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The history of Arabia naturally divides itself into three periods, the Ancient, the Military, and the Modern. The first carries us down to the age of Mohammed, and is called by the Arabs the Times of Ignorance. The second includes the wars of the Saracens, and the empire of the caliphs. The third embraces the events from the fall of the caliphate to the present day. The native writers who treat of the first period all flourished, as has been observed, posterior to the era of the Prophet. It may seem remarkable that, among an intellectual and opulent people, no historians should have appeared to commemorate the events of their own times; but the causes are to be ascribed chiefly to their national character and habits. To the more civilized tribes the gains of commerce presented higher attractions than literary occupations; while the wandering hordes of the desert were content to devote the solitary hours of their monotonous life to the composition of songs, or the recitation of tales. Nor is it likely that a nation so proud of their independence would be careful to preserve their annals, when these could only record the invasions of their enemies, or an endless succession of domestic feuds, in which the weak constantly received the law from the strong. To have commemorated these inglorious transactions would only have been to perpetuate their own disgrace. It was, doubtless, from this impulse of national vanity, that no Arabian author has ever mentioned the presence of a Roman army in that country...
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Subdivision of Arabian History
The Kingdom of Hira
Kings of Gassan
The Lost Kingdom of Petra
Life of Mohammed
THE HISTORY OF ARABIA naturally divides itself into three periods, the Ancient, the Military, and the Modern. The first carries us down to the age of Mohammed, and is called by the Arabs the Times of Ignorance. The second includes the wars of the Saracens, and the empire of the caliphs. The third embraces the events from the fall of the caliphate to the present day. The native writers who treat of the first period all flourished, as has been observed, posterior to the era of the Prophet. It may seem remarkable that, among an intellectual and opulent people, no historians should have appeared to commemorate the events of their own times; but the causes are to be ascribed chiefly to their national character and habits. To the more civilized tribes the gains of commerce presented higher attractions than literary occupations; while the wandering hordes of the desert were content to devote the solitary hours of their monotonous life to the composition of songs, or the recitation of tales. Nor is it likely that a nation so proud of their independence would be careful to preserve their annals, when these could only record the invasions of their enemies, or an endless succession of domestic feuds, in which the weak constantly received the law from the strong. To have commemorated these inglorious transactions would only have been to perpetuate their own disgrace. It was, doubtless, from this impulse of national vanity, that no Arabian author has ever mentioned the presence of a Roman army in that country.
Little light is thrown on this obscure epoch from foreign sources, except at distant intervals. If we consult the Greek and Roman authors, the information they furnish is far from being exact. Strabo assures us, that Arabia the Happy was divided into four distinct governments, and that the succession of their kings was not fixed by primogeniture or even by royal descent. The right extended to a certain number of privileged families, and the first male child born after the commencement of a new reign was considered heir to the crown. Agatharcides, on the contrary, tells us that their kings were hereditary, and that so long as they remained shut up in their palaces they were greatly respected; but that the people assailed them with stones the moment they appeared in public, and after their death buried them in dunghills. Diodorus has recorded the same peculiarity. Arrian places one kingdom in the western part of Yemen and another to the eastward; the capitals of which he calls Sabbatha and Aphar, evidently the Saba and Dhafar of later writers.
One main difficulty resulting from the want of native or contemporary written records is, that of determining with any tolerable precision the chronological succession of events; for it does not appear that among the Arabs in the Times of Ignorance any particular era was generally adopted. In Yemen, where a regular sovereignty was so long maintained, it is somewhat remarkable that a more exact chronology should not have been observed. Several lists of these ancient kings have been preserved. We are told that they assumed the general name of Tobbaa, a title equivalent to Caesar or Pharaoh among the Romans and Egyptians; but we know little about the nature of their power or their system of administration. This monarchy, according to Jannabi, extended to 3000 years, while Abulfeda restricts it to 2020. But how twenty-six or thirty kings could occupy even the shortest of these periods it is difficult to conjecture. The Mohammedan historians solve the perplexity by making some of them reign three or four hundred years, and live to nearly twice that age. “God only knows the truth!” is the constant exclamation of the pious Nuvairi, on finding it impossible to reconcile these computations with the ordinary limits of mortality. We rather agree with Pococke and M. de Brequigny, that it was only those princes who swayed the undivided sceptre of Yemen, or were conspicuous as tyrants or conquerors, whose names have been preserved; and that the intervals, being filled up with usurpations, or not marked by any memorable events, have been passed over in studied silence. Hamza says expressly, that the twenty-six kings who flourished for so long a period were only those descended from the family of Hamyar.
Besides that of Yemen, there were two other principal dynasties in Arabia, of which we shall give some account in the following order:
I. The kingdom of the Homerites or Hamyarites, so called from the fifth monarch of that name, who possessed the whole or the greater part of Yemen, the several petty princes who reigned in other districts being mostly, if not altogether, dependent on this sovereign, whom they called the Great King.
II. The kingdom of Hira, or the Arabian Irak, whose capital stood on the Euphrates.
III. The kingdom of Gassan on the borders of Syria. Its sovereigns were a kind of viceroys to the Roman emperors, as those of Hira were to the monarchs of Persia.
Kahtan, the founder of their race, is honoured by the Arabs as the first that wore the crown of Yemen.
Yarab, his son, they regard as the first that spoke their language. Saba built the capital called after himself; and hence the inhabitants got the name of Sabaeans. Tables of these kings have been drawn up by various historians; but they differ so much in their calculations as to satisfy us that they are not to be trusted as infallible guides. Those given by Pococke have been generally followed, as being more complete, and at the same time more consonant with probability, than any to be found in a single Mohammedan author:
I. Table.—Kings of Yemen,—Reigned 2020 years
6. Wathel (or Wayel).
DESCENDANTS OF CAHLAN
The history of these ancient kings is little else than a mere register of names. On the death of Hamyar, the family of his brother Cahlan disputed the throne, and divided the monarchy; one branch continuing to reign at Saba, and the other at Dhafar in Hadramaut. After a lapse of fifteen generations, these were united in the person of Hareth, surnamed Alrayish, or the Enricher, from the abundance of spoils he collected in his various expeditions. Having recovered the entire sovereignty of Yemen, he assumed the title of Tobbaa, or Successor. Dulkarnain, who has been erroneously identified with Alexander of Macedon, is a celebrated personage in oriental story. He pushed his conquests to the remotest regions of the earth, vanquished nations of colossal stature, and subdued towns whose walls and towers were of brass and copper, so brilliant that the inhabitants were obliged to wear masks to protect them from total blindness. This apocryphal prince is mentioned in the Koran (chap, XVIII.), but it seems doubtful to what character in real history his achievements are to be ascribed. They certainly bear some resemblance to the romantic exploits of the all-subduing son of Philip. Dulmenaar, his successor, carried his arms westward into the unexplored regions of Nigritia, where he is said to have constructed a chain of lighthouses over the desert to guide his march; hence his name, which means Lord of the Watchtowers. His son extended his conquests as far as Tangier, and is said to have given his name to Africa. Duladsaar, or the Lord of Terror, is renowned as the conqueror of the Blemmyes or Pigmies, a nation of monsters without heads (Acephali), and having eyes and mouths in their breasts, whom Herodotus and Mela placed in Abyssinia and Southern Africa. His subjects threw off their allegiance, and raised Shaerhabil, a descendant of Wathel, to the throne, who, after several bloody battles, became undisputed master of the kingdom.
Belkis, according to the Arabs, was the famous Queen of Sheba or Saba, who visited and afterward married Solomon in the twenty-first year of her reign. Tabiri has introduced her story with such gorgeous embellishments, as to resemble a fairy tale rather than an episode in serious narrative. She is said to have been subdued by the Jewish monarch, who discovered her retreat among the mountains between Hejaz and Yemen by means of a lapwing, which he had despatched in search of water during his progress through Arabia. This princess is called Nicolaa by some writers. The Abyssinians claim the distinction for one of their queens; and have preserved the names of a dynasty alleged to have been descended from her union with Solomon.
Yasasin, surnamed Nashirelnaim, or the Opulent, from his immense wealth, has the reputation of being a magnificent and warlike prince. His ambition carried him into the unknown deserts of the West; but the whirlwinds of moving sands compelled him to return, after losing a great part of his army, which he had rashly ordered to advance. To commemorate this disaster, he caused a brazen statue to be erected on a pedestal of stone, with an inscription in the Hamyaric character, importing that here was the limit of his progress; and that none, but at the peril of destruction, could attempt to go beyond it.
The military achievements of Shamar, called Yaraash, or the Tremulous, from a disease to which he was subject, resemble those of his predecessors. He is recorded to have made various expeditions to Persia. He subdued KhoraSan and other provinces; and, traversing Sogdiana, he laid siege to the capital, which he completely destroyed. From him Samarcand is alleged to have taken its name, according to an inscription said to have been engraven on one of the gates. This monarch with his whole army perished by a stratagem while attempting to penetrate the desert towards Chinese Tartary, of which he meditated the conquest.
