The vast expanse of Arabia is mostly taken up with one of the largest and driest deserts in the world. Until c. 1000 BCE, most of this region could support no significant human populations; and the desert conditions could not even support long-distant trade routes across them. The histories of the civilizations of ancient Middle East show that nomadic peoples formed an important element within the societies of the region. However, they grazed their herds of sheep and goats on the grassy margins of the farmed areas, within easy reach of crop surpluses which they could trade their animals’ skins, meat and dairy products for – or, alternatively, take by force.
About 1000 BCE, two developments, possibly connected, transformed this situation. Firstly, camels were domesticated for the first time, giving nomads the means to travel long distances across the driest deserts. Secondly, kingdoms appeared in southern Arabia.
The domestication of camels led to the rise of the Bedouin style of life, a specialised form of nomadism adapted to harsh desert conditions. Bedouin clans grew up, each controlling several oases where they could water their camels. They were comparatively isolated from one another, and developed an intense sense of its own identity. Each clan was ready at a moment’s notice to defend its interests and honour against all comers.
The camel also enabled a trans-desert trade to grow up, controlled by Bedouin clans.
Southern Arabia (comprising modern Yemen and Oman) lies within the monsoon zone, and has enough rainfall to make agriculture possible. Farming there dates from at least 2000 BCE. However, the gradual development of a sophisticated irrigation system allowed more intensive farming to be practiced, and around 1000 BCE cities and kingdoms started to emerge.
The emergence of kingdoms may well have been related to the domestication of camels, and to the rise of the desert trade routes.
Southern Arabia is the source of two products highly prized in the ancient world, myrrh and frankincense. Egyptians used frankincense in religious rites, and for embalming. Myrrh was used throughout the Middle East in costly perfumes, as well as in medicines. Both come from the aromatic gums of certain kinds of small trees; myrrh occurs extensively in the area, frankincense is much more restricted in location.
Frankincense from Yemen – taken in 2005
It was the wealth from this trade, combined with the development of large-scale irrigation systems, which allowed the first true kingdom to appear in this region, Saba.
Saba enters the historical record with a splash. The Bible records the Queen of “Sheba” visiting the king of Israel, Solomon, and impressing him with her wealth. The historical basis for this story may have been a pioneering trade mission.
Saba’s capital was at Marib, a town located in an intensively cultivated area watered by a large reservoir. This reservoir, stacked up behind a dam near the town, was the central feature of the kingdom’s irrigation system; it was this which made productive agriculture, and with it urban civilization, possible.
The kingdom of Saba thrived on the incense trade, which expanded during the first half of the 1st millennium BCE. The people of Saba (the Sabeans) seem to have extended their rule over neighbouring communities, who, however, retained a large measure of autonomy: the kingdom seems to have functioned more like a federation of tribes than a centralised state (implied by the designation of Saba in royal inscriptions as “the Sabaeans and associated communities”, and of the king himself as “the unifier”). Each community was represented by an “elder” in a national council, which advised the king.
Although the archaeological record suggests that Saba was the leading kingdom of the region, other kingdoms had also come into existence by the mid-1st millennium BCE. Like Saba, these were centred on areas which could support productive farming dependent upon well-developed irrigation systems. The most important of them was Awsan, a rival to Saba. An early Sabaean text claims a great victory over Awsan, which resulted in the liberation of another people, the Qatabanians, from Awsanian domination. The Qatabeans formed a third kingdom.
Further north, the oasis of Tayma, in the northern Hejaz, emerged briefly into the light of history when the Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus (reigned c. 556–539 BCE), based himself there for 10 years, in one of the more puzzling episodes in ancient history (was a he fleeing from his enemies? on religious retreat?).
Arabic inscription from Tayma (6th Century BCE)
Still further north, some Arab tribes were now pressing into Palestine. Perhaps the destruction of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians, in 582 BCE, had weakened all the states of the area. The Arab tribes pressed in from the eastern desert, absorbing some of the local populations of the area, and pushing the rest westward. There these ancient peoples would be absorbed by a resurgent Jewish state in the 2nd century BCE.
The rise of the great states of the Middle East in the 1st millennium BCE – the Assyrian empire, the Neo-Babylonian empire and the Persian empire – was accompanied by the expansion of long-distance trade across the Arabian desert, giving the south Arabian spice trade a large boost.
