Arabia is the cradle of Islam and, in all probability, the primitive home of the Semitic race. It is a peninsula of an irregularly triangular form, or rather, an irregular parallelogram, bounded on the north by Syria and the Syrian desert ; on the south by the Indian Ocean, on the east by the Persian Gulf and Babylonia, and on the west by the Red Sea. The length of its western coast line along the Red Sea, is about 1,800 miles, while its breadth, from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, is about 600 miles. Hence its size is about one million square miles and, accordingly, it is about four times as large as the State of Texas, or over one-fourth of the size of the United States, and as large as France, England, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, Servia, Rumania, and Bulgaria all combined.
The general aspect of Arabia is that of a central table-land surrounded by a desert belt, sandy to the west, south, and east and stony to the north. Its outlying circle is girt by a line of mountains low and sterile, although, towards Yemen and Oman, on the lower south-west and lower south-east, these mountains attain a considerable height, breadth, and fertility. The surface of the midmost table-land is sandy, and thus about one-fifth of Arabia is cultivated, or rather two-thirds cultivable, and one- third irreclaimable desert. According to Doughty, the geological aspect of Arabia is simple, consisting of a foundation stock of plutonic rock whereon lie sandstone and, above that, limestone. Arabia has no rivers, and its mountain streams and fresh-water springs, which in certain sections are quite numerous, are utterly inadequate, considering the immense geographical area the peninsula covers. Wadys, or valleys, are very numerous and generally dry for nine or ten months in the year. Rains are infrequent, and consequently the vegetation, except in certain portions of Yemen, is extremely sparse.
The most commonly accepted division of Arabia into Deserta (desert), Felix (happy), and Petraea (stony), due to Greek and Roman writers, is altogether arbitrary. Arabic geographers know nothing of this division, for they divide it generally into five provinces: The first is Yemen, embracing the whole south of the peninsula and including Hadramaut, Mahra, Oman, Shehr, and Nejran. The second is Hijaz, on the west coast and including Mecca and Medina, the two famous centres of Islam. The third is Tehama, along the same coast between Yemen and Hijaz. The fourth is Nejd, which includes most of the central table-land, and the fifth is Yamama, extending all the wide way between Yemen and Nejd. This division is also inadequate, for it omits the greater part of North and East Arabia. A third and modern division of Arabia, according to politico-geographical principles, is into seven provinces: Hijaz, Yemen, Hadramaut, Oman, Hasa, Irak, and Nejd. At present, with the exception of the Sinaitic peninsula and about 200 miles of the coast south of the Gulf of Akaba which is under Anglo-Egyptian rule, Hijaz, Yemen, Hasa and Irak are Turkish provinces, the other three being ruled by independent Arab rulers, called Sultans, Ameers, or Imams, who today as of old are constantly fighting among themselves for control. Aden, the island of Perim, in the Strait of Bab-el-Mendeb, and Socotra are under English authority.
The fauna and flora of Arabia have not been as yet carefully investigated and studied. The most commonly known flora-products are the date-palm, of about forty varieties, coffee, aromatic and medicinal plants, gums, balsams, etc. The fauna is still more imperfectly known. Among the wild animals are the lion and panther (both at present scarce), the wolf, wild boar, jackal, gazelle, fox, monkey, wild cow, or white antelope, ibex, horned viper, cobra, hawk, and ostrich. The chief domestic animals are the ass, mule, sheep, goat, dog, and above all the horse and the camel.
The actual population of Arabia is a matter of conjecture, no regular or official census having ever been undertaken. According to the most modern and acceptable authorities, the population cannot be less than eight, or more than twelve, millions, all of whom are Mohammedans. The personal appearance of the Arab is rather attractive. He is as a rule, undersized in stature, dark in complexion, especially in the South, with hair black, copious, and coarse; the eyes are dark and oval, the nose aquiline, and the features regular and well-formed. The ordinary life of the Arabs is simple and monotonous, usually out-of-doors and roving. They are usually peaceful, generous, hospitable, and chivalrous, but jealous and revengeful. In later times, however, they have greatly deteriorated.
