Arabia in contact

  December 06, 2021   Read time 3 min
Arabia in contact
The traditional mental image of the Arabian Peninsula before Islam, drawn by Orientalist scholars and traditional medieval Arab religiously zealous scholars, is of an isolated backward Bedouin/nomadic people on the fringes of the great empires of the day.

This image is currently under examination and reevaluation. The modified picture shows that at least regions of the peninsula, including Mecca, were a part of a larger and more diversified Middle Eastern late antique culture. Incomplete as the new image is, classical Greco-Roman historical and literary sources, archeological sources and Arabic sources show Northwestern Roman and Northeastern Persian influence and cultural fingerprints in eastern Arabia and Northwest Arabia respectively. In addition, an original civilization in Yemen started to develop in the pre-Christian era and continued to the sixth century, which showed a heavy Mediterranean influence. The diversity of Arabia is apparent in the material culture of the region. A quick look at Map 1.4 shows how integrated and integral the peninsula was to the ancient world of late antiquity.

The map shows a system of routes connecting the Hijaz region and the Red Sea Coast to both north Arabia and south Arabia. It also shows a connection with the east African coast and Egypt. Through several routes, the Hijaz was well connected to Persia and India. Recent excavations of religious sites in peripheral regions of Arabia show a great deal of diversity in worship. Christianity of different denominations was common in Northwestern, Southern and Eastern Arabia before Islam, and Persian pagan cults were also as common in Eastern Arabia during the same late antique period. Secular architecture shows that the coastal lines were dotted with towns and cities in which Arabs and non-Arabs met largely for trade purposes. Cities as contact locations did not only exist on the eastern, southern and western coast lines, but also on the inland trade routes (Finster 2010: 101 and 105). The main duties of Arabs in these towns and routes were of transportation and exchange with nonArabs from East Africa, India, the Greco-Roman world and from Persia. Traditional Arabic sources and classical historical books confi rm inter-Arab trade ties before Islam, where the merchants of Mecca were confi rmed to have established strong and constant trading channels with Syria and Najran in Yemen reminiscent of Q106/1–4.

External trade between the Arabs in general, and Mecca in particular, and the outside world, as can be seen in inscriptional and classical sources, was established in the fi rst century CE (Bukharin 2010: 117–119). The trade route along southern Hijaz was determined by the geological structure of the region and the existence of water supply. The people of the Hijaz did not only trade along a north-south route, they also traded with East Africa along the sea trade routes. There are even in the classical sources references to Axumite trading posts in Hijaz as early as the fi rst century CE (Bukharin 2010: 125). While classical and native sources do not mention language contact, it is not far-fetched to assume that the Arabs were in linguistic contact among each other and with non-Arabs in the port cities and along trade routes in pre-Islamic times. It is important for our purposes then to realize that pure Arabic must have been diffi cult to fi nd on the coastal areas and border towns. It could have existed mainly in Najd, where no trading routes existed.

Diversifi ed and extended trade relations of the Arabs and their geographical surroundings must have resulted in many contact phenomena. Inscriptional data allows us a window into one of these phenomena, namely bilingualism, or functional multilingualism at least. We will discuss inscriptional data from northwest Arabia for illustration. This area was generally a multilingual region in late antiquity. The Greek language was used as a language of prestige and worship after the fourth century. In addition, it was also a lingua franca for some of the inhabitants of the area. Aramaic was also a written and spoken lingua franca for some communities. It also became a language of Christian worship as early as the fi fth century. Yet other communities spoke only their local tribal Semitic dialects (Knauf 2010: 199). It is sometimes claimed that throughout antiquity, in Arabia and its northern extension in Syria, bilingualism/multilingualism was widespread, and people who spoke more than one language were able to use each for a different socio-communicative function, especially when writing was involved.