However, it is in Hellenistic times that southern Arabian civilization comes more into the light of history. A Greek writer, Eratosthenes, refers to four major kingdoms located there by the 3rd century BCE, those of the Sabeans, Qatabeans, Mineans and Hadramites (Awsan seems to have disappeared, although it reappeared later).
The capitals of these four kingdoms were not located in the centres of their respective territories. Instead, they lay close together in a comparatively small area on the fringes of a large tract of desert, with their territories spreading out away from them. The off-centre placing of these capitals testifies to the importance of the incense trade routes, in which all four kingdoms had a stake.
These trade routes had their terminus in Hadhramaut, the most easterly of these small kingdoms, which was the only area in southern Arabia where frankincense could be produced. The routes spread out westward and northwards across the Arabian Peninsula, with the most important heading up inland from the Red Sea coast from Yemen to Syria.
The ancient kingdom of Saba remained an important power in southern Arabia, and in fact seems to have extended its influence over a wide area during the 3rd century BCE.
Like the Sabean kingdom, the Minaean and Qatabean states seem to have been essentially federations of smaller groups, of varying size and importance. The Minaean kingdom, which appeared sometime in the 4th century BCE, indeed seems to have functioned more like a republic than a kingdom. The leading officials each controlled one or more trading settlements, and were appointed for two years at a time. The king ruled in association with a council representing all the Minaean groups.
The wealth of the Minaean kingdom was based on trade. The Minaeans established trading colonies in towns throughout southern Arabia, and their chief centres were typical “caravan cities”. In particular, they controlled the westerly trade route running northward, inland from the Red Sea coast (the Red Sea itself was not commonly used at this time, as its networks of shoals and shallows made it hard to sail in with the navigation and sailing techniques then available). No mentions of war appear in Minaean inscriptions, and it seems likely that they exercised their commercial influence through trade treaties with the communities along the route. There is evidence for Minaean trading activity as far north as Gaza (in Palestine), and indeed as far afield as Egypt, and even Greece.
The Minaeans’ domination of the main trade route to the Mediterranean region may have limited the extent to which the other southern Arabian states profited from commerce. However, the kingdom fell into decline in the 2nd century BCE, and other states came to the fore. Saba flourished, and another kingdom which briefly prospered at this time was kingdom of Awsan. This state had last appeared in the historical record before 500 BCE, and whether it had continued to exist as a minor state since then, or had been absorbed into the Qatabanian kingdom, is uncertain. However, it now enjoyed a resurgence, when it appears as a wealthy kingdom.
Another kingdom to thrive during the late Hellenistic period and on into the Roman period was Hadramaut. Indeed, this was now probably the wealthiest of all.
Hadramaut and the area to its east are the only places in Arabia where climatic conditions make production of frankincense possible. The Roman writer Pliny has left us with a description of the trade. The whole crop was collected at the Hadramite capital, Shabwah, where it was taxed, and then sold to merchant caravans to carry it north to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia.
Pliny the Elder
The trans-Arabian trade routes brought southern Arabia more closely into touch with the great civilizations to the north. From the 3rd century BCE onward, the influence of Hellenistic styles can be seen in south Arabian art and architecture. the kingdom of Awsan seems to have been particularly heavily influenced by Hellenistic culture. One of its kings was the only south Arabian ruler to be referred to as a god, in the manner of the Ptolemy and Seleucid kings of the period. His portrait statuette depicts him dressed in Greek garb, rather than in the local styles preferred by his predecessors.
Coin of the Himyarite Kingdom, southern coast of the Arabian peninsula.
This is also an imitation of a coin of Augustus. 1st century
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0
The late Hellenistic and early Roman periods probably saw the peak of south Arabian prosperity in the ancient world. Such was the region’s fabled wealth that, when the Romans arrived in the eastern Mediterranean, they referred to south Arabia as “Arabia Felix” – Blessed Arabia. The Roman emperor Augustus ordered one of his generals to conquer it, but the campaign was a disaster. Disease and hunger defeated the Roman troops.
In north-western Arabia, the Arab tribes which had been moving into eastern Palestine over the past few centuries were absorbed into a unified kingdom under a line of Arab rulers called the Nabateans. They established their capital in the desert town of Petra. They won control over the northern end of the trans-Arabian caravan trade, dominating a large area through allied Bedouin tribes and subordinate oasis trading towns.
