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Arabic History pre-Islam

Discussions of the Arabic language are usually discussions about Islam as well. The rise of Islam helped to spread the Arabic language with unprecedented speed after the inception of the religion. However, Arabic as a language existed for centuries before Islam. This history is centered on the Arabian Peninsula and the nomadic peoples who lived there as early as 3000 BCE. However, the initial settlement of the area was much earlier, some time before the third millennium BCE. It is in the third millennium BCE that several groups migrated out of the Arabian Peninsula and created societies, such as the Akkadian Empire, and the early cultures that would later develop into the Canaanites and the Armaeans. The first record of the term “Arab” being used is in relation to the Assyrian king Shalmanezer, whose scribe used the term to refer to the peoples whom they were fighting at the battle of Karkar in 853 BCE. These people were said to be led by Ghindibu the Arab.

On the Arabian Peninsula, there were several early civilizations. Perhaps the earliest society recorded is of the Thamud. The earliest reference to this group was in about 715 BCE in an Assyrian inscription of the king Sargon II. Ptolemy and Pliny also mention the people in their writings. In the Qur’an, it is said that the Thamud were destroyed by an earthquake. It is true that the civilization vanished entirely in the centuries immediately preceding the creation of the Qur’an. However, there are excellent examples of Thamudi ingenuity that may still be seen today in their tombs structures that were carved from mountains at Mada’in Saleh.

During the Iron Age, many societies and kingdoms developed on the Arabian Peninsula. In the north, the Kingdom of Qedar was one of the earliest of these. It originated around the 8th century BCE. Scholars are unsure of exactly when the kingdom ended. However, they do know that it was a vast empire that at times spanned the entire northern width of the peninsula. The next major civilization to rule this area was the Achaemenid Empire.

The Achaemenid Empire was the successor of the Median Empire, an empire that ruled over present-day Iran from about 612 BCE to 549 BCE. The Achaemenid Empire, also commonly referred to as the Persian Empire, lasted from about 550 BCE to 330 BCE. This was one of the first major Empires to inhabit the Arabian Peninsula, and is also considered one of the largest ancient empires, spanning three continents- Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Another major kingdom to be established on the northern Arabian Peninsula was the Nabataeans, although most Arabs do not trace their own genealogy back to these peoples. Most scholars believe that this may be due to the fact that the Nabataean kingdom was out of existence (most likely absorbed into other surrounding cultures) long before the rise of Islam. The Nabataeans are known today for their trade routes, like many other early Arab kingdoms, that ran along many oasis-based settlements throughout Northern Arabia and southern Jordan. The Nabataeans are known also for their development of hydraulic engineering. They spoke an earlier form of Semitic language that had developed from Aramaic, and is considered a precursor to the Arabic language. This kingdom is also famous for the rock-cut architecture located at Petra in Ma’an, a governorate of present-day Jordan. In the 2nd century CE, Petra would become a Roman province, called Arabia Petraea under the emperor Trajan. There is evidence of Roman rule earlier than this though in the city of Palmyra under the reign of Caesar Augustus.

There were also many examples of civilizations developing in southern-Arabia during the Iron Age. Another major group to inhabit the Arabian Peninsula was the Minaeans, who settled in Yemen in the first millennium BCE near the narrow piece of desert known as Ramlat al-Sab’atayn. The Minaeans are known for their profitable spice trade. After the Minaean Kingdom, the Sabaean Kingdom of Saba developed and lasted until 200 CE. Evidence of this kingdom is passed down through many sources, including the Old Testament and the Qur’an as well as sources contemporary to the civilization’s time period. They too were known for their lucrative spice trade, which specialized in frankincense and myrrh. In fact, they were so successful in their trade that they became very wealthy among the ancient empires and the Romans referred to them as “Arabia Felix.” During this time, advances in irrigation were developed to help supplement the kingdom’s need for agricultural land to grow their spices. As a solution to this problem, it is believed that they created the Great Dam of Marib in around 700 BCE. Admittedly, there is some debate as to whether this kingdom was located on the Arabian Peninsula, or if it was in fact located in present-day Ethiopia. However, almost all scholars agree that the Kingdom of Saba plays an important role in the development and history of Arab culture.

Around the 4th century BCE, three kingdoms developed alongside the Sabaean Kingdom. The first of these was the Ma’in Kingdom, from the 4th Century BCE until around the middle of the 2nd Century BCE. Following the Ma’in was the Qataban Kingdom, which declined in the 1st Century BCE. The Hadhramaut Kingdom also developed around 400 BCE and lasted until the 3rd century CE. All three of these kingdoms were dependent upon the trade of frankincense and myrrh, much like the Sabaean Kingdom. This trade was vital to the entire Arabian Peninsula and brought much trade from the rest of the ancient world.

The next major Kingdom in the area was the Himyar Kingdom, which began at the Beginning of the 2nd Century and fell at the beginning of the 6th Century CE. The Himyarites were responsible for uniting the southwestern portion of the peninsula and controlled the Gulf of Aden, as well as the Red Sea. The kingdom was continuously at war with the other kingdoms in the area at the time, such as the Ma’in, the Qataban, and the Hadhramaut. There was also much fighting between those as well.

Following the end of the Himyar Kingdom, the city of Yemen fell into the hands of the Aksumite Empire for a period of roughly forty-five years, from CE 525 to CE 570. However, during this time there was much cultural change, as the Aksumite Emperor converted the region, which primarily consisted of Gnostic Christian sects, to Judaism. This resulted in the oppression of many Arabs that led to the intervention of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, and the support of the Sassanid army, thus ending the Aksumite occupation of Yemen.

Along with the many kingdoms that occupied the Arabian Peninsula, there were also several desert-dwelling tribes, known as Bedouin tribes. Many of these are still in existence today. Descended from some of the original inhabitants of the peninsula, they have a rich culture that is strongly centered on family ties and a nomadic lifestyle.

By the time Islam began to develop in the late 6th and early 7th century, the Arabian Peninsula consisted of many important cities in the ancient world that were interconnected through trade. These cities were often controlled by the leaders of Bedouin tribes. Cities such as Mecca, where Mohammad was born, would become the center of the Islamic Empire and, thus, the heart of the expansion of Arab culture and the Arabic language.

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