The South: Arabia Felix
their physical isolation, the southern Arabs were as technically
advanced as any other people in the Ancient World."
– Sitwell, p82.
Great had been planning to circumnavigate and conquer Arabia
at the time of his death. Preliminary explorations
had been made of both the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.
of the southwest of the peninsular were already
well-known. Despite its southerly
latitude, high mountains in the Yemen, catching biannual rains,
led to a very early development of civilization.
Among the first
kingdoms was Saba (aka 'Sheba'), perhaps established
as early as the 8th century BC. The Sabaeans had
their own script, built towns, temples, roads and, notably, outstanding
irrigation works. Their capital Marib, facing
the desert, was the terminus of a caravan route extending north
to Petra and beyond. The trails were older, made possible by
the domestication of the camel around 1200 BC.
In the 1st
century BC the coastal Himyarites, with control
of the sea routes, established their dominion over Saba, and
over the other south Arab kingdoms
during the 1st century AD. They effectively monopolized supply
of both indigenous resins (frankincense and myrrh –
sought after by every temple of the ancient world) and imports
of spice, textiles and ivory from India and East Africa.
the country was dubbed 'Arabia Felix' ('Arabia
the Happy') by the Romans, who had an insatiable demand
for its exports.
sluice gate of Marib Dam
achievement of the Sabaean kingdom was a huge earth
filled dam, built in the second half of the 6th century
BC to hold back waters of the wadi. The dam was a
quarter of a mile long and 53' high, 200' thick at
its base. The lake that formed behind it fed a vast
irrigation system, watering about 25,000 acres and
supporting 50,000 people.
mid-6th century AD the climatic chaos which followed
the catastrophic eruption of Krakatoa triggered such
deluges that the dam burst on at least two occasions.
The event was recorded in the Koran, where it was
interpreted as God's wrath for ingratitude:
they were wicked so we sent on them the flood
of Iram and in exchange for their two gardens
gave them two gardens bearing bitter fruit
... We scattered them ...' (Surah 34.16)
followed. The ruined Jewish and Arab tribes of Saba
migrated north to Medina – where soon they
would be exposed to a new revelation from their Lord.
the construction of a modern dam not only re-filled
the ancient reservoir but also hundreds of ancient
dry wells and water canals connected to it scattered
through the desert. Farmland, desolate for centuries,
can be used again.
of the Moon (Ilumquh) - Marib, Yemen.
'Shaburah' (Saba) as having 60 temples.
Axum - The Kingdom of Abyssinia
the first millennium BC Arabs from south west Arabia had crossed
the Red Sea, married into the native Habashat tribe
and established the kingdom of Axum. The second century Roman
'guidebook' 'Periplus of the Erythraean Sea' records
its king Zoscales as 'mean in his way of life but skilled
in Greek letters.'
By the 3rd
century AD a powerful kingdom existed, constructing palaces and
monumental obelisks, trading in resins and issuing coinage. The
Axumites established a presence on the Arabian coast of the Red
Sea in the late 3rd century and during the 4th century extended
their control over the whole of south Arabia and much of the
arrived in Axum in the 4th century in the guise of Bishop Frumentius
(a Phoenician) and, following the example set by Constantine,
was given the official seal of approval by King Ezana (who
to inscribe his monuments with pagan motifs). In 350, under its
Christian king and in alliance with Rome, Axum invaded the neighbouring
African kingdom of Kush and destroyed its capital of Moroe.
Council of Chalcedon of 454 and the subsequent split in the Church,
Axum followed the lead of Coptic Egypt and adopted Monophysite doctrines. It was the beginning of increasing isolation and decline.
The Roman Empire itself was fatally weakened by the triumph of
Christianity and as its power in the Red Sea region declined
the main beneficiaries were Arab traders, who re-established
the overland routes and ejected Axumites from most of the southwest.
Monumental Obelisk– Axum
Palace ruins – Axum
the 6th century a king in 'liberated' Yemen adopted Judaism
and forced conversion upon the local Christians. This
provoked the Christian Axumites from across the
Red Sea to re-invaded
Arabia in 570, their forces stalling just before Mecca.
Byzantium installed a garrison but this was ejected
when Sassanian Persia sent an army and established control
over southwest Arabia.
It was at
this time of confusing conflict that Muhammad was born.
North West: Nabataea
the 6th century BC onward the Nabataeans had moved into the region
vacated by the Edomites in northwest Arabia. From their city
of Petra they controlled the lucrative trade
routes going north to Damascus and west to Gaza.