In southern Arabia, Shabwah, the capital of Hadramaut, was the largest city in southern Arabia, with a particularly magnificent palace. Hadramaut’s commercial wealth was not only dependent upon the francinsense trade. It also became a major centre for the developing Indian Ocean trade.
Sometime during the 2nd or 1st centuries BCE Greek sailors had explored the Red Sea and Indian Ocean coasts of north-east Africa, Arabia, Iran and northern India. They had discovered the trade winds called the Monsoons, which, once mastered, greatly aided voyages to India. Sailors and merchants pioneered the maritime trade routes between Arabia and India. Until the 1st century CE Indian goods were brought by sea to Arabian ports, and forwarded on by land across the desert to the north. Hadramaut was the kingdom which benefited most from this.
In the first century CE, sailors found that they could sail safely down the Red Sea by following a route which took them down the deep centreline of the sea, rather than hug the dangerous, shoal-ridden coasts (as ancient shipping tended to do). They then began sailing through the Bab El-Mandeb Strait into the Indian Ocean, and this opened up a much more direct route for maritime trade between the Mediterranean to India. Trade with India became much more profitable than before.
This development must have been linked to the rise of a new and powerful kingdom in the region, situated on the south-western tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Himyar first appears in history in the 1st century AD, and with ports on both the Red Sea and Indian Ocean coasts, it was well placed to impose dues from the shipping trade passing through the straits.
The other kingdoms of southern Arabian were seriously affected by the rise of the Red Sea trade route. Right up until the coming of railways, far in the future, land transport would always be much more expensive than sea transport, and usually a great deal slower. The Red Sea shipping route therefore led to the decline of the overland caravan trade routes.
The second century CE was a time of growing conflict and declining wealth for much of southern Arabia. The Bedouin clans which controlled what the trade routes across Arabia fought amongst themselves for what remained of the trade, and some moved into previously agricultural land, driving off the farmers in the process. These developments further weakened the already precarious economies of the southern kingdoms. The exception was the kingdom of Himyar, which, towards the end of the 3rd century, absorbed all the other kingdoms to form a large, unified state covering the whole of southern Arabia.
Meanwhile, in northern Arabia, the Nabatean kingdom grew in power and wealth. Petra, its capital, became one of the most beautiful cities in the ancient world. Its temples, cut into rock, are today a UN World Heritage Site and a major tourists attraction. As for the Nabatean kingdom itself, it was occupied by the Romans in 106 CE, and became the province of Arabia.
In the 4th century, several Arab “kingdoms” emerged to the north of expanded state of Himyar. These were essentially tribal confederacies under the loose authority of a single line of rulers. Each kingdom covered an extensive area and controlled important trade routes running through it. Kindah covered western Arabia, north of modern Yemen up to the region of Mecca.
Northern Arabia came to mirror the divisions between the two great empires which divided most of the Middle East between them at that time, the Roman (and later Byzantine) empire on the one hand, and the Persian (or Sasanian) empires on the other. In the north-west were the Ghassanid rulers. They had their base actually within the Roman empire, east of the Sea of Galilee, and formed part of the Roman defensive system, tasked with defending the Roman frontiers against Bedouin attack. They controlled a huge area of north-west Arabia as far south as Medina.
To the north-east of Arabia was a kingdom ruled by the Lakhmid dynasty. This performed the same role for the Sasanian empire as the Ghassanids did for the Romans: forming a buffer state between the nomads of the Arabian Desert and the settled populations of Mesopotamia. The Lakhmids and the Ghassanids were naturally hereditary enemies, and their hostility was sharpened by the fact that the former were apparently Nestorian Christians while the latter were Monophysite Christians.
At some point, the power of the kingdom of Kindah fell into decline, no doubt weakened by attacks from the north (one of the Lakhmid kings described himself as “Lord of all the Bedouin in Arabia”, which may indicate a successful campaign into Kindah territory). In any event, sometime in the 5th century, a Bedouin group called the Quraysh won control of the town of Mecca and its surrounding territory. From this base they dominated the (now diminished) trade route running up the western side of Arabia. They sent caravans northward to Syria and southward to Yemen, and their commercial influence reached right across the entire Arabian Peninsula. The Quraysh would later play an crucial role in Islamic history.