On the death of Abimalec the throne of the Hamyarites was usurped by the descendants of Cahlan; and accordingly the two brothers, Amran and Amru, are not recognised by some historians as kings of Yemen. They are omitted in the lists of Hamza, Nuvairi, and Masoudi. Amran was noted for his skill as a soothsayer; and Amru acquired the nickname of Mazikia, or the Tearer, because in his time the kingdom was divided; or, as others say, from the strange caprice he indulged of tearing his robes every evening, disdaining either to wear them again himself or allow others to do so.
Though the annals of the preceding dynasty are doubtless blended with romance, there seems good reason to believe that some of these Arabian monarchs were both enterprising and powerful. It would be useless, however, to form conjectures as to the reality or extent of their conquests; or attempt, at this distance of time, to reconcile the order of their succession with our systems of chronology. Kahtan, according to the Mosaic genealogy, was born 532 years after the flood; five or six generations, at the average rate of human life in those early ages, will bring us down to the death of Abraham; and this computation agrees with that of Nuvairi, who makes Hamyar coeval with Kedai, the son of lshmael (BC 1430). Afreikus is said to have been contemporary with Joshua; but this supposition can hardly be reconciled with the statement that Belkis reigned in the days of Solomon (BC 901). As the dynasty of the Hamyarites changed with Abimalec, who is reckoned contemporary with Alexander the Great, this circumstance may with great probability account for the chronological blank that occurs between the time of that prince and the Christian era.
The reign of Akran forms a memorable epoch in Arabian history, on account of the political changes alleged to have been occasioned by the flood of El Arem. The Mohammedan writers dwell at great length on this catastrophe, mixing its details with a variety of fabulous circumstances. The territory of Saba, though naturally fertile, had, according to Nuvairi and Masoudi, who have written elaborate treatises on this famous deluge, been rendered almost uninhabitable from the impetuosity of the mountain torrents, which destroyed their houses, harvests, and vineyards, and the whole produce of their industry. With a view to oppose some barrier to these ruinous floods, one of their kings, Saba, or Lokman, constructed a huge mole or bank, stretching across the valley, which was about a quarter of a mile in breadth, at the lower extremity of the adjacent mountains. It was built of solid masonry, the blocks of marble being cemented with bitumen and strengthened with iron bars. It rose to a great height above the city (Mareb), and was by the Sabaeans deemed so strong, that many of them had their houses erected on its sides. The valley, to the distance of about five leagues, was thus converted into a vast lake 120 feet in depth, and receiving, according to Abulfeda, the tributary waters of seventy streams, some of which were conducted into it by artificial channels. In this mound were thirty sluices at three different heights, each about a cubit in diameter, through which the waters issued, and were conducted with the aid of machinery through smaller canals to the fields, gardens, and houses of the inhabitants. Mareb thus became, as Pliny calls it, the mistress of cities, and a diadem in the brow of the universe.
This golden age of Arabian antiquity is a favorite theme with their poets and historians, who expatiate on the extensive fields and forests of Saba, its beautiful edifices, and numerous orchards. A good horseman, says Masoudi, could scarcely ride over the length and breadth of this cultivated country in less than a month; and the traveler might wander from one extremity to the other without feeling the heat of the sun; for the thick foliage of the trees afforded a continual shade. Its luxuries were proverbial, a pure air, a serene sky, wealth without its cares and inconveniences, all conspired to render Mareb the retreat of every blessing that can make life agreeable. The happy natives enjoyed among their groves and vineyards a peaceful and palmy security, clothed in embroidered garments of green silk, and rewarded with a double increase of their flocks and their fields. The kings were virtuous like their subjects. Their dominion, mild and equitable at home, was acknowledged and respected by the surrounding nations; for no enemy assailed them whom they had not defeated, and every region which they invaded had submitted to their arms.
The capital itself, we are gravely told by a Turkish geographer, was distinguished by twelve peculiarities, not less attractive than its abundant streams and delicious fruits. Neither serpents, flies, nor other troublesome insects were to be found in it: strangers infested with vermin, particularly the third plague of the Egyptians, no sooner entered it than they were relieved : none of its citizens were able to sickness or disease; the sick, the blind, the maimed, the paralytic, from other quarters, might all be restored by bathing in its waters: no change of dress was necessary, such was the mildness of the climate: their wives knew not the pangs of childbirth, and never lost the charms of youth and virginity.
All these imaginary felicities, however, depended on the strength and preservation of their mound; the effect of time (if built by Saba, it must have stood above 1700 years) and the weight of the water began insensibly to undermine its foundations. The king was apprized of the danger by Amru Mazikia, and a noted female soothsayer, Dharifa, an interpreter of dreams and visions, who announced, by many terrible signs and prodigies, the approaching devastation of Mareb. The incredulous prince disregarded every admonition; but Amru, having disposed of his property, resolved, with a number of followers, to seek safety in a timely flight. The bursting of the waters immediately overwhelmed the country, destroying fields, flocks, vineyards, and villages; and reduced that fertile province to a state of desolation. Such is the history of the famous deluge of El Arem.
