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The Aborigines and early Commerce of Arabia, as referred to in the Holy Scriptures, and by Classical Writers


The Aborigines and early Commerce of Arabia, as referred to in the Holy Scriptures, and by Classical Writers

Object of the two following chapters

The rise of Islam was influenced by many circumstances connected with the history of the Arabian peninsula, not only for several preceding centuries, but even in the far distant epochs of patriarchal story. Was Abraham the father of the Arabians as well as of the Israelites? Was not the religion of Abraham their own ancestral faith? It was surely then a right and fitting task that the Prophet now arisen, of Ishmaelite descent, should restore the worship of the Kaaba which had long before been established by his great ancestor.

History of Arabia before Islam. First - from Scriptural and Classical sources. Second - from Indigenous Tradition

It is important for us to know what materials were found by Mahomet already existing in the popular belief of Arabia, whereon to found such an assumption. This consideration will lead us to inquire by whom Arabia was first peopled, and what influences we can trace anterior to Islam affecting the religious condition and opinions of the nation. The history of earlier patriarchal ages, as gleaned from Scripture and from classical sources, will form the subject of the present chapter1. In the next we shall, by the dawning light of indigenous tradition, follow the same track till we reach the threshold of Islam.

The tradition of Arabia comparatively modern

The first peopling of Arabia is a subject on which we may in vain look for any light from the tradition of Arabia itself. Tradition, indeed, gives us the genealogies of Himyar kings and the links of the great Coreishite line of descent. But the latter do not ascend much beyond the Christian era, and the former only five or six centuries farther. The earlier names of the Himyar dynasty were probably derived from bare inscriptions; and of the Coreish we have hardly anything but a naked ancestral tree, till within two or three centuries of Mahomet.

All that is ancient in Arabian tradition derived from the Jews

Beyond these periods, Mahometan tradition is entirely worthless. It is not original, but taken at second hand from the Jews. Mahomet having claimed to be of the seed of Ishmael, the Jewish Rabbins who were gained over to his cause endeavoured to confirm the claim from the genealogies of the Old Testament and of rabbinical tradition. In the attempt to reconcile these with the received notions of the Arabs, Joktan (whom they found in Scripture to he an early immigrant into Arabia) became identified with Cahtan, the great ancestor of the southern tribes; while Mahomet's paternal line (which he himself declared could not be followed beyond Adnan, that is, about a century before the Christian era) was nevertheless traced up by fabricated steps, eighteen centuries farther, to Ishmael 2. Both the legends and the ethnological assumptions or Mahometans regarding events prior to the Christian era, being thus derived directly from the Jews, possess no value of their own, and as evidence must be entirely rejected. They consist either of simple plagiarism, or they refer to Arabian personages and events of a very modern date, confounded in a rude and even ludicrous manner with the patriarchal characters and stories of the Old Testament2.

The books of Moses our only guide

We must, therefore, fall back implicitly upon the Mosaic record as our only guide to the original settlements in Arabia; and we shall find in the general statements and incidental allusions of the inspired book a clue to the events out of which Modern Arabia has developed herself.

The Cushites

It has been argued with considerable probability, that a portion of the descendants of Cush, the son of Iram, found their way into Arabia, and formed the first body of post-diluvian settlers there4. The names of Cush and Cushan are evidently associated by the sacred writers both with Arabia and with Africa; and the titles of his sons have been traced, though with some uncertainty, in the names of existing tribes5. But there is no proof or probability that the Cushites remained in Arabia a distinct and separate race; it is likely that they soon mingled with the subsequent immigrants, and lost their national individuality6.

The descendants of Joktan

The next colonists of Arabia are thought to have been the progeny of Joktan, son of Eber, the fifth in descent from Shem. The sacred records inform us that they settled eastward, that is, in the language of Moses, in the north of the peninsula, or the country stretching from the head of the Red Sea towards the Persian Gulph7. The names of some of Joktan's sons are identified with those of certain Arabian districts8; and it is not unnatural to conclude that this race, wherever tempted by pasture or the oases of the desert, extended rapidly southward, until it reached the fertile lands of Yemen and Hadhramaut. There, intermingled with the line of Cush, it formed, from the Straits of Bab al mandab to the Persian Gulph, the permanent settlement of the Himyar and other aboriginal tribes.

Abrahamic tribes

Descending the stream of time, we find that several centuries later a new race spread over the north of Arabia. While Joktan proceeded southward, his brother Peleg - so called "because in his days the earth was divided" 9 - remained in Mesopotamia. But in process of time, Abraham, the sixth in descent from Peleg, "gat him out from his country, and from his kindred," and "went forth to go into the land of Canaan," and there sojonirned as a nomad chief. It is from the stock of this patriarch that the northern settlements of the peninsula were replenished. The Abrahamic races may be thus enumerated: 1, Ishmaelites; 2, Keturahites; 3, Edomites, or descendants of Esau; 4, Moabites and Ammonites; 5, Nahorites.

l. - lshmaelites

1. The ISHMAELITES, or Hagarenes. Hagar, when cast forth by Abraham, dwelt with her son in the wilderness of Paran, to the north of Arabia 10. The divine promise of temporal prosperity in favour of the seed of Ishmael was faithfully fulfilled 11. His twelve sons became "twelve princes according to their nations12." These fruitful tribes first extended along the frontier of Arabia, from the northern extremity of the Red Sea towards the mouth of the Euphrates 13. They appear to have occupied each a separate district, and followed a nomad life, in moveable encampments, and with occasional fortified places of refuge for their cattle 14. They also practised merchandize, and became wealthy and powerful.


