BMCR 2003.02.27

Arabia and the Arabs. From the Bronze Age to Coming of Islam

, Arabia and the Arabs : from the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam. New York: Routledge, (2003 printing). xii, 324 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0415195349. $23.95 (pb).

Arabia remains one of the great unexplored regions of the ancient Middle East. To most scholars it lies on the periphery of ancient world studies since it was assumed to have been, at best, a passive player in the rise of complex states in the Middle East. In this book, Hoyland has undertaken a massive task in drawing together the diverse sources of evidence for the pre-Islamic period of this area. He has attempted to move beyond a formal description of historical sources supplemented by archaeological evidence to present a survey which has as its focus the people of Arabia; their economies, social structures and political organisation. It is the first attempt by any recent scholar to undertake such a review.

The book contains nine chapters which are split into three sections. The first three chapters outline a cultural history for East Arabia, South Arabia and North/Central Arabia. To give some idea of the enormity of this task: Hoyland presents a cultural history of eastern Arabia in thirteen pages; it took Potts two volumes in 1991 to detail the then more limited archaeological evidence from this region of Arabia (Potts, 1991). In his well-condensed account, Hoyland moves seamlessly from the prehistoric to the historic; so for eastern Arabia, for example, we have discussions of the Bronze Age (3200-1300BC the Iron Age (1300-330BC Greco-Roman/Parthian period (330BC-AD24) and then the Byzantine/Sasanian period (240-630AD).

For each of these periods, Hoyland attempts where possible to combine the historical and epigraphic evidence, with an occasional reference to the relevant archaeological finds. For example, the section on the Bronze Age in eastern Arabia deals at length with the Mesopotamian sources from the Akkadian period onwards that detail trade with Dilmun (ancient Bahrain) and Magan (ancient Oman). He later weaves into this account the many archaeological finds which have been made in eastern Arabia in the last twenty years as evidence for the increase in Bronze Age trade in the late third millennium BC. For the Iron Age, he is able to locate the many epigraphic finds from North and South Arabia within a broader understanding of the rise and fall of the Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Empires. He cites the Classical sources, Strabo, Arrian, Pliny and others, at length to ascertain what information they may provide on the geography and post-Iron Age history and economy of this region. There is indeed much to interest the reader here since traditional divides in Middle Eastern archaeology have meant that those who work on Assyrian texts rarely deal with the much later Classical sources and vice-versa. Scholars of the Middle East generally and students of Arabian prehistory in particular will appreciate having such an accessible source-book at hand.

Chapters 4 to 8 are thematic in character and deal with issues of economy, society, religion, art, architecture and artefacts and language and literature. Here Hoyland approaches the evidence from a viewpoint that emphasises the homogenous nature of adaptation and economy in Arabia. In the section on agriculture, for example, we are told that ‘methods had therefore to be devised for the effective catchment, distribution and storage of this precious resource [water]’ (85). This is, of course, true, but the climatic and geographical variations which exist within Arabia (compare for example the Yemeni Highlands with the Nafud desert) meant that adaptive strategies altered through time and space. In Chapter 7, entitled Art, Architecture and Artefacts, we are informed that the ‘settled inhabitants of Arabia favoured stone or mud-brick dwellings’ (170), and a lengthy list of historical references that describe the different forms that these dwellings took is supplied. Physical traces of these remains are meagre for, as Hoyland comments, ‘Arabia’s cities were few, but its encampments were innumerable’ (171) and these encampments are rarely focussed upon by archaeologists. The available historical data for funerary buildings, temples and palaces is also detailed, and for this section Hoyland is able to refer in more detail to the available archaeological evidence.

The book concludes with Chapter 9, Hoyland’s thoughts on the complex issue of Arabhood and Arabisation. From the outset he makes the case that one cannot automatically assume that all of ancient Arabia was inhabitated by Arabs. Although made before, this is certainly a point worth re-emphasising. The literature on ethnicity in the past is immense, and I am not sure whether all those who approach this issue from a theoretical viewpoint would agree with the statement that ‘What linked the Arabs together and distinguished them from other peoples was their language’ (230). Nonetheless, Hoyland concludes on the basis of the epigraphic data that ‘the Arab homeland was therefore north and central Arabia’ (230). From a strictly linguistic point of view this is undeniable.

