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Arabs: the people living in the country to the west and south of Mesopotamia. Three main zones can be discerned: the towns in the regions bordering on the Indian Ocean (modern Yemen and Oman), the nomadic interior (Saudi Arabia), and a northwestern part (Jordan). The Latin names of these three zones are Arabia Felix, Arabia Deserta (Happy Arabia and Desert Arabia) and Arabia Petraea (Arabia ruled from Petra).

Arabia Deserta

An Arab. Relief from the East Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
An Arab. Relief from the East Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
The nomadic tribes from Arabia Deserta, 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 Arab warrior Mushayqat Hamayat ibn Yusuf on a dromedary. Funerary stela from Saba (second century CE?)
The Arab warrior Mushayqat Hamayat ibn Yusuf on a dromedary. Funerary stela from Saba (second century CE?)
Among the oldest references to Arabs in what is now Jorden is the account of the battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE, in which the Assyrian king Salmanasser claims to have defeated a Syrian coalition. Somewhat younger are the reports about a kingdom named Aribi, which is mentioned for the first time during the reign of Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727), and was remarkable because it was ruled by a queen. Aribi 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).

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 mentions Arabs in the Behistun inscription, which 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). 

Arabia Felix

Ancient Yemen
Ancient Yemen
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:

Each of these kingdoms possessed extensive hydraulic installations, enabling the population to cope with both drought and the sometimes devastating river floods. The great dam at Marib is a technical masterpiece.

Statue of a man from Timna
Statue of a man from Timna
The incense trade was the most important source of wealth. The product was transported from Hadramaut to Ma`in, and from there to Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world. (The traders used dromedaries: this animal was domesticated in the tenth century BCE and could travel some hundred kilometers/day.) Several new towns were founded along the incense road; the most important was Iatribbu. Mecca was a little off the main road.

When Alexander the Great had conquered the Achaemenid empire, he wanted to launch a naval expedition to Arabia Felix, but he died several days before the expedition started (323 BCE). Although this expedition had come to nothing, southern Arabia was now part of a larger world, and several economic changes took place. It is clear that several new towns were founded in this period and that access to the trade routes changed the balance of power: we already noticed how Qataban seized the country known as Himyar during the third century. About 120 BCE, Saba managed to reconquer Ma`in, a war that may have been motivated by economic motifs.

However, the trade route by land had declined. It had become possible to use the monsoon to make long voyages across the Indian Ocean. Himyar, situated in the southwest, now became independent (about 110 BCE), because it controlled harbor towns like modern Al-Mukha and Aden. The capital of Himyar was Zafar.

From now on, Saba and Himyar were competitors, and they sometimes invited foreign powers to assist them in their wars: e.g., tribes from Arabia Deserta or Ethiopian warriors from Aksum. Later, the foreigners came uninvited, such as the army that was sent by the Roman emperor Augustus in 24 BCE, who wanted to control Himyar's ports.

During the first stages of the conflict between Himyar and Saba, the latter was the leading power. Together with Hadramaut, it destroyed Qataban; later, king Ša`r Awtar conquered Hadramaut. Saba now controlled all the countries in the interior.

Dedication by Ilîmagud Mayfa
Dedication by Ilîmagud Mayfa
However, Himyar's control of the sea routes was decisive. The discovery of many bronze statuettes in Jabal al-Awd, not far from Zafar, proves that there were good trade contacts with the Roman Empire. At the end of the third century, its king Šamir Yuhar`iš united Yemen. He was important enough to negotiate on equal terms with the king of the Parthian Empire. At a later stage (sixth century), king Dhu Nuwas of Himyar (518-525) converted to Judaism. Several inscription mention his "merciful Lord", a title that was later used for Allah.


This page was created in 1998; last modified on 6 September 2014.