Up to a century and a half ago our information concerning Arabia was based mainly on Greek and Latin writers, such as Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny, Ptolemy, and others. This was meagre and unsatisfactory. The references to Arabia found in the Old Testament were even more so. Hence our best sources of information are Arabic writers and geographers, such as Hamadani's "Arabian Peninsula," Bekri and Yaqut's geographical and historical dictionaries, and similar works. These, although extremely valuable, contain fabulous and legendary traditions, partly based on native popular legends and partly on Jewish and rabbinical fancies. The cuneiform inscriptions of Assyria have also thrown great and unexpected light on the early history of Arabia. But above all, mention must be made of the researches and discoveries of scholars like Halévy, Mueller, Glaser, Hommel, Winckler, and others. The first European scientific explorer of Arabia was C. Niebuhr, who, in 1761-64, by the order of the Danish government, undertook an expedition into the Arabian peninsula. He was followed, in 1799, by Reinaud, the English agent of the East India Company. The Russian scholar U.J. Seetzen undertook a similar expedition in 1808-11, and for the first time copied several South-Arabian inscriptions in the district of Himyar. In 1814-16, J.L. Burckhardt, a Swiss, and probably the most distinguished of Arabian explorers, made a journey to Hijaz and completed the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Burckhardt's information is copious, interesting, and accurate. Captain W.R. Wellsted made (in 1834-35) a journey into Oman and Hadramaut; and Ch. J. Cruttenden completed, in 1838, a similar journey from Mokha to Sana, copying several South-Arabian inscriptions, which Rödiger and Gesenius attempted to decipher.
Then came the German, Adolf von Wrede, who, in 1843, visited Wady Doan and other parts of Hadramaut, discovering and copying an important inscription of five long lines. In 1843 Thomas Joseph Arnaud made a very bold and successful journey from Sana to Marib, the capital of the ancient kingdom of the Sabeans, and collected about fifty-six inscriptions. In 1845-48, G. Wallin travelled through Hayil, Medina, and Taima, proceeding from west to east. In 1853 Richard Burton, the famous translator of the "Arabian Nights," undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, and, in 1877 and 1878, twice visited the land of Midian, in North Arabia. In 1861 a Jew from Jerusalem, Jacob Saphir, visited Yemen, where he found several Jewish settlements, and other parts of Arabia ; while in 1862-63, the English ex- Jesuit, W. Gifford Palgrave, made his memorable tour from the Dead Sea to Qatif and Oman, visiting the great north-western territory between the Sinaitic peninsula, the Euphrates, Hayil, Medina, Nejd, and practically the whole of central Arabia, till then unknown to scholars and travellers. Colonel Pelly visited central Arabia in 1865, and in 1869 Joseph Halévy, the great French Orientalist and the pioneer of Sabean philology, in the guise of a poor Jew from Jerusalem, explored Yemen and south Arabia, copying about 700, mostly very short, inscriptions. He advanced as far as the South-Arabian Jof, the territory of the ancient Mineans. In 1870-71, H. von Maltzan made a few short trips from Aden along the coast, and in 1876-78 Charles Doughty made his famous tour to Mada in Salih, Havil, Taima, Khaibar, Boraida, Onaiza, and Tayif, where he discovered several Nabataean, Lihyanian, or Tamudic, Minean and so-called proto-Arabic inscriptions. In 1877-80 the Italian Renzo Manzoni made three excursions to Sana, the Turkish capital of Yemen. In 1878-79, Lady Anne Blunt, Lord Byron's granddaughter, together with her husband, Sir Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, made a tour from Damascus through the North-Arabian Jof, the Nefud desert, and Hayil. In the years 1882-84 the Austrian explorer, Edward Glaser, made his first and very fruitful expedition to southern Arabia, where he discovered and copied numerous old Arabian inscriptions, and in 1883-84 Charles Huber together with Julius Euting, the Semitic epigraphist of Strasburg, undertook a joint expedition to northern Arabia, discovering the famous Aramaic inscriptions of Taima (sixth century B.C.). In 1885, Ed. Glaser made his second journey to southern Arabia collecting several Minean inscriptions; and in 1887-88 made his third expedition, which proved to be the most successful expedition yet undertaken, as far as epigraphical results are concerned.
The inscriptions discovered and copied were over 400, the most valuable among them being the so-called "Dam-inscription," of 100 lines (fifth and sixth centuries of the Christian Era), and the "Sirwah inscription," of about 1,000 words (c. 550 B.C.). His fourth expedition took place in 1892-94, and was fruitful and rich in Arabic epigraphy. Leo Hirsch, of Berlin, visited, in 1893, Hadramaut, and so did Theodore Bent and his wife in 1893-94. In 1896-97, the distinguished Arabic scholar, Count Carlo Landberg, visited the coast of South Arabia, making special studies of the modern Arabic dialects of those regions, besides other geographical and epigraphical researches. In 1898-99 the expedition of the Vienna Academy to Shabwa was organized and conducted by Count Landberg and D. H. Mueller which, however, owing to several difficulties and disagreements, did not accomplish the desired results. Other expeditions have since engaged in the active work of exploration. The results of all these expeditions have been threefold: geographical, epigraphical, and historical. These results have opened the way not only to fresh views and studies concerning the various ancient South-Arabian dialects, such as Minean, Sabean, or Himyarite, Hadramautic, and Katabanian, but have also shed unexpected light on the history of the old South-Arabian kingdoms and dynasties. These same discoveries have also thrown considerable light on Old Testament history on early Hebrew religion and worship, and on Hebrew and comparative Semitic philology.
