1902 Encyclopedia > Arabia > Arabia - History. Pre-Islamic Arabia, to the 7th Century.

(Part 40)


(40) Arabia - History. Pre-Islamic Arabia, to the 7th Century.

History of Arabia

The history of Arabia and its inhabitants naturally divides itself into two distinct and even dissimilar periods, that, namely which preceded the era of Mahomet, and that which followed it. Each of these two periods, though comprising in its extent several minor phases and fluctuations, now of advance, now of retrogression, bears, however, a well-marked general character of its own. The first of the two periods is distinguished as one of local monarchies and federal governments; the latter commences with theocratic centralization dissolving into general anarchy.

Prehistoric Myths

The unrestrained imagination of Arab chroniclers has indeed added to their annals a third or pre-historic tract, peopled with heroes and giants, men of renown, sons of Anak, much resembling those who figure in early Jewish records, and, it may be not unfairly presumed, of analogous authenticity. To such belong the fabulous tribes of "ad in the south, of Thamood in the north, and of Tasm and Jadis in the centre of the peninsula. Very gorgeous are the descriptions given of "Irem," the "city of pillars," as the Koran styles it, supposed to have been erected by Shedad, the latest despot of ‘Ad, in the regions of Hadramaut; and which yet, after the annihilation of its tenants, remains entire, so Arabs say, invisible to ordinary eyes, but occasionally, and at rare intervals, revealed to some heaven-favoured traveler. Vague reports of the colossal ruins of Egyptian Thebes and Karnak probably originated the fancy. To Thamood are ascribed the more substantial traces of rock excavations in the north-western Hejaz; while Tasm and Jadis are described as more scenite or Bedouin-like in their manners and mode of living. Mahometan tradition, a mere travesty of the Jewish, and mostly derived from rabbinical sources, has attempted to construct a pseudo-genealogy of a Noachian character for every one of these imaginary or vanished clans. Further yet, it has, in its eagerness to find a confirmation of its own central idea, everywhere ascribed their extinction to supernatural wrath, brought down on them, now by the rejection of some apocryphal prophet of the Divine Unity, now by atrocious misdeeds like those recorded of the inhabitants of Canaan or the Cities of the Plain. The sober historian, however, will, in the absence of any reliable evidence, documentary or monumental, abstain from pronouncing either on the character of these aboriginal tribes, or on the manner and causes of their disappearance.

Old Arab Monarchies

The first dawning gleams of anything that deserves to be called history disclose Arabia wholly, or nearly so, under the rule of a race of southern origin; the genuine, or, as they are sometimes termed from a mythical ancestor Kahtan, the Kahtanee Arabs. These, again, we find subdivided into several aristocratic monarchical governments, arranged so as to form a broad framework or rim round the central wilds of the peninsula.

Kingdom of Yemen

Oldest and chiefest among the Arab monarchies was that of Yemen; its regal residence is said to have been in the now abandoned town of Mareb, in the extreme south. After a devastating inundation, referred with some probability to the first century of the Christian era, the s eat of government was removed from the ruins of Mareb to Sanaa, a city which has continued the metropolis of Yemen to the present day. The Yemenite kings, descendants of Kahtan and Himyar "the dusky," a name denoting African origin, and each adorned with the reiterated surname of "Tobba," a word of African etymology, and signifying "powerful," are said to have reigned, with a few dynastic interruptions and palace revolutions, for about 2500 years; during which long period they commanded the direct obedience of the entire southern half of the peninsula; while, by their tribute-collectors, and by chiefs of kindred or delegated authority, they indirectly governed the northern. One of these monarchs is asserted, though historical criticism will hardly admit the assertion for fact, to have subdued the whole of central Asia, and even to have reached the boundaries of China; while another anticipated, so runs the story, the later and more authentic conquests of his race on the north African continent. In both these cases Arab chroniclers seem to have appropriated for their own rulers, not without some additional exaggerations, the glories and exploits of the Egyptian kings. But that theirs was a vigorous and in some respects a civilized government, is attested alike by the literary and architectural relics of their time. Their sovereignty was at last overthrow, 5299 A.D., by an Abyssinian invasion, and was re-established 603 A.D. as a dependency of the Persian empire, till in the year 634 it was finally absorbed by Mahometan conquest.

