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I.Use of the Name.
II.Geography and Topography.
I. Use of the Name:
The root-meaning of the Semitic word is “dry” or “sterile"; as a noun it means “desert.” (1) Old Testament Usage. The term occurs first as a place name, Jer. xxv. 24 (Isa. xiii. 20, where it is equivalent to “nomad,” is exilic or later). In earlier passages it is simply “desert.” Ezekiel (xxvii. 21) and the Chronicler (II Chron. xvii. 11; xxi. 16; xxii. 1; xxvi. 7; Neh. ii. 19; iv. 7; vi. 1) use it as a national appellative. In the early parts of the Bible the Arabs are called Amalekites, Ishmaelites, Midianites, the Me‘onim (=Minæans, see III. below), and the like. (2) New Testament Usage. In Acts ii. 11 the use corresponds to that of late passages in the Old Testament. The Arabia of Paul’s retirement (Gal. i. 17), usually taken as the Syrian desert, is rather the Sinaitic peninsula (cf. Gal. iv. 25). (3) Assyrian Usage. The inscriptions later than the ninth century B.C. contain frequent allusions to Arabs, but generally mean only those of the Syrian desert. With these contact was frequent. Tiglath Pileser III. invaded the peninsula, as did Esarhaddon. In earlier times the country was known to Babylonians as Magan, and is often mentioned. (4) The Arabic Usage. According to Nöldeke (Encyclopædia Biblica, i. 274) the term “Arab” was in early (pre-Christian?) use by the Arabs themselves as a general term denoting the inhabitants of the peninsula. It was so employed during Mohammed’s lifetime, though several passages in the Koran apply the term to nomads as distinct from inhabitants of towns. (5) Greek Usage employs the word inexactly of the nomads of the Syrian desert, but Herodotus (ii. 11; iii. 107-113; iv. 39) means by “Arabia” the peninsula. (6) In the following discussion “Arabia” will mean only the peninsula south of a line drawn from the head of the Persian Gulf to the southeast extremity of the Mediterranean, thus excluding the region commonly known as the Syrian desert.
II. Geography and Topography:
Only the edges of the peninsula have been explored by Europeans. (For a history of exploration, cf. the chapter by Hommel in Hilprecht, Explorations in Bible lands, Philadelphia, 1903, 691-752; D. G. Hogarth, The Penetration of Arabia, London, 1904.) For information about the central regions dependence must be placed upon Arab geographers; “mostly unexplored” is Hommel’s significant phrase (Hilprecht, 697). (1) Physical Features. The shape is that of a thick-legged boot, with the toe toward the east. The peninsula is about 1,400 miles in length by from 600 to 1,200 in width. It consists of a narrow belt of fertile sea-plain around the east, south, and west sides, terminated by a chain of mountains, practically continuous, rising abruptly to a height of 4,000 to 10,000 feet, through which passes give access to a central plateau, which in its highest parts is 8,000 feet above the sea. Arabia has no river system, only a system of wadies or valleys. In these, during the dry season, the waters sink below the surface to be found only by digging; and the waters of the interior, collected temporarily in the wadies, lose themselves in the sand. (2) Climate. Lying as Arabia does between 12° 40´ and 32° n. lat., its prevailing temperature is high, notwithstanding its elevation. The interior is also very dry, owing to the fact that the mountains intercept the moisture from the sea. Different parts of the coast region have a rainy season which differs curiously in time; Yemen (the southwestern corner) has its rains between June and September. Oman (the southeastern projection), between February and April, and Hadramaut (the southern coast district), between April and September. (3) The fringing sea-plain possesses great fertility; though generally untilled. The most of the interior plateau is desert, either of sand or of gravel and stone. But there are areas of surprising fertility, some of considerable extent, as is involved in the existence of the kingdoms owning sway over settled populations (see III. below). A smaller area is under cultivation now than in early times owing to the decay of works of irrigation. (4) Fauna and Flora. The animal life as conditioned by the climate includes of course the camel; the lion, leopard, wolf, fox, hyena, and jackal are the beasts of prey and carrion; the antelope, gazelle, ibex, and hare are the game animals; the jerboa represents the rodents; and the marmot and ostrich are natives. The qualities of the Arab horse (not a native) will be at once recalled. The flora is characterized by the date-palm, fig-tree, aromatic herbs, and the coffee-berry. (5) Inhabitants. The statement has generally passed muster that the inhabitants of the peninsula are the purest type of Semites. The isolation of the country makes this a priori reasonable. The mental characteristics of the race are depth and strength of emotion, consequent warmth of feeling and brilliancy of expression, philosophical shallowness and metaphysical ineptitude, imagination of great power, a tremendous fixedness of will leading to fanatical intensity, and temperance in all but sexual relations. (6) Commerce. The products of Arabia have been remarkable for concentration rather than for bulk. Incense, spices, aromatic herbs, essences, gold, emeralds, agate, and onyx have been the staples of its 253 trade. Before 1000 B.C., the Arabs were the common carriers of Eastern trade.
