Arabs: the people living in the country to the west and south of Mesopotamia.
Although the name "Arab" means something like "nomad", most Arabs were sedentary farmers and lived in towns. In Antiquity, their land can be divided into several zones:
- Arabia Deserta: the nomadic interior (Saudi Arabia and the desert of Syria/Iraq);
- Arabia Felix: the towns and cities in the regions bordering on the Indian Ocean (modern Yemen); the inhabitants never considered themselves Arabs;
- Nabataea in the northwest, where the people called themselves Nabataeans and had Petra as their capital.
The domestication of the dromedary allowed the Arab nomads to move over greater distances. Trade along the Incense Route from Yemen to Syria started to create some kind of homogenity. At the same time, it allowed Arab tribes to move out of their homelands. They gradually took over an urban periphery in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The rise of the Umayyad Caliphate in the seventh century CE marks the final stage of this process.
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 Awam cemetery and the Bar'an sanctuary in the Marib oasis were in use from the eighth century BCE to the fifth century CE. The famous story of the queen of Sheba's visit to the Jewish king Solomonnote[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.note[Quran 89.6-13.]
Each of these kingdoms possessed extensive hydraulic installations, enabling the population to cope with both drought and the sometimes devastating river floods. The city of Marib boasted a famous dam, allowing irrigation of the fields without being too dependent on the rainfall, one of the engineering wonders of the ancient world.
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 Yathrib. 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.
Rise of Himyar
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.
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 Sasanian Empire. At a later stage (sixth century), king Dhu Nuwas of Himyar (518-525) converted to Judaism, adopting the name of Yusuf. Several inscription mention his "merciful Lord", a title that was later used for Allah.
- Jean-François Breton, L' Arabie Heureuse au temps de la reine de Saba: VIIIe-Ier siècles avant J.-C. (1988 Paris)
- Kai Buschmann, "Motiv und Ziel des Aelius-Gellius-Zuges nach Südarabien" in: Welt des Orients 22 (1991) 85-93
- Albrecht Dihle, "Arabien und Indien" in: Hérodote et les peuples non Grecs. Neuf exposés suivis de discussions (Entretiens sur l' Antiquité classique, tome XXV) (1990 Genève), pages 41-67