Of the sons of Ishmael, Nebaioth the first born was the father of the Nabathean nation, who succeeded the Idumeans in Arabia Petrea, and whom we find at the commencement of our era holding a wide political influence in Northern Arabia.


The second, Kedar, was so famous in "is Arab descendants, that the epithet Kedarenes" came to be applied by the Jews to the Bedouins in general15. Less noted are the names of Duma, Thema, Jetur, and Naphish 16. The progeny of the remaining sons either mingled with other tribes or, penetrating the peninsula, have escaped historical record.

2. - Keturakites

2. KETURAH bore to Abraham six sons; and these he sent away to the eastward while he yet lived17. Their descendants established themselves as nomad tribes throughout the great desert in the north of Arabia.


The Midanites, sprung from the fourth son, soon became a numerous people. With the Moabites, they endeavoured to obstruct the progress of the children of Israel towards the Holy Land; and, in the time of the Judges, they held them in subjection for seven years 18. Dedan and Sheba, children of Jokshan, the second son of Ketura, are also connected with Arab associations19.

3. Idumeans

3. The EDOMITES or IDUMEANS, descendants of Esau, early peopled the country of Arabia Petrea. Their capital was Mount Seir, whence they expelled the aboriginal Horites, and succeeded to their possessions 20. Two grandsons of Esau, - Teman21 and Amalek22,


were progenitors of separate Arab tribes. The Amalekites had at least a partial seat at Petra and the country about tbe head of the Red Sea till near the year 700 B.C., when they were driven thence probably in a southern direction. Mahometan legend speaks of Amalekite tribes as the earliest inhabitants both of Medina and Mecca, and of the country lying to the south of Syria.

4. - Nahorites

4. THE NAHORITES. Uz and Buz, the sons of Nahor, Abraham's brother, were the ancestors of extensive tribes to the north of Arabia; and the Bible repeatedly refers to them in connexion with this locality23.

5. - Moabites and Ammonites

5. The MOABITES and AMMONITES, descended from the two sons of Lot, are prominent in scriptural history. They lived more to the north than any of the nation's before specified. Their most southerly stations lay east of the Dead Sea, and comprised the fine pasture lands of Bilcaa and Kerek.

Northern and Central tracts of Arabia widely peopled by the Abrahamic tribes, as evidenced by national tradition, and language

From this brief survey it is evident that an extraordinary number of distinct and yet most populous tribes sprang from the patriarch Abraham, or from branches collateral with him, and that they must have occupied a position of commanding influence in the north of Arabia, throughout which the greater part of them spread abroad. The sacred writers, from their view being limited mainly to Palestine, noticed only such of these tribes as lived upon its border; but we are not to conclude that the progeny of Abraham were to be found in that quarter alone. The natural expansiveness of nations in those early days while the earth was yet imperfectly peopled, and the nomad habits of the race, would force them on towards the south and east. Certainly it is reasonable to suppose that large tracts of the northern plains and highlands and central steppes of Arabia were peopled by them, or by nations closely allied and blended with them.

The conclusion is "strengthened by indisputable evidence of tradition and of language. The popular voice of some of the tribes of Arabia asserts an Abrahamic descent, and we find even as far south as Mecca the opinion current before the time of Mahomet. It is, indeed, improbable that a tradition of this nature should have been handed down from the remote age of the patriarch by an independent train of evidence in any particular tribe, or association of tribes; it is far more likely that it was borrowed from the Jews, and kept alive by occasional communication with them. Still, the bare fact of such a notion gaining even a partial and intermittent currency in any tribe, affords a strong presumption that the tribe was really of Abrahamic descent or connexion; and that the common associations, habits, language, or religious tenets, derived from that origin, naturally fell in with the tradition, and rendered easy and natural its adoption.

Still stronger is the evidence from the close affinity of the Arabic language to that spoken by the Israelitish branch of the Abrahamic stock. The identity of both tongues, extending as it does to nine-tenths of the Hebrew roots, the similarity of declension, and the analogy of idiom and construction, point indubitably to one ethnological origin. Besides the Arabic, there was current in remote ages at least one other tongue in the south of Arabia. But even there the Himyaritic dialect was confined to the settled population of towns and thefr vicinity; while Arabic had from time immemorial been the language of song and of oratory among the wild Bedouins even of Yemen extraction. Eventually, with the help of Islam, the latter altogether displaced its rival, and gained a complete ascendancy throughout the entire peninsula24. So wide a diffusion in Arabia of the most polished branch of the Syro-Arabian language, affords evidence of a corresponding prevalence of Abrahamic blood.