Kingdom of Hira

Next in importance to the kingdom of Yemen came the subsidiary monarchy of Hira, or, more correctly, Heerah, situated in the north easterly province of Arabian Irak. Its kings, a collateral branch of the royal race of Sanaa, governed the western shore of the lower Euphrates, from the neighbourhoof of Babylon down to the confines of Nejd, and along the coast of the Persian Gulf. The duration of their empire, founded in the second century after Christ, was 424 years. This kingdom paid an uncertain allegiance to their more powerful neighbours, the Persian despots; and from time to time exercised considerable influence over the turbulent tribes of Central Arabia, till, like Yemen, it sank before the rising fortunes of Mahomet and his followers.

Kingdom of Ghassan

A third monarchy, that of Ghassan, lorded it on the north-west over lower Syria and the Hejaz; its independence was somewhat tempered by unequal alliances with the Roman, and subsequently the Byzantine empire. It was founded in the first century of the Christian era, shortly after the flood of Mareb; and its duration, till subdued by the all-conquering prophet, exceeded 600 years.

Kingdom of Kindeh

A fourth government, that of Kindeh, detached itself from Irak early in the fifth century, and united under its sceptre the tribes of northerly Nejd and even those of Oman, for about 160 years. Its kings were, like those before mentioned; of Yemenite origin; but their rule was weak and disturbed by frequent wars.

Flood of Arem

Much has been written by Arab authors regarding the great inundation, as they term it, of Arem or Mareb, possibly a tropical cyclone of more than ordinary destructiveness, like that of 1867 in the West Indies; and this event they love to assign as the proximate cause which dispersed the families of Yemen over northern Arabia, and led to the foundation of the kingdoms of Irak and Ghassan. But the reality of the events, physical or political, symbolized by the "flood of Arem," a counterpart, after its fashion. Of the biblical flood, cannot now be well deciphered.

Prosperity of Yemen

This is, however, certain, that the Yemenite Arabs, and especially those who tenanted the south of the peninsula, had during the period now cursorily sketched, attained a very fair degree of civilization; that arts and commerce flourished, that wealth accumulated, literature cultivated, and talent held in esteem. On all these points we have not only the uncertain and distorted testimony of foreign authors, such as Strabo, Pliny, Diodorus, Ptolemy, and the like, but the more positive though fragmentary evidence afforded by the national writings, chiefly verse, that have survived to our day. in its general character and institutions the kingdom of Yemen seems to have borne a considerable resemblance to the neighbouring one of the Nile valley, on the other side of the Red Sea, and, like it, to have reached at a very early epoch a relatively high degree of prosperity and social culture, from which, however, it had long declined before its final extinction in the 7th century. But the daughter-kingdom of Hira had, as was natural, something of a Persian tinge; while that of Ghassan took a more Byzantine colouring. Lastly, the nomadic element predominated in the ill-cemented monarchy of Kindeh.

The "Mustareb" or Northern Arabs

But while the scepter of Yemen was yet, in one form or other, outstretched over the length and breadth of the land, and its children, the genuine or African Arabs, formed a complete and dense circle of population all around, the center of Arabia remained the stronghold of a different though kindred race, composed of tribes almost wholly scenite, in their mode of living wild and ferocious; less susceptible of culture, but gifted with greater energy and concentration of purpose than their southern cousins. The latest recorded emigration of this branch of the Arab stock had been not from the south but the north; and instead of the mythical Kahtan, they claimed a no less mythical Adnan, or his supposed grandson Nezar, for their ancestor; their language, though radically identical with that spoken by the genuine Arabs, was yet dialectically different in several respects, and nearer to the Syriac or Hebrew. Lastly, unlike the Arabs of the south, they had little disposition for agriculture, and even less for architecture and the fine arts; their instincts leading them to a pastoral and consequently a nomade life. The almost infinite ramification of these "Mustareb" or "adscititious Arab, tribes lead ultimately up to five principal stocks. These were Rabeeah, which, however, laid some claim to a Yemenite kinsmanship in the east center of the peninsula; Koreysh, on the west; Keys, or Keys-Eylan, and Hawazin, on the north; and tameem in the middle.