As the Sabaeans were a proud and idolatrous race, the Koran (chap, XXXIV.) describes this disaster as a judicial punishment from Heaven.—"Wherefore we sent against them the inundation of El Arem, and we changed their double gardens into gardens producing bitter fruit,—this we gave because they were ungrateful.” The Arabian poets lamented its destruction in verse; and two elegies on the subject have been preserved among the ancient monuments of their literature. The tradition still exists among the inhabitants of Yemen, one of whom described to Niebuhr the ruins of the wall on the sides of the two mountains. The tributary waters had dwindled away to six or seven petty streamlets, some of which contained fish; but their course was speedily absorbed in the sands. The Danish traveler remarks, it would be a profitable and not a very difficult task for the government to rebuild the structure; but the local authorities are too poor to attempt the undertaking. Reservoirs similar to that of Mareb, on a smaller scale, are not uncommon in Yemen and other parts of the East. Those that supply Constantinople are constructed after the same manner. Abulfeda mentions one near Emesa (Horns) in Syria, which the natives attribute to Alexander the Great; and another at Tostar, in Persia, which raised the water of a neighboring river to the level of that city. Tavernier and Chardin have described one very much resembling that of Saba, built at the extremity of a pleasant valley near Ispahan, for the purpose of collecting the rills and melted snows from the surrounding mountains.
Whatever truth there may be in the allegorical details of this catastrophe, there is no reason to doubt the event itself. That political causes, arising from civil war or foreign invasion, as much as the decayed state of the embankment, may have contributed to the revolution which then took place, is more than probable; but we can hardly suppose, as some have thought, that this deluge was a fiction of the Arabs to save their national reputation; since the occurrence of such a calamity is uniformly attested, both by their sacred and historical records.
No point in Arabian chronology has been disputed with more learning than the date of this inundation. Most of the native historians have fixed it about the time of Alexander the Great; but little credit is due to their loose calculations. They all agree, however, that it happened in the reign of Akran, or his son Duhabshan. Reiske places it 30 or 40 years, and De Sacy 140, after the Christian era. The former, notwithstanding the high authority against us, we are inclined to regard as the most probable epoch. A considerable time must necessarily have elapsed after the overthrow of the capital, and the devastation of the country, before the scattered tribes could be again united, or the government consolidated under a single monarch. During this interval several petty princes appear to have reigned over these districts. The Roman historians mention Cholebus, whom they style king of Maphartis, and Charibael, whose residence was at Saphar, to whom some of the Cesars addressed embassies, and sent valuable presents, with a view to conciliate their friendship. In the course of little more than a century the throne of the Hamyarites was again firmly established in Yemen, by a descendant of Akran, who assumed the title of Tobbaa I. From this time the Arabian history is much more exact, as the reigns of the different princes are found to synchronize in most instances with those of the Persian monarchs. In the following table we adopt the chronology given in the learned Dissertation of the Baron De Sacy, who is, beyond dispute, of all living authors, the most profoundly conversant with the ancient literature of Arabia.
II. Table.—Kings of Yemen,— Reigned AD 175-529.
175, Tobbaa I.
271, Four anonymous kings
455, Hassan II.
After the destruction of Mareb, the power of the Tobbaas soon rose to more than its ancient splendor. Asaad-Abucarb had larger armies, and extended his conquests more widely than any of his predecessors. He invaded Tehama, the inhabitants of which were glad to purchase peace from him at the expense of twenty camels for every soldier they had slain. Carrying his arms eastward, he proceeded by the route of Mosul into Azerbijan, where he encountered and defeated the Tartars with great slaughter. Alarmed at his success, most of the neighboring monarchs courted his friendship; and among these was the sovereign of Hindostan, who sent an embassy proposing terms of amity. The rare articles presented by the ambassador led to inquiries respecting the country which produced them; and for the first time the Arabian conqueror heard of the existence of China. Asaad at once determined on an expedition to that distant region; and quitted Yemen at the head of a force which oriental hyperbole has magnified into a thousand standards, each followed by a thousand men. Having by some means led his army through the territory of Balkh, he proceeded by Turkistan, skirting the borders of Thibet, where he left a division of 12,000 Arabs, as a body of reserve, in case of defeat. Finally he succeeded in penetrating the boundaries of the Chinese monarchy; and, after plundering the cities in all directions, he returned with immense booty through Western Tartary into India, whence he conducted his army safely back to Yemen, having consumed seven years in this remote and perilous enterprise. The corps of reserve, however, was never withdrawn from Turkistan and Thibet, where vestiges of the race are still to be discovered.
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