The Arabian Peninsula
The Arabian Peninsula is the largest peninsula in the world. It is surrounded on three sides by water: the Red Sea on the west, the Arabian Sea to the south, and the Persian Gulf to the east. More than a fourth of the land is sandy desert; there are no major lakes or rivers. While there are some areas of fertile vegetation and mountains, most of the peninsula is a harsh, barren landscape where the climate can reach the greatest extremes. During the summer months, temperatures can reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit; in the cool winter evenings, it can dip below freezing. There is little transition between the seasons; the weather is usually either extremely hot or extremely cold.
The Arabian Peninsula is part of a larger region called the Middle East. “Middle East” is a geographic term used to describe the entire region where Africa, Asia, and Europe converge. The borders of the region, and the countries that are contained in it, are subject to some debate. Not all Middle Eastern countries are Arab; the main language groups include Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Persian, among dozens of others. The world's three largest monotheistic faiths all began in this area.
The native inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula are a Semitic people called Arabs, who trace their origins to the Prophet Abraham through his son Ishmael. The language they speak is Arabic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic. While some variations are found in dialect and accent, the Arabic language unites a people with a long history and common ancestry. Today, Arabic is the native tongue of more than 200 million people in more than twenty predominantly Arab countries.
It was common for various tribes to forge treaties with others in order to protect their caravans from theft and looting. Tribes also allied themselves to protect each other from third-party warfare. However, these alliances were subject to change at whim; one day's friends could easily become the next day's sworn enemies.
Those Arabs who lead a nomadic lifestyle are known as the Bedouin. The Bedouin live in makeshift tents and move from place to place according to the season, searching for water and vegetation for themselves and their herds of camels or cattle.
The Bedouin have historically lived a harsh and rugged lifestyle, prone to feuds and fighting among themselves and others. At the same time, they are a people known for their strong sense of honor, hospitality, loyalty, and bravery.
Over time, many Bedouins settled in oases and villages and established organized societies based on trade and agriculture. These villages grew into city-states led by local tribal leaders, who were prone to feuding. Merchants traveled throughout the region to establish trade relationships, while competing tribes conducted booty raids to disrupt those routes.
In the southern region of the Arabian Peninsula, more frequent rainfall and a more pleasant climate allowed the people to cultivate the land, develop irrigation systems, and build a prosperous civilization in Yemen. They established trade caravans and used ships to transfer goods between Africa and Asia.
In modern times, the discovery of oil has turned the Arabian Peninsula into a very developed region. Many of the greatest new economic and business centers are to be found there, including Riyadh and Dubai. However, the Bedouin values of hospitality, loyalty, and integrity are still very much a part of local culture.
In Mecca, the largest and most powerful tribe was known as the Quraish. Within the tribe were various branches or clans, each with different responsibilities and rivalries. The Prophet Muhammad belonged to the Banu Hashim clan of the Quraish tribe. During his lifetime, other branches of the Quraish tribe led the opposition against him.
Caravans and Trade
Trade with neighboring tribes and villages was always an important economic activity on the Arabian Peninsula. Trade cities served as important centers of commerce, as well as strongholds for the political and social establishment. The Arabs were also involved in the trade between Asia and the Mediterranean. Goods arrived by sea from India and were carried by trade caravans traveling north to Petra and Damascus and south into Yemen. The most important trade route in the region ran parallel to the Red Sea. As naval battles rendered that area unsafe, an alternative inland route was made, right through the city of Mecca.