History of the Arabs unknown for twenty centuries after Abraham

But while it is undeniable that a great proportion of the tribes of northern and central Arabia were descended from Abraham, or from a collateral stock, we have no materials for tracing their history from the era of that patriarch for near two thousand years. Severed from the rest of the world by inhospitable deserts, and dissociated by an insuperable diversity of manners and customs, the Arabs of this tract passed through these long ages unnoticed and almost unknown. Our knowledge of the race is confined to the casual accounts of the few border tribes which came in contact with the Jewish and Roman governments, and to an occasional glimpse, as in the case of the Queen of Sheba and the Roman expedition, into the interior. We may not, however, doubt that, during the five-and-twenty centuries which elapsed between Abraham and Mahomet, the mutual relations of the Arab tribes were undergoing an uninterrupted succession of the revolutions and changes to which human society, especially when broken up into numerous independent fragments, is always exposed. Some of the tribes, like the Horims of old, were extirpated; others, as the Amalekites of Petra, driven from their original seats; some migrated to distant settlements, or merged into more extensive and commanding bodies; while intermarriage, conquest, and phylarchical revolution, united races of different origin, and severed those sprung from a common stock25. But of such changes, excepting in one or two of the border tribes, we have hardly any record.

Brief notices attainable only of the outskirt tribes

It thus only remains for us, in the absence of any annals for Central Arabia, to bring into one view the brief notices which are to be gleaned from various quarters of the north-western outskirts of the peninsula.

Carriers of Southern and Eastern traffic

Already in the time of Jacob, some of the Abrahamic races had undertaken commerce, for we find the Ishmaelites even then transporting to Egypt upon their camels the spicy products of the East26. The facilities of transport offered by "the ship of the desert," and the position of the peninsula itself, secured to its inhabitants from the earliest period the privilege of carrying towards Egypt and Syria the merehandize of the South and of the East. One of the chief lines of this traffic lay through Arabia Petrea.

The Idumeans. - Relations of the Jewish Government with Arabia

The Idumeans and Amalekites, as we bave already seen, supplanted the aboriginal inhabitants of Mount Seir, and settled in Petrea. A monarchical government was early established amongst them; and we find, in the writings of Moses, the record of the names and seats of "many kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel27." They obstructed the passage of the Israelites into Palestine; and they were attacked and overthrown by Saul and by David28. A series or interesting political relations then commenced between Judea and Petrea. The whole of the latter country was garrisoned by David. A naval station was established by Solomon at Eziongeber or Elath29 (the modern Akaba), where he fitted out a fleet to bring him gold from Ophir. During his reign the communications between the Jewish Government and Arabia were frequent and intimate. The artificers and seamen to build and man the fleet would, in part at least, be drawn from the natives of that country; the voyage to Ophir would bring the coasting expedition into contact with its marine tribes; while Solomon himself encouraged the Arab caravans, and fostered "the traffic of the spice merchants," and the "chapmen"; who, no doubt, carried back to their own people glowing accounts of what they had seen among the Jews. The renown of the Jewish monarch was so great throughout Arabia, that the queen of the distant Sheba set out to gratify her curiosity. "The report which she had heard in her own land" was so marvellous, that "she believed it not till she came and her eyes had seen it."30 His political supremacy was also acknowledged, for "all the kings of Arabia, and governors of the country, brought gold and silver unto Solomon."

Subsequent fortunes of the Idumeans

Nor was this connexion transient. About a century later we find that Idumea was governed by a Jewish Viceroy31, and that Jehoshophat built another fleet at Ezion-geber, which was wrecked by a tempest. In the following reign the inhabitants rebelled; and though they were subsequently reduced by Amaziah, who conquered Sela or Petra and gave it the name of Joktheel, and by Uzziah "who built Elath" (or Akaba), "and restored it to Judah," yet they eventually became independent of the Jews32. After an ascendancy of nearly two centuries, the Jews in their turn began to suffer from their ancestral foes. In the reign of Ahaz the Edomites made incursions into Judea, and carried off many captives. Rezin, king of Syria, after besieging Jerusalem (742 B.C.), expelled the Jews from Elath, and reinstated the Edornites in its possession33. A few years later a body of the tribe of Simeon made a successful attack upon Petrea, where a remnant of the Amalekites still dwelt, and expelled them finally from thence. But the movement was partial, and did not affect the general prosperity of the Edomites. Unchecked by the Jews, they prosecuted in peace their mercantile speculations, and extended themselves on all sides from Bostra on the north to Dedan on the south34. They took advantage of the adversities of the Jewish nation to invade the southern part of Judea; from which, however, they were driven by the Maccabees35. Eventually, they were, in part at least, incorporated with the Jews by John Hyrcanus, who forced them to submit to circumcision and other Jewish customs36.

The Nabatheans

But the Idumeans had already been supplanted in their southern possessions by the Ishmaelitish tribe of the NABATHEANS. These had hitherto lived in recesses of the Desert or upon the shore of the Red Sea, following the occupations of a nomad and of a mercantile life37. They now took possession of Petra, and from thence commanded the traffic which flowed northward through western Arabia. We first hear of them three centuries before the Christian era, baffling the attacks of the Macedonian monarchs of Babylon, at the approach of whose armies they dispersed their flocks in the unapproachable steppes of the peninsula, and defended their own property behind the rocky ramparts of Petra. Their steady pursuit of merchandise is illustrated by the fact that on one of these occasions most of the men were absent on a commercial expedition. Their manners and habits, as described by Diodorus Siculus, coincide remarkably with the manners and habits of the Arabs of our own day. Passionately loving freedom, their home was the inviolable Desert, where the springs were known to themselves alone, and whither in perfect security they be took themselves, with their flocks and herds of camels, when attacked by a foreign foe.