The Old Testament references to Arabia are scanty. The term Arab itself, as the name of a particular country and nation, is found only in later Old Testament writings, i.e. not earlier than Jeremias (sixth century B.C.). In older writings the term Arab is used only as an appellative, meaning "desert," or "people of the desert," or "nomad" in general. The name for Arabia in the earliest Old Testament writings is either Ismael, or Madian (A.V., Ishmael, or Midian ) as in the twenty-fifth chapter of Genesis, which is a significant indication of the relative antiquity of that remarkable chapter. The meaning of the term Arab can be either that of "Nomad," or "the Land of the Setting Sun," i.e. the West, it being situated to the west of Babylonia, which was considered to be the Biblical record of Genesis 11 , as the traditional starting point of the earliest Semitic migrations. By the ancient Hebrews, however, the land of Arabia was called "the Country of the East," and the Arabs were termed "Children of the East," as the Arabian peninsula lay to the east of Palestine.
According to the genealogical table of the tenth chapter of Genesis, Cham's (A.V., Ham) first-born was Chush. Chush (A.V., Cush ) had five sons whose names are identical with several regions in Arabia. Thus the name of Sebha — probably the same as Sheba, or Saba — situated on the west coast of the Red Sea, occurs only three times in the Old Testament . The second is Hevila in northern Arabia, or as Glaser prefers in the district of Yemen and al-Kasim. The third is Regma (A.V., Raamah) in south-western Arabia, mentioned in the Sabean inscriptions. The fourth is Sabatacha, in southern Arabia, and as far east as Oman. The fifth is Sabatha (A.V., Sabtah), or better Sabata, the ancient capital of Hadramaut, in South Arabia. Regma's two sons, Saba and Dadan (A.V., Sheba and Dedan), or Daidan, are also two Arabian geographical names, the first being the famous Saba (A.V., Sheba) of the Book of Kings, whose Queen visited Solomon, while the second is near Edom or, as Glaser suggests, north of Medina. In v. 28 of the same Genesiac chapter, Saba is said to be a son of Jectan (A.V., Joktan), and so, also, Elmodad, Asarmoth, Hevila, Ophir (A.V., Almodad, Hazarmaveth, Havilah, etc., which are equally Arabian geographical names), while in chapter xxv, 3, both Saba and Dadan are represented as grandsons of Abraham.
The episode of Sarai's handmaid, Agar (A.V., Hagar), and her son, Ismael (A.V., Ishmael ), is well known. According to this, Ismael is the real ancestor of the majority of Arabian tribes, such as: Nabajoth, Cedar, Abdeel, Mabsam, Masma, Duma, Massa, Hadar, Thema, Jethur, and Cedma (A.V., Nebaijoth, Kedar, Abdeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadar, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah, respectively). Equally well known are the stories of the Madianite, or Ismaelite, merchants who bought Joseph from his brethren, that of the forty years' wandering of the Hebrew tribes over the desert of Arabia, of the Queen of Saba, etc. In later Old Testament times we read of Nehemias (A.V., Nehemiah ), who suffered much from the enmity of an Arab sheikh, Gossem (A.V., Geshem), or better Gashmu or Gushamu [ Nehemiah (in Douay Version, II Esdras ), ii, 19; vi, 6], and he also enumerates the Arabs in the list of his opponents (iv, 7). In II Paralipomenon (A.V., Chronicles) we are told (xvii, 11) that the Arabians brought tribute to King Josaphat (A.V., Jehoshaphat). The same chronicler tells us, also, how God punished the wicked Joram by means of the Philistines and the Arabians, who were beside the Ethiopians ( 2 Chronicles 21:16 ), and how he helped the pious Ozias (A.V., Uzziah) in the war against the "Arabians that dwelt in Gurbaal" (xxvi, 7). The Arabians mentioned here are in all probability the Nabataeans of northern Arabia ; as our author wrote in the second or third century B.C.
The cuneiform inscriptions of Assyria have thrown considerable light on various geographical localities in North Arabia, having important bearing on the history of the ancient Hebrews and on the critical study of the Old Testament. The importance of these new facts and researches has of late assumed very bewildering proportions, the credit for which unmistakably belongs to Winckler, Hommel, and Cheyne. It is needless to say that however ingenious these hypotheses may appear to be they are not as yet entitled to be received without caution and hesitation. Were we to believe, in fact, the elaborate theories of these eminent scholars, a great part of the historical events of the Old Testament should be transferred from Egypt and Chanaan into Arabia ; for, according to the latest speculations of these scholars, many of the passages in the Old Testament which, until recently, were supposed to refer to Egypt (in Hebrew, Misraim ) and to Ethiopia (in Hebrew, Kush ) do not really apply to them but to two regions of similar names in North Arabia, called in the Assyro-Babylonian inscriptions Musri, or Musrim, and Chush, respectively. They hold that partly by means of editorial manipulation and partly by reason of corruption in the text, and in consequence of the faded memory of long-forgotten events and countries, these two archaic North-Arabian geographical names became transformed into names of similar sound, but better known, belonging to a different geographical area namely, the Egyptian Misraim and the African Chush, or Ethiopia.