In general the structure of the volume makes it accessible to a wide audience, and it contains much historical information that is unavailable in any other single source. It is well-illustrated, with over fifty photographs, maps and drawings. One cannot help but comment that it is a timely and important book, given the renewed interest in Arabia in the post-September 11th world. However, as a scholarly book it does not fulfil its back cover claim of providing ‘the only up-to-date, one volume survey of the region and its peoples from prehistory to the coming of Islam’. There are many problems with the manner in which evidence is presented and interpreted. These essentially concern the relationship between archaeological and historical evidence. Hoyland states that ‘this book is in the end a textual history and will not give detailed discussion of archaeological sites and their material yields’ (9), yet in his introduction he states that the first ‘wellspring’ of inspiration for the book came from the fieldwork he has undertaken during the last ten years in the Middle East. Indeed in recreating past economic, social and political structures one cannot ignore the physical traces of evidence that have been uncovered. Hoyland does not hesitate, therefore, to draw important conclusions on the basis of limited archaeological evidence but at times displays a lack of understanding of the complexities of the archaeological record and recent evidence from Arabia.

Archaeological data is at its best when it challenges our pre-conceived ideas of how people lived in the past. Such preconceptions are common when one thinks about ancient Arabia, and they are more often than not drawn from historical sources which are geographically and/or chronologically quite removed from the situation they describe. One of the most critical issues for Arabia is our perception of the Bedu-Hadhar or the Desert-Sown model. There can be no doubt that western scholarship’s understanding of this Arabic paradigm has done much to contour archaeological research; it is indeed one of the reasons why so little archaeological work has been done in Arabia. It is why Dame Kathleen Kenyon in her often-quoted textbook on the archaeology of the Holy Land could state confidently that ‘ The Fertile Crescent encloses the plateau of the Arabian desert, which from the dawn of history has served as a vast reservoir of nomadic raiders upon the riches of the surrounding Crescent‘ (Kenyon 1979:11). Hoyland (97-101) correctly points out that these traditional approaches which have emphasised a hostile relationship between the desert and the sown oversimply the situation and have affected scholarly and public perceptions of Arabia.

It is curious, therefore, that Hoyland is willing at various points to make general statements about social and economic conditions throughout Arabia on the basis of a few historical references. It could be argued that he is attempting to paint a broad picture of ancient Arabia, and therefore a focus on details is not so important. But it is the details and rigorous approach to evidence which provide a basis for overturning the long-held perceptions of Arabia, such as evidenced by Kenyon above. Despite Hoyland’s claim, this is not achieved and there are numerous instances in this volume when the ‘general’ wins over the ‘detailed’ to produce conclusions which serve to reinforce the perception of ancient Arabia’s inhabitants as relatively acephalous and immutable in their social and economic structure and susceptible to change only with foreign intervention. For example, he quotes inscriptional evidence from Sargon II, Diodorus, Ammianus, Eusebius and the much later Muhalhil, to suggest that Arab pastoral tribes had a high level of social homogeneity and ‘practised minimal division of labour’, that craftsmen were held in contempt and so on (117). There is simply no evidence to support these assertions. Archaeological evidence has done much to challenge the model that pastoral tribes lack social and economic differentiation. For example, the immensely important archaeological research undertaken by a joint French-Italian team at Ras al-Jinz in Oman has shown levels of economic and social complexity in coastal settlements at c. 2500 BC resulting from a configuration of intra-regional trade, sea-borne exchange and shifting seasonal habitation (Cleuziou and Tosi 2000). Such intricacies are never hinted at by the many ancient authors who write about Arabia.

