The Arabian Peninsula forms part of the Asiatic continent at its extreme SW corner. It is bounded on the E by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, on the S by the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and on the W by the Red Sea, while the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Israel curves around its northern end. Surrounded as it is on three sides by water, in part it resembles a huge island and is commonly called by its people the “Island of the Arabs” (Jazirat al-ʽarab).
With an area of about 2,600,000 sq km (1,000,000 sq mi), or the equivalent of about one third the land surface of the continental United States, Arabia is the world’s largest peninsula. The western coastline stretches some 2,900 km (1,800 mi), and at its widest point the peninsula is about 1,900 km (1,200 mi) across.
The peninsula consists of a rocky tableland sloping eastward down toward the Persian Gulf from its backbone formed by the mountain range running parallel to the W coast. One peak in the SW corner reaches an altitude of over 3,600 m (12,000 ft). Across the interior of the southern end of the peninsula lies the great desert called Rubʽ al-Khali, the largest continuous stretch of sandy area on earth, known as the Empty Quarter. To the N of the Nejd or central plateau is the smaller An Nafud Desert region, which culminates in the Syrian Desert.
The small streams found along the outer edges of the peninsula and in the high central plateau (or Nejd) are not numerous, and their flow is only during certain seasons. Job, who evidently lived in what is today the Syrian Desert region, describes the drying up of such “winter torrents.”—Job 6:15-20.
Though so much of this vast tableland is arid, sufficient rainfall does occur along the western mountain range, the central plateau, and in the S to sustain a considerable population. Here and around the larger oases the fellahin, or peasant farmers, can produce crops of millet, wheat, barley, and corn, and here date palms (Ex 15:27) and fig trees grow. Acacia trees, producing the resinous gum known as gum arabic, and other aromatic trees and plants formed a major part of the ancient Arabian economy, as they do to a lesser extent in modern times, being eclipsed today by the black gold of petroleum.—Ge 2:12.
Because of a general scarcity of water, animal and bird life is necessarily reduced, yet sheep, goats, camels, wild asses, jackals, falcons, and eagles live there today, as they did in Bible times. (Eze 27:21; 2Ch 17:11; Jg 6:5; Job 39:5-8, 26, 27; Isa 60:7; 34:13) Some wildlife, such as the lion, the wild bull, and the ostrich, have now become extinct in this territory. (Job 38:39, 40; 39:9-18) Arabian horses are renowned for their beauty and strength to this day.—Compare Job 39:19-25.
Arabian Tribes. Arabia eventually became the home of many of the post-Flood families listed at Genesis chapter 10. In the Semitic branch, Joktan fathered the heads of some 13 different Arabian tribes; while three of Aram’s descendants, Uz, Gether, and Mash, appear to have settled in the area of N Arabia and the Syrian Desert. (Ge 10:23, 26-29) The tent-dwelling Ishmaelites ranged from the Sinai Peninsula, across N Arabia and as far as Assyria. (Ge 25:13-18) The Midianites were located mainly in the NW part of Arabia just E of the Gulf of ʽAqaba. (Ge 25:4) Esau’s descendants were based in the mountainous region of Edom to the SE of the Dead Sea. (Ge 36:8, 9, 40-43) From the Hamitic branch several descendants of Cush, including Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah and his sons Sheba and Dedan, and Sabteca, seem to have occupied mainly the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.—Ge 10:7.
Ancient Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions make mention of various tribes of Arabia. Shalmaneser III lists “Gindibuʼ, from Arabia.” Zabibe and Samsi are mentioned as Arabian queens in the inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III. Sargon II mentions “Samsi, queen of Arabia (and) Itʼamar the Sabaean.” Other cuneiform inscriptions refer to the Sabai, the Nabaiti, the Qidri, and the Idibaili, the Masai, and the Temai.—Compare Ge 25:3, 13-15.
Biblical References. Hadhramaut, one of the four major ancient kingdoms of South Arabia, is usually identified with Hazarmaveth of Genesis 10:26. The Wadi Hadhramaut, a long valley running parallel to the S coast of Arabia, was the center of the kingdom with its capital at Shabwa. Other Biblical names occurring as places in Arabia are Dedan, Tema, Dumah, and Buz.—Isa 21:11-14; Jer 25:23, 24.
