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Near East Kingdoms

Arabic States


Arabs (Arabia)

The Near East contains a peninsula which lies between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Today it consists of the states of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, plus the island state of Bahrain which sits in the Persian Gulf. Kuwait is also arguably an Arabian state, although its position close to the mouth of the Euphrates also sees it being included amongst the list of modern Mesopotamian states. Overall this region has been known as the land of the Arabs - Arabia - for at least three thousand years. Before that, however, the Canaanites were Semites, with origins which lay in the Arabian Desert.

Semitic-speakers formed a sub-group of the Afro-Asiatic language family which includes Hebrew (Israelites), Aramaic (Aramaeans), Arabic (Arabs), and Amharic (Ethiopians). They made their first appearance in the second half of the fourth millennium BC, migrating outwards into Egypt and Mesopotamia. A large number also entered the Levant where they blended into the existing - and already multi-racial - Neolithic populations of the various small cities of the time, most notably Jericho, where archaeology has backed up this arrival.

These Semitic-speakers quickly integrated into the Levant to create the Canaanite identity and culture which would dominate until the climate-induced social collapse at the end of the thirteenth century BC. The resultant period of migration, social collapse, and a short dark age reconfigured the entire region. Arabia remained home to nomadic tribes, but now an Arab identity began to be formed, at least as far as records-keepers of the first millennium BC great empires were concerned.

The first historical mention of Arabs from the southern deserts occurred in 853 BC, when they were involved in an alliance of states which defeated the powerful Assyrians under Shalmaneser III. Within a century two of those states had been conquered: Samaria by the resurgent Sargonite Assyrians and Judah by the Babylonians. The regional power change allowed Arab groups to migrate northwards, settling territory which had largely belonged to Edom. The Edomites had also migrated, settling in the former Jebusite city of Hebron which Rome would know as Idumaea.

It was out of these comparatively new northern tribes of the first millennium BC that the first Arab states emerged. Kedar and Nabataea both became kingdoms after a period of consolidation and unification of the semi-arid regions they had claimed following the Edomite migration. Both of those kingdoms were later subsumed within the Roman empire, but they firmly established a permanent Arab presence on the historical stage.

The Arabs of the southern desert largely remained tribal for another half a millennium, however. Only a few cities were formed, generally on the western or eastern coastal fringes of the peninsula. Then the prophet Muhammed was born in Mecca around AD 570 and went on to found the basis of the Islamic empire in the early seventh century. The empire quickly expanded far and wide, but then soon fractured. Even so it had already spread Arabic culture and language across a good deal of North Africa, the Near East, and Central Asia.

Arabs of the ancient world

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Prophets and Prophecy in the Ancient Near East, Martti Nissinen, Robert Kriech Ritner, & Choon Leong Seow (Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), from Ancient Assyria, C H W Johns (Cambridge University Press, 2012), from The Persian Empire, J M Cook (1983), from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), from Arabians in Mesopotamia during the late-Assyrian, Chaldean, Achaemenian and Hellenistic Periods, R Zadok (ZDMG 131, 1981), from The Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia, Trevor Bryce, from Zur historischen Topographie von Persien. II. Die Wege durch die Persische Wüste, Wilhelm Tomaschek (1885), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans, Jane Taylor (2001), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Iranica, and Livius.)

979 - 748 BC

The situation in Babylonia is extremely confused by this time, with various Kassite, Babylonian, and newly-arrived Chaldaean and Arabian groups vying for power, as well as some individuals who claim distant Elamite descent. Most of those who secure the throne achieve very little in the face of such a politically fragmented state.

Shamshi-Adad V of Assyria
Babylon had mixed fortunes in its relations with Assyria, but in 823 BC it successfully supported Shamshi-Adad V's claim to the Assyrian throne

853 BC

Ben-Hadad is a member of an alliance of states which also include Ammon, Arvad, Byblos, Edom, Egypt, Hamath, Kedar, and Samaria (seemingly despite recent conflict between Damas and Samaria).

Together they fight Shalmaneser III of Assyria at the Battle of Qarqar which consists of the largest known number of combatants in a single battle to date, and is the first historical mention of the Arabs from the southern deserts (specifically Kedarites).

FeatureDespite claims to the contrary, the Assyrians are defeated, since they do not press on to their nearest target, Hamath, and do not resume their attacks on Hamath and Damas for about six years (see feature link).

Map of Canaan and Syria c.850 BC
When the Neo-Assyrian empire threatened the various city states of southern Syria and Canaan around 853 BC, they united to protect their joint territory - successfully it seems, at least for a time (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.850 BC

Philistines sack Jerusalem in Judah alongside Arabs and Ethiopians, who loot King Jehoram's house and carry off all of his family except for his youngest son, Jehoahaz.