According to this theory, Agar, Sarai's handmaid (Gen. XVI, 1) was not Misrite or Egyptian, but Musrite, i.e. from Musri, in northern Arabia. Abraham ( Genesis 12:10 ) did not go down into Misraim, or Egypt, where he is said to have received from the Pharaoh a gift of men-servants and handmaids, but into Misrim, or Musri, in northern Arabia. Joseph, when bought by the Ismaelites, or Madianites, i.e. Arabs, was not brought into Egypt (Misraim), but to Musri, or Misrim, in north Arabia, which was the home of the Madianites. In 1 Samuel 30:13 , we should not read "I am a young man of Egypt [Misraim], slave of an Amalecite," but of Musri in north Arabia. In 1 Kings 3:1 ; 11:1 , Solomon is said to have married the daughter of an Egyptian king, which is extremely improbable; for Misrim in north Arabia, and not the Egyptian Misraim, is the country whose king's daughter Solomon married. In 1 Samuel 4:30 , the wisdom of Solomon is compared to the "wisdom of all the children of the east country [i.e. the Arabians] and all the wisdom of Egypt." But the last-mentioned country, they say, is not [ Egypt but, as the parallelism requires, Madian, or Musri, whose proverbial wisdom is frequently alluded to in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 10:28 sq. , horses are said to have been brought from Egypt but horses were very scarce in Egypt, while very numerOus and famous in Arabia. The same emendation can be made in at least a dozen more Old Testament passages. The most revolutionary result, however, would follow if we applied the same theory to the famous sojourn of the Hebrews in Egypt ; for it is self-evident that if the Israelites sojourned not in the Egyptian Misraim, but in the north Arabian Musri, and from thence fled into Chanaan, which was nearby, the result to ancient Hebrew history and religion would be of the most revolutionary character. Similar emendation has been applied with more or less success to the many passages where Chush, or Ethiopia, occurs, such as Genesis 2:13 ; 10:6 ; Numbers 12:1 ; Judges 3:10 ; 2 Samuel 18:21 ; Isaiah 20:3 ; 45:14 ; Habakkuk 3:7 ; Psalm 86:4 ; 2 Chronicles 14:9 ; 21:16 , etc.
Another important geographical name frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, and in all instances referred, till recently, to Assyria, is Assur (abbreviated into Sur). A country of similar name has also been discovered in Arabia. In this last view Winckler and Cheyne are warmly supported by Hommel, by whom it was first suggested. Cheyne, furthermore, has pushed these identifications to such extremities as to transplant the whole historical and religious life of Israel to the Nejeb, the country of Jerameel in northern Arabia. According to him the prophets Elias, Eliseus, Amos, Osee (A.V., Hosea), Ezechiel (A.V., Ezekiel ), Joel, and Abdias (A.V., Obadiah) are all North Arabians; and all the rest of the prophets either came from that country or have it constantly in view. Isaias (A.V., Isaiah), xl-lv, was, according to him, composed in northern Arabia ; Ezechiel also suffered imprisonment and prophesied there; and hundreds of personal and geographical proper names in the Old Testament are, according to him, intentional or accidental corruptions of Jerameel, Arabia, and Nejeb. However great our appreciation of Winckler's and Cheyne's ingenuity and learning may be, and allowing that their theories are not entirely lacking in plausibility, yet they have received, so far, little support and encouragement from the majority of Biblical scholars and critics. It is true that the new theories, in some of their applications, give highly satisfactory results, but in their extreme form they are, to say the least, premature and ultra-radical.