Boundaries of the Nabathean kingdom

Such was the independent kingdom of the Nabatheans. It was bounded, according to Ptolemy, on the west by Egypt; on the north by Syria and Palestine; and on the south and east by the Desert and the Aelanitic Gulph. But in the latter direction its borders, as we learn from Diodorus Siculus, advanced some way along the shores of the Red Sea, and into the heart of the peninsula. Pliny refers to them as the Arabians next to Syria38. And their monarchs, " the kings of Arabia," are frequently noticed in the later annuals of the Jews and of the Romans, under the titles of Aretas and Obodas39.

Expedition of Afius Gallus, B.C. 24

Whilst the prosperity of the Nabatheans was at its height a memorable attack was made by the Romans upon the spicy regions of Arabia Felix. During the reign of Augustus, B.C. 24, Aelius Gallus set out in command of a Roman army of ten thousand men, assisted by Obodas king of Petra with a thousand of his Nabatheans and five hundred Jews. The expedition started from Cleopatris (the modern Suez), and having reached Leuke Come (probably Haura) 40, a port of Nabathea on the Arabian shore of the Red Sea, was there delayed a year by sickness. The Roman army, beguiled by the treachery of the Nabathean ambassador, then traversed by circuitous and difficult routes a country alternately desert and fertile. After a march of many days, they passed through the friendly country of Aretas, a Nabathean and a kinsman of Obodas. At last they reached and took Mariaba, a city six miles in circumference; and thence proceeded to Marasyaba, the siege of which, from the strength of its fortifications and the scarcity of water, they were obliged to raise; they then retreated hurriedly along the coast toward the north. The advance, owing to the artifices of the Arabs, and the asperity of the way, occupied six months; the retreat, only two. From a port called Nera Come, they again embarked for Myos Hormos on the Egyptian coast. We have an account of the expedition, from the pen both of Strabo and of Pliny; and as the former was the personal friend of Aelius Gallus, his narrative may be depended upon. But there is a singular obscurity and confusion in the statements of both authors, arising no dtubt from the strangeness of the country, the diversity of language, and the difficulty of transposing an Arabic nomenclature into a classical form. Mariaba and Marsyaba have been identified with Mareb and Saba, capital cities of Yemen41; and in one or two other instances a likely approximation to modern names has been discovered42. But with these few exceptions, it seems impossible to recognize in the Arabia of Islam any of the numerous towns, or peoples, or districts, through which the expedition is said to have passed43. Neither do we gain much knowledge of the social and political state of central and northern Arabia. The most important fact brought to light, as bearing on the subject of the present chapter, is the wide, range occupied by the Nabathean nation; for it possessed a port for commerce some way down the Red Sea, and was connected (as in the case of Aretas) with influential off-shoots of the same tribe far inland.

Subsequent history of the Nabatheans

The kingdom of Nabathea, thus extensive and powerful beginning of the Christian era, became gradually dependent upon Rome. It was at last subdued by Cornelius Palma the governor of Syria (A.D. 105), and annexed to the vast empire of Trajan. Out of the ruins sprang up in due time other phases of border government, and these eventually formed themselves into the Ghassanide kingdom. But the history of the dynasty of Ghassan cannot be developed without the aid of Mahometan tradition, which at this era begins first to cast the glimmer of an imperfect twilight upon Arabia; it is therefore deferred to the following chapter.

Did the Amalekites and Nabatheans retain the knowledge of tradition of their Abrahamic descent?

In the Amalekites and Nabatheans we recognize very plainly the descendants of Esan and of Ishmael. It is not necessary to suppose that the knowledge or tradition of their descent was uninterruptedly maintained in the nations themselves. The vicissitudes of conquest, migration, and combination with other tribes, render it in the last degree improbal)le that the consciousness of their origin should have been preserved for so many centuries by a barbarous people possessed of no recorded memorials. Yet the name and location would alone suffice to suggest the probability of this descent to the Israelites who read the Mosaic record; and we find in the Jewish authors, inspired and uninspired, sufficient indication that such conclusion was actually drawn. The natural inference would from time to time spread from the neighbouring Jews to the tribes themselves whom it concerned, and reinforce the imperfect remnants of loose tradition still lingering in their associations, their habits, or their language. The Jews so extensively peopled the north-west of Arabia, and at one time possessed (as shown above) so great political and social influence there, that their scriptural and traditional accounts of the patriarchal age must necessarily have obtained a wide notoriety, and commanded a general acceptance among the Abrahamic tribes. When the latter, therefore, by the increase of population, migratory habit, or the force of war, penetrated southward into Central Arabia, they no doubt carried with them to their new settlements these patriarchal traditions, and reproduced them among the Bedouin tribes.

