"ARABIA" in ancient history  

A discussion of the term 'Arabia" and what it might have meant to Greek and Roman historians

Throughout history, the Arabian Peninsula has been traditionally called 'Arabia.' This was particularly true during, Greek, Roman, Persian, and Byzantine eras. At times Roman historians would refer to Arab rulers as "King of the Arabs." The use of this term has often proven confusing to the modern historian whose definition of 'Arab' is colored by recent history.

In the minds of many modern scholars, the Arabs are identified as those people who speak the Arabic language. This linguistic approach has several problems. Foremost is the problem that today many people in the Middle East speak Arabic because it was forced upon them by the Muslim armies that conquered the Middle East in the late seventh century. Many of the peoples of the Middle East have non-Arab ethnic background, but they speak Arabic as their first language because it has been forced upon them by the state. Along with this, there are still a number of minorities in the Middle East, who use Arabic as a trade language, but continue to use their old languages in their homes. (Chaldaeans, Armenians, Assyrians, Adygey (Circassians), Turkomen, Gypsies, Persians, Kurds, etc.) Each of these groups strongly opposes being labeled as 'Arabs', even though they now speak Arabic, often as their first language.

Thus, it is important to consider not only linguistics, but also the historical and ethnic background of the peoples of the Middle East to find the true Arabs, especially those who would have been referred to as Arabs by Greek and Roman historians.

During the time of the Nabataeans, there were only a few people who spoke Arabic. This was what is now termed as "Old Arabic" and varied from location to location. While spoken Arabic dialects varied considerably, written forms of early Arabic differ dramatically. Entirely different scripts were used in southern Arabia, and so historians today often refuse to classify all of these languages under the heading "Arabic."

In order to understand what ancient historians thought of when they used the term 'Arab' we will look at a number of terms that were applied to this area of the Middle East.

Ancient Arabia
The term Arabia comes from Old-Persian where it is pronounced 'Arab'ya'. This was the name of the country to the west and south of Mesopotamia. As one reads ancient literature, three main zones can be discerned.

The southern towns and kingdoms bordering on the Indian Ocean (modern Yemen and Oman)
The nomadic interior (Saudi Arabia),
A northwestern part (Jordan and parts of Syria).

The Latin names of these three zones are:
Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia),
Arabia Deserta (Desert Arabia)
Arabia Petraea (Arabia ruled from Petra).

Arabia Deserta

The nomadic tribes from Arabia Deserta, in Akkadian called Aribi, frequently invaded the surrounding countries -i.e., Arabia Felix and Mesopotamia-, where they sometimes managed to settle. Hardly anything about these isolated 'people without history' is known, although it seems certain that they became camel riders in the tenth or ninth century BC.

By 250 BC various Arabian tribes began moving into the Levant. There is record of the tribe of Qedar, and the Nabatu making inroads into Edomite, Moabite and Jewish territories. In the Parthian and Roman period, several Arabian dynasties ruled towns in what is now Syria and Iraq: Palmyra, Emesa, Edessa, Hatra, Characene and Gerrha.

While it is common for modern people to think of all of the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula as 'Arabs,' the ancient historians often referred to these people by their direct tribal name. This is very important in discovering who the real Arabs were.

Arabia Petraea
These Arabs lived between Egypt and Mesopotamia, eventually leaving their nomadic way of life, they build several towns. The principle people in this area were the Nabataeans and Petra was their capital.

The oldest reference to these Arabs can be found in the biblical book Genesis, where Arabian merchants buy and sell Jacob's son Joseph. Other references can be found in the Assyrian king Salmanasser's account of a battle in 853 BC and in the reports about a kingdom named Aribi, that is mentioned from Tiglath- Pileser III (ruled 745-727) onward and was an Assyrian vassal until the second half of the seventh century. Later, the Arabs were subdued by the Babylonian king Nabonidus, who made the oasis of Tema' his capital and reached Iatribu (modern Medina).

According to the Greek researcher Herodotus, the Persian king Cambyses did not subdue the Arabs when he attacked Egypt in 525 BC. His successor Darius I does not mention the Arabs in the Behistun inscription from the first years of his reign, but mentions them in later texts; this suggests that Darius conquered this part of Arabia. There are no indications that these Arabs were or were not loyal subjects of later Persian kings.