In the same vein, to suggest that almost all the inhabitants of pre-Islamic Arabia were members of a tribe or ‘mutual aid group bound together by a notion of kinship’ (113) is both uninformed and uninformative since such structures have existed throughout the world at various times and within Arabia are certainly not limited to the pre-Islamic period. Critical, however, is the fact that the intensification of settlement which occurs at various times in Arabia’s prehistory (e.g. the third and first millennium BC in the east and the first millennium BC in the south) provides archaeological evidence for the existence of supra-kinship structures in the form of complex oasis polities and, in the case of the Sabaeans of Yemen, monocentric states.

In his discussion of the Iron Age in the Hejaz, Hoyland follows the line that it was imperial episodes by Egypt and then Mesopotamia (91) that led to a flourishing of trade and settlement. This reflects a broader perception that Arabia was a passive player whose social and economic history can be constructed largely on the basis of what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East at that time. This is already implicit in Hoyland’s “cultural history chapters” in which the labels Graeco-Roman, Parthian and Sasanian are used for periods (c. 330BC-630AD) in which cultural dynamics in eastern Arabia remained relatively indigenous. Similarly, his comments on the situation in the Hejaz are an oversimplification of what is a hotly debated topic. Bawden (1992) has suggested that there is continuity of settlement in the Hejaz which was based on indigenous economic processes, particularly the exploitation of local mineral wealth and the harnessing of intra-regional trade routes. Parr (1992), whom Hoyland to some extent follows, argued against this and, employing a simplistic approach, wrote that since the inhabitants of the Hejaz were represented as nomads in Assyrian reliefs that is the sum total of their existence (Parr 1993). This is, of course, not simply an issue concerning the Hejaz; it is critical to the way we approach arid environments and their inhabitants. Is economic, social or political transformation in these regions only possible when the hydraulic civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia intervene in their ‘peripheries’? The most recent archaeological evidence from Arabia suggests not, and Hoyland should have dealt with this complex issue in more detail, using the Hejaz as an example.

It is undeniable that archaeological fieldwork is increasing at a rapid pace in Arabia and no author can be expected to command an up-to-date knowledge of all that has been discovered. However, in several instances Hoyland has not sufficiently researched the relevant archaeological literature. For example, his suggestion that the advent of iron use is a decentralising influence upon political and economic power because it is found ‘practically everywhere on the globe’ (17-18) relies on theories constructed at a time when little archaeological evidence was available on the economic and social effects of the introduction of iron. Childe was quite right when he wrote in 1936 that ‘Bronze had always been an expensive material because its constituents, copper and tin, are comparatively rare. Iron ores are widely distributed. As soon as they could be smelted economically, anyone could afford iron tools’ (Childe 1951: 35-36). But now there is a massive amount of archaeological and anthropological evidence which suggests that iron served to reinforce and reconfigure existing political and economic structures. Within Arabia, the use of iron is a complex issue since it appears quite late in comparison to other Middle Eastern regions, as Hoyland notes. Its near-complete absence and the effects of its introduction have been discussed in detail for the Arabian southeast (Lombard 1989, Magee 1998). In that instance, iron is certainly controlled by elites and used to reinforce existing political and social hierarchies.

Hoyland states that there is good archaeological evidence for agriculture in east and south Arabia and oases in the west and north (86) but doesn’t detail this evidence. There is archaeological evidence from the south and east for a certain time period, but this does not mean one can transfer the impact of such evidence to other areas of Arabia. The falaj system of irrigation, which involves tapping mountain aquifers and transporting the water to lower-lying piedmont areas by human-constructed subterranean channels, has long been considered an important feature of traditional Arabian agriculture practices, particularly in the east and north, and it is not dealt with in any detail by Hoyland. It was long assumed that it was introduced to Arabia during the Achaemenid period from Iran, which was always considered the ‘home’ of such technology. This view is still found in discussions of falaj irrigation, and Hoyland’s book could have really made its mark if it had detailed the recent archaeological fieldwork in the UAE and Oman which suggests that this technology existed there by about 1000 BC, making it the earliest occurrence of such technology in the world (Boucharlat 1984, Lombard 1985, Magee 1999) . This new evidence has many implications for our understanding of centre-periphery relations and the role of arid environments in technological innovation. It fundamentally challenges our perceptions of arid regions as passive players in technology transfer and innovation and should force us to re-configure our understanding of centre periphery paradigms throughout the ancient Middle East.