How Abrahamic tradition became blended with the legend or the Kaaba

We learn from Mahometan tradition that the earliest inhabitants of Mecca, Medina, and the deserts of Syria, were Amalekites; and that it was an Amalekite tribe which, attracted to Mecca by the well Zarnzam, there adopted and nurtured the youthful Ishmael and his forlorn mother. The legend is a myth, or rather a travestied plagiarism from Scripture. We may conjecture the facts to have been thus: Amalekite or Idumean tribes were scattered over the north and centre of the peninsula. They formed probably the aboriginal population or Mecca, or settled there in conjunction with immigrants from Yemen, at a very remote period. Subsequently an Ishmaelitish tribe, either Nabathean or of some collateral stock, was attracted thither also by its wells and its favourable position for the caravan trade, and acquired great influence. This tribe would carry in its train the patriarchal legend of Abrahamic origin, and engraft it upon the local superstitions, which were either native or imported from Yemen. hence arose the mongrel worship of the Kaaba, with its Ishmaelitish legends, of which Mahomet took so great advantage44.

A knowledge of the true God long preserved among the Abrahamic tribes; but early perverted by idolatry

Regarding the religious tenets and customs of the Abrahamic races of Arabia we have but scanty information. That they originally possessed a knowledge of God, and of the verities which formed the ground work of the faith of Abraham, cannot be doubted. We are assured by the inspired penman that Abraham eared for the moral culture and religious training of his progeny; and for some time at least, "they kept the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment."45 Four centuries later, Jethro "the priest of Midian," appears still to have followed the worship of the one true God46. Agnin, the manner in which Balaam, the son of Beor, addressed Balak the king of the Moabites, and the nature of the rites performed at the interview between them, prove that, however much they may have fallen away from the practice enjoined by the faith of Abraham, they yet preserved some knowledge of that faith itself. Thus also the whole tenor of the sayings of Job, who was planted in the centre of the Abrahamic races, and of his friends who belonged to various Abrahamic tribes, implies a minute acquaintance with traditional and pure religion. It is reasonable to infer that such knowledge was general, and that it was kept up for many generations among the several branches of the stock of Abraham.

We gather, at the same time, that these tribes manifested a rapid and widely spread departure from the simplicity of Abraham's worship, and the purity of his doctrines. The seeds of this defection were already sown in the family of his father, Terah, who " served other gods."47 In the third generation from Nahor, we read of the teraphim, or images, of Laban48. The Israelites committed idolatry while they passed through the countries lying between Egypt and Palestine49; and they probably were tempted thereto by the example of the Abrahamic tribes inhabiting that region. One instance is expressly mentioned in which they were induced by the Moabites to join in the worship of their idol Baal Peor50. Many centuries after, the Idumeans of Petra exercised a similar influence. Amaziah, king of Judea, after he "was come from the slaughter of the Edomites, brought the gods of the children of Seir, and set them up to be his gods, and bowed down himself before them, and burned incense unto them."51 Such indeed was the natural result of the position and circumstances of the Abrahamic tribes. With the same tendencies towards idolatry as the Isralelites, but without the constant checks which repressed them, it would have been strange if they had not fallen into gross and debasing Paganism.

Some religious truth communicated by the Abrahamic tribes to the Arabs

Declension into idolatry must in the end have displaced the memory both of Abraham and his religion, had not the neighbourhood of the Jews, and intercourse with them, revived together with the knowledge of patriarchal descent, some acquaintance also with the purer faith of their common progenitor. Political contact with the Jews settled at numerous points throughout Arabia, and the frequent passage of the Arab caravans through the borders of Palestine and Syria, would deepen and extend this knowledge. How far it affected the tenets and practices of the Arabs generally we cannot with any exactness say; but there are traces of a wide spread influence. Circumcision was received amongst them apparently as an Abrahamic rite; and the story of Abraham, grievously distorted indeed and shorn of its spiritual bearing, but yet possessing a germ of truth, was current at Mecca prior to Islam and, inwrought into the ritual of the Kaaba, was adopted by the whole Arab race.

Christianity confirmed the general impression

The rise of Christianity, and the confirmation given by its emissaries to the main purport of these traditional facts, would impart a fresh credit to them. The birthplace of the new religion bordered close upon the residence of the Ishmaelite Arabs, and its political influence soon became paramount in Nabathea and Idurnea. Both circumstances would subject the inhabitants to the frequent solicitations of the early missionaries. Paul himself spent some time in their country52. In the beginning of the third century, the Governor of Arabia, anxious to learn the doctrines of Origen, sent an urgent summons for him through the Prefect of Egypt. Shortly after, a heresy haviug gained ground in Arabia, which represented the soul as perishing at death to be raised again at the judgment day, a numerous synod was assembled, and Origen, again summoned, convinced the innovators of their error53. In the fourth century, Petra was the residence of a Metropolitan, whose diocese embraced the ancient Idumea and Nabathea54. When we reflect upon these efforts, and the zeal of the anchorites, who are said to have peopled some of the deserts with their solitary cells, it may appear surprisinig that the countries about the Aelanaitic Gulph were not more thoroughly evangelized, and their people more extensively brought within the pale of Christianity. But there were strong countervailing influences at work, Jewish as well as Arabian, which the evangelists of that day were unable to overcome. These will be referred to farther in the next chapter.

Mercantile History

We shall now endeavour to sketch the MERCANTILE PROGRESS of the border tribes and cities, and trace the causes of their decadence.

