Historically, the Bedouin engaged in nomadic herding, agriculture and sometimes fishing. They also earned income by transporting goods and people across the desert. Scarcity of water and of permanent pastoral land required them to move constantly.
The word “Arab” was previously synonymous with the Bedouin ethnic group, but has since come to denote all those who speak the Arabic language, as well as Arabised people with no descent from Bedouin tribes.
Originally, “Arabs” were synoymous with the Bedouin ethnic group, a part of a predominantly desert-dwelling Arabian ethnic group traditionally divided into tribes, or clans, known in Arabic as ʿašāʾir, until the Arabisation of people with no descent from the ancien Bedouin Tribes, mostly during the Abbasid Caliphate.
The term “Bedouin” derives from a plural form of the Arabic word badawī, as it is pronounced in colloquial dialects. The Arabic term badawī literally translates in Arabic as “nomad” or “wanderer.” It is derived from the word bādiyah, which means “plain” or “desert”. The term “Bedouin” therefore means “those in bādiyah” or “those in the desert”.
The Bedouin have also been referred to by various other names throughout history, including Qedarites in the Old Testament, and “ʕarab” by the Assyrians (ar-ba-a-a being an adjectival nisba of the noun ʕarab, a name still used for Bedouins today).
Therefore all uses of the word “Arab” prior to the 7th century AD, and most those prior to the 13th century AD refer specifically to people belonging to the Bedouin ethnic group. Later uses of the word “Arab” could refer to anyone whose part of the wider linguistic and panethnic definitions of Arabs.
The earliest documented use of the word “Arab” to refer to a people appears in the Monolith Inscription, an Akkadian language record of the 9th century BC Assyrian Conquest of Syria, which referred to Bedouins under King Gindibu who fought as part of a coalition opposed to the Assyrians.
Listed among the booty captured by the army of king Shalmaneser III of Assyria in the Battle of Qarqar are 1000 camels of “Gi-in-di-bu’u the ar-ba-a-a” or “[the man] Gindibu belonging to the ʕarab” (ar-ba-a-a being an adjectival nisba of the noun ʕarab). ʕarab, with the Arabic letter “alif” in the second syllable, is still used today to describe Bedouins today, ditinguishing them from ʕrab, used to describe non-Bedouin Arabic speakers.
The most popular Arab account holds that the word ‘Arab’ came from an eponymous father called Yarab, who was supposedly the first to speak Arabic. Al-Hamdani had another view; he states that Arabs were called Gharab (West in Semitic) by Mesopotamians because Bedouins originally resided to the west of Mesopotamia; the term was then corrupted into Arab. Yet another view is held by Al-Masudi that the word Arabs was initially applied to the Ishmaelites of the “Arabah” valley.
The Arabah (Hebrew: HaAravah, lit. “desolate and dry area”; Arabic: Wādī ʻAraba), known in Hebrew as Aravah, is a section of the Jordan Rift Valley running in a north-south orientation between the southern end of the Sea of Galilee (as the Jordan river valley) down to the Dead Sea and continuing further south where it ends at the Gulf of Aqaba.
It includes most of the border between Israel to the west and Jordan to the east. Many modern geographers no longer acknowledge the northern section between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee to be part of the Arabah, but in antiquity and up to the early 20th century this full expanse of the rift valley was all considered part of the Arabah.
In Biblical times, the Arava was a center of copper production; King Solomon is believed to have had mines here. The Arabah was home to the Edomites (Edom was called “Idumea” in Roman times). East of the Arabah was the domain of the Nabateans, the builders of the city of Petra.
In Biblical etymology, “Arab” (in Hebrew Arvi) comes both from the desert origin of the Bedouins it originally described (Arava means wilderness) and/or from the concept of mixed people. (Arev-rav – a large group of mixed people.)
The root a-r-b has several additional meanings in Semitic languages — including “west/sunset,” “desert,” “mingle,” “merchant,” and “raven” — and are “comprehensible” with all of these having varying degrees of relevance to the emergence of the name. It is also possible that some forms were metathetical from ʿ-B-R “moving around” (Arabic ʿ-B-R “traverse”), and hence, it is alleged, “nomadic.”
A number of Pre-Arab (or non-Arab) Semitic states are mentioned as existing (in what was much later to become known as the Arabian Peninsula) in Akkadian and Assyrian records as colonies of these Mesopotamian powers, such as Meluhha and Dilmun (in modern Bahrain).