After the Macedonian king Alexander the Great had conquered the Persian empire (between 335 and 323), this part of Arabia remained more or less autonomous for centuries. In 106 AD, however, the part corresponding to modern Jordan was made a province of the Roman empire by the emperor Trajan. There were several cities in this province: from north to south Adraa (modern Dara'), Dion (unknown), Gerasa (Jerash), Philadelphia (Amman) and Aila (Aqaba).

During the Roman Period, historians such as Josephus and Strabo freely intermix the use of the word Arab with Nabataean, and vice versa. Nabataean kings were known as kings of the 'Arabs' and their kingdom was known as Arabia. Thus it was only fitting that the Nabataean Kingdom became known as the Province of Arabia, once it was absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Arabia Felix

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 BC?) 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 famous story of the queen of Sheba's visit to the Jewish king Solomon (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 BC. 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 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; 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 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 camels: this animal was domesticated in the tenth century BC and could travel some hundred kilometers/day.) Several new towns were founded along the incense road; the most important was Iatribbu. Mecca was a little off the main road. When Alexander the Great had conquered the Persian empire, he wanted to launch a naval expedition to Arabia Felix, but he died several days before the expedition started (323 BC). 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 BC, 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 South-West, now became independent (about 1110 BC), because it controlled harbor towns like modern Al-Mukha and Aden. The capital of Himyar was Zafar.

From now on, Saba and Himyar were competitors, and they sometimes invited foreign powers to assist them in their wars: e.g., tribes from Arabia Deserta or Ethiopian warriors from Aksum. Later, the foreigners came uninvited, such as the army that was sent by the Roman emperor Augustus in 24 BC, 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. At the end of the third century, its king Šamir Yuhar`iš united Yemen. He was important enough to negotiate on equal terms with the king of the Parthian empire.


Despite the nice clear classifications that modern historians put onto these different terms, it is obvious that the ancient historians did not all agree on them.

According to Strabo, XVI.iv.21 "The Nabataeans and Sabaeans, situated above Syria, are the first people who occupy Arabia Felix. They were frequently in the habit of overrunning this country before the Romans became masters of it, but at present both they and the Syrians are subject to the Romans. The capital of the Nabataeans is called Petra …"

Today many people believe that the term Arabia Felix referred only to southern Yemen. However, Cl. Ptolemaeus lists places like Wadi Rumm (Iram) in southern Jordan, in his list of cities in Arabia Felix. (Aramava-Geogr. 6.7.27). Thus, many of the characteristics that ancient writers attributed to Arabia Felix can also be applied to the Nabataeans, and southern Nabataea in particular.

Origin of the Word 'Arabs'

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, one of the issues that have often puzzled Middle Eastern historians is the proper use of the word 'Arab.' To the uneducated outsider, Arabs are the people who live in the deserts of the Middle East. To the informed Middle Easterner however, the situation is somewhat more complex. While the Middle East is the crossroad of history, it is more than that. This region has long been the crossroad of trade and commerce between the eastern and the western world. Indians, Persians, Phoenicians, Africans, Europeans, and even Gypsies have moved into the Middle East at various times and made it their home. Added to this, the armies of the major civilizations of the world have swept back and forth across the sands of the Middle East, thoroughly mixing the various ethnic groups and erasing many of their historical records.

To this confusion, we must add yet another difficulty. Many of the preserved historical records have come to us from the pens of outside writers. Greek, Roman and European historians have all commented about the Arabs, but their understanding of the ethnic makeup of the peoples of the Middle East has often been confused and confusing. This may seem a trivial thing, but it presents great difficulties for the Middle Eastern historian who is trying to glean information from them. For instance, when the Perplex Marcus tells us that it was the Arabs who traded with India, not the Romans, the question immediately arises, "Which Arabs?" Was it the Nabataean Arabs? Was it the Yemeni Arabs? Was it the Omani Arabs? Or who?

So it is vital to understand just exactly who each ancient historian was talking about when he referred to people known as 'Arabs.' It would be very unfair to force a modern definition onto what was intended, and probably understood by the ancient readers of the ancient historians.

