Pre-Islamic Period

Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

The bodies of water on either side of the Arabian Peninsula provided relatively easy access to the neighboring river-valley civilizations of the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates. Once contact was made, trading could begin, and because these civilizations were quite rich, many goods passed between them.

The coastal people of Arabia were well-positioned to profit from this trade. Much of the trade centered around present-day Bahrain and Oman, but those living in the southwestern part of the peninsula, in present-day Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia, also profited from such trade. The climate and topography of this area also permitted greater agricultural development than that on the coast of the Persian Gulf.

Generous rainfall in Yemen enabled the people to feed themselves, while the exports of frankincense and myrrh brought wealth to the area. As a result, civilization developed to a relatively high level in southern Arabia by about 1000 B.C. The peoples of the area lived in small kingdoms or city states of which the best known is probably Saba, which was called Sheba in the Old Testament. The prosperity of Yemen encouraged the Romans to refer to it as Arabia Felix (literally, "happy Arabia"). Outside of the coastal areas, however, and a few centers in the Hijaz associated with the caravan trade, the harsh climate of the peninsula, combined with a desert and mountain terrain, limited agriculture and rendered the interior regions difficult to access. The population most likely subsisted on a combination of oasis gardening and herding, with some portion of the population being nomadic or seminomadic.

The material conditions under which the Arabs lived began to improve around 1000 B.C. A method for saddling camels had been developed to transport large loads. The camel was the only animal that could cross large tracts of barren land with any reliability. The Arabs could now benefit from some of the trade that had previously circumvented Arabia.

The increased trans-Arabian trade produced two important results. One was the rise of cities that could service the trains of camels moving across the desert. The most prosperous of these- -Petra in Jordan and Palmyra in Syria, for example--were relatively close to markets in the Mediterranean region, but small caravan cities developed within the Arabian Peninsula as well. The most important of these was Mecca, which also owed its prosperity to certain shrines in the area visited by Arabs from all over the peninsula.

Some Arabs, particularly in the Hijaz, held some religious beliefs that recognized a number of gods as well as a number of rituals for worshiping them. The most important beliefs involved the sense that certain places and times of year were sacred and must be respected. At those times and in those places, warfare, in particular, was forbidden, and various rituals were required. Foremost of these was the pilgrimage, and the best known pilgrimage site was Mecca.

The second result of the Arabs' increased involvement in trade was the contact it gave them with the outside world. In the Near East, the Persians and the Romans were the great powers in centuries before the advent of Islam, and the Arab tribes that bordered these territories were drawn into their political affairs. After 400 A.D., both empires paid Arab tribes not only to protect their southern borders but also to harass the borders of their adversary.

In the long term, however, it was the ideas and people that traveled with the camel caravans that were the most important. By 500 A.D., the traditional ritual of Arab worship was but one of a number of religious options. The Sabaeans of southern Arabia followed their own system of beliefs, and these had some adherents in the interior. Followers of pagan beliefs, as well as Hanifs, mentioned in the Quran and believed to be followers of an indigenous monetheistic religion, were widespread in the peninsula. In addition, there were well-established communities of Christians and Jews. Along the gulf coast were Nestorians, while in Yemen Syrian Orthodox and smaller groups of Christians were to be found among beduin and in monasteries that dotted the northern Hijaz. In the sixth century, shortly before the birth of Muhammad, the city of Najran in what is now southwestern Saudi Arabia had a Christian church with a bishop, monks, priests, nuns, and lay clergy, and was ruled by a Jewish king. Jews were an important part not only of the Yemeni population, but also of the oases communities in the region of Medina.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress