

A thousand years later, according to one Islamic tradition in 1892 BC, the great patriarch of monotheism, Abraham, or Ibrahim, came to Mecca with his Egyptian wife Hagar and their child Ishmael. Here Hagar lived with her son in a small house, at the site of the earlier shrine, and Abraham came to visit her on occasion. Nearly all scholars trace the sanctity of Mecca to the Ka’ba edifice later rebuilt at God’s express command by Abraham and Ishmael. Mention must be made, however, of the Zamzan spring and the nearby holy hills of Safa and Marwa (these hills have since disappeared under the leveling topography of modern Mecca). These geographical formations certainly predated the mythical construction of the Ka’ba and could therefore have given birth to the original sanctity of the place. According to Islamic legend, Abraham had left Mecca on God’s command, leaving Hagar and Ishmael with only some water and dates. Hagar nursed her son and they drank the remaining water. Soon thereafter, faced with great thirst, Ishmael started to cry and Hagar began to run between the hills of Safa and Marwa looking for water. She repeated the journey seven times until an angel appeared to her, striking the ground with his wing, with the result that the Zamzam spring, which Muslims consider as a tributary of the waters of Paradise, sprang forth. Henceforth Mecca was graced with a source of water which has continued flowing to this day. After the departure and return of Abraham to Mecca, and his discovery that Hagar had died, Abraham was then ordered by God to make Hagar’s house into a temple where people could pray. Therefore, he demolished the house and began construction of the Ka’ba. God gave Abraham precise instructions concerning how to rebuild the shrine and Gabriel showed him the location. It is said that by the grace of God the Divine Peace (al-sakinah) descended in the form of a wind which brought a cloud in the shape of a dragon that revealed to Abraham and Ishmael the site of the old temple. They were told to construct the shrine directly upon the shadow of the cloud, neither exceeding nor diminishing its dimensions. Legends say the shrine was built from the stones of five sacred mountains: Mt. Sinai, the Mount of Olives, Mt. Lebanon, Al-Judi, and nearby Mt. Hira. Upon the completion of the shrine, Gabriel brought a magic stone for the sanctuary. Different sources speculate that this stone was a meteorite or a great white sapphire from the Garden of Eden, that it had been concealed on the nearby sacred mountain of Abu Qubays during the period of the flood, and that it was later restored to Abraham for inclusion in his version of the Ka’ba. Whatever its ultimate origin, the stone was most probably a sacred object of the pre-Islamic Arabian nomads who had settled around the Zamzam spring that flows at the center of old Mecca.

Upon completion of the Ka’ba, Abraham and Ishmael, accompanied by the archangel Gabriel, then performed all the elements which constitute the Hajj ritual of today. The Ka’ba they had constructed was destined to become the most important sacred site of the nomadic tribes that inhabited the great Arabian deserts. (Abraham was later to leave Mecca to die in Palestine in al-Khalil). With the passage of centuries, the original Abrahamic observances at the Ka’ba were progressively diluted by the addition of various pagan elements (these arriving via the caravan routes that led to Mecca). The pilgrims of pre-Islamic times visited not only the house of Abraham and the sacred stone of Gabriel but also the collection of stone idols (representing different deities) housed in and around the Ka’ba. There were said to be 360 different deities including Awf, the great bird, Hubal the Nabatean god, the three celestial goddesses Manat, al-Uzza and al-Lat, and statues of Mary and Jesus. The most important of all these deities, and chief of the Meccan pantheon, was known as Allah (meaning “the god”). Worshiped throughout southern Syria and northern Arabia, and the only deity not represented by an idol in the Ka’ba, Allah would later become the sole god of the Muslims.

Information about Arabia courtesy of

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