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Strabo

Geography

 

 

Strabo (born 63 BC or 64 BC, died ca. AD 24)  wrote his Geography sometime between AD 7 and 18.  It is an encyclopedic work containing descriptions of peoples and places throughout the Greco-Roman world.

The attached map is a modern artist's representation of the world based on Strabo's descriptions.

Book XVI.iv.1. Arabia commences on the side of Babylonia with Maecene [modern Kuwait]. In front of this district, on one side lies the desert of the Arabians, on the other are the marshes opposite to the Chaldeans, formed by the overflowing of the Euphrates, and in another direction is the Sea of Persia. This country has an unhealthy and cloudy atmosphere; it is subject to showers, and also to scorching heat; still its products are excellent. The vine grows in the marshes; as much earth as the plant may require is laid upon hurdles of reeds; the hurdle is frequently carried away by the water, and is then forced back again by poles to its proper situation. . .

XVI.iv.2. From Heroöpolis [modern Abu-Keyschid, near modern Suez City], situated in that recess of the Arabian Gulf which is on the side of the Nile, to Babylon, towards Petra of the Nabataei, are 5600 stadia. The whole tract lies in the direction of the summer solstice (i.e., east and west), and passes through the adjacent Arabian tribes, namely Nabataei, Chaulotaei, and Agraei [in the modern An-Nafud desert, along on the borders of present Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia]. Above these people is Arabia Felix, stretching out 12,000 stadia towards the south to the Atlantic Sea.

The first people, next after the Syrians and Jews, who occupy this country are husbandmen. These people are succeeded by a barren and sandy tract, producing a few palms, the acanthus, and tamarisk; water is obtained by digging [wells] as in Gedrosia. It is inhabited by Arabian Scenitae, who breed camels [in the area just to the west of the Euphrates]. The extreme parts towards the south, and opposite to Ethiopia, are watered by summer showers and are sowed twice, like the land in India. Its rivers are exhausted in watering plains and by running into lakes. The general fertility of the country is very great; among other products, there is in particular an abundant supply of honey; except horses, there are numerous herds of animals, mules, and swine; birds also of every kind, except geese and the gallinaceous tribe. Four of the most populous nations inhabit the extremity of the above-mentioned country [i.e., modern Yemen]; namely, the Minaei, the part towards the Red Sea, whose largest city is Carna or Carnana. Next to these are the Sabaeans, whose chief city is Mariaba [Yemen proper, about the capital San'a]. The third nation are the Cattabaneis, extending to the straits and the passage across the Arabian Gulf [the area about modern Aden].  Their royal seat is called Tamna. The Chatramotitae are the furthest of these nations towards the east [in modern Hadramawt]. Their city is Sabata.

XVI.iv.3. All these cities are governed by one monarch and are flourishing. They are adorned with beautiful temples and palaces. Their houses, in the mode of binding the timbers together, are like those in Egypt. The four countries comprise a greater territory than the Delta of Egypt. The son does not succeed the father in the throne, but the son who is born in a family of the nobles first after the accession of the king. As soon as anyone is invested with the government, the pregnant wives of the nobles are registered, and guardians are appointed to watch which of them is first delivered of a son. The custom is to adopt and educate the child in a princely manner as the future successor to the throne.

XVI.iv.4. Cattabania produces frankincense and Chatramotitis myrrh; these and other aromatics are the medium of exchange with the merchants. Merchants arrive in seventy days at Minaea from Aelana [i.e., modern Aqaba]. Aelana is a city on the other recess of the Arabian Gulf, which is called Aelanites, opposite to Gaza, as we have before described it. The Gerrhaei [who dwelt along the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf, between what is now Kuwait and Qatar] arrive in Chatramotitis in forty days. The part of the Arabian Gulf along the side of Arabia, if we reckon from the recess of the Aelanitic bay, is, according to the accounts of Alexander and Anaxicrates, 14,000 stadia in extent; but this computation is too great. The part opposite to Troglodyticae [The Troglodyticae extended along the western side of the Red Sea, from about the 26th degree of latitude to the 19th degree, near modern Tawkar], which is on the right hand of those who are sailing from Heroöpolis to Ptolemaïs, to the country where elephants are taken, extends 9000 stadia to the south and inclines a little towards the east. Thence to the straits are about 4500 stadia in a direction more towards the east. The straits at Ethiopia are formed by a promontory called Deire [i.e., modern Bab-el-Mandeb]. There is a small town upon it of the same name. The Ichthyophagi inhabit this country. Here it is said is a pillar of Sesostris the Egyptian, on which is inscribed, in hieroglyphics, an account of his passage (across the Arabian Gulf). For he appears to have subdued first Ethiopia and Troglodytica, and afterwards to have passed over into Arabia. He then overran the whole of Asia. Hence in many places there are dykes called the dykes of Sesostris, and temples built in honor of Egyptian deities. . .