With the break-up
of Alexander's empire and the subsequent decline of the Seleucids,
Nabataea extended its dominion as far north as Damascus, securing
a lucrative monopoly of shipments out of the Arabian peninsular.
its 'cartel' Nabataea allied itself with the suppliers, the Himyarites
in the southeast of the peninsular and used its fleet to
move goods north through its Red Sea port of Leuce Come – in
the process eliminating the overland middle-men
of Mecca and Medina.
expeditions against Nabatea by Pompey (63 BC) and Augustus (26
BC) were followed by an alliance with Vespasian in 67 AD. The
Nabataeans grew wealthy supplying both Romans and Persians with
the riches of the east.
and the Spice Trade
by the cost of
its imports from the east, attempted to conquer the merchant
kingdoms of southern Arabia during the time
of Augustus – but failed. The Nabataeans, though allied
to Rome, were reluctant to give away the source of their wealth,
and when pressed into service as 'guides' for the Roman invaders,
led the legions on a debilitating march through the desert.
'We have before related how Aelius Gallus, when he invaded
Arabia with a part of the army stationed in Egypt, exhibited
a proof of the unwarlike disposition of the people; and if
Syllaeus had not betrayed him, he would have conquered the
whole of Arabia Felix.'
– Strabo, Geography,
c. 22 AD.
bided their time. By the mid-1st century AD they had learnt to
exploit knowledge of the monsoon winds to eliminate the need
of Arabian middlemen in the trade with India. No longer dependent
upon Petran goodwill, Nabataea was annexed by Trajan in 106 AD
and the kingdom replaced by the Roman province of Arabia. Ancient
Petra was by-passed by a new road and supplanted by the legionary
fortress town of Bostra and dwindled in importance.
Non-maritime trade now shifted north, to the new boom towns of
Palmyra and Hatra.
In the south
the Himyarite Kingdom was also by-passed by the Roman fleet,
which each year sailed directly from lower
Egypt to the Malabar Coast of India.
The displacement of the Yemeni Arabs in the maritime trade caused
pan-arabian migration: The Banu
Ghassan settled in lower Syria and founded the Ghassanid kingdom; the Banu
Lakhm settled in the Kufa region, on the borders of the Persian Empire.
The North East: Syria
The Syrian Matriarchy: 4 Women (and
a transvestite) who Ruled the World
possession of Syria in 64 BC, a
prized and strategically vital province. In the 3rd century AD
it produced a dynasty that would conquer Rome. The Syrian widow
of Septimius Severus Julia Domna (mother of
Caracalla) used her immense wealth to buy her grandson Elagabalus the
transvestite from Emesa, when he was not debauching his entourage,
devoted himself to the promotion of a universal sun
god religion based upon worship of a black meteorite,
which he had set up in some style in a temple in Rome.
18, Elagabalus was succeeded by his 13-year-old cousin Alexander
Severus – the youngest of all Roman emperors.
But for more than a generation, real power in the Roman world
rested with four 'Oriental' Julias – Alexander's
mother, two aunts and grandmother. Their home province of Syria,
cities of Antioch and Baalbek, profitted enormously. The hapless
Alexander was murdered in 235.
The Arab who was Master of Rome
In 244 another
Syrian, Philip the Arab, became ruler of the
Roman world. He was born 50 miles south of Damascus in the Roman
province of Arabia. Together with his brother Priscus, Philip
had risen high in the military under Gordian III and was implicated
in that emperor's assassination. When Philip got the top job
Priscus ran the East.
In 248 Philip
celebrated the 1000th anniversary of Rome's
foundation with spectacular games. Philip was said to have had 'Christian
sympathies', though we know he added an octagonal forecourt
to the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek. In any event he was overthrown
the following year by that early nemesis of the Christians, Decius.
in the first Roman encounter with the Goths in 251. In a period
of increasing instability Valerian came to the throne in 253
only to be taken captive near Edessa (260) by Sapor, king of
a resurgent Sassanid Persia. Antioch was sacked and Roman
First Arab Empire – Palmyra,
In the mid-3rd
century the Romans were unable to eject Persian invaders from
their rich eastern provinces so the job was accomplished by their
client king Odaenathus (Septimus Odeinat), sheikh of Palmyra,
using heavily-armed cavalry ('cataphracts').
assassination his wife Zenobia (ruling in the
name of her young son Vaballathus) extended the kingdom far into
Roman Asia and Egypt and formed alliances with Armenia and Persia.
(ethnically semitic Amorites and Arabs) adopted many elements
of both Greco-Roman and Parthian-Persian culture.
empire was teeming with large cities, rich with industry – textiles,
glass, metal, and leather-working. Palmyra itself profited from
recovered from Aurelian's vengeance of 273, after almost four
years of battles and sieges.