Another critical economic development within Arabia was the domestication of the camel, a process that Hoyland states probably started in southeast Arabia in the third millennium BC (90-91). This is a complex issue and the reader of this review may be directed to the most recent work of Uerpmann (2001), which argues for a much later date (c.1100BC) on the basis of archaeozoological evidence for Tell Abraq in the UAE. In any case, we do not yet have detailed archaeozoological evidence for other parts of Arabia, and such evidence is critical if we are to avoid the pitfall of believing that an innovation which takes place in one part of Arabia will automatically be transferred to another.

As we noted at the outset Hoyland has undertaken an imposing task in writing this book, and he has produced a magisterial conspectus of the historical data on pre-Islamic Arabia. There is no doubt that it replaces O’Leary’s Arabia before Muhammed (1927) or Grohmann’s Arabien (1963), as Hoyland hopes in his introduction (2). For those interested in this understudied part of the ancient Middle East, it will remain an important reference work for tracking down historical references, especially given the well structured bibliography. If it had remained a source-book for historical references, one could only have praise for the volume. But its claim that it uses a wide range of sources (including archaeological) to produce a survey of pre-Islamic Arabia and its peoples highlights a major shortcoming. A more complete appraisal of the archaeological evidence and its full implications for understanding how the people of ancient Arabia lived, how they worked the land, and how they traded with each other and overseas would have made this book the most significant scholarly contribution to our-understanding of pre-Islamic Arabia. It would have served the purpose of moving ancient Arabian studies from the periphery of modern scholarship to a position alongside those other regions for which archaeological and historical evidence have highlighted a varied and ever-changing economic and social history.


Bawden, G. 1992: Continuity and disruption in the ancient Hejaz: an assessment of current archaeological strategies, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 3: 1-22.

Boucharlat, R. 1984: Les périodes pré-Islamiques récentes aux Émirates Arabes Unis. In R. Boucharlat and J.-F. Salles (edd.). Arabie orientale. Mésopotamie et Iran méridional, de l’Âge du Fer au début de la period Islamique: 187-197. Paris.

Childe, V.G. 1951 [1936]: Man makes himself, London.

Cleuziou, S. and M. Tosi. 2000: Ra’s al-Jinz and the prehistoric coastal cultures of the Ja’alan, Journal of Oman Studies 11: 19-73.

Grohman, A. 1963: Arabien, Munich.

Kenyon, K. 1979: Archaeology in the Holy Land, London.

Lombard, P. 1985: L’Arabie orientale à l’Âge du Fer. Université de Paris I: Thèse de 3 e cycle.

Lombard, P. 1989: Âge du fer sans fer: Le cas de la péninsule d’Oman au 1er millénaire avant J.-C. In R. Boucharlat and J.-F. Salles (edd.). Arabie orientale. Mésopotamie et Iran méridional, de l’Âge du Fer au début de la period Islamique. Paris.

Magee, P. 1998: New evidence of the initial appearance of iron in Southeastern Arabia, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 9: 122-127

Magee, P. 1999: Settlement patterns, polities and regional complexity in the southeast Arabian Iron Age, Paleorient 24: 49-60.

O’Leary, De Lacy 1927: Arabia before Muhammad, London.

Parr, P. 1993: The early history of the Hejaz: a response to Garth Bawden, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 4: 48-58.

Potts, D.T. 1990: The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity, Oxford.

Uerpmann, M. 2001: Remarks on the animal economy of Tell Abraq (Emirates of Sharjah and Umm al-Qaywayn, υαἐ, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 31: 227-234.