* * *

Having given this account of the Troglodytae and of the neighboring Ethiopians, Artemidorus returns to the Arabians. Beginning from Poseidium [about twenty-five miles South-Southeast of modern Abu Zanimah]  he first describes those who border upon the Arabian Gulf [Red Sea] and are opposite to the Troglodytae. He says that Poseidium is situated within the Bay of Heroöpolis [this is the modern Gulf of Suez], and that continguous to Poseidium is a grove of palm trees, well-supplied with water, which is highly-valued, because all the district around is burnt up and is without water or shade. But there the fertility of the palm is prodigious. A man and a woman are appointed by hereditary right to the guardianship of the grove. They wear skins and live on dates. They sleep in huts built on trees, the place being infested with multitudes of wild beasts.

Next is the island of Phocae [modern Sheduan], which has its name from those animals [seals] which abound there. Near it is a promontory [modern Ras Muhammad, near Sharm-el-shaykh], which extends towards Petra, of the Arabians called Nabataei [in modern Jordan, about halfway between Aqaba and the Dead Sea], and to the country of Palestine [the modern state of Israel] , to this island [modern Jazirat Tiran] the Minaei, Gerrhaei, and all the neighboring nations repair with loads of aromatics. Next is another tract of sea-coast, formerly called the coast of the Maranitae [Cape Pharan, near Ras Muhammad], some of whom were farmers, others Scenitae; but at present it is occupied by Garindaei, who destroyed the former possessors by treachery. They attacked those who were assembled to celebrate some quinquennial festival and put them to death; they then attacked and exterminated the rest of the tribe.

Next is the Aelanitic Gulf [modern Gulf of Aqaba] and Nabataea, a country well-peopled and abounding in cattle. The islands which lie near [modern Jazirat Tiran and Jazirat Sanafir], and opposite are inhabited by people who formerly lived without molesting others, but latterly carried on a piratical warfare in rafts against vessels on their way from Egypt. But they suffered reprisals when an armament was sent out against them, which devastated their country. Next is a plain  [about modern Al-Maqnah], well-wooded and well supplied with water; it abounds with cattle of all kinds, and, among other animals, mules, wild camels, harts, and hinds; lions also, leopards, and wolves are frequently to be found. In front lies an island called Dia. Then follows a bay of about 500 stadia in extent, closed in by mountains, the entrance into which is of difficult access [about modern Ash-Sharmah]. About it live people who are hunters of wild animals.

Next are three desert islands, abounding with olive trees, not like those in our own country, but an indigenous kind, which we call Ethiopic [black] olives, the tears (or gum) of which have a medicinal virtue. Then follows a stony beach, which is succeeded by a rugged coast, not easily navigated by vessels, extending about 1000 stadia [modern Madyan in Saudi Arabia]. It has few harbors and anchorages, for a rugged and lofty mountain stretches parallel to it; then the parts at its base, extending into the sea, form rocks under water, which, during the blowing of the Etesian winds and the storms of that period, present dangers, when no assistance can be afforded to vessels.