Empire of Palmyra
Zenobia – Arab
Queen with Attitude. She declared herself 'Augusta'
in 270. Aurelian paraded
her in golden chains in his Roman triumph but allowed
her to retire to Tivoli. Apparently she made quite
a hit on the Roman social scene.
After Zenobia's rebellion Palmyra became
increasingly militarised and less important as
a trading centre.
Bastion of Paganism: Baalbek - Sun
the sun god – Baal/Hadad/ Roman Jupiter – was honoured
as part of a trinity with Artagatis/Astarte,
Roman Venus, a fertility goddess and Adonis/Hermes/ Roman Mercury,
a young god of spring and renewal.
was to rebuild the sanctuary on a truly monumental scale, demonstrably
integrating the new province and its devout Oriental population
into the imperial system. So successfully was this accomplished
that the 'Heliopolitan Triad' spread
throughout the Roman Empire. Evidence of the gargantuan building
effort is to be found in a nearby quarry where, unfinished, is
the largest cut stone in the world, all 1200 tons of it. (Subsequent
Roman gigantism was achieved with poured concrete.)
The vast complex
of temples eventually covered some 16 acres. The Temple of Jupiter – largest
in the Roman world – housed a famous oracle, apparently
expressed through the movements of a statue of the god, animated
by shaven-headed priests.
- Sun City
city of Baalbek (aka Heliopolis ) began
as an ancient Phoenician settlement on the trade
route northwest of Damascus. It
remained a major centre of pilgrimage and paganism
throughout the Byzantine Christian era despite severe
and repeated persecution.
activity at Baalbek came to a halt when Constantine
declared for Christianity – and destruction
that some of the inhabitants of Phoenicia were
addicted to the worship of demons, John selected
some ascetics who were filled with fervent zeal
and sent them to destroy the idolatrous temples,
inducing some ladies of great opulence to defray
the monks' expenses; and the temples of the demons
were thrown down from their very foundations.'
Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393-466) expresses his admiration
for John Chrysostom's demolition teams ('Historia
Hagia Sophia (Istanbul)
ordered Syria's pagans to accept baptism under
penalty of confiscation and exile.
make his point he had 8 of the gigantic columns
(8' thick, 65' high) shipped to Constantinople
to hold up his big church – Hagia Sophia.
columns were pillaged from the Temple of Artemis
in Ephesus, and from monuments in Rome.
Seleucid period it seems evident that the ancient fertility cults
(and their rites of sacred prostitution) were giving way to mystery
cults in which the idea of a personal resurrection was
gaining ground. Reflecting this trend towards a mystical rebirth,
a Temple of Adonis/ Dionysus/ Roman Bacchus was added to the
complex during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161).
made little inroad here. Building activity and state patronage
came to halt when Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the
official religion in 330. Constantine forbade the 'licentious
pagan practices'. The fanatic Theodosius had
the tower-altar, which stood 18 meters high facing the entrance
to the Temple of Jupiter – a sort of 'holy of holies' accessible
only to the priests – knocked down, and the surrounding
statues demolished. With the rubble he had a cathedral built
within the temple precinct.
purge throughout the 6th century but with little effect. Tiberius
Constantine (578-582) ordered the burning of
five pagan priests along with their idolatrous writings;
remaining intransigent pagans were to be punished by the fury
of the army. And yet:
still active as a cult centre at the death of Emperor Maurice
in 602 AD, and continued to flourish as a pagan centre well
into the early Islamic period.'
– Dalrymple, p263.
The early Arab
invaders converted the temples into fortresses (re-using
ancient columns in a mosque). Subsequently what remained of Baalbek suffered
from bitter fighting and sieges for centuries until final desolation
in the 16th century.
W. Cook & R. Herzman, The Medieval World View (OUP, 1983)
John Gribbin, Science a History (Penguin, 2003)
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (Flamingo, 1998)
Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (CUP, 2002)
N. H. H. Sitwell, Outside the Empire-The World the Romans Knew (Paladin,
Edward Gibbon, Decline & Fall, Chapters 50-52 The Coming of Islam, Arab
M. Brett, W. Forman, The Moors, Islam in the West (Orbis, 1980)
Justin Wintle, History of Islam (Rough Guides, 2003)
J. Bloom, S. Blair, Islam - Empire of Faith (BBC Books, 2001)
J. J. Norwich, Byzantium, The Early Centuries (Viking, 1988)
C. McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History (Penguin, 1987)
Robert Marshall, Storm from the East (BBC Books, 1993)
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