Early establishment or caravans

It has been well remarked by Heeren that the grand feature of ancient commerce, as distinguished from that of modern times, is that it was confined almost exclusively to land. The sea traffic was strictly subordinate, and resorted to only in cases of necessity or of short and easy coasting voyages. A long and uninterrupted continent, in later times the greatest obstacle to commerce, constituted then its chief facility. The desert steppes of Asia formed the mercantile ocean of the ancients; the companies of camels, their fleets. But the barbarous hordes of those wild lands rendered it perilous for a few merchants alone to attempt such prolonged and arduous journeys; and hence the necessity for Caravans to assemble at fixed spots and conventional periods, and travel in a common direction by known and determined routes. Thus the marts and main points of traffic became settled and notorious throughout the ancient world. "The course of the caravan," says Heeren, "was not a matter of free choice, but of established custom. In the vast steppes of sandy deserts, which they had to traverse, nature had sparingly allotted to the traveller a few scattered places of rest, where, under the shade of palm trees, and beside the cool fountains at their feet, the merchant and his beast of burden might enjoy the refreshment rendered necessary by so much suffering. Such places of repose became entrepots of commerce, and not unfrequently the sites of temples and sanctuaries, under the protection of which the merchant prosecuted his trade, end to which the pilgrim resorted."55

Two great lines or commerce; the western through the Hejaz, the Eastern through the Persian Gulph

These remarks are especially applicable to Arabia. Even in the times of Jacob, as already noticed, Ishmaelite traders had established a caravan traffic between Egypt and the East. As the countries to the north and west of Arabia became more densely peopled and civilization advanced, the traffic extended and settled down into fixed channels with established stations. One great line of commerce took its rise in Yemen and, guided by the north-westerly trend of the coast, proceeded through the Hedjaz, and thence towards the Mediterranean.

From the cursory notices of ancient authors "it is evident," writes the learned and accurate Heeren, "that the caravan road extended along the Arabian Gulph, most probably touched upon Mecca, the ancient Macoraba, and so arrived at the frontiers of Arabia Felix." This route avoided the parched and weary deserts of Najd on the one band, and the impracticable cliffs of the shore on the other; and kept within a region where wells and provender were met with at convenient distances. A second main channel of trade began also in Hadhramaut at the southern extremity of the peninsula, struck directly north to the Persian Gulph, and thence still north into Persia, or west into Syria. Egypt and southern Palestine were supplied by the former route, Tyre and Palmyra by the latter.56

This commerce enriched both the traders and the carriers

This commerce afforded a vast field of employment for the Arab tribes. Some traded on their own account, and settled down as the occupants of the emporia or commercial cities in the vicinity. Others, without directly engaging in the traffic, became the carriers of it. They received hire for their camels, and payment for the insurance of protection by the way. A frontier custom duty was also probably exacted. The carriers continued in their nomad habits. Both were enriched, but the traders most.

Gerra - on the eastern route

Large commercial stations rapidly grew up. Of those on the north-eastern coast the chief was Gerra (the modern Lachan), which commanded the Indian traffic of the Persian Gulph, the Euphrates, and the Tigris, as well as of Palmyra. It was, according to Strabo, a Chaldean or Babylonian colony; and we learn from Agatharcides that its Arabian and Indian commerce rendered its people one or the richest in the world57. This traffic was, however, far removed from Western Arabia, and did not intimately affect the interests of the Arabs in the vicinity of Mecca.

Particulars regarding the western route

The western line along the Hedjaz demands a closer attention. The products of Yemen, its southern terminus, are stated by Herodotus to have been frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and ledanon58. To these may be added gold and precious stones, the proper products of Arabia; ivory, ebony, and spices, which were imported from India and Africa59. The Jews under Solomon took advantage, as we have seen, of this line of commerce; they also opened it up to the Phenicians, who joined them in their naval expedition in the Red Sea60. Four hundred yearn later (about 600 B.C.), the denunciations of Ezekiel against the haughty Tyre prove that a busy and constant intercourse still subsisted, by which the Phenician marts, in exchange for Syrian wares, were replenished with the rarities of Yemen61. Again, three or four centuries passed, and we find from Eratosthenes that the Minaeans, or Arabs of the Hedjaz, were still the carriers of the Yemen traffic from Hadhramaut to Ayla (Akaba); and the stage; stated expressly to be seventy, coincide exactly with the number in use by the same route at the present day62.

Growth of trade and prosperity of Arabia under Rome

The Roman empire, gradually extending its irresistible rule to trade and the confines of Arabia, fostered and at first increased the traffic of the Arabian caravans. The Nabatheans of Petra prospered. They were enabled to prosecute, in comparative peace and security their mercantile projects. Military roads aided the commerce. From Ayla or Akaba, a great highway led to Petra, branching out in one direction towards Gaza on the Mediterranean, and on the other towards Damascus63. Upon these lines arose large and thriving emporia. Stately and luxurious cities, from Damascus southward, emulated the magnificence of the queenly Palmyra. "Modem travellers," writes Heerea, "have brought to light the remains of the cities east of the Lake of Tiberias and the Dead Sea (the ancient Decapolis and Havra). . . . the magnificent ruins of Gerasa (Dsieres)64, Gadara, and Philadelphia (Amman), Some of which are little inferior to those of Palmyra. Decayed temples, colonnades, and amphitheatres, show the former grandeur and opulence of these cities, when they were the seats of the Indian-Arabian commerce65. Still farther south was the ancient Bostra; and beyond that Petra, Leuke Come, and the other marts of the Nabatheans. It may safely be assumed that Mecca also, as the half way station between Yemen and Petra, flourished in a corresponding manner, and grew into a populous emporium.