Next is a bay in which are some scattered islands, and continuous with the bay are three lofty mounds [modern Jebel Seik, Jebel el-Hawene, and Jebel Hester] of black sand. After these is Charmothas [modern Umm Lajj], a harbor, about 100 stadia in circumference, with a narrow entrance very dangerous for all kinds of vessels. A river empties itself into it. In the middle is a well-wooded island, adapted for cultivation [modern Al Hassan]. Then follows a rugged coast, and after that are some bays and a country belonging to nomads, who live by their camels [the modern Hejaz, opposite Mecca and Medina]. They fight from their backs; they travel upon them, and subsist on their milk and flesh. A river flows through their country, which brings down gold dust, but they are ignorant how to make any use of it. They are called Debae; some of them are nomads, others farmers. I do not mention the greater part of the names of these nations, on account of the obscurity of the people, and because the pronunciation of them is strange and uncouth.

Near these people is a nation more civilized [the Minaei], who inhabit a district with a more temperate climate; for it is well-watered and has frequent showers. Fossil gold is found there, not in the form of dust, but in lumps, which do not require much purification. The least pieces are of the size of a nut, the middle size of a medlar, the largest of a walnut. These are pierced and arranged alternately with transparent stones strung on threads and formed into collars. They are worn round the neck and wrists. They sell the gold to their neighbors at a cheap rate, exchanging it for three times the quantity of brass, and double the quantity of iron, through ignorance of the mode of working the gold and the scarcity of the commodities received in exchange, which are more necessary for the purposes of life.

XVI.iv.19. The country of the Sabaei, a very populous nation, is contiguous [most of modern Yemen], and is the most fertile of all, producing myrrh, frankincense, and cinnamon. On the coast is found balsamum and another kind of herb of a very fragrant smell, but which is soon dissipated. There are also sweet-smelling palms and the calamus. There are snakes also of a dark red color, a span in length, which spring up as high as a man's waist and whose bite is incurable. On account of the abundance which the soil produces, the people are lazy and indolent in their mode of life. The lower class of people live on roots and sleep on the trees. The people who live near each other receive, in continued succession, the loads of perfumes and deliver them to others, who convey them as far as Syria and Mesopotamia. When the carriers become drowsy by the odor of the aromatics, the drowsiness is removed by the fumes of asphalt and of oat's beard.

Mariaba, the capital of the Sabaeans [the same as Saba], is situated upon a mountain, well wooded. A king resides there who determines absolutely all disputes and other matters; but he is forbidden to leave his palace, or if he does so, the rabble immediately assail him with stones, according to the direction of an oracle. He himself, and those about his person, pass their lives in effeminate voluptuousness. The people cultivate the ground, or follow the trade of dealing in aromatics, both the indigenous sort and those brought from Ethiopia; in order to procure them, they sail through the straits in vessels covered with skins. There is such an abundance of these aromatics that cinnamon, cassia, and other spices are used by them instead of sticks and firewood.

By the trade in these aromatics both the Sabaeans and the Gerrhaei have become the richest of all the tribes and possess a great quantity of wrought articles in gold and silver, as couches, tripods, basins, drinking-vessels, to which we must add the costly magnificence of their houses; for the doors, walls, and roofs are variegated with inlaid ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones. . .

XVI.iv.21. The Nabataeans and Sabaeans, situated above Syria, are the first people who occupy Arabia Felix. They were frequently in the habit of overrunning this country before the Romans became masters of it, but at present both they and the Syrians are subject to the Romans.

The capital of the Nabataeans is called Petra. It is situated on a spot which is surrounded and fortified by a smooth and level rock (petra), which externally is abrupt and precipitous, but within there are abundant springs of water both for domestic purposes and for watering gardens. Beyond the enclosure the country is for the most part a desert, particularly towards Judaea. Through this is the shortest road to Jericho, a journey of three or four days, and five days to the Phoinicon (or palm plantation). It is always governed by a king of the royal race. The king has a minister who is one of the Companions and is called Brother. It has excellent laws for the administration of public affairs.

Athenodorus, a philosopher and my friend, who had been to Petra, used to relate with surprise that he found many Romans and also many other strangers residing there. He observed the strangers frequently engaged in litigation, both with one another and with the natives; but the natives had never any dispute amongst themselves and lived together in perfect harmony.

 


From: Strabo, The Geography of Strabo: Literally Translated, with Notes, trans. by H. C. Hamilton & W. Falconer (London: H. G. Bohn, 1854-1857), pp. 185-215.

Original e-text is from the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. This version has been edited for classroom use.

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