A number of other non-Arab South Semitic states existed in the far south of the peninsula, such as Sheba/Saba (in modern Yemen), Magan and Ubar (both in modern Oman), although the histories of these states is sketchy (mainly coming from Mesopotamian and Egyptian records), as there was no written script in the region at this time.
The South semitic Arabs first appear in record in Assyrian Annals from the mid 9th century BC as desert dwelling nomadic inhabitants of what is today Saudi Arabia. They were regarded as conquered vassals of the Assyrians. Later still, written evidence of Old South Arabian and Ge’ez (both related to but in reality separate languages to the Arabic language) offer the first written attestations of South Semitic languages in the 8th century BC in Sheba, Ubar and Magan (modern Oman and Yemen).
The Assyrian Empire collapsed by 605 BC after decades of internal civil war followed by a combined attack on the weakened sate by an alliance of its former subject peoples (their own Babylonian relations, together with the Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians), and after the collapse of the succeeding Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, the Semitic peoples found themselves largely under the domination of various Indo-European speaking empires for over twelve centuries; the Achaemenid Empire, Seleucid Empire, Parthian Empire, Roman Empire, Sassanid Empire and Byzantine Empire.
During these periods there were spells of varying degrees of independence from the Indo-European empires. In Israel/Judea, the powerful Hasmonean dynasty arose, which at its height expanded into Syria, Jordan and the Sinai.
Independent states arose among the Assyrians between the 1st century BC and 4th century AD with the Neo-Assyrian states of Adiabene, Osrhoene and Hatra, and in the 3rd century AD the old Assyrian capital of Ashur itself. Osrhoene became the first independent Christian country in history. The Aramean state of Palmyra founded a short lived Palmyrene Empire based in northern Syria in the 3rd century AD, briefly rivalling Rome.
The Nabateans, an Aramaic-speaking people of mixed Canaanite, Aramean and Arab origins appear in the 4th century BC around the Negev, Sinai Peninsula and northern Arabia, forming an independent Nabatea between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD, with its capital at Petra.
Most notable was the powerful Phoenician state of Carthage which colonised much of the Mediterranean coastline, including those of eastern Spain and southern Portugal, southern France, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria as well as Sicily, Malta, Gibraltar, Sardinia and Corsica. For centuries it rivaled the Roman Empire before being finally destroyed in the 3rd century AD.
With the advent of the Arab Islamic conquest of the 7th and 8th centuries AD, the hitherto largely uninfluential Arabic language (and Islamic culture) slowly but surely replaced many (but not all) of the indigenous Semitic languages and cultures of the Near East. Both the Near East and North Africa saw an influx of Muslim Arabic people from the Arabian Peninsula.
The previously dominant Aramaic dialects gradually began to be sidelined, however descendant dialects of Aramaic, including Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, survive to this day among the Assyrians (and Mandaeans) of Iraq, Northwestern Iran, Northeastern Syria and southeastern Turkey, with the dialects of the Assyrian Christians still containing hundreds of kkadian loanwords and an Akkadian grammatical structure.
Long extant Semitic geopolitical regions such as Judaea, Assyria, Phoenicia, Carthaginia and Syria were dissolved by the Arabs. Indigenous Semitic peoples became citizens in a greater Arab Islamic state, and those who resisted conversion to Islam had certain restrictions imposed upon them.
They were excluded from specific duties assigned to Muslims, did not enjoy certain political rights reserved to Muslims, their word was not equal to that of a Muslim in legal matters, they were subject to payment of a special tax (jizyah), they were banned from spreading their religions further in Muslim ruled lands, but were otherwise expected to adhere to the same laws of property, contract and obligation as the Muslim Arabs.
The Arabs spread their South Semitic language to North Africa where it gradually replaced Coptic and Berber (although Berber is still largely extant), and for a time to the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal).
A number of South Arabian languages distinct from Arabic still survive, such as Soqotri, Mehri and Shehri which are mainly spoken in Socotra, Yemen and Oman, and are likely descendants of the languages spoken in the ancient kingdoms of Sheba, Magan, Ubar and Dilmun.
By the 21st century AD, people identifying as Arabs now make up the largest population of Semites in the Near East, followed by large numbers of non-Semitic Berbers in North Africa and Ethiopian Semites in the Horn of Africa.