The function of Arabia in world history has been to serve as the cradle, if not the birth-place, of the Semitic race. For this it was well fitted, isolated as it is by three seas and a trackless desert. At almost regular intervals it has sent forth hordes of Semites in waves of migration to become makers of history. The first of these made the initial conquest of the pre-Semitic civilization of the lower Tigris and Euphrates, and is represented by the great names of Sargon I. and his son Naram-Sin, about 3800 B.C. It was possibly the second wave which gave to Babylonia the Arabic dynasty which began to rule about 2400 B.C., represented best by the renowed Hammurabi (possibly the Amraphel of Gen. xiv.), the codifier of Babylonian law. The third wave was the Aramean migration, assigned to about the seventeenth pre-Christian century, of which the Hebrews were an offshoot. The Nabatæans (fifth to third centuries B.C.) were the fourth, and the Mohammedan exodus made the last of this remarkable series of migrations. It looks as though Arabia’s function had been to nourish her sons for a millennium and then to send them forth to conquer an empire. The general conception that Arabia was wholly a country of nomads is not true. Recent exploration, partial though it is, has proved that not only are there regions of thickly settled populations and numerous well-built cities in the present, but that there were several kingdoms of considerable importance at least as early as 1000 B.C. Three of the most noted are the Minæan, Sabean, and Hadramautic, situated in the south, but on the plateau; and those of Meluhha, Cush, and Mizri in the north, southeast from the Edomitic territory. The last two are referred to in the Old Testament, but are there confused with Ethiopia and Egypt, since the Hebrew name of the former is Cush and of the latter Mizraim. The investigations of Doughty, Halévy, and Glaser, to mention only these among a host of authorities, and the inscriptions now in the hands of scholars, render incontrovertible the existence of a Minæan realm as early as Solomon’s time, and make it probable that this kingdom was subdued by a sovereign of the Sabean power (the Sheba of Scripture), which latter continued down to 500 B.C. or later. About the Christian era the Himyaritic or Ethiopian kingdom ruled in southern Arabia. While there are traces of Minæan and Sabean domination in northern Arabia, it is unlikely that the peninsula was unified governmentally before Mohammed’s day. In spite of what has been said of the kingdoms of Arabia, the general idea that the Arab is a nomad is nearly correct. Tribal life is to him the normal one. Mohammed’s miracle, therefore, was not, as he claimed, the Koran, but a united Arabia. Before him, Arabia was one great battleground of the tribes. The occupations of the people were commerce and pasturage; their pastimes were the feast, the chase, or the pursuit of vengeance in the blood-feud or of war for plunder or glory. A striking feature was the month of truce during which feud and war were suspended that the tribes might in peace revisit and worship at the shrines of their tribal deities. For the rest of the year, fighting was legal and normal.
