Arabian Peninsula Begins to Rise

  December 11, 2023   Read time 6 min
Arabian Peninsula Begins to Rise
From this time onwards Arabia was drawn into the stream of international trade, and the first civilized societies appeared in the peninsula. It is possible that the disorders in Egypt, which followed the fall of the ‘New Empire’ in the eleventh century B.C. and led to the loss of its overseas territories, enabled the South Arabians to secure naval
As early as 854 B.C., an Assyrian inscription records that ‘Gindibu the Arab’ (the first of his race to be named in history) led a troop of a thousand camels against Shalmaneser III in fighting along the border of the Syrian Desert, while the visit of the queen of Sheba (Saba, in the Yemen) to Solomon, which if historical must have occurred in the tenth century B.C., indicates that camel caravans were already travelling at that date, laden with the products of the East, between South Arabia and Palestine. From this time onwards Arabia was drawn into the stream of international trade, and the first civilized societies appeared in the peninsula. It is possible that the disorders in Egypt, which followed the fall of the ‘New Empire’ in the eleventh century B.C. and led to the loss of its overseas territories, enabled the South Arabians to secure naval control of the Red Sea and establish a virtual monopoly of the incense traffic from the Hadramawt and the spice trade with India. At some time between 1000 and 500 B.C., two strong kingdoms rose to prominence in the Yemen, those of Ma‘in and Saba. The former sent their caravans northwards towards the Mediterranean markets; a big Minaean colony was settled at Dedan or Daydan in the Tihama, and Minaean inscriptions have been found as far afield as Memphis in Egypt and Delos in the Greek archipelago. The latter expanded westwards towards Africa; their ships controlled the Straits of Bab al-Mandab; they colonized Abyssinia (whose name is said to be derived from Habashat, an Arabic word perhaps meaning a confederacy), and for many ages poured a silent stream of Arab migration into the African coastlands from Cape Guardafui to Sofala, which have retained to this day a strongly marked Semitic character. Saba ultimately absorbed Ma‘in and two smaller principalities, Aswan and Kataban; her kings, known as mukarribs, combined the functions of prince and priest, and her wealth was largely expended in the beautifying of her capital Ma’rib, which lay at the junction of caravan routes nearly four thousand feet up in the Yemen hills. Ma’rib was celebrated not only for its temples and palaces, but above all for the dam which was built a few miles outside its walls to catch and distribute the waters of its local river, the Wadi Dhana, and so to irrigate a broad expanse of the surrounding countryside. So remarkable a feat of hydraulic engineering argues a high degree of technical skill among the Sabaean people.
The prosperous trade of Arabia excited the cupidity of the Assyrians, who built up the first great world empire in Western Asia. The records of their kings (Shalmaneser III, Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon) contain frequent references to fighting in the Syrian Desert, with the object of suppressing marauding Bedouins and securing control of caravan routes, particularly the road through the Wadi Sirhan, which linked the markets of Syria with those of Mesopotamia. The overthrow of the Assyrian Empire in 612 B.C. brought the Chaldaeans to power in Babylon: under their rule, relations with the Arabs were more friendly, perhaps because the newcomers were themselves of Arab stock. The last Chaldaean king, Nabonidus, actually took up his residence at Tayma, an oasis and important caravan station in North Arabia, familiar from the references to it in the book of Job, and left his son Belshazzar to act to regent in Babylon. The Persians who succeeded the Chaldaeans apparently maintained this pacific policy during the two centuries of their domination (539–337 B.C.), but when their empire was destroyed by Alexander and his Greeks, the political and economic condition of the Near East underwent some significant changes.
First, the Greeks reached India itself, and Alexander’s admiral Nearchus sailed down the Indus out into the Indian Ocean and up the Persian Gulf, thereby presenting a potential threat by sea to the Sabaean monopoly of the Indian trade. Secondly, in the confusion following the dissolution of the Persian realm, a North Arabian tribe, the Nabataeans, seized around 320 B.C. the rock fortress of Petra and the oases of the Wadi Sirhan, ejected the Minaean-Sabaeans from Daydan, and placed themselves athwart the principal roads running across North-West Arabia to the Mediterranean ports. For the next four centuries the Nabataeans were a power to be reckoned with in the politics of the Near East, and the wonderful ruins of Petra, the ‘rose-red city half as old as Time,’ have kept their memory alive to this day. Thirdly, when after Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., the Ptolemies established themselves in Egypt, a vigorous attempt was made to restore Egyptian naval power in the Red Sea. The ancient canal between that sea and the Nile was reopened; Egyptian ships passed through the Straits of Bab al-Mandab and made direct contact with Indian ports, bringing back cargoes of pepper and cinnamon, and the discovery attributed to one Hippalus of the periodicity of the monsoons greatly facilitated navigation in the Indian Ocean.
These developments sapped the economic strength of Saba, provoked unrest and discontent, and led to a revolution in or about 115 B.C., when the ancient monarchy was overthrown by the Himyarites, a tribe whose original home was perhaps in the Hadramawt and who under the name ‘Homerites’ were familiar to the Greeks and Romans for the remainder of the classical period as the lords of Arabia Felix. The new rulers of the Yemen were soon called upon to defend their land against something more serious than mere trade competition. The shadow of Rome was falling across the Near East; after the battle of Actium (31 B.C.), Augustus landed in Egypt and turned the country into a Roman province; the Nabataean kingdom was reduced to the status of a Roman satellite, and plans were set on foot to seize the incense-lands of Arabia. In 24 B.C. Aelius Gallus, the prefect of Egypt, landed an army on the North Arabian coast and pushed down the Hijaz as far as the Wadi Najran, within a few days’ march of Ma’rib. At this point something went wrong and the expedition was forced to return. Either the Romans were unable to cope with the hazards of desert warfare, or they were betrayed by Nabataean spies and agents they had brought with them. The Himyarites thus escaped subjection to Rome, but they never regained the monopoly of the Indian trade which their Sabaean predecessors had so long enjoyed.
For the first two centuries of the Christian era, Western, that is to say, Roman-Egyptian, shipping plied regularly to and fro across the Indian Ocean. Details of this sea traffic have been preserved in a handbook for merchant captains compiled about A.D. 50 and known as the Periplus of the Erythraean (Red) Sea. Large hordes of Roman coins have been dug up in southern India, and at least one Roman trade mission reached China. The land routes across Arabia lost a good deal of their importance, and Trajan in 106 A.D. was able to annex Petra and abandon the Wadi Sirhan, which the Nabataeans had so long controlled, to Bedouin anarchy without risking economic loss. In the third century, however, the situation was transformed by the emergence of three new factors, the breakdown of the Roman peace, the rise of the powerful Sassanid kingdom in Persia, and the emergence of the kingdom of Axum in Abyssinia.

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