Revolt of the Northern Arabs

History has left unrecorded the exact date of their arrival in Arabia; nor has she defined the period during which they remained tributaries, though often refractory, of the kings of Yemen. But in the 5th century of the Christian era there appeared among the Mustareb tribes a leader of extraordinary talent and energy named Koleyb, sprung from the tribe of Rabeeah, who having, in the fashion of William Tell, slain with his own hand the insolent and licentious tax-gatherer sent them from Sanaa, raised the banner of general revolt in Nejd; and, in the battle of Hazaz, 500 A.D., broke for ever the bonds of Yemen from off the neck of the northern or scenite Arabs. This done, Koleyb aspired to unite his countrymen into one vast confederacy, over which he himself exercised for a time an almost kingly power; but the scheme was prematurely broken off by his own assassination. Left now without a master, but also without a ruler, the "Mustareb" tribes found themselves involved in a series of wars that lasted during the whole of the 6th century, their heroic period. Yet in spite of severe losses sustained in battle by this or that particular clan, their power as a whole went on increasing, till at the dawn of the 7th century they had wholly absorbed the feeble kingdom of Kindeh, and encroached yearly more and more on the narrowing bounds of Yemen, Irak, and Ghassan. Now, probably, would they have stayed till they had become absolute lords kover the whole, or nearly the whole, of the peninsula, had there not developed itself from among themselves a still more energetic element which, before many years had passed, reduced both northern and southern Arabs alike to common obedience, then raised them to unexpected height of common glory, and at last plunged them, along with itself, into one comprehensive declined and ruin.

Rise of Koreysh

This new and potent element was the well-known clan of Fihr or Koreysh. Its families, of Mustareb descent, had at an early period, which subsequent and Mahonetan chroniclers have tried to identify with the fortunes of the mythical Ismael, established themselves in the southerly Hejaz, near the town of Mecca, a locality even then the principal religious and commercial center of Srabia. Already, at the beginning of the 5th century, the chiefs of Koreysh had, by a mixture of violence and craft very characteristic of their race, rendered themselves the masters and the acknowledged guardians of the sacred "Kaabeh." This square stone temple, or rather shrine, itself of unknown antiquity, was situated within the precincts of the town of Mecca; and to it the Arabs were in the habit of bringing yearly offerings, and of making devout pilgrimages, for centuries before Mahomet had adopted it into the new ritual of Islam as the house of the true God. The keys of the consecrated building had originally been in possession of delegates appointed by the monarch of Yemen, but the Koreysh Arabs, having once obtained them, held them fast for ever after, and successfully repelled every effort, both of their own pagan competitors and of the invading Christian Abyssinians, 750 A.D., to recapture or to seize them. Their possession of the temple-keys not only gave he tribe of Koreysh a semi-religious pre-eminence over all the other clans of Arabia, but also placed at their disposal the treasures of gold, silver, jewels, and other offerings accumulated by the pagan piety of ages in the temple of Mecca.

Trade with Yemen

A more important, as also a more creditable, source of wealth to the Koreysh clan was their Red Sea coast traffic, particularly with the ports of Yemen and Abyssinia. Jiddah has been always the chief westerly seaport, and Mecca, which is only a few leagues distant, the principal inland emporium of Arab trade; and under the dominating influence of the clever and active merchants of Kerysh, both places acquired special prosperity and importance.

Fair of Okad

Lastly, only a day’s journey distant from Mecca, was held, in the pre-Islamitic times, the great yearly fair and gathering of Okad, so-called from the name of the plain where it used to assemble, a national meeting, frequented by men of all conditions, from all quarters of the Arab peninsula, and lasting through the entire month of Dhoo-1-kaddeh, which in pagan, as subsequently in Mahometan reckoning, immediately preceded the ceremonies of the annual pilgrimage. Here horse-races, athletic games, poetical recitals, and every kind of public amusement, diversified the more serious commercial transactions of an open fair, that, in its comprehensiveness, almost assumed the proportions of a national exhibition; here, too, matters of the highest import, questions of peace and war, of treaty and alliance, of justice and revenge, were habitually treated by the chiefs of the northern Arabs; the "children of Mezar," to give them their favourite "Mustareb" patronymic, assembled in a sort of amphictyonic council, not less ancient, but, while it lasted, much more influential throughout Arabia than that of Thebes ever had been in classic Hellas. In this assembly the immediate local proximity of the Koreysh chiefs, joined to their personal wealth, courage, and address, assigned them a predominant position.