To the historian, the earliest history of Arabia is a blank page, little or nothing being historically known and ascertained as to the origin migrations, history, and political vicissitudes of the Arabian nation. Mohammedan traditions concerning the early history of the peninsula are mostly legendary and highly coloured, although partly based on Biblical data and rabbinical traditions. Hardly less unsatisfactory are the many references found in Greek and Latin writers. The mention of Arab tribes, under the various forms of Arabi, Arubu, Aribi, and possibly Urbi, frequently occurs in the Assyrian inscriptions as early as the ninth century B.C., and their country is spoken of as seldom or never traversed by any conqueror, and as inhabited by wild and independent tribes. We read, e.g., that in 854 B.C. Salmanasar II (A.V., Shalmanezer) met in battle a confederation in which was Gindibu the Arab with one hundred camels. A few years later Theglathphalasar III (A.V., Tiglathpileser) undertook an expedition into Arabia ; and in the latter half of the eighth century B.C. we find Assyrian influence extending over the north-west and east of the peninsula. One century later a number of Arabian tribes of inner Arabia were defeated by Asarhaddon (A.V., Esarhaddon) at Bazu. Assurbanipal also repeatedly speaks of his various successful expeditions into and conquests in the lands of Musri, Magan, Meluhha, and Chush in Arabia. In the Behistun inscription of the Persian king Darius, Arabia (Arabaya) is mentioned as a subject land. The numerous South-Arabian inscriptions thus far discovered and deciphered by Halévy, Winckler, D. H. Mueller, Hommel, Ed. Glaser, and others do not throw much light on the early history of Arabia. But the epigraphic evidences and the many ruins still extant in various parts of that peninsula unmistakably show that a highly developed civilization must have existed among the ancient Arabs at a very early age.
The two most important kingdoms of ancient Arabia are that of the Mineans (the m'dbzm of the Old Testament ) and that of the Sabeans, whence the Queen of Saba came to pay her homage of respect and admiration to King Solomon. A third kingdom was that of Kataban, a fourth, Hadramaut, as well as those of Lihyan, Raidan, Habashah, and others. The Minean Kingdom seems to have flourished in southern Arabia as early as 1200 B.C., and from the various Minean inscriptions found in northern Arabia they seem to have extended their power even to the north of the peninsula. Their principal cities were Main, Karnan, and Yatil. The Sabean, or Himyaritic, Kingdom (the Homeritae of the classics) flourished either contemporarily (D. H. Mueller) or after (Glaser, Hommel) the Minean. Their capital city was Marib (the Mariaba of the Arabian classics) famous for its dam, the breaking of which is often mentioned by later Arabic poets and traditions as the immediate cause of the fall of the Sabean power. The Sabeans, after two centuries of repeated and persistent attacks, finally succeeded in overthrowing the rival Minean Kingdom. Their power, however lasted till about 300 A.D., when they were defeated and conquered by the Abyssinians.
The Katabanian state, with its capital, Taima, was ruined some time in the second century after Christ, probably by the Sabeans. Towards the beginning of our Era the three most prominent and powerful Arab states were the Sabean, the Himyarite, and that of Hadramaut. In the fourth century the Himyarites, aided by the Sassanian kings of Persia, appear to have had a controlling power in southern Arabia, while the Abyssinians were absolute rulers of Yemen. These, however, although pressed by Himyar and temporarily confined to the Tehamah district (A.D. 378), succeeded, in 525, with the help of the Byzantine Emperor, in overthrowing the Himyarite power, killing the king and becoming the absolute rulers of South Arabia. In 568 the Abyssinians were finally driven out of Arabia, and the power restored to the Yemenites; this vassal kingdom of the Persian Empire lasted until the year 634, when it was absorbed, together with all the other Arabian States, by the Mohammedan conquest.
Such was the political condition of southern Arabia previous to the time of Mohammed. Of central Arabia little or nothing is known. In northern and north-western Arabia there flourished the Nabataean Kingdom, the people of which, though Arabian by race, nevertheless spoke Aramaic. The Nabataeans must have come from other parts of Arabia to the North some time about the fifth century B.C., for at the beginning of the Machabean period we find them already well established in that region. Shortly before the Christian Era, Antigonus and Ptolemy had in vain attempted to gain a footing in Arabia ; and Pompey himself, victorious elsewhere, was checked on its frontiers. During the reign of Augustus, Aelius Gallus, the Roman Prefect of Egypt, with an army composed of 10,000 Roman infantry, 500 Jews, and 100 Nabataeans, undertook an expedition against the province of Yemen. He took by assault the city of Nejran, on the frontier of Yemen, and advanced as far as Marib, the capital of Yemen, but, owing to the resistance of the Arabs and the disorganization of his army, which was unaccustomed to the heat of the tropical climate of Arabia, he was forced to retreat to Egypt without accomplishing any permanent and effective conquest. Later attempts to conquer the country were made by Roman governors and generals under Trajan and Severus, but these were mostly restricted to the neighbourhood of the Syrian frontiers, such as Nabatea, Bosra, Petra, Palmyra, and the Sinaitic peninsula.
Another North-Arabian kingdom was that of Hira, situated in the north-easterly frontier of Arabia adjoining Irak, or Babylonia. Its kings governed the western shore of the lower Euphrates, from the neighbourhood of Babylon down to the confines of Nejd, and along the coast of the Persian Gulf. It was founded in the second century of the Christian Era and lasted about 424 years, i.e. till it was absorbed by the Mohammedan conquest. The kings of Hira were more or less vassal to their powerful neighbours, the Sassanian kings of Persia, paying them allegiance and tribute. Another Arabian state was that of Ghassan whose kings ruled over considerable part of northwestern Arabia, lower Syria, and Hijaz. It was founded in the first century of the Christian Era and lasted till the time of Mohammed. The Kingdom of Ghassan was frequently harassed by Roman and Byzantine encroachments, and by unequal alliances. In both these kingdoms (i.e. Hirah and Ghassan) Christianity made rapid progress, and numerous Christian communities, with bishops, churches, and monasteries, flourished there. (For CHRISTIANITY IN ARABIA, see below.)