Abraham skirted around Arabia in migrating from Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan. When later obliged to go down to Egypt, he may have passed through part of Arabia by traversing the northern portion of the Sinai Peninsula (instead of following the route along the Mediterranean Coast), as also on his return trip. (Ge 12:10; 13:1) The drama of the book of Job has its setting in the land of Uz in northern Arabia (Job 1:1), and the Sabean raiders who attacked the property of this “greatest of all the Orientals” were an Arabian tribe perhaps descended from Joktan. (Job 1:3, 15; Ge 10:26-28) Job’s three “comforters” and Elihu also appear to have come from Arabian sectors. (Job 2:11; 32:2) Moses spent 40 years in Arabia when sojourning with the Midianite Jethro. (Ex 2:15–3:1; Ac 7:29, 30) The next event of major importance to occur in Arabia was the giving of the Law covenant at Mount Sinai in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula, where the liberated nation of Israel had congregated. (Ex 19:1, 2) Thus, the apostle Paul some 15 centuries later referred to the event as taking place at “Sinai, a mountain in Arabia.”—Ga 4:25.
In view of the present state of Arabia in general, the picture of perhaps some three million Israelites living for 40 years in the wilderness may seem a near impossibility. (Ex 12:37, 38) The major factor, of course, was the miraculous provision of food and water assured them by Jehovah. (De 8:2-4; Nu 20:7, 8) Although the conditions were clearly difficult and the scarcity of water is obviously indicated in the Scriptural account (Nu 20:4, 5), there is, nevertheless, reason to believe that at that time, some 3,500 years in the past, the water supply in Arabia was to some extent superior to what it is at the present time. The existence of many deep dry wadis, or valleys, which were once riverbeds, gives evidence that at some time in the past there was sufficient rainfall to produce streams of water coursing through them. The disappearance of certain forms of animal life may be due in part to the decrease in the water supply. Yet, basically, Arabia was then just what it is now: an arid land, or steppe.
Out of Arabia during the period of the Judges came hordes of camel-riding Midianites, Amalekites, and “Easterners” to ravage the land of Israel. (Jg 6:1-6) Such razzias, or sudden raids, have always been the principal method of warfare in Arabia. (2Ch 22:1) The camel, whose domestication is believed to have been effected in Arabia, was in use as a mode of transportation at least as early as the time of Abraham. (Ge 24:1-4, 10, 61, 64) Because of the great superiority of the camel over the ass for extended desert travel, its domestication is considered to have accomplished somewhat of an economic revolution for Arabia, contributing to the development of the so-called “Spice Kingdoms” of South Arabia.
Camel caravans out of the more fertile S wound along the desert routes that ran parallel to the Red Sea, moving from oasis to oasis and from well to well until reaching the Sinai Peninsula, from which point they could branch off to Egypt or continue up into Palestine or to Damascus. Besides their highly prized spices and aromatic resins, such as frankincense and myrrh (Isa 60:6), they might carry gold and algum wood from Ophir (1Ki 9:28; 10:11) and precious gems, as did the queen of Sheba on her visit to King Solomon. (1Ki 10:1-10, 15; 2Ch 9:1-9, 14) The waters of the Persian Gulf abound with pearl oysters. Since the SW corner of Arabia is separated from Africa by a narrow strait of water only about 32 km (20 mi) across, products from Ethiopia (2Ch 21:16), such as ivory and ebony, could also have been included in the wares of these traveling merchants.—Eze 27:15.
Nabonidus, the Babylonian king whose son Belshazzar was ruling in Babylon at the time of its fall (539 B.C.E.), spent ten years in the oasis city of Taima (Tema) in the northern part of the central plateau of Arabia.—See TEMA No. 2.
The Himyarite Kingdom, which gained control of South Arabia about 115 B.C.E., had its capital at Zafar (suggested by some to be the Sephar of Genesis 10:30). To the N the Nabataeans (possibly descended from Nebaioth of Genesis 25:13), with their capital at Petra in the rocky gorges of Edom, became powerful from the fourth century B.C.E. onward. In time they extended their control throughout the S part of the Negeb and up through Moab and the region E of the Jordan. During some years of the first century B.C.E. and again in the first century C.E. they ruled over Damascus. Their king Aretas IV (c. 9 B.C.E.–40 C.E.) is mentioned at 2 Corinthians 11:32 with regard to Paul’s escape from Damascus, described at Acts 9:23-25. Herod Antipas married the daughter of Aretas IV but divorced her in order to marry Herodias.—Mr 6:17; see ARETAS.
Paul says that following his conversion he “went off into Arabia, and . . . came back again to Damascus.” (Ga 1:17) Such a journey may have been into the neighboring area of the Syrian Desert, though the term would also allow for its being in any part of the Arabian Peninsula.
During the first century B.C.E., Palmyra to the NE of Damascus began to develop as an Arab center and in time surpassed Petra as a trading state. By 270 C.E., under Queen Zenobia, the Palmyrene army occupied Egypt and became a serious rival to Rome until defeated in 272 C.E.
Language. The language of the peoples of Arabia is a member of the South Semitic group and has remained more stable than the other Semitic languages. It has, therefore, proved helpful in improving the understanding of many expressions and words in the ancient Hebrew of the Bible.