IRAN: THE BORDERLANDS
Friends and Neighbours
The Arabs were recognised as a distinct people (ie different from, say, Greeks or Persians), but there was no political, cultural, religious or even linguistic unity in the Arab lands, before the coming of Islam. Arabs lived in the Arabian peninsula, and lands to the north of it. Some were nomadic, others created settled kingdoms, and founded great cities, such as Palmyra, Damascus, Petra, Hatra. Often they were incorporated as allies or subjects into the larger empires that fought for control of the area, criss-crossed as it was by important north-south and east-west trade routes.
Early references: Herodotus
Herodotus has several references to Arabs (during the early Achaemenid period, when there existed briefly a satrapy called Arabaya, before 480 BC). Many of the details are fantastical, but he associates them accurately with the procuring of aromatics and spices - cassia, cinnamon, myrrh, and particulary frankincense - which in later times the Arabs supplied in huge quantities to the cities of Greece and the Roman empire. After cooperating with Cambyses in his conquest of Egypt, they became Persian allies - and contributed troops to Xerxes' invasion of Greece: cavalry mounted on camels. It's not quite certain, however, where exactly these Arabs had originated.
Three loosely defined areas of Arab settlement emerge from the literature, and are often referred to by their Roman names:
- roughly corresponds to modern Saudi Arabia, and was inhabited by a number of independent nomadic tribes, who frequently invaded the lands to the north (Mesopotamia) and south (Arabia Felix). The camel (domesticated from at least 3000 BC) was essential to their way of lfe. Almost nothing is known about these peoples, who left no records, architecture or monuments.
That part of Arabia as a whole which lies to the south is called Felix, but the interior part is ranged over by a multitude of Arabians who are nomads and have chosen a tent life. These raise great flocks of animals and make their camps in plains of immeasurable extent. The region which lies between this part and Arabia Felix is desert and waterless, as has been stated; and the parts of Arabia which lie to the west are broken by sandy deserts spacious as the air in magnitude, through which those who journey must, even as voyagers upon the seas, direct their course by indications obtained from the Bears.
This land also breeds camels in very great numbers and of most different kinds, both the hairless and the shaggy, and those which have two humps, one behind the other, along their spines and hence are called dituloi. Some of these provide milk and are eaten for meat, and so provide the inhabitants with a great abundance of this food, and others, which are trained to carry burdens on their backs, can carry some ten medimni of wheat and bear up five men lying outstretched upon a couch. Others which have short legs and are slender in build are dromedaries and can go at full stretch a day's journey of a very great distance, especially in the trips which they make through the waterless and desert region. And also in their wars the same animals carry into battle two bowmen who ride back to back to each other, one of them keeping off enemies who come on them from in front, the other those who pursue in the rear.
Temple of Almaqah in Marib, Yemen. 6th-5th centuries BC. Photo AMW
- roughly where Yemen is today: it contained several kingdoms - rivals for the very lucrative trade in frankincense. For Sasanian intervention in South Arabia inthe 6th century AD see here.
That part of Arabia which borders upon the waterless and desert country is so different from it that, because both of the multitude of fruits which grow therein and of its other good things, it has been called Arabia Felix. For the reed and the rush [ie ginger] and every other growth that has a spicy scent are produced in great abundance, as is also, speaking generally, every kind of fragrant substance which is derived from leaves, and the land is distinguished in its several parts by the varied odours of the gums which drip from them; for myrrh and that frankincense which is most dear to the gods and is exported throughout the entire inhabited world are produced in the farthest parts of this land. And kostos and cassia and cinnamon and all other plants of this nature grow there in fields and thickets of such depth that what all other peoples sparingly place upon the altars of the gods is actually used by them as fuel under their pots, and what is found among all other peoples in small specimens there supplies material for the mattresses of the servants in their homes. Moreover, the cinnamon, as it is called, which is exceptionally useful, and resin of the pine, and the terebinth, are produced in these regions in great abundance and of sweet odour. And in the mountains grow not only silver fir and pine in abundance, but also cedar and the Phoenician cedar in abundance and boraton [juniper], as it is called. There are also many other kinds of fruit-bearing plants of sweet odour, which yield sap and fragrances most pleasing to such as approach them. Indeed the very earth itself is by its nature full of a vapour which is like sweet incense.
