Today the religiously and socially conservative nation of Saudi Arabia is not only located in the middle of the world geographically, but in the middle of horribly charged controversies. For instance, airstrikes against Yemen, its neighbor on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, have killed an estimated 24,000 people and deeply implicated allies such as the United States in crimes including destroying school buses. Arabian business interests have become deeply involved with and publicly clashed with all sorts of American enterprises from the Professional Golfers Association of America to World Wrestling Entertainment.
Can any answers how this country got in such a bizarre position be found by looking at its origins? Not the modern founding of the nation of Saudi Arabia in 1932, but in ancient times. At least a millennia ago. Back in days when the Arabian Peninsula was climatologically a very different place, when the seeds of the society we see today were sown.
10. Art on the Rocks
Although artistic depictions of animals and people are prohibited under Islamic doctrine, go back a few centuries before the Prophet and there are areas in Saudi Arabia where such work was all the rage. Unquestionably the largest surviving ancient collection is the Bir Hima, located about thirty kilometers north of the city of Najran in Southeastern Arabia, near the border with Yemen. The site is so lush with artwork that a 1952 expedition said a person could stand in one area, turn around 360 degrees, and see more than 250 murals.
For historians, the art was invaluable as an unintentional timeline through the use of carbon dating. The most popular subject matter for the glyphs was domestic animals. Since the earliest glyphs date to circa 7000 BC, it was determined the locals had already domesticated cattle by that period. There were images of cattle possessing stripes and other patterns on their hides providing intriguing hints of long extinct species. There are also ostriches and other species no longer to be found in the area, and on the other end of the spectrum it was approximated when now commonplace camels arrived. Consequently, in 2021, the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
9. The Ancient Banning of Veils
Although women covering themselves with burqas and other veils is generally associated with Islam in many cultures (though how far the Quran dictates these measures should be taken is highly debated), the practice again predates the arrival of the Prophet in the Middle East by millennia. It also stretches far beyond the Middle East, so that even in ancient Indian cultures there was a wide use of veils for centuries before Christ.
In Arabia, this practice acquired a curious wrinkle. Since the veil was associated with modesty and purity, it was believed that it should be reserved for the higher classes. Consequently, there was a period where it was banned for prostitutes and other lower class women to wear a veil.
8. Ancient Coffee
Before large petroleum deposits were discovered in the Arabian Peninsula on March 3, 1938, the most prominent product exported from Saudi Arabia was coffee. According to Dynise Balcavage’s 2001 book Saudi Arabia, the practice of consuming coffee began around 800 AD when a goat herder named Khalid was looking for a way to keep up his energy in the head. When he observed his goats eating coffee beans, they seemed unusually spritely, and so he shared his findings with his fellow bedouin.
Some sources claim that it took several centuries for coffee to reach its modern form, so that around 1300 AD it was confirmed that roasted and brewed coffee was being prepared as a drink, the technique first being adopted in or near Yemen. For the longest time the most common use for coffee, whether the beans were chewed or brewed, was to keep Muslim worshipers awake and alert during religious observances. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that while Arabians were using coffee to analyze texts, Catholic churches were initially declaring it the drink of infidels.
7. Islam’s Birth Control Origins
Birth control of all forms is still a controversial subject matter, particularly in fundamentalist religious countries. Saudi Arabia is no exception, as its government banned birth control in 1975, particularly the importation of Western pills for this purpose. Even such seemingly benign methodology as the rhythm technique is often frowned upon.
This would be quite surprising for many ancient Saudi Arabians, even long after Islam became the dominant religion. As explained in Vern L. Bullough’s 2001 Encyclopedia of Birth Control, Arabic scholars were still recording and sharing texts on how to both prevent conception and even how to perform abortions in the 10th Century. This attitude was undoubtedly influenced by the close proximity of such prominent scholars as Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al Razi and Ibn Seena in Persia who approved of birth control sufficiently to compile as many as20 contraceptive methods over their careers. So widespread was knowledge of birth control in Ancient Saudi Arabia that many of the techniques were exported to Europe. It is notable that the Quran itself was generally considered vague on the subject matter, so that even some more conservative Muslim communities would allow abortions into the fourth month.
6. European Slaves
One of the more ignominious aspects of Arabian history is the slave trade, which historians generally place as running from the 7th Century to 1900 AD. In the beginning, according to Professor Tidane N’Diyae, the Arab Slave Trade mostly imported European slaves. This came to an end as Muslim conquests into Europe lost momentum, and gradually transitioned to importing slaves from East Africa. The historical record on how these European slaves were integrated into larger Arabian society is spotty, though it is noted that Muslim armies would incorporate European slaves for units such as the Rumi or the famous Mamluks.
One thing that is fairly well-confirmed is that Arabs did not long create plantations of European slaves. That was because in 869 AD, the slave revolt broke out which became known as the Zanj Rebellion, which would last until 883 AD. Although it took place in modern day Iraq rather than on the Arabian Peninsula and the slaves were African rather than European, the message of what disasters could result from amassing large, segregated populations of slaves was received loud and clear by the broader Middle East.