Another Arabian kingdom was that of Kindah, originally from Irak, or north-eastern Arabia, and Mesopotamia. This rather short-lived and weak kingdom began about the fifth century of the Christian Era and ended with Mohammed, i.e. about one century and a half later. Its power and authority extended for a time over the whole northern section of Nejd and as far south as Oman. Besides these independent kingdoms, various Arab tribes, such as that of Koreish, to which Mohammed belonged, Rabeeah, Qays, Hawazin, Tamim, and others, were constantly endeavouring to assume independent power and authority. But their efforts and hopes were finally and permanently shattered by the Mohammedan conquest, which put an end to all tribal factions and preponderances by uniting them all into one religious and political kingdom, the Kingdom of Islam.
The origin and progress of Christianity in Arabia is, owing to the lack of sufficiently authenticated historical documents, involved in impenetrable obscurity, and only detached episodes in one part or another of the peninsula can be grouped together and studied. References to various Christian missionary enterprises in the north and south of the country, found in early ecclesiastical historians and Fathers, such as Eusebius, Rufinus, Socrates, Nicephorus, Metaphrastes, Theodoret, Origen, and Jerome, are valuable, but to be used with caution, inasmuch as a lamentable confusion, common to all writers of that time between Arabia proper and India, or Abyssinia, seems to have crept into their writings.
Furthermore, no proper discrimination is made by any of them among the various traditions at their disposal. More abundant and trustworthy information may be gathered from Nestorian and Jacobite writers, as each of these sects has had its own sphere of influence in the peninsula, and particularly in the northern kingdoms of Hira and Ghassan. Arabic historians (all of post-Islamic times) are very interesting in their allusions to the same, but are at variance with one another. Indigenous ecclesiastical literature and monuments, except perhaps one inscription of the fifth century after Christ found by Glaser, and the ruins of a supposed church, afterwards turned into a heathen temple, are utterly wanting. Christianity in Arabia had three in centres in the north-west, north-east, and south-west of the peninsula. The first embraces the Kingdom of Ghassan (under Roman rule), the second that of Hira (under Persian power), and the third the kingdoms of Himyar, Yemen, and Najran (under Abyssinian rule). As to central and south-east Arabia, such as Nejd and Oman, it is doubtful whether Christianity made any advance there.North-Arabian Christianity
According to the majority of the Fathers and historians of the Church, the origin of Christianity in northern Arabia is to be traced back to the Apostle Paul, who in his Epistle to the Galatians , speaking of the period of time immediately following his conversion, says: "Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned to Damascus " (Gal. i, 17). What particular region of Arabia was visited by the Apostle, the length of his stay, the motive of his journey, the route followed, and the things he accomplished there are not specified. His journey may have lasted as long as one year, and the place visited may have been either the country of the Nabataeans or the Sinaitic peninsula, or better, as Harnack remarks, "not to the desert, but rather to a district south of Damascus where he could not expect to come across any Jews " (Expansion of Christianity, 1905, II, 301). Jerome, however, suggests that he may have gone to a tribe where his mission was unsuccessful as regards visible results. Zwemer's suggestion [ Arabia, the Cradle of Islam (1900), 302-303] that the Koranic allusion to a certain Nebi Salih, or the Prophet Salih, who is said to have come to the Arabs preaching the truth and was not listened to, and who, consequently, in leaving them said: "O my people, I did preach unto you the message of my Lord, and I gave you good advice, but ye love not sincere advisers" (Surah vii), refers to Paul of Tarsus — this theory need hardly be considered.
