The Peninsula of Arabia, forming the extreme southwestern corner of Asia, is partly detached, both in a geographical and historical sense, from the remainder of the continent. Although parts of it are mentioned in the oldest historical records, and its shores were probably familiar to the earliest navigators, the greater portion of its territory has always remained almost inaccessible and unknown.
The desert, lying between Syria and the Euphrates is sometimes included by geographers as belonging to Arabia, but a line drawn from the Dead Sea to the mouth of the Euphrates (almost coinciding with the parallel of 30° N.) would more nearly represent the northern boundary of the peninsula. As the most southern point of the Arabian coast reaches the latitude of 12° 40′, the greater part of the entire territory, of more than one million square miles, lies within the tropics. In shape it is an irregular rhomboid, the longest diameter, from Suez to the Cape El-Had, in Oman, being 1,660, and from the Euphrates to the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, 1,400 miles.
The entire coast region of Arabia, on the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Gulfs of Oman and Persia, is, for the most part, a belt of fertile country, inhabited by a settled, semi-civilized population. Back of this belt, which varies in width from a few miles to upwards of a hundred, commences a desert table-land, occasionally intersected by mountain chains, and containing, in the interior, many fertile valleys of considerable extent, which are inhabited. Very little has been known of this great interior region until the present century.
The ancient geographers divided Arabia into three parts,—Arabia Petræa, or the Rocky, comprising the northwestern portion, including the Sinaitic peninsula, between the Gulfs of Suez and Akaba; Arabia Deserta, the great central desert; and Arabia Felix, the Happy, by which they appear to have designated the southwestern part, now known as Yemen. The modern Arabic geography, which has been partly adopted on our maps, is based, to some extent, on the political divisions of the country. The coast region along the Red Sea, down to a point nearly half way between Djidda and the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, and including the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, is called the Hedjaz. Yemen, the capital of which is Sana, and the chief sea-ports Mocha, Hodeida, and Loheia, embraces all the southwestern portion of the peninsula. The southern coast, although divided into various little chiefdoms, is known under the general name of Hadramaut. The kingdom of Oman has extended itself along the eastern shore, nearly to the head of the Persian Gulf. The northern oases, the seat of the powerful sect of the Wahabees, are called Nedjed; and the unknown southern interior, which is believed to be almost wholly desert, inhabited only by a few wandering Bedouins, is known as the Dahna or Akhaf.
Arabia has been inhabited by the same race since the earliest times, and has changed less, in the course of thousands of years, than any other country of the globe, not excepting China. According to Biblical genealogy, the natives are descended from Ham, through Cush; but the Bedouins have always claimed that they are the posterity of Ishmael. Some portions of the country, such as Edom, or Idumæa, Teman and Sheba, (the modern Yemen,) are mentioned in the Old Testament; but neither the Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, nor Egyptian monarchies succeeded in gaining possession of the peninsula. Alexander the Great made preparations for a journey of conquest, which was prevented by his death, and Trajan was the only Roman emperor who penetrated into the interior.
The inhabitants were idolaters, whose religion had probably some resemblance to that of the Phoenicians. After the destruction of Jerusalem, both Jews and Christians found their way thither, and made proselytes. There were Jews in Medina, Mecca, and Yemen; and even the last Himyaritic king of the latter country became a convert to Mosaic faith. Thus the strength of the ancient religion was already weakened when Mohammed was born (A.D. 570); and there are strong evidences for the conjecture that the demoralization of both Jews and Christians, resulting from their long enmity, was the chief cause which prevented Mohammed from adopting the belief of the latter. At the time of his birth, the civilization of the dominant Arab tribes was little inferior to that of Europe or the Eastern Empire. There was already an Arabic literature; and the arts and sciences of the ancient world had found their way even to the oases of Nedjed.
The union of the best and strongest elements in the race, which followed the establishment of the new religion, gave to men of Arabian blood a part to play in the history of the world. For six hundred years after Mohammed’s death Islam and Christendom were nearly equal powers, and it is difficult, even now, to decide which contributed the more to the arts from which modern civilization has sprung. Arabia flourished, as never before, under the Caliphs; yet it does not appear that the life of the inhabitants was materially changed, or that any growth, acquired during the new importance of the country, became permanent. Its commerce was restricted to the products of its narrow belt of fertile shore; an arid desert separated it from Bagdad and Syria; none of the lines of traffic between Europe and the East Indies traversed its territory, and thus it remained comparatively unknown to the Christian world.
After the downfall of the Caliphate the tribes relapsed into their former condition of independent chiefdoms, and the old hostilities, which had been partially suppressed for some centuries, again revived. In the sixteenth century the Turks obtained possession of Hedjaz and Yemen; the Portuguese held Muscat for a hundred and fifty years, and the Persians made some temporary conquests, but the vast interior region easily maintained its independence. The deserts, which everywhere intervene between its large and fertile valleys and the sea-coast, are the home of wandering Bedouin tribes, whose only occupation is plunder,—whose hand is against every man’s, and every man’s hand against them. Thus they serve as a body-guard even to their own enemies.
The long repose and seclusion of Central Arabia was first broken during the present century. It may be well to state, very briefly, the circumstances which led to it, since they will explain the great difficulty and danger which all modern explorers must encounter. Early in the last century, an Arabian named Abd el-Wahab, scandalized at what he believed to be the corruption of the Moslem faith, began preaching a Reformation. He advocated the slaughter or forcible conversion of heretics, the most rigid forms of fasting and prayer, the disuse of tobacco, and various other changes in the Oriental habits of life. Having succeeded in converting the chief of Nedjed, Mohammed Ibu-Savod, he took up his residence in Derreyeh, the capital, which thenceforth became the rendezvous for all his followers, who were named Wahabees. They increased to such an extent that their authority became supreme throughout Central Arabia, and the successor of Ibu-Savod was able to call an army of 100,000 men into the field, and defy the Ottoman power.
In the year 1803 the Wahabees took and plundered Mecca, and slew great numbers of the pilgrims who had gathered there. A second expedition against Medina failed, but the annual caravan of pilgrims was robbed and dispersed. Finally, in 1809, the Sultan transferred to Mohammed Ali, of Egypt, the duty of suppressing this menacing religious and political rebellion. The first campaign in Arabia was a failure; the second, under Ibrahim Pasha, was successful. He overcame the Wahabees in 1818, captured Derreyeh, and razed it to the ground. In 1828 they began a second war against Turkey, but were again defeated. Since then they have refrained from any further aggressive movement, but their hostility and bigotry are as active as ever. The Wahabee doctrine flatters the clannish and exclusive spirit of the race, and will probably prevent, for a long time, any easy communication between Arabia and the rest of the world.
The greater part of our present knowledge of Arabia has been obtained since the opening of this century. The chief seaports and the route from Suez to Mt. Sinai were known during the Middle Ages, but all else was little better than a blank. Within the last fifty or sixty years the mountains of Edom have been explored, the rock-hewn city of Petra discovered, the holy cities of Medina and Mecca visited by intelligent Europeans; Yemen, Hadramaut, and Oman partly traversed; and, last of all, we have a very clear and satisfactory account of Nedjed and the other central regions of Arabia, by the intrepid English traveller, Mr. Palgrave.
Thus, only the southern interior of the peninsula remains to be visited. The name given to it by the Arabs, Roba el-Khaly, “the abode of emptiness,” no doubt describes its character. It is an immense, undulating, sandy waste, dotted with scarce and small oases, which give water and shelter to the Bedouins, but without any large tract of habitable land, and consequently without cities, or other than the rudest forms of political organization.