In the Torah, in Assyrian writings and in Greek and Latin literature, reference was made to the trade of Arabs abroad, as well as to the trade of Assyrians, Persians, Romans and Romans with the Arabs. They referred also to the greed of the major powers at that time towards the Arabian Peninsula, due to what they had heard of its wealth and riches, and its important geographical location between Africa and Asia, with its domination of warm waters that have been highly beneficial for world trade at all times.


IN THE WRITINGS of the Greeks and Romans, and also in the Torah, southern Arabia was depicted as a rich country with bountiful wealth, trade and money, with its caravans criss-crossing the Arabian Peninsula towards the Levant and Iraq, a land blessed with gold, silver and precious stones, trading highly profitably in these abroad, and boasting hoards of precious metals and money the area was home to some of the richest peoples of the Arabian peninsula.

In the Psalms, ‘Sheba’ as one of the peoples submitting to the king of the Hebrews was to give ‘gold’, to him and pay him tribute.[1] In the Book of Jeremiah it is reported that Sheba sent frankincense to Israel. In the Book of Ezekiel, the Shebans (Sabaeans) are mentioned as great merchants who traded in the finest kinds of all gemstones and gold. In the Book of Job, a reference is made to the Sabaean convoys that trekked north to Israel.

These references indicate the constant connections that existed between the Hebrews and the Sabaeans, and that it was the Sabaeans who went to the Hebrews, bringing them gold, precious stones, spices and frankincense. Their convoys sell their merchandise in the markets of Palestine, and then return with what they need of crops from the Levant, Egypt and Palestine.[2]

The richness of the Sabaeans and their possession of gold and silver was referred to in Assyrian writings. Thus Tiglath-pileser III, for example, mentioned that he took the tribute from the Sabaeans, receiving it in gold, silver and camels, in frankincense and incense of all kinds, while Sargon stated that he took the tribute from ‘Yatha‘ Amr’ king of Sheba, in the form of gold, horses, camels and mountain artifacts.

What could Makka offer merchants or travellers to make them visit it?

Pliny pointed out that the Minaeans[3] possessed a rich and fertile land, where there were many palms and trees, and that they had many herds of cattle, that the Sabaeans were the richest of tribes from their perfumes produced by forests rich in trees, and from their gold mines and irrigated fields, and from the honey and beeswax they produced.

The southern Arabs used to trade with the Levant, sending their caravans passing through the Hijaz to the markets of the Levant by land routes that people still, with some modifications, take today.

Petra, or Sela‘, was the most important nodal point for the Minaeans and Sabaeans. From there, the road leads to the Dead Sea for those who wished to trade with the Levant, and another road ended in Gaza for those wishing to trade with this important port, an emporium the Arabs continued to trade with until the time of the Prophet.

Gold stood at the top of the list of goods carried by Arab merchants to the Assyrians and the governments of Iraq and the Levant, In the Torah there is mention of gold that the Arabs brought to the Hebrews, and I have already referred to what Greek writers said concerning gold among the Arabs, while they perhaps carried silver to them as well, for there were silver mines in Arabia. All these rich countries had been mentioned by kings and historians since ancient times because they had traded with them, and foreign travellers had visited them. What could Makka offer merchants or travellers to make them visit it?

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Makka in history – 3

As for caravan routes, there were three main routes controlled by the Nabataeans who monopolized the incense trade. This is according to the Canadian historian Dan Gibson, who lived thirty years in southern Jordan and travelled to several sites in the Arabian Peninsula and further abroad in search of antiquities or manuscripts that talk about the origins of Islam.

1- In the harvest season for frankincense and myrrh the Nabateans (in Petra) used to send their convoys from Petra to the south, to Hadramawt and Sheba in order to transport goods to Gaza, then onto Alexandria and the Levant. The Nabataeans dominated the trade of myrrh and incense and Nabataean inscriptions mention all the places and oases where their caravans rested. Yet they never once mention Makka.

2- The second route was the Silk Road, a route which brought silk from China via the mountains of Asia towards Iraq, then onto Damascus, and from there to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea for export to Europe.

3- The third route was the sea route used by the Nabataeans and Greek merchants to transport incense and myrrh from the ports of Yemen, sailing in the Red Sea north to the Gulf of Aqaba or the Gulf of Suez, and then onwards by caravan to the Mediterranean Sea, or to Damascus via Petra. This route began in the second century BC, according to Diodorus Siculus. As shown in this map, Makka has no commercial significance.

A map of major trade routes during the Nabataean Empire

[1] Psalms, LXXII, 15:  וִיחִי- וְיִתֶּן-לוֹ, מִזְּהַב שְׁבָא “Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him”; Jeremiah VI, 20:  לָמָּה-זֶּה לִי לְבוֹנָה מִשְּׁבָא תָבוֹא “What use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba”Job  VI, 19: הִבִּיטוּ, אָרְחוֹת תֵּמָא; הֲלִיכֹת שְׁבָא, קִוּוּ-לָמוֹ “The caravans of Tema look for water, the traveling merchants of Sheba look in hope”.

[2] Jawād ‘Alī,  المفصل في تاريخ العرب قبل الإسلام Vol. 3, p.1018.

[3] The معين  (Maʿīn) in Arabic.

[4] From Dan Gibson, Quranic Geography, p. 157. View this book in the Almuslih Library here.

Main image: Stele from the Central Palace at Nimrod, Iraq, depicting Arab prisoners brought before the Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser III (reigned 744-727 BC) led by an Assyrian official. (The British Museum, London)

See Part One of this essay here

Petra: the most important nodal point for the Minaean and Sabaean traders