Origin of Koreysh

Of their pedigree, which, as is well known, includes that of Mahomet himself, we have a carefully-too carefully, indeed, for authenticity-constructed chronicle, bringing the family tree up in due form of Ishmael, the son of Abraham, of whom the Koreysh figure as the direct descendants. In the same artificial annuals the Yemenite or genuine Arabs appear under the cousinly character of the children of Joktan, the son of Heber. On these points all Mahometan annalists are equally positive and distinct; all other Arab testimony equally adverse or silent. That a fable so utterly defiant of reasonable chronology, and even of the common sense of history itself, should have been adopted as matter of fact by Arab vanity and ignorance, is less surprising than that it should have found favour in the eyes of not a few, indeed of most, of our own European writers. Enough here to say that Mahometan chroniclers, by adopting as irrefragable historical authority the Jewish records, and then retouching them here and there in accordance with their own special predictions and tenets, have succeeded in concealing the truth of their own national identity and story from themselves and even from others, under an almost hopeless incrustation of childish fiction. A correcter version of Arab history and pedigree will, so far as possible, be given towards the end of the present article. To sum up, at the opening of the 7th century of our era, and coincidently with the first appearance of the prophetic autocrat and destined remodeller of Arabia, the overteeming life and energy of the great peninsula was, broadly taken, thus divided: - Foremost stood the tribe of Koreysh, with their allies, a powerful confederacy composed of tribes belonging to the Mustareb or northern stock, and occupying the upper half of the westerly coast and region. Next in importance came the countless independent and, thus far, uncentralised clans of the center of the peninsula; they, too, mostly are of Mustareb origin, though a few claimed the more ancient and aristocratic kinsmanship of Yemen; but without, however, paying any allegiance to its rulers. Lastly, to the south, east, and north, still existed the noble but enfeebled relics of the old Yemenite kingdoms of Sanaa, Hira, and Ghassan, half-sunk into Persian or Byzantine vassalage, and exerting little authority, even within their own ancestral limits.

Contract with Foreign Nations

But, however important to the country itself and in their ultimate results to the world at large, might be the events that took place within Arabia during the pre-Islamitic epoch, they had small bearing on the nations outside the peninsula. The Yemenite queen of Sheba’s ambassage to Solomon, even if an historical event, led at least to no historical results; and with other coeval rulers and nationalities, Greek, Persian, and Macedonian, the Arabs rarely came into any other contact than that of distant and desultory traffic. Nor do the frontier skirmishes by which an Antigonus or a Ptolemy attempted, without success, to gain a footing in Arabia, deserve more than a passing notice; and Pompey himself, victorious elsewhere, was foiled on its frontiers.

Expedition of Aelius Gallus

At last, during the reign of Augustus, Aelius Gallus, the Roman prefect of Egypt, undertook a military expedition against Yemen itself, with the view of annexing that region, which report enriched with immense treasures, to the Roman empire. With an army composed of 10,000 Roman infantry, 500 Jews, and 1000 Nabatheans, he crossed the Red Sea in 210 galleys, and landed at Moilah, or Leuce Come, in 25o N. lat., near the modern Yambo. After some delay, the consequence of disease and disorganization among his troops, he marched southward until he reached the inland district and city of Nejran, on the nearer frontier of Yemen. The town of Nejran he is said to have taken by assault, as well as a few neighbouring places, probably mere villages, of little note. Meanwhile a large force of Arabs had assembled to oppose him, but Gallus easily defeated them, and advanced to Mareb itself, then, we may suppose, the capital of oYemen. But the Roman soldiers, unaccustomed to the heat of the tropical climate, and much reduced in numbers, were incapable of laying siege to that town; and their general found himself thus forced to retreat, and recrossed the sea to Egypt without having effected any permanent settlement on the Arab side. Later attempts made by Roman governors or general undr Trajan and Severus were restricted to the neighbourhood of the Syrian frontier; and the ruined cities of Bosrah and Petra yet indicate the landmarks of the extreme southerly limits reached by imperial dominion over Arab territory.

Abyssinian Invasion of Yemen

More serious, and more lasting in its consequences, was the great Abyssinian invasion of Yemen in 529, when Aryat, son or lieutenant of the king of Abyssinia, landed in Aden with an army of 70,000 men, to avenge his co-religionists, the Christians who had been cruelly persecuted by Dhow-Nowas, king of Yemen, himself a proselyte to, and an ardent propagator of, the Jewish code. The expedition was successful; Dhow-Nowas perished; Christianity was prclaimed; and for seventy-six years the Ethiopian conquerors retained subject to their rule the southern and richer half of the peninsula. Their king Abraha even advanced, in 569 A.D., the year of the birth of Mahomet, as far as Mecca; but beneath its walls suffered a repulse, which has been magnified by the Koran and Mahometan tradition into the proportions of a miracle. Persian assistance, furnished by the great Chosroes, ultimately enabled the Arabs under Seyf, son of Yezen, the last direct lineal descendant of the old kings of Sanaa, to liberate their territory from its dusky usurpers, 605 A.D.

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