In the light of the legend of Abgar of Edessa, however, and considering the fact that the regions lying to the north-west and north-east of Arabia, under Roman and Persian rule respectively, were in constant contact with the northern Arabs, among whom Christianity had already made fast and steady progress, we may reasonably assume that Christian missionary activity cannot have neglected the attractive mission field of northern Arabia. In the Acts of the Apostles (ii, 11) we even read of the presence of Arabians on the day of Pentecost, and Arabs were quite numerous in the Parthian Empire and around Edessa. The cruel persecutions, furthermore, which raged in the Roman and Persian Empires against the followers of Christ must have forced many of these to seek refuge on the safer soil of northern Arabia.Christianity in Ghassan and North-West Arabia
The Kingdom of Ghassan, in north-western Arabia, adjacent to Syria, comprised a very extensive tract of territory and a great number of Arab tribes whose first migrations there must have taken place as early as the time of Alexander the Great. Towards the third and fourth centuries of the Christian Era these tribes already formed a confederation powerful enough to cause trouble to the Roman Empire, which formed with them alliances and friendships in order to counterbalance the influence of the Mesopotamian Arabs of Hira, who were under Persian rule. The kings of Ghassan trace their descent from the tribe of Azd, in Yemen. Gafahah, their first king, dispossessed the original dynasty, and is said to have been confirmed in his conquest by the Roman governor of Syria. Their capital city was Balka till the time of the second Harith, when it was supplanted by Petra and Sideir. Although living a nomadic life and practically independent, with "no dwelling but the tent, no intrenchment but the sword, no law but the traditionary song of their bards," these Arabs were under the nominal, but quite effective, control of the Romans as early as the time of Pompey. Such Syrian Arabs always looked upon the Romans as their best and most powerful defenders and protectors against the Sassanian dynasty of Persia, by which they were constantly oppressed and molested.
The Nabataean Kingdom, which comprised the Sinaitic peninsula, the sea-coast to the Gulf of Akaba, to Al-Haura, and as far as Damascus and Hijaz, and which was annexed to the Roman Empire in A.D. 105, comprised also many Arab tribes which were for a long time governed by their own sheikhs and princes, their stronghold being the country around Bosra and Damascus. These sheikhs were acknowledged as such by the Roman emperors who gave them the title of phylarch . The ever increasing number and importance of these tribes and of those living in the Ghassanide territory were such that in 531, by the consent and authority of the Emperor Justinian, a real Arab-Roman kingdom was formed under the rule of the kings of Ghassan, whose power and authority extended over all the Arabs of Syria, Palestine, Phoenicia and north-western Arabia. Another Syro-Arabian Kingdom, in which Arab tribes were very numerous, is that of Palmyra, which retained for a long time its independence and resisted all encroachments. Under Odenathus the Palmyrene kingdom flourished, and it reached the zenith of its power under his wife and successor, the celebrated Zenobia. After her defeat by Aurelian (272), Palmyra and its dependencies became a province of the Roman Empire.
Christianity must have been introduced among the Syrian Arabs at a very early period; if not among the tribes living in the interior of the Syro-Arabian desert, certainly among those whose proximity brought them into continuous social and commercial contact with Syria. Rufinus (Hist. Ecclesiastica, II, 6) tells us of a certain Arabian Queen, Mavia, or Maowvia (better, Mu'awiyah), who, after having repeatedly fought against the Romans, accepted peace on condition that a certain monk, called Moses, should be appointed bishop over her tribe. This took place during the reign of Valens (about 374), who was greatly inclined to Arianism. Moses lived a hermit life in the desert of Egypt, and accordingly he was brought to Alexandria in order to be ordained bishop, as the Bedouin queen required. The Bishop of Alexandria was then a certain Lucius, accused of Arianism. Moses refused to be ordained by a heretical bishop, and was so obdurate in his refusal that it was necessary for the emperor to bring from exile a Catholic bishop and send him to the queen.
Caussin de Perceval (Histoire des Arabes avant l'Islamisme, etc., II, 215) affirms that towards the beginning of the fourth century, and during the reign of Djabala I, Christianity was again preached, and accepted by another Arab tribe. Sozomenus, in fact, relates that before the time of Valens an Arab prince, whom he calls Zacome, or Zocum, having obtained a son through the prayers of a Syrian hermit, embraced Christianity, and all his tribe with him. Le Quien (Oriens Christianus, II, 851) calls this prince Zaracome and places him under the reign of Constantine or of one of his sons. No prince of such name, however, occurs in any Arabic historian although Caussin de Perceval suggests his identification with a certain Arcan, of the tribe of Giafnah, who was in all probability a prominent chief of Ghassan.
Another source of Christian propaganda among the northern Arabs was undoubtedly the many holy hermits and monks scattered in the Syro-Arabian desert, for whom the Arab tribes had great respect, and to whose solitary abodes they made numerous pilgrimages. Jerome and Theodoret explicitly affirm that the life and miracles of St. Hilarion and of St. Simeon the Stylite made a deep impression on the Bedouin Arabs. Many tribes accepted Christianity at the hands of the latter Saint, while many others became so favourably disposed towards it that they were baptized by the priests and bishops of Syria. Cyrillus of Scythopolis (sixth century), in his life of Saint Euthymius, the monk of Pharan, tells the story of the conversion of an entire Arab tribe which, towards 420, had migrated from along the Euphrates into Palestine. Their chief was a certain Aspebaetos. He had a son afflicted with paralysis, who at the prayers of the saint completely recovered. Aspebaetos himself was afterwards ordained bishop over his own tribe by the Patriarch of Jerusalem (see below). These detached facts clearly indicate that during the fourth fifth, and sixth centuries of the Christian Era, Christianity must have been embraced by many Arabs, and especially by the tribe of Ghassan, which is celebrated by Arab historians and poets as being from very early times devotedly attached to Christianity. It was of this tribe that the proverb became current: "They were lords in the days of ignorance [i.e. before Mohammed ] and stars of Islam." (Zwemer, Arabia, the Cradle of Islam, 304.)