Below, I want to examine the use of the word 'Arab' linguistically, historically, biblically, according to Muslim traditions, according to Arab genealogies, and finally through the records of other civilizations. Then at the end of the paper I will attempt to explore what I believe each of the ancient historians was referring to when he used the word 'Arabia' and 'Arab.'

While I cannot give conclusive proof as to the origin of the Arabs, or who today should be considered as an Arab, the information in this paper should be of interest to those tracing the roots of the Arab people.

Etymological Use
Etymologically speaking the word 'Arab' means desert dwellers, without reference to nationality or ethnic descent. This term has been applied to the nomads who dwell mainly in the Arabian Peninsula, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Syro-Arabian desert. It has been used for many years, stretching back to the Aramaean Bedouins of 880 BC who interfered in the affairs of Bet Zamani on the Euphrates River and helped overthrow the local ruler of the Assyrian king Assur Nasipal. It has also been used to describe the ancient twelve tribes of Ishmael who dwelt in the Arabian deserts. (See Finding the Twelve Lost Tribes of Ishmael).

Linguistical Use

Linguistically speaking an Arab would be anyone who considers Arabic as his mother tongue. Some modern researchers have even defined Arabs as "An Arab… is one who spoke a form of Arabic as at last one of his languages or whose direct ancestors did." (Chris Dawson, Christian Arabic Culture in the Middle East before the Coming of Islam with especial Reference to the Transjordan)

If we use the Arabic language as a key component of our definition of Arab, then we must wrestle with the question of when and where did Arabic first emerge. Linguistically, there are two classifications of ancient Arabic, the northern dialects, and the southern dialects. The use of the term 'Arab' in the southern dialects comes much later than that of the northern dialects, demonstrating that the northern Arabian tribes identified themselves as 'Arabs' much sooner than the south Arabian people. In this case, we must consider the twelve tribes of Ishmael to be among the first Arabs, and the peoples of Yemen and Oman as becoming Arabs at a much later period.

As I mentioned earlier, while it may be possible today to label everyone in the Middle East who speaks the Arabic language as an Arab, many Middle Easterners take objection to this, vehemently denying that they are Arabs. (E.g.: Kurds, Chaldaeans, Assyrians, etc.) However, in an ancient setting this classification becomes clearer. The twelve tribes of Ishmael along with several tribes from southern Arabia (e.g. Sheba) all spoke an early form of Arabic. Arabic as a well recognized language in the west did not emerge until Nabataean traders made it the trade language for much of the east/west trade. However, by 85 BC Nabataean Arabic began to be displaced by Greek, until eventually Greek and Latin became the languages of the educated in the Middle East.

Ancient Historical Records

The first clear occurrence of the world 'Arab' in Assyrian records is found in the records of King Shalmaneser III who recorded the history of a battle at Qarqar, north of Hamath during the sixth year of his reign (853 BC). At the end of the list of his adversaries, Shalmaneser mentioned Gindibu (Arabic Jundub), the Arabian and his 1000 camels. Later in the records of the Assyrian kings from Tiglath Pileser III through to Ashurbanipal (745-627 BC) Arabs appear as foes, and as allies. Sargon II claimed to have resettled some Arab nomadic groups in Samaria as part of the Assyrian deportation scheme. Most of the time, the term 'Arab' is applied to tribes living in north and central Arabia. The Ishmaelites were a prominent part of these nomads.

The Assyrian records mostly apply the term 'Arab' to the north Arabian nomadic tribes, and is specifically applied to the Qedarites, the people of Sumu, and to the tribes of Idiba'ilu, (biblical Adbeel) Thamud, Ibadidi, Marsimani, and 'Ephah. The term Arab is also applied to the people of Tema, Sheba, Massa, the Me'unites, the Nebaioth (Nabataeans) and the Teeme. These tribes can almost all be traced back to a common ancestor, Ishmael. Those that support the northern tribe theory point to the failure of the south Arabian inscriptions to include any reference to themselves as 'Arabs.' It seems that gradually the south Arabians took on the Arab name and so by the first century AD they too were called Arabs. This is attributed to the expansion of the northern nomads into the south part of Arabia. However, Herodotus III, 107-8 (written fifth century BC) distinctly labels the people of southern Arabia, who dealt with frankincense and myrrh as Arabs.