722 - 710 BC

Between 722-720 BC, Moab, Philistia, Judah, and Edom rebel against Assyrian overlordship. The rising is apparently put down, as the next record shows Moab paying tribute to King Sargon II, but still apparently being led by a native ruler rather than a newly-installed governor. Moabite troops are subsequently used in Assyrian wars against the Arab tribes.

649 BC

Shamash-shumi-ukin of Babylon rebels against his brother in the Assyrian kingdom. Ashurbanipal soon besieges Babylon, bringing it back into the empire. Rebellions in support of Babylon by the Arabian Kedarites and Nabatu are also put down, possibly prior to Babylon's recapture.

It takes two years of direct rule before a puppet ruler of Babylon is placed on the throne, while the son of the Nabatu chief, Natnu, is declared leader of their people (his father's fate is not recorded).

Dumat al-Jandal
Adumattu, the ancient Akkadian name for modern Dumat al-Jandal, was the site of the Kedarite capital but today it lies in ruins

539 - 525 BC

Nabonidus angers the Babylonians in 539 BC by trying to reintroduce Assyrian culture, including placing the moon god Sin above Babylon's Marduk in terms of importance. Perhaps because of that, resistance to Cyrus 'the Great' of Persia, when he enters Babylonia from the east, is limited to just one major battle, near the confluence of the Diyala and Tigris rivers.

On 12/13 October (sources vary), Babylon is occupied by Cyrus, who adopts an enlightened approach to his subjects, and allows the captive Judeans to return home. Arabia seems to be forgotten for a time, until the Persians invade Egypt in 525 BC and the province of Arabāya is soon created.

Persian Satraps of Arabāya (Arabia)

Ancient Egypt was conquered by the Persian empire under Cambyses in 525 BC, subsequently being annexed as a great satrapy until 404 BC. This was not without a hiccup, as Cambyses was seemingly defeated by the now-rebel Twenty-Sixth dynasty pharaoh, Psamtik III, who is theorised as enjoying a brief period of resurgence before finally being crushed by Darius I. The Achaemenid kings of Persia were subsequently acknowledged as pharaohs in this era, forming a twenty-seventh dynasty although, in their administrative terminology, it was an official satrapy or province.

Arabia around the oasis of Taymāʾ, which had belonged to the Babylonian empire, was only attached to the Persian empire during Cambyses' Egyptian campaign. Administratively it was added to the great satrapy of Mudrāya (Egypt). Between that and the earlier fall of Babylon to the Persians in 539 BC it was probably one of several regions which lay 'unclaimed' until the Persians could get around to it.

However, due to a bond of friendship which was created in 525 BC, the Arabs did not actually enter any satrapy and were exempt from royal tribute (although individuals were counted as satraps of the region). Instead they brought the Persian kings a 'gift' of a thousand talents (around thirty tons) of frankincense a year. Herodotus also mentions an Arab camel corps amongst the various contingents which were levied for Xerxes' Greek expedition. These Arabs were armed with long bent-back bows.

During the Achaemenid period the term Arabāya related only to the northern part of today's Saudi Arabia and neighbouring states. Herodotus located the Arabs in the region between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, essentially along the coast from southern Palestine into northern Sinai. They also lived in the steppes of southern Mesopotamia. The central and southern areas were largely unknown territory. This use of Arabāya to designate a geographical rather than an administrative entity is paralleled in the term 'Aribi' ('Arabu, Arubu'), which appears in Assyrian royal inscriptions beginning in 853 BC.

In the Old Testament the term 'Arab' designates inhabitants of the Syrian desert. In Babylonian economic and legal documents of the Achaemenid period some Arabs ('Arbāya') are referred to as residents of Babylon (having played a part in its history in the first millennium BC), along with Nippur, Sippar, Uruk, and other cities. The language which was being spoken by these Arabs is unknown, with the few preserved names (around twenty) not differing from Aramaic.

Persians & Medes

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Persian Empire, J M Cook (1983), from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), from Arabians in Mesopotamia during the late-Assyrian, Chaldean, Achaemenian and Hellenistic Periods, R Zadok (ZDMG 131, 1981), from The Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia, Trevor Bryce, from Zur historischen Topographie von Persien. II. Die Wege durch die Persische Wüste, Wilhelm Tomaschek (1885), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Iranica, and Livius.)

525 - 524 BC

Psamtik III of Egypt is defeated at the Battle of Pelusium and Egypt is conquered by the Persian empire under Cambyses. Egypt becomes a vassal state, with Persian troops being supplied with water by the Arabs during their journey into Sinai. Many Egyptian temples are destroyed, but Cambyses spares the Jewish Temple on Elephantine.