The numerous inscriptions collected in northern Syria by Waddington, de Vogue, Clermont Ganneau, and others also clearly indicate the presence of Christian elements in the Syro-Arabian population of that region and especially around Bosra. In the days of Origen there were numerous bishoprics in the towns lying south of the Hauran, and these bishops were once grouped together in a single synod (Harnack, Expansion of Christianity, II, 301). As early as the third century this part of Syro-Arabia was already well known as the "mother of heresies." Towards the year 244 Origen converted to the orthodox faith Beryllus, Bishop of Bosra, who was a confessed anti-Trinitarian ( Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VI, 20); and two years earlier (242) a provincial synod of Arabia was held in connection with the proceedings against Origen, which decided in his favour. This great teacher in the Church was also personally known at that time to the Arabian bishops ; for about the year 215 he had travelled as far as Arabia at the request of the Roman governor, before whom he laid his views ( Eusebius, op. cit., VI, 19, and Harnack, op. cit., 301). In 250 the same teacher went to Arabia for the second time to combat certain heretics who taught that the soul died with the body, but that it would rise up again with it on the Judgment Day ( Eusebius, op. cit., VI, 39).
The "Onomasticon" of Eusebius and the Acts of the Council of Nicaea (325) also indicate the presence of Christians, during the days of Eusebius, in Arabia, along the Dead Sea, and around Qariathaim, near Madaba (Harnack, op. cit., 302-303). At the Council of Nicaea there were present six bishops of the province of Arabia : the Bishops of Bosra, Philadelphia, Jabrudi, Sodom, Betharma, and Dionysias (Wright, Early Christianity in Arabia, 73, and Harnack, op. cit., 303). One tradition makes an Arabian bishop of Zanaatha (Sanaa?) attend Nicaea. The sheikh-bishop Aspebaetos was present at the Council of Ephesus (431), and one of his successors, Valens by name, became, in 518, a suffragan bishop of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem (Duchesne, Les églises séparées, 343). A certain Eustathius, called " Bishop of the Sarrasins," assisted at the Council of Chalcedon . In 458 he was still Bishop of Damascus. At the second Council of Ephesus (449) there was present another bishop of the "allied Arabs," named Auxilaos. Another Arabian bishopric was that of the island of Jotabe, near the Gulf of Akabah; and a Bishop of Jotabe, by the name of Anastasius was present at the Council of Jerusalem (536). At the First and Second Councils of Constantinople, we read of the presence of the Metropolitan of Bosra, whose authority is said to have extended over twenty churches or bishoprics (Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis, III, Part II, 598 sqq.). Many of these Arabian bishops were undoubtedly infected with Arianism, and later on with Monophysitism, the latter sect having been greatly favoured and even protected by the Ghassanide princes.
The above sketch clearly shows that Christian Arab tribes were scattered through all Syria, Phoenicia, and northern Arabia, having their own bishops and churches. But it is doubtful whether this North-Arabian Christianity formed any national Church, as many of their bishops were dependent on the Greek Metropolitans of Tyrus, Jerusalem, Damascus, and on the Patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch.Christianity in Hira and North-East Arabia
According to Arabic writers and historians, the first Arab migration into Hira took place about A.D. 192 by the tribe of Tenukh and under the leadership of its chief, Malik ibn Fahm. This tribe was shortly afterwards followed by other tribes, such as those of Iyad, Azd, Qudâ'ah, and others, most of whom settled around Anbar, and who afterwards built for themselves the city of Hira, not far from the modern Kufa on the Euphrates, in southern Babylonia. We know, however, that as early as the time of Alexander, and towards the first century of the Christian Era, northern and southern Mesopotamia were thickly inhabited by Arab tribes, who, about the third century, formed more than one-third of its population. These tribes were, of course, governed by their own chiefs and princes, subject, however, to Persia.
Tradition relates that under one of these princes of Hira, Imru'ul Qais I, who reigned from 288 to 338. Christianity was first introduced into Hira and among the Mesopotamian Arabs. This, however, is not correct, for, from the Syriac Acts of the Apostles Addai and Mari, and other Syriac documents, we know that Christianity was introduced into Mesopotamia and Babylonia, if not at the end of the first, certainly towards the middle of the second century. The Acts of the Persian martyrs and the history of the
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online