We have already traced the history of Petra, with its seaport Ayla or Akaba, from the Jewish monarchs to the commencement of the Christian era. Under the auspices of Rome, Petra rose, along with her dependencies, to an incredible opulence. Unheeded in the desert, and for centuries forgotten, the stately ruins of the encircled city and its chiselled rocks still remain an evidence that may not be gainsayed of the mighty traffic once passing through the marts of Petra, of the princely magnificence of her merchants, of the truth of history, and or the unerring certainty of prophetic denunciation66. Pliny and Strabo both describe the city in its unmistakeable features. Athenodoras the Stoic visited it, and related with admiration to Strabo his friend the excellence of the government under a native prince, and the security with which Romans and other foreigners resided there67. It need hardly be added that this prosperity was entirely dependent upon the caravan trade, which at this entrepot changed carriage, and passed from the hands of the southern to those of the northern merchants. To this cause Diodorus Siculus attributes the superiority of the Nabatheans over the other Bedouin tribes : - "Their commercial pursuits," he says, " are the chief cause of their greater prosperity. For many of the tribe follow the business of transporting to the Mediterranean, frankincense, myrrh, and other costly spices, which are transferred to them by the carriers from Arabia Felix68. Strabo also writes that the merchandise of the Arabian Gulph used to be transported from Leuke Come on the Red Sea, to Petra; thence to Rhinocolura (Al Arish), a town upon the Mediterranean; and so to other ports69. And Pliny notices the double route which befurcated from Petra northward to Palmyra, and westward to Gaza70.

Eventual influence of Rome annihilated the caravan trade

It was thus that, in the early part of the Christian era, the Nabatheans reached the height of their glory, and extended themselves northwards into Syria, and southwards towards the Hedjaz. But the power of Rome, which had thus fostered the Arabian trade, eventually sapped the prosperity of the caravans of the Hedjaz and of Petra, by substituting for them transport by ship along the Red Sea.

Ancient traffic between the Red Sea and India

In very remote times there is reason to believe that the Egyptians held a trans-marine intercourse with the nations of India71; it has been clearly ascertained that at some periods they manned fleets upon the Red Sea, and thus communicated with the shores of Arabia72. That there existed a direct trade between Yemen and India from an early period is equially certain. Speaking of Muza (or Mocha), the author of the Periplus says

that it" was wholly inhabited by Arab shipowners and sailors, who traded to the opposite port of Barygaza (Broach), with the productions of their native country73."

The Romans established a direct trade by sea to Suez and other Egyptian ports

So long as this commerce was confined to the Indian Ocean, and did not penetrate the Red Sea, it supplied material for the caravans of Yemen and Petra, and ministered to the prosperity of the Arab tribes. But Roman energy was not satisfied with this mediate carriage. The enterprising merchants of the day projected a direct traffic between the ports of india and the Red Sea itself; and casting aside the Arabian carriers with their intervening harbours74, they landed the goods of India and of Yemen at Arsinoe or Cleopatris (our modern Suez), and at the other emporia on the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea75.

Consequent destruction of the Arabian carrier trade; hastened by the troubled state of the Syro-Persian frontier

This proved a fatal blow to the caravan trade of Arabia. The speed, the ease, and the economy of the maritime communication were quickly perceived and taken advantage of; while the slow, expensive, and laborious desert route, with its whole system of carriage upon camels, fell into rapid and irretrievable disuse. The seaport towns of Yemen alone retained something of their importance; the land commerce gradually melted away; with it the merchant stations decayed, and at length became utterly desert. Such is the tale which the stately pillars and ruined palaces of Petra, of Jerash, and of Philadelphia, recite, after the lapse of sixteen centuries, to the wonder-stricken traveller.

Another cause co-operated with this fatal change. The feeble rule of Constantinople no longer held the Arab tribes in check, as the iron sceptre of Rome had done. The Persian monarchy, and its dependent kingdom Hira, made constant inroads upon the Syrian frontier; and Syria thus became an arena for the frequent struggles of the two empires. The Government of northern Arabia fell into weakness and disorganization.

The Arab merchants and carriers betook themselves again to a nomad life

No longer attracted by the gains of commerce, ever and anon exposed to the inroad of Persian armies, the inhabitants of Petra and the other commercial ports along the whole line to Yemen, felt their native love of free and predatory life return with a fresh and unopposed vigour. Gladly casting off the restraints of walls and the formality of settled habits, they again roamed, as their fathers before them had roamed, the true sons of the desert.