However a significant number of the once dominant indigenous, ancient pre-Arab, non-Arab and pre-Islamic Semitic peoples of the Middle East maintain their identities to this day, despite being often persecuted ethnic (and often also religious) minorities.
Sumatar Harabesi (also, Sumatar Ruins or simply, Sumatar) was an ancient watering place for semi-nomadic peoples located in the Tektek Mountains, 60 kilometers (37 mi) southeast of Urfa (Edessa, Mesopotamia) and 40 kilometers (25 mi) northeast of Harran, in modern-day Turkey. A now deserted oasis, it consists of a set of ruins and tombs situated around a central mount of rock 50 meters (160 ft) in height and width.
A series of Syriac inscriptions dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE have been found at the site. Inscriptions that refer to the “Lord of the gods,” are thought to be references to Sin. In nearby Edessa, worship of Sin, who was also the main deity in Harran, extended back to the beginning of the 1st millennium BCE, and continued until some time in the 4th century CE when solar worship began to predominate.
Sumatar is also described as, “the seat of the governors of ‘Arab,” who derived their authority from Sin. Five of the Syriac inscriptions at Sumatar Harabesi refer to “the ‘Arab”, only one of which has been dated (circa 165 CE).
Jan Rëtso writes that these inscriptions confirm the presence of Arabs in the area around Edessa, as mentioned twice in the writings of Pliny the Elder. The governors of the ‘Arab were thought to be members of the Edessene royal family, or closely related to them, appointed by Sin to look after the “blessed mountain” that served as his sanctuary.
There, these religio-political officials had altars and baetyls erected in the god’s honour. A large cave at Sumatar, known as Pognon’s cave, is decorated with a horned pillar, Sin’s symbol.
Hatra (Arabic: al-Ḥaḍr) is an ancient city in the Ninawa Governorate and al-Jazira region of Iraq. It is known as al-Hadr, a name which appears once in ancient inscriptions, and it was in the ancient Persian province of Khvarvaran. The city lies 290 km (180 mi) northwest of Baghdad and 110 km (68 mi) southwest of Mosul.
Hatra was probably built in the 3rd or 2nd century BC as an Assyrian city by the Seleucid Empire some time in the 3rd century BCE. A religious and trading centre of the Parthian empire, it flourished during the 1st and 2nd centuries BC. After its capture by the Parthian Empire it flourished during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD as a religious and trading center.
Later on, the city became the capital of possibly the first Arab Kingdom in the chain of Arab cities running from Hatra, in the northeast, via Palmyra, Baalbek and Petra, in the southwest. The region controlled from Hatra was the Kingdom of Araba, a semi-autonomous buffer kingdom on the western limits of the Parthian Empire, governed by Arabian princes.
Hatra became an important fortified frontier city and withstood repeated attacks by the Roman Empire, and played an important role in the Second Parthian War. It repulsed the sieges of both Trajan (116/117) and Septimius Severus (198/199).
Hatra defeated the Iranians at the battle of Shahrazoor in 238, but fell to the Iranian Sassanid Empire of Shapur I in 241 and was destroyed. The traditional stories of the fall of Hatra tell of an-Nadira, daughter of the King of Araba, who betrayed the city into the hands of Shapur. The story tells of how Shapur killed the king and married an-Nadira, but later had her killed also.
Hatra is the best preserved and most informative example of a Parthian city. It is encircled by inner and outer walls nearly 4 miles (6.4 km) in circumference and supported by more than 160 towers. A temenos surrounds the principal sacred buildings in the city’s centre. The temples cover some 1.2 hectares and are dominated by the Great Temple, an enormous structure with vaults and columns that once rose to 30 metres.
The city was famed for its fusion of Greek, Mesopotamian, Canaanite, Aramean and Arabian pantheons, known in Aramaic as Beiṯ Ĕlāhā (“House of God”). The city had temples to Nergal (Assyrian-Babylonian and Akkadian), Hermes (Greek), Atargatis (Syro-Aramaean), Allat and Shamiyyah (Arabian) and Shamash (the Mesopotamian sun god).
Other deities mentioned in the Hatran Aramaic inscriptions is the Aramaean Ba’al Shamayn, and the female deity known as Ashurbel, which latter is perhaps the assimilation of the two deities the Assyrian god Ashur and the Babylonian Bel, despite their being individually masculine.