Some groups are larger than others and wider in geographical distribution than others. But the picture we get from books of genealogy and geographies is that they were adjacent, neighbors and sometimes practically lived together in close constant contact. In this section, we will see where these Arabs lived. After a quick description of the geographical location of the Arabian Peninsula, I will focus on two relevant topographical points: access to the peninsula from the outside world and the internal terrain of the Arabian landscape.
The Arabian Peninsula is a large and solid land bridge suspended between the continents of Africa and Asia. It is among the largest peninsulas on earth, and is surrounded by water on three sides, except from the northern and northeastern sides. It is on 23°N and 46°E. 1 The Red Sea borders the peninsula from the west and southwest with the approximate coastal length of 1900 km. In the south, there is the Gulf of Aden, and also in the south and southeast, there is the Arabian Sea. The peninsula is bounded by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman from the east. The Syrian desert is the northern border of the Arabian Peninsula, where there is no topographical demarcation of the end of the peninsula and the beginning of the rest of southwest Asia. 2 Its southern part is its largest mass and extends between Yemen and Oman to more than 1900 km. In the Northwest, the Arabian Peninsula is connected to the African continent through the Sinai Peninsula, which serves as a bridge for the two continents. The northern part of the peninsula is its connection to the rest of the ancient world. The northwestern part borders Sinai and the Levant, the northern line borders the Syrian Desert, and the northeastern part borders the Iraqi desert. This northern land bridge is a fl at mass with no land barriers, such as mountains, and forbidding deserts.
Deserts, however, cover more than three-quarters of the Arabian Peninsula. Geographers think that the region had changed from savannah, or grasslands to desert by about 8,000 BCE, along with the neighboring Sahara Desert in North Africa. The Arabian Desert, one of the largest deserts on the planet, is a vast wilderness stretching from Yemen to the Persian Gulf and from Oman to Jordan and Iraq. It occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula, with an estimated area of 2,330,000 sq. km. (900,000 sq. mi.). The al-Nufūd desert is one of the Arabian Deserts. This desert of the now northwestern Saudi Arabia is famous for gigantic sand dunes, some reaching over 30m (100 ft). high. Al-Rub‘ Al-Xāliyy, ‘the empty quarter,’ is the largest (only sand) desert in the world and famed for huge sand dunes that can extend for over 40 km (25 miles). A large part of the Arabian Desert, it covers most of southern Saudi Arabia, and is almost moistureless. The A-Dahnā’ is the northern expanse that connects to the Al-Nufūd Desert.
Artifacts from hunter-gatherer groups and early settled cultures have been found at many sites. Traces of the earliest towns, cities and civilizations in the Fertile Crescent along the Mediterranean Sea have also been found. The Arabian Peninsula is mostly arid with inhospitable terrain and fertile regions nearly all around the periphery. Along the mountainous Arabian Sea coast to the south, rain-fed and irrigated highland areas support a rich agriculture. These mountains continue up to the Red Sea coast, but they do not receive the monsoon rains, and are mostly arid. People settled in areas where they could farm, and herded fl ocks of sheep and goats in areas where they could graze on seasonal plants. During the fi rst millennium BCE, domestication of the camel allowed pastoral nomads to inhabit even more arid parts of the peninsula. More important, the camel allowed people to cross the driest deserts between wells. Camels can travel at a steady rate and withstand the harsh desert climate for long periods without drinking. Invention of a practical camel packsaddle allowed it to carry hundreds of kilos at once. The camel caravan opened the Arabian Peninsula to regional and long-distance trade during the early centuries of the Common Era.
The Arabs were skillful in transporting goods safely across the wide barren stretches, guided by signs of nature just as mariners navigated the seas. Seaports along the Arabian coasts linked the peninsula with the Mediterranean trading system, the Indian Ocean and Africa. Towns at caravan stops at oases developed along the overland trade routes, such as the inland towns of Mecca and Medina. In the northern part of the peninsula, cities such as Jericho, Jerusalem and Damascus developed during biblical times. During Classical times, city-states like Palmyra and Petra grew wealthy from trade on the eastern end of the Asian silk roads. Although the inner regions of the Arabian Peninsula were too diffi cult to conquer, the caravan routes and their towns in the region were not completely isolated. Arabian camel cavalry fought in imperial armies for the Persians and the Romans. Improvements in the camel saddle during the early centuries of the Common Era increased their strength as a military force and gave them control of the caravan trade. Trade and migration brought them luxury goods, wealth and ideas, including monotheistic belief systems such as Judaism and Christianity, though most tribes in the area remained polytheistic until the rise of Islam.