Arabs show up in three biblical lists of genealogy:
The descendants of Jaktan (Genesis 10:25-30)
The descendants of Abraham through Keturah (Genesis 10:1-6)
The descendants of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13-18)
(It is possible that some of the descendants of Cush, the son of Ham (Genesis 10:7) are also called Arabs.)

There seems to have been some intermingling between the tribe of Simeon and the Ishmaelites, for the clans of Mibsam and Mishma are associated with both. (Genesis 25:13 and I Chronicles 4:25).

Ishmaelites do not appear among the victims of David's raids into the lands south and east of Israel, even though these enter Arab lands. (I Samuel 27:8 and Genesis 25:18) David's sister married Jether the Ishmaelite (I Chronicles 2:17) and two of David's administrators were Obil the Ishmaelite, and Jaziz the Hagarite, (I Chronicles 27:30).

Hagar and Ishmael were given Arabia (Genesis 21:8-21) and Isaac's descendants were promised the Holy Land. Apparently they were not hostile to each other, for Ishmael and Isaac worked together to bury their father Abraham in the Cave of Macphilah, in Mamre (Genesis 25:9).

On the other hand, the Bible refers to various individuals and groups as being 'Arabs.' Jeremiah prophesied against the 'kings of the Arabs' sometime between 627 and 586 BC.

Muslim Traditions

The Arab genealogist Hisham Ibn Muhammad al-Kalbi (A.D. 737-819), known as Ibn al Kalbi, established a genealogical link between Ishmael and Mohammed. He quotes writers who had access to biblical and Palmyran sources, but the majority of his information came from the ancient oral traditions of the Arabs. His book, 'Djamharat al Nasab' has been translated into German by W. Caskel, (Ghamharat an-Nasab (The Abundance of Kinship) Das genealogische Werk des Hisam Ibn Muhammad al Kalbi, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1966) It seemed to be Ibn al Kalbi's opinion that the people known as 'Arabs' were all descendants of Ishmael.

Arab Genealogists

It is the common view of Arab genealogists and modern historians that Arabs originated in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, and then moved northward. (James Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1934 and Hitti, History of the Arabs.) This view is based on the identification by Muslim Arabs of their oldest ancestor as being Qahtan, whom they identify as the biblical Jaktan. Genesis 10:25-26.

Arab Genealogists divide the Arabians into two ethnic stocks. First, the original Arabic Arabs ('aribah) and then the arabized Arabs (musta 'iribah). The Arabic Arabs are supposed to have originated with the Yamanites and are descended from Qahtan (Jaktan of the Bible) and are the original stock. The Arabized Arabs are the Hijazis, Najdis, Nabataeans, and Palmyrenes. These Arabized Arabs are supposed to have all descended from Adnan, an offspring of Ishmael.

Records of Other Civilizations

This Greco-Roman term appears in classical literature, and stems most likely from the Arabic Sarqiyyun, meaning 'easterners.' Fergus Millar in 'Hagar, Ishmael, Josephus, and the Origin of Islam, JJS 44(1983): 41-43 claims that this term refers mostly to Ishmaelites. Musil in Arabia Deserta, (494) refers to the nomadic tribes living in the inner desert of central Arabia as bedw or sarkiyye, a term derived from sarq, which means 'east' in Arabic, but is often used as a reference to the inner desert of north and central Arabia. "Whoever marches through this region, whether he goes west or east or south, is referred to as sarrak tasriz or going into the inner desert."

Isma'il in the Qur'an
There are twelve Qur'anic verses that mention Isma'il by name in the Qur'an. Nine of them list him among other holy men from ancient times. He is described as having 'preference above the worlds' (Sura 6:86), and is listed together with Idris and Zul-Kifl as 'one of constancy and patience.' (Sura 21:85). He is commemorated together with Zul-Kifl and Elisha as 'of the company of the good people.' (Sura 38:48) All of the three previously mentioned references are found in the Meccan Suras from the early part of Mohammed's life.

Then is Sura 2:125 God commands Abraham and Isma'il to purify his house (Ka'ba) for those who want to use it as a place of prayer and worship. In Sura 2:127-129, Abraham, with Isma'il raise the foundations of the house, asking God to make them submit to him. (Muslims). In Sura 2:133, Isma'il is described along with Abraham and Isaac as monotheists, submitting to on