5. The Malleable Monotheism
Although the ostensibly monotheistic belief in the God of Abraham was prevalent by the arrival of the Muhammad, many Arabians were very flexible when it came to the number of gods that they were willing to worship. Authors Huseyin Abiva and Noura Durkee of A History of Muslim Civilization explained how many Arabian tribes would pick and choose gods from other religions as they saw fit. For example, there was a temple south of the City of Makkah itself devoted to the Roman goddess Venus herself. Muhammad’s own grandfather professed to believe in both Allah of Ibriham and the totally unrelated moon god Hubal despite the inherently sinful nature of worshiping multiple gods according to Allah. The prevailing excuse seemed to be that Allah had simply delegated some authority to fellow deities.
For those that didn’t feel any allegiance to Allah at all, the number of gods could become extreme indeed. For example, one surviving temple from the pre-Islamic period that became Kaaba, the most holy site before Islam, hosted idols for a variety of gods. For perspective, ancient Greek mythology lists 12 deities in its pantheon. There were 360 gods worshiped at Kaaba, including by the prophet himself before he received word from Allah. These idols were all destroyed with the arrival of the new dominant religion.
4. Allah’s Rose Scent
In addition to the cherished scent of freshly brewed coffee, the rest of the world owes Saudi Arabia a great deal in terms of making civilization more aromatic. While the Egyptians had been filling chambers with myrrh for centuries and Ancient Rome had been using lavender to give homes that fresh feeling, Arab chemists (though at the time they referred to themselves as “alchemists”) introduced the practice of incorporating alcoholic distillation into creating fragrances. With the decline of perfume industries in Europe following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, this left a hole in the market that granted Arab traders a prolonged, veritable monopoly. Lucrative trade routes to Europe started following the Crusades, though presumably many Arabs would not have considered them worth the trouble.
Despite the potential for seeming decadent, these scents were heartily endorsed by Muslim clerics, who claimed that they represented the “wisdom and purity of Allah.” When the aforementioned physician Avicenna applied alcoholic distillation to roses, he created a product which would become a household staple for centuries. Initially, though, it was distributed to pharmacies for its supposed curative properties. Ultimately it became commonplace to leave a bowl of rosewater for families to use to perk themselves up.
3. Al Ardah
People possessing a passing familiarity with Islam are probably most aware of the early, swift conquests of Muslim armies. War had been deeply ingrained in Arab culture long before the birth of Islam, and one of the more distinctive ways this manifested was a ritual called the Al Ardah (“to show”). The most popular and enduring form of this ritual is the Najd Ardah, named for the region of its origin. The Bedouin nomads are generally credited with originating the dance.
For a classic Ardah, two lines of troops would line up. A verse of poetry would be recited, then in unison, the men would perform a highly choreographed dance to either show off their skills with swords or to hype themselves up. The movements were accompanied by music performed on flutes, clarinets, trombones, and a type of drum called the takhmeer. These dances could become quite elaborate, with as many as 50 lines of poetry being read between dance routines. In a concession to modernity, many performances will feature the dancers having a handgun holstered in their belts. The dance is of sufficient cultural significance today that presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, George W. Bush, Francois Hollande, and Donald Trump have performed it.
2. Musical Pioneers
Ancient Arabs were also making momentous changes to the music world away from the battlefield. Most significantly, there was the rabab, which is the first known instrument which incorporated the use of a bow, and thus it has been nicknamed the “arab fiddle.” Its exact date of invention is not known, but it is well-documented how Arabs both introduced the instruments to Europe through Islamic Spain and how it was the direct inspiration for the European knockoff, the rebec, which was itself the predecessor for violas and violins.
Arabian music theorists attempted to formalize and standardize music. In the Ninth Century AD, a system of written musical notation was invented. In the 10th Century, Ab? al-Faraj al-I?bah?n? wrote the “Book Of Songs” which was an authoritative compilation of music and customs from the era. However, according to the 1999 book World Music: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East by Orla Duanne and James McConnachie, most Arab musicians didn’t bother to check with any sort of sheet music at all, preferring to memorize the songs by ear and perform them as memorized. Considering that there was popular Arab folklore at the time that the lute had been invented when Adam’s grandson Lamak took the leg of his dead son and fashioned it for a song to lament his dead son, it’s not surprising this was a community that generally rejected an academic approach to music.
1. The Nabateans
Large amounts of ancient Arabian history are not documented in depth, but there’s a particularly intriguing cultural mystery at the heart of the region even by its murky historical standards: Who were the Nabateans? As far as written history is concerned, we largely have to rely on secondary sources. Roman and Greek documents say they were a group that acquired such wealth through the incense trade that they were able to create staggeringly beautiful stone monuments such as Petra (most likely familiar to readers from the final act of the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).
Then the Romans conquered them and absorbed them into the empire in 106 AD. Aside from a bunch of cryptic pieces of graffiti scattered about their monuments, that’s about it. That is very little for a nation that was roughly the size of Belgium and which left behind architectural wonders. A campaign to correct this major historical oversight was begun in 2019 with 60 experts. Considering that they have more than 2,000 square miles of area to study, they presumably still have a large amount of work cut out for them.
When not looking into the past, Dustin Koski looks into the future when he writes horror comedies like Return of the Living, a novel about the afterlifes of ghosts after the apocalypse.