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Who Were the Ancient Arab Sea Traders?

posted on: Apr 7, 2021

By: Pamela Dimitrova/ Arab America Contributing Writer

The Arab sea traders were some of the most important figures through the world’s history – establishing major trade routes between the ancient African Empires, European kingdoms and Asia, they were sailing hundreds of miles, providing luxury goods to many nations, while managing to keep many of their sources a complete secret. They were also one of the main reasons why the Greek and the Roman Empires developed into such great civilizations. But who exactly were the ancient Arab traders?

Early Trade

To understand who the ancient Arab sea traders were, we must go back in history. After the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek Empire was split up. Soon different generals began warring with each other for greater control. In the Middle East, this translated into a struggle between the Seleucids of Damascus and Egypt. These two nations struggled with each other for several hundred years. It is believed the Arab trade across the Indian Ocean developed during that time.

The first things that were traded were elephants. The Seleucid Army in Syria began traveling on trade routes between Mesopotamia and India, importing Indian elephants. They also traded with an Arab tribe known as the Gerrheans, which lived on the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf. Using small ships they sailed to India, from where they purchased goods, and then sailed back and up the Euphrates River, eventually unloading the goods and sending them across the land to Damascus.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, didn’t have any animals in their army and that’s why they decided to import elephants from Central to North Africa. He developed a series of ports on the Red Sea complete with elephant stopping stations.

There were also the Nabataeans living in the Sinai Peninsula. This oasis is near the Red Sea and has a palm grove and a large Egyptian shrine. They were actively sailing ships and carrying piracy about this time. They even began to move frankincense up the Red Sea from southern Arabia. According to Agatharchides (130 BC), the Sabaeans of southern Arabia (Yemen) made use of rafts and leather boats to transport goods from Ethiopia to Arabia. He also describes that the Minaeans, Gerrheans, and others would also unload their cargoes on an island off the coast so that Nabataean boats could collect it. In other words, he suggests that although the Sabaeans themselves may have confined their maritime activities to crossing the Red Sea, the Nabataeans in the north had already taken to maritime transport by the second century BC.

Masters of the Red Sea

For many centuries the rulers of the southern Arabian kingdoms had set rules that all the incense produced from the incense fields must pass through their capital cities before it was shipped by camel caravans to the north. As these cities were all located inland, it meant that all the incense had to travel to the north by camel caravan route.

In time the Nabataeans began landing their frankincense and myrrh at the Egyptian Red Sea ports, where they were transported overland to Alexandria. From Alexandria, these incenses were sold throughout Europe. In time the Nabataeans began landing more and more exotic goods, adding to the frankincense and myrrh spices like cinnamon, ginger, and vanilla. Then they started arriving with other exotic goods, including glass beads, and Chinese silks. It wasn’t long before Alexandria started to become a clearinghouse for goods from the Orient, despite Damascus’s direct connection with India and the East via the Gerrheans and the Silk Road.

Then in 85 BC, the Nabataeans accomplished an amazing victory. As the Roman army was entering the Middle East, Seleucid power totally crumbled. The citizens of Damascus appealed to King Aretas III (86 – 62 BC) of the Nabataeans asking him to enter the city and protect them from the invading and marauding forces in the land. He did so, and thus totally clinched the orient trade with Europe. Now all trade had to pass through Nabataean hands, whether it was from the Orient via the maritime route and the South Arabia ports to Egypt, or from the Orient via the Silk Road through Mesopotamia. This made the Nabataeans total masters of luxury trade. They pushed so hard to expand their power in the north, that they temporarily lost control of Gaza, which was a secondary port for them anyway, as Alexandria was the principle clearing-house for luxury goods on the Mediterranean.

The ‘other’ Arab Sea Traders

Despite being the leaders in multi-continental trade, the Nabataeans were not the only ones supplying the ancient empires with exotic goods.

The Germans and the Gulf Arabs were other tribes that were actively trading, however, on a much smaller, scale. They did not had any sufficient sized cities or ports during this time in history. While they conducted some trade with Indian vessels passing buy, there is no archeological evidence uncovered to date that these Arab nations had a sufficiently developed port to handle the large amount of trade that was passing through Alexandria at this time. So, at this point, only the Sabaeans of Yemen and the Nabataeans qualify to be the Arabs who traded with India, as they had large cities developed through incense trade with each other..


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