However, it seems that Psamtik is not immediately captured. Instead he, or the bulk of his forces, seek refuge around the Dachla Oasis. Cambyses follows him with an army of fifty thousand men and, according to Herodotus, the entire army disappears in the desert, presumably overcome by a sand storm (around 524 BC).

Ruins of the eastern gate of Psamtik's fortress
The remains of a fortress which was probably built by Pharaoh Psamtik to secure Egypt's north-eastern border (beyond or near Arabia's frontier) was uncovered in stages by archaeologists between 2008-2019 (click or tap on image to view full sized)

A highly favourable modern theory is that this story is created by Cambyses' successor to mask an embarrassing defeat. In this theory, Psamtik manages to reconquer a large part of Egypt and is crowned pharaoh in the capital, Memphis.

It is Cambyses' successor in Persia, Darius I, who ends the Egyptian 'revolt' with a good deal of bloodshed two years after Cambyses' defeat, in 522 BC (or 521 BC). Satraps are appointed to govern Egypt and, presumably, they hold sway over Arabāya too.

346 BC

In tandem with Satrap Mazaeus of Khilakku, Bēlsunu of Ebir-nāri and Phoenicia leads fresh contingents of Greek mercenaries to put down the revolt in the Levant (principally led by Sidon). The main attack falls on Sidon but both satraps are repulsed.

The Persian king himself is forced to follow up with a more direct intervention. It would seem to be after this date that Bēlsunu is replaced by one Dernes. He may be of lesser rank because he isn't given Ebir-nāri, only Phoenicia, plus Arabāya.

Archers of the Royal Guard of Darious
These archers of Darius' Royal Guard were on display in the Hall of Artaxerxes II, whose continued efforts to break a long-running rebellion against him involved attempts to re-invade Egypt

mid-300s BC


Satrap of Phoenicia & Arabāya.

? - 333 BC


Satrap of Athura, Ebir-nāri, Khilakku & Phoenicia. Killed.

333 - 332 BC

In 334 BC Alexander of Macedon launches his campaign into the Persian empire by crossing the Dardanelles. Much of Anatolia falls by 333 BC and Arsames falls (whilst also officially satrap of Arabāya and leading Arabian and Ethiopian contingents).

Alexander proceeds into Syria during 333-332 BC to receive the submission of Ebir-nāri, which also gains him Harran, Judah, and Phoenicia (principally Byblos and Sidon, with Tyre holding out until it can be taken by force). Athura, Gaza, and Egypt also capitulate (not without a struggle in Gaza's case). Mazaeus of Athura initially plays his part by opposing Alexander, but he eventually surrenders, and Alexander makes him satrap of Mesopotamia.

Arabāya (Arabia) seems to drift away from any centralised administration. It seems not to be included in Alexander's conquest of Egypt. Indeed, in 312 BC the most prominent Arab state, Nabataea, defeats an army from Argead Syria as it attempts to plunder Nabataean territory during the Wars of the Diadochi. The state turns into a fully recognised kingdom in the second century BC and survives until the second century AD.

Cuneiform tablet recording the Nabataeans
The cuneiform tablet records the existence of the Nabataeans, one of the few mentions of them as later records were largely paper/papyrus-based, written in Aramaic or Greek

7th Century AD

The Arab invasion of the seventh century AD destroys any remaining Nabataean identity, incorporating them into the new Islamic empire. In the eighth century the Abbasids under Abu Muslim begin an open revolt in the emirate of Khorasan against established Umayyad rule of the empire which changes the empire's face and moves its focus to Baghdad.

In 909, thanks to the murder of the Aghlabid ruler of Ifriqiyya, Abdullah, and Ziyadat's massacring of his brothers and uncles, Ifriqiyya is conquered by the Fatimids. They also quickly conquer Morocco, Syria, Algeria, and Arabia, establishing holdings which oppose Baghdad until the latter's destruction by the Mongols in 1258. The Islamic empire is equally destroyed.

Subsequent Arab holdings are either largely fragmentary or are controlled from Egypt. Frequent wars break out between territories and feuds are often continued for years, resulting in ongoing bloodshed. In the sixteenth century ultimate regional power is taken by the Ottomans in Anatolia, but factional fighting continues in outlying territories such as Arabia which has Mecca as one of its main focal points.

Mecca and the Great Mosque
Mecca and the Great Mosque are shown here, also illustrating the long queues of pilgrims entering it in a scene which is repeated every year, even in the modern age

By the start of the twentieth century and the conclusion of the First World War's disruptive regional influence, Arabia is largely part of Hashemite Transjordan. By that time, the focus for Arabia's independence is on the Saudi emirs of Riyadh.

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