The entire line of commercial stations as far as Yemen affected

A change so vital and so wide spread as the drying up of the full current of merchandise, which from time immemorial had fertilized the peninsula by its perennial stream, and the fall and abandonment of populous cities that were solely dependent thereon, must needs have been followed by much distress, and by political movements both radical and extensive, throughout Arabia. Besides the imposing ruins which from Petra to Damascus still meet the eye, there were no doubt farther south many other scenes of like desertion and misery. It is probable that the disappearance of such tribes as the people of Ad and Thamud (attributed by tradition to divine vengeance), may be due to this cause. Both lay to the north of Mecca in the direct line of the traffic76, and both would suffer from its stoppage. Other calamities of drought or of tempest may have been superadded; and following, perhaps, upon some impious act (possibly the contemptuous or injurious treatment of a Jewish teacher or Christian missionary), would be construed by the superstitious Arabs into marks of the wrath of God77, and thus come to be regarded as the cause of a downfall really owing to the failure of mercantile resources. Similar distress, followed by depopulation, by emigration, or by the adoption of Bedouin for settled habits of life, resulted more or less throughout Arabia. Yemen and Hadhramaut, as the great southern terminus of the lines both towards the Persian Gulph and the Mediterranean Sea, suffered from the entire and fatal disruption of their mercantile relations. Whole tribes of Bedouin Arabs from the neighbourhood, with their herds of camels, had been wont to receive constant employment in the carriage of the merchandise, and a large stationary population had grown up, equally though indirectly, dependent on the same trade. The business which had for ages supported the carrier tribes now utterly ceased, and with it the income of the overgrown cities. The Bedouin carriers betook themselves without difficulty again to a nomad life. But the settled population had no such resource; they were forced by the necessities of a fast-failing capital and hourly-growing want, to migrate in quest of a less over-stocked country78.

The failure of commerce the probable cause of the great emigrations from Hadhramaut northwards

To this cause may be attributed the vast emigrations which, early in the Christian era, set northwards from amongst the teeming population of Arabia Felix. With the result of these migratory movements, the student of the early history of Arabia is familiar. They replenished the desert with new tribe of roaming Bedouins, while they brought to many of the central and northern cities large bands of immigrants, clamorous for a settlement in their vicinity, and ready if refused to extort it by force. From the great family of CAHLAN (descended from Cahtan), the AZDITE branch supplied to Mecca the tribe of the Khozaa, and to Medina the Aus and Khazraj, while to Syria it gave the dynasty of Ghassan. Another branch of the same stock sent forth to Hira the royal lineage of the Lakhmite tribe; to Central Arabia the famous nomad race of Kinda, who long held the supremacy there; to Northern Arabia the Bani Tai, and to Najran the Bani Madhij. The family of Himyar again (descended likewise from Cahtan), furnished, through the line of Codhaa, the Bani Kalb to Dumat al Jandal; and the Bani Odzra, Joheina, and other important tribes to the north of the peninsula, Irac and Mesopotamia. These are but a small specimen of the multitudes which this mighty movement cast forth from the south, and caused to take root in the central or northern districts of Arabia. The exodus long continued, until the population at last adjusted. itself to the natural resources of the country.

Likely effect on Mecca

While the stations and emporia between Syria and Babal Mandab decayed or disappeared, while Yemen and Petra rendered up the whole or a large portion of their inhabitants to the desert, Mecca, the important half-way mart upon the great western line, could not escape its share in the calamity. What happened in other quarters took place also there, though upon a reduced scale. Numerous families descended from Adnan (the remote ancestor of the Coreish) were compelled from time to time to migrate towards the East. Annong these are to be found many of the important tribes of Najd (as the Ghatafan, Sulaim, Hawazin, the Bani Bakr and Bani Taghlib, the Mozeina, and the Bani Tamim), which afterwards played a conspicuous part in the history of the peninsula. It may be concluded that, at this period, Mecca lost the consequence which, as the ancient Macoraba, it possessed, and dwindled down into an insignificant village. Deserted by so many of its native tribes, it fell a prey (as will be shown in the succeeding chapter) to the attack of successive invaders from the south. But it possessed, in its shrine and universally recognized worship, a principle (unknown at Petra or Palmyra) of life and prosperity, which enabled it to survive the fall of commerce. Gradually it recovered from the shock; and, in the middle of the fifth century, Cuassai, a native of Coreishite lineage, again enlarged its limits, cleared away the encroaching shrubs, and having reclaimed many branches of the Coreishite tribe from the nomad habits into which they had fallen, resettled them in their ancient township. Though no longer placed on one of the highways of the world, Mecca still carried on a local and limited trade in grain and leather, in spices and in dried fruits, with Syria and with Yemen; and this commerce contributed, with the national pilgrimage to its shrine, to restore it to a permanent though reduced importance. Such may probably have been the early history of Mecca79.


The importance of Medina (never very great till the Hegira) was less affected than Mecca by the cessation of commerce, because it lay some way to the east of the high road of the Syrian caravans, and it possessed a more fertile soil on which to fall back.

Gradual re-adjustment of commercial relations

Long before MAHOMET appeared, Arabia had recovered from the unsettlement which the great change in the traffic of Asia with Europe had occasioned, and her internal relations had adjusted themselves to the lower level of prosperity on which she was to stand ; - until a new and unexpected fortune should invest her with a lustre unparalleled in her previous annals, and cause the treasures of the world again to flow (not now as the exchange of commerce, but as the tribute of supremacy) in a grateful and continuous stream towards the cities of the sacred Hejaz.

The Life of Mahomet, Volume I [Table of Contents]

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