When Mohammed chose Allah as his god, he took one whose name was already common property throughout the country. The three goddesses who were daughters of Allah (cf. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidenthums, Berlin, 1897, 24 sqq.) and were widely worshiped, testify to this fact. But the Koran testifies to the dominance of idolatry; the Kaaba was a home of idols. W. R. Smith has demonstrated the existence of animism, with the consequent or accompanying totemism, as native and persistent among Arabs. Stone-worship, the cults of local gods, the bloody and the mystic sacrifice, especially the primitive sacrifice in which god and worshipers were clan-brothers and commensals, are proved facts for this region. All of which is to say that the gods of Arabia were many. Yet the civilization of cities implies the supereminence of some gods with a prestige which lifted them above the horde of little deities. These greater gods were heaven-gods, a consequence of the clear atmosphere and brilliant skies. Examples of these are Athtar, a male deity, the evening or morning star (north-Semitic, Ishtar, female), and Wadd, the moon-god, known also as Amm and regnant over love. Sun-deities of different names were numerous and were often feminine. But underlying the cult of these more prominent gods was that of the local divinities, the more cherished favorites of the tribes and clans. Sometimes the images or symbols of tribal gods were collected in some shrine which then became the goal of pilgrimage,—the case of the Kaaba at Mecca. The “Black Stone” in the Kaaba, the only official relic of ancient Arabia, is pronounced meteoric. It is a remainder of a once dominant fetishism.
Owing to the difficulties offered by the physical character of the country and the rigid Mohammedanism of the people Arabia is not a promising field for Christian missionary enterprise. A few sporadic attempts have been made, however, in some of the coast towns, where foreign influence most readily finds entrance. There is a Roman Catholic vicar apostolic for Arabia with residence at Aden.
Bibliography: For the geography résumés of the results of travelers are found in the chapter of Hommel and the work by Hogarth mentioned in the text. For a view of the facts gleaned from native sources consult R. Ritter, Erdkunde von Arabien, 8th double volume or xii.-xiii. of his collected works, Berlin, 1846-47; A. Sprenger, Die alte Geographie Arabiens, Bern, 1875; E. Glaser, Skizze der Geschichte und Geographie Arabiens, 2 vols., Berlin, 1890. For reports of travels, J. L. Burckhardt, Travels in Arabia, 2 vols., London, 1829 (a classic); C. Niebuhr, Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien, 2 vols., Copenhagen, 1774-78, French ed., Amsterdam, 1776-80; T. R. Wellsted, Travels in Arabia, London, 1838; W. G. Palgrave, Narrative of a Year’s Journey through Central and Eastern Arabia, 2 vols., London, 1862-63; A. Zehme, Arabien und die Araber seit hundert Jahren, Halle, 1875; C. M. Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1888; E. Nolde, Reise nach Innerarabien, Brunswick, 1895; R. E. Brunnow and A. von Domaszewski, Die Provincia Arabia, vols. i.-ii., Strasburg, 1904-06, 80 mks. per vol. For history C. de Perceval, Essai sur l’histoire des Arabes avant l’Islamisme, Paris, 1847-49; Ahmed Khan Bahadur, The Historical Geography of Arabia, 1840 (deals with the history and geography of pre-Islamic times); L. A. Sedillot, Histoire générale des Arabes, Paris, 1876; E. Glaser, Die Abessinier 254 in Arabia and Africa, Munich, 1889; H. Winckler, Altorientalische Forschungen, 2d series, i. 2. Leipsic, 1898. For inscriptions and the language: Oseander, in ZDMG, xix. (1865), 159-293, xx. (1866) 205-287; F. Hommel, Südarabische Chrestomathie, Munich, 1893; idem, ZDMG, liii. (1899), pt. 1; J. Halévy, in JA, series 6, xix. For the people: J. L. Burckhardt Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabies, 2 vols., London, 1831; S. M. Zwemer, Arabia the Cradle of Islam, New York, 1900 (deals also with missionary work). For the religion: Ahmed Khan Bahadur, u.s.; Smith, Rel. of Sem.; idem, Kinship; J. Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums, Berlin, 1897; G. A. Barton, A Sketch of Semitic Origins, New York, 1902; D. Nielson, Die altarabische Mondreligion, Strasburg, 1904.
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