Frankincense bush in Hadramawt, Yemen.
The resin hardens to form a crystal-like substance. Photo AMW
- meaning Arabia with its capital at Petra, (now in Jordan). These Arabs are the ones commonly mentioned by the Persians and Greeks, and who after Alexander's conquests, became vassals of the Seleucids then of the Romans and eventually of the Byzantines. They included the Nabataeans:
But now that we have examined these matters we shall turn our account to the other parts of Asia which have not yet been described, and more especially to Arabia. This land is situated between Syria and Egypt, and is divided among many peoples of diverse characteristics. Now the eastern parts are inhabited by Arabs, who bear the name of Nabataeans and range over a country which is partly desert and partly waterless, though a small section of it is fruitful. And they lead a life of brigandage, and overrunning a large part of the neighbouring territory they pillage it, being difficult to overcome in war. For in the waterless region, as it is called, they have dug wells at convenient intervals and have kept the knowledge of them hidden from the peoples of all other nations, and so they retreat in a body into this region out of danger. For since they themselves know about the places of hidden water and open them up, they have for their use drinking water in abundance; but such other peoples as pursue them, being in want of a watering-place by reason of their ignorance of the wells, in some cases perish because of the lack of water and in other cases regain their native land in safety only with difficulty and after suffering many ills.
...The remaining part of Arabia, which lies towards Syria, contains a multitude of farmers and merchants of every kind, who by a seasonable exchange of merchandise make good the lack of certain wares in both countries by supplying useful things which they possess in abundance.
Other Arab states included:
The south-eastern coastal area of the Arabian peninsula, then known as Makan - and much of the Persian gulf coast - was under Persian rule from the time of the Achaemenids to the Islamic conquest, controlling the Straits of Hormuz.
Mesopotamia and Syria
Cities and independent communities controlled by Arabs emerged at various times: they included
Characene (aka Mesene/Mesan)
A kingdom on the Persian Gulf at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates - roughly where Kuwait is now. It established its independence from the Seleucids around 127 BC, with its capital at Charax (hence "Characene"), a city founded by Alexander as the port for Babylon. It controlled sea traffic in and and out of the Persian Gulf, and was a major link for trade to India and the east. There was also an important land route across to Petra and Palmyra. The kings of Characene - probably of Persian origin - wavered in their allegiance between Parthia and Rome, according to which empire seemed to have the upper hand.
Silver tetradrachm of Hyspaosines, founder of independendent Characene, who was king from 209 to 124 BC
Characene remained independent after the Parthian conquests, but was brought back under Persian control by Ardashir in AD 222. According to Tabari, Charax was destroyed and rebuilt as Astarabad-Ardashir, but the precise location of the city is unknown.
Hatra (Arabic al-Hadr)
Ruins of Hatra, western Iraq
Possibly founded by the Seleucids, Hatra became an important Parthian city. Although its inhabitants were prodominantly Arabs, who were increasingly migrating northwards from the Arabian peninsula, it was famous for its cosmopolitanism: it contained temples to Greek, Mesopotamian, Canaanite, Aramaean and Arabic deities. It fought off the Romans (Trajan AD 116 and Septimius Severus AD 198) and later - for a time - the Sasanians, although it was captured by Shapur I in AD 241 and destroyed.
The first Arab-ruled kingdom in the region: it was established by Shapur II to replace Hatra, destroyed by Shapur I. The Lakhmid tribe of Arabs, whose capital it became, were clients and allies of the Sasanians - their importance increased when the Byzantines began to sponsor the Ghassanids further west to maintain their influence in the region. Hira was a largely Christian community. See also here.