The Arabian Peninsula: Geography, Climate & Ways of Life

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  • 0:01 The Arabian Peninsula
  • 0:53 Nabateans and the Hijaz
  • 2:02 Arabia Felix
  • 3:16 The Empty Quarter
  • 4:34 The Persian Gulf
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Far from being a gigantic desert, the Arabian Peninsula is full of different climates and opportunities for intrepid societies. That said, the challenges posed by the Arabian Peninsula are different than faced elsewhere throughout the world.

The Arabian Peninsula

When many of us think of the Arabian Peninsula, we automatically think of a gigantic desert. After all, the Arabian Peninsula is home to the Arabian Desert, one of the largest and driest deserts in the world, similar to the Sahara, which is just to the west of the peninsula. If, in our imaginations, we can see anyone at all, it is a roving nomad riding a camel, herding other camels across the desert.

However, that's not entirely true. Arabia is a peninsula of surprising diversity. Yes, there is a gigantic desert and it does take up a great deal of land. However, scattered around the sides of that desert are environments that have been home to humanity for ages, and have provided for some truly unique cultures.

Nabateans and the Hijaz

When the ancient Romans talked about Arabia, they meant a region of the peninsula stretching from modern-day Jordan south, including an area along the Red Sea that we call the Hijaz. The Hijaz itself is quite unique in comparison to the rest of Arabia in that it is relatively well-suited for farming. This means that people were able to settle down into cities, and then begin trading.

The most important of these ancient trading cultures was the Nabateans, a group that lived at the same time as the Romans. While we don't know too much about this culture, we do know that the Nabateans grew incredibly rich from trade, as they had merchants who could travel all over the Arabian Peninsula and bring back new and exciting goods.

These rich merchants liked to show off their wealth, but at the same time wanted protection. As a result, they built a number of cities, carved from solid stone. The most famous of these, Petra, has architecture that rivals that of Greece or Rome, and just from looking at it you get a sense of the wealth required to build these structures.

Arabia Felix

Of the places that the Nabateans merchants were likely to go, the most famous to the Romans was a place they called Arabia Felix, or 'Lucky Arabia.' Today, we refer to it as Yemen and Oman, which are both located on the Southeastern side of the Arabian Peninsula. This region gets some rain, but not as much as the Hijaz. Instead, the climate is perfect for growing some crops that can't be found anywhere else in the world.

The most important of these is incense, a plant resin that is burned in temples and sacrifices. As the Greeks and Romans, as well as other ancient peoples, like to keep their gods happy, keeping the temples smelling like incense was crucial. Therefore, it's little surprise that the people of Arabia Felix were able to charge very high prices for an otherwise useless plant.

The people in this part of Arabia had another factor in their favor. Being on the Southeastern coast of the peninsula meant that they were close to the spices of India. While the prices of these spices would drop as more people traded them after Islam began to spread, any spice merchant in Arabia Felix was a very rich person.

The Empty Quarter

Arabia Felix was separated from much of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula by a large desert. In fact, the desert was so vast and empty that the Arabs named it the Empty Quarter. The word 'quarter' actually only refers to part of the desert, namely the part without any oases. Needless to say, this was not the sort of place where people wanted to get lost.

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