Arabia and Her Neighbours

  December 11, 2023   Read time 7 min
Arabia and Her Neighbours
THE peninsula of Arabia may be described as a vast rectangle of more than a million square miles in extent, placed between Africa and the main land-mass of Asia.
The Red Sea, which forms its western boundary, is part of the great rift valley which continues northwards through the Gulf of Akaba, the Dead Sea, and the River Jordan; the huge convulsions which produced it have piled up mountain ridges which rise steeply along the coast from the Hijaz to the Yemen, and the land thus slopes down from west to east towards the gentle declivity of the Persian Gulf. On three sides Arabia faces the sea; her only land frontier is the Syrian Desert, and as the crossing of these sandy wastes was at least as difficult as landing on her almost harbourless coasts, she long remained an isolated and inaccessible country, whose inhabitants aptly styled her Jazirat al-Arab, the island of the Arabs. The climate of Arabia is distinguished chiefly by high temperatures and the absence of moisture. The autumn monsoon deposits heavy showers on the coastline of Oman and the Yemen, but the steep hills force the rain-laden clouds to ascend rapidly and discharge their contents before they have passed over the inland slopes; the winter and spring rains of the Mediterranean region are scattered sparsely over the northern deserts, the Nufud, where the wilderness blossoms like a rose for a short season, but the southern interior is beyond their range, and is in consequence a dreadful, waterless waste, the Rub al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, which until recent times has rarely been crossed by European travellers. Arabia is destitute of lakes, forests and prairies; scarcely a perennial stream is found in the land; the wadis or rivers, which become raging torrents in the short wet period, are for most of the year dry and empty, and a man might cross their beds without being aware of their existence. Except in the high country, the heat of the summer is intense, yet the climate is not on the whole injurious to human health. The dryness of the atmosphere mitigates the strength of the sun’s rays; the nights are cool; in winter snow often lies in the highest valleys of the Jabal Shammar, a chain of hills immediately south of the Nufud, and frost is not unknown in the highlands of the Yemen.
Western Arabia, the mountainous region fronting the Red Sea, consists of three clearly defined areas: a hot, narrow coastal plain, known as the Tihama, or lowland; hills, with peaks rising to several thousand feet, which bear the name of Hijaz, or barrier, and beyond these, a great plateau which dips eastwards to the central deserts. In the north, the land of Midian, the mountains are wild and desolate, but in the Yemen, the Arabia Felix of the ancients, the hillsides receive a substantial rainfall, and grain crops and (since the sixteenth century) the coffee bean are grown in the fertile valleys. Here, in the extreme south-west corner of the peninsula, arose the earliest civilisations of old Arabia, those of the Minaeans and Sabaeans. Southern Arabia presents an inhospitable front to the Indian Ocean; its long coastline has few natural harbours, and its inhabited valleys lie inland and free from prying strangers. Its principal division, the Hadramawt, was famous in remote antiquity as the land of incense; the gum from the incense-trees was a prized article of commerce, and vast quantities of it were bought and burnt on the altars of Egyptian and Babylonian temples. Eastern Arabia is a land of contrasts. The shores of the Persian Gulf are flat, barren and humid, the natives deriving a scanty living from fishing and pearl-diving, but the province of Oman is filled with well-watered vales which run back to the foothills of the Jabal Akhdar, or Green Mountains, and whose palm-groves and fruit-orchards support a substantial population. The interior of Arabia is by no means all desert: many oases provide food and water for considerable settlements; springs and wells afford refreshment to the traveller, and some large fertile depressions, such as the Wadi Hadramawt in the south and the Wadi Sirhan in the north-west, have served for ages as channels of commerce.
The name ‘Arab,’ which may possibly be connected with the Hebrew root, abhar, to move or pass, has been often restricted to the desert-dwellers, the Badw or Bedouins, and repudiated by the townsmen and peasants, a practice which reminds us that the majority of the inhabitants of the peninsula have since historic times been pastoral nomads. The pattern of their life has remained unchanged through the centuries since the days of Abraham. Prisoners of the seasonal cycle, they spend the four summer months from June to September around the wells of their tribal territory, patiently enduring heat, thirst and choking sand-storms; in October, when the first rains fall, they strike their camps and depart for their grazing-grounds, which in a few weeks are covered with plants and coarse grasses. After seven or eight months of wandering over and consuming these pastures, they converge in May on their wells, to await with the stoic fatalism of their race the approach of another summer. Their hunger is barely appeased by a single daily meal of rice, dates and camel’s milk; their clothing, consisting of a long shirt, a flowing upper garment and a headdress held in position by a cord, is worn till it rots, and their habitation is a tent of coarse cloth made of goat’s hair or sheep’s wool, sparsely furnished with mattresses, cooking-pots and water-skins. Every Bedouin tent shelters a single family; several families constitute a kawm or clan, and clans linked by blood relationship make up a kabilah or tribe, to whose particular name is commonly prefixed the word Banu, sons of. To no authority outside his tribe does the Bedouin acknowledge any allegiance; his shaikh or chief is merely a first among equals, chosen by the elders from the adult males of the ruling house, whose business is to govern his people according to ancient custom and to defend them against their enemies. For intertribal war is endemic in such a society: the fierce competition for the possession of wells, sheep, camels and pastures, the only wealth of a nomad people, constantly incites one tribe to launch a ghazw or raid on the territory of another. As no supreme public authority is recognized, a crime committed by a member of one tribe against a member of another, unless purged by a compensatory payment, may produce a vicious blood-feud that persists for years.
The manners and morals of the Bedouins reflect the conditions and needs of desert life. Hospitality is perhaps the chief virtue of the nomad: in a land where man is engaged in a perpetual struggle against nature, food and shelter are never withheld from the traveller, and even a fugitive fleeing from the vengeance of his foes has but to touch the tent-ropes of a family to be assured of temporary sanctuary within its domain. Bedouin women enjoy more freedom than their urban sisters, and the heavy physical toil of the camp is shared by both sexes. Pride of descent is strong among the tribesmen, who carry in their heads long and complicated genealogies: to preserve the unity and purity of the family, they commonly marry first cousins. Divorce is easy: a wife is usually repudiated for childlessness. Large families are common, but dirt and ignorance account for the high infant mortality. The threat of famine always hung over Bedouin society; the nomads often refused to be burdened with extra mouths to feed, and the horrible custom of burying alive female babies was abolished only by the humane edict of the Prophet.
Whether the Bedouins were the original inhabitants of the country, whether the ancestors of the Arabs migrated from Africa or Mesopotamia, and whether the land was first peopled by Semites or non-Semites, are questions at present beyond the reach of solution. The national tradition proclaimed a duality of descent: the Arabs of the North were descended from Adnan, those of the South from Kahtan. This tradition is of great antiquity, since Kahtan is evidently the Joktan of the Old Testament, and the famous ‘table of races’ in the tenth chapter of Genesis, which dates from about 900 B.C., makes the South Arabians his sons. The language of the South was different from that of the North, and was written in a different alphabetic script. The northerners were mainly nomads, the southerners settled agriculturists. Whether the two groups belonged to different racial stocks, we do not know. What is fairly certain is that Arabia entered history with the domestication of the camel somewhere around 1000 B.C.

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