Ante-Mahometan History of Arabia, from the Sources preserved to us by Mahometan Tradition.


Ante-Mahometan History of Arabia, from the Sources preserved to us by Mahometan Tradition.

Object of the chapter

In this chapter I propose, from the native tradition of the country, to trace nearly to the era of Islam the history of the various tribes of the peninsula, - their rise, their progress, their position in the sixth century; and in conclusion, to review the facilities and the obstacles presented by the social and political circumstances of Arabia to the spread of the new religion. In the attempt I shall borrow largely from the admirable work of M. Caussin de Perceval, in which he has with incredible learning and labour, and much success, detailed the steps by whiclt the independent and hostile fragments of Arabia became one great and irresistible nation1.

Geographical outline of Arabia

Before proceeding to the task it will be useful to note the outlines and chief geographical features of the peninsula.

The Peninsula may be described as an irregular parallelogram

Arabia is commonly described as a triangular continent, having a right angle at Bab al Mandeb; but it is more natural and convenient to consider it as an irregular parallelogram approaching to rectangular, which, if we detach the province of Oman projecting towards Persia, it will be found to resemble. A line drawn down the Euphrates, from a point above the ancient Babylon, and skirting the southern shore of the Persian Gulph and the boundary of Oman tile it meets the Indian Ocean, will give the eastern side of the figure: the corresponding parallel on the west runs from Suez, or from Al Mish on the Mediterranean, to the Straits of Bab al Mandeb. Each line stretches over eighteen degrees of latitude, and extends for a length of thirteen or fourteen hundred miles. The northern side is formed by a line drawn from Suez in a north-easterly direction till it meets the Euphrates, a distance of about six hundred miles; and forms the ill defined boundary contested by the roving tribes of Arabia and the sedentary inhabitants of Syria. The southern parallel is the shore washed by the Indian Ocean. The length of the parallelogram lies diagonally across the meridian; and it is broader at the south western extremity than on the opposite side, where the Euphrates, by its western bend, narrows the Syrian confine.

Longitudinal range of mountains

Along the western line washed by the Red Sea, runs a chain of lofty mountains. It takes its rise in Syria and, forming the high land to the east of the Dead Sea, sweeps south to Mount Sinai and thence to the Straits of Bab al Mandeb, where it dips into the Indian Ocean, again to re-appear on the shores of Africa. The range follows closely the line of the coast, from whence the mariner sees its dismal and repulsive rocks of reddish sandstone and porphyry, at times pressing near enough to be laved by the waters


of the Red Sea, at times receding so as to form a broad margin of low land. The latter is styled the Tehama.

Two latitudinal ranges

From the centre of this great chain is thrown off at right angles a mountain range called the Jebel Ared, which traverses the peninsula, parallel with its northern and southern boundaries. It runs from Tayif in the vicinity of Mecca, towards Derayeh and the Persian Gulph, and thus divides Arabia into two equal halves. Another chain, the Jebel Shammar, runs east and west between the Gulph of Akaba and the mouth of the Euphrates; and a third unites the eastern portions of both the latitudinal ranges.


The space between these mountains is comprised in the district of Najd, and forms a vast expanse of lofty country, abutting upon the mountain chain of the Red Sea, and sloping downwards to the Persian Gulph.

The Hejaz

Between Najd and the Red Sea is situated the mountainous region of the Hejaz2, including both Medina and Mecca. The main longitudinal range here lies far back from the coast, at a distance perhaps of a hundred miles, and is in some places of great elevation; but the interval is filled with lesser chains rising from the shore, one above another, with alternate vales or Wadies, until the granite-crested peaks of the chief range overtop the whole. The traveller from the west who has toiled up the weary ascent, finds to his surprise that, instead of a similar declivity on the other side, he has only reached the level of the grand plateau or steppe of Central Arabia, which stretches away towards the east.


The southern half of the peninsida is divided into two parts. The western quarter comprises the hilly but fertile Yemen. Perennial streams here flow from the mountains to the sea, watering the rich cornfields and plantations of coffee, and justifying the title of Yemen as the garden of Arabia.

Khaulan, Najran, &c

Northwards are Khaulan, Najran, and other districts, which partake more or less or the same character. The eastern division, lying between these

countries and Oman, is almost unknown (if we except its lofty and precipitous coast), and is supposed to be entirely desert.

Arid and inhospitable character of the soil

Although Arabia is not greatly interior in extent to India, yet it does not possess a single navigable river; and, instead of a wide expanse of alluvial cultivation, it exhibits for the most part a barren and dreary waste of rock and sand. Most of the streams lose themselves in the sandy plains, and never reach the sea, excepting when swollen by heavy and continued rain. Thus the country is marked by frequent water courses, which, though generally dry, often indicate by stones and boulders scattered in their broad and sandy beds the violence and volume of the occasional floods3. Along such channels there is sometimes at a little depth a stratum or under current of water, breaking out here and there in wells, and supporting an extended strip of trees and vegetation.

The Wadies and Oases

These are the Wadies or Oases of the desert which, contrasting with the wild bleak wilderness around, charm the traveller with an unspeakable freshness and verdure.

Order proposed in the following chapter

In tracing the tangled thread of the history of this great peninsula, it will tend to perspicuity if we follow first the fortunes of the Himyar dynasty in Yemen, then advert to the outlying kingdoms of Hira and Ghassan, and finally sketch the position of the central tribes, and of the two cities Mecca and Medina, in which the future interest of our story will mainly be concentrated.

The Life of Mahomet, Volume I [Table of Contents]