Natural History by Pliny Book VI/Chapter 32

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Pliny the Elder, The Natural History

John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed. London, 1855.

Chap. 32. (28.) — Arabia

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Arabia, inferior to no country throughout the whole world, is of immense extent, running downwards, as we have previously stated,1 from Mount Amanus, over against Cilicia and Commagene; many of the Arabian nations having been removed to those countries by Tigranes the Great2, while others again have migrated of their own accord to the shores of our sea3 and the coast of Egypt, as we have already mentioned.4 The Nubei5 have even penetrated as far as Mount Libanus in the middle of Syria; in their turn they are bounded by the Ramisi, these by the Taranei, and these again by the Patami.

As for Arabia itself, it is a peninsula, running out between the Red and the Persian Seas; and it is by a kind of design, apparently on the part of nature, that it is surrounded by the sea in such a manner as to resemble very much the form and size6 of Italy, there being no difference either in the climate of the two countries, as they lie in the same latitudes.7 This, too, renders it equally fertile with the countries of Italy.

We have already mentioned8 its peoples, which extend from our sea as far as the deserts of Palmyrene, and we shall now proceed to a description of the remainder. The Scenitæ, as we have already stated,9 border upon the Nomades and the tribes that ravage the territories of Chaldæa, being themselves of wandering habits, and receiving their name from the tents which constitute their dwellings; these are made of goats' hair, and they pitch them wherever they please.

Next after them are the Nabatæi, who have a city called Petra10, which lies in a deep valley, somewhat less than two miles in width, and surrounded by inaccessible mountains, between which a river flows: it is distant from the city of Gaza, on our shores, six hundred miles, and from the Persian Gulf one hundred and thirty-five. At this place two roads meet, the one leading from Syria to Palmyra, and the other from Gaza.

On leaving Petra we come to the Omani11, who dwell as far as Charax, with their once famous cities which were built by Semiramis, Besannisa and Soractia by name; at the present day they are wildernesses.

We next come to a city situate on the banks of the Pasitigris, Fora by name, and subject to the king of Charax: to this place people resort on their road from Petra, and sail thence to Charax, twelve miles distant, with the tide. If you are proceeding by water from the Parthian territories, you come to a village known as Teredon; and below the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris, you have the Chaldæi dwelling on the left side of the river, and the Nomadic tribes of the Scenitæ on the right.

Some writers also make mention of two other cities situate at long intervals, as you sail along the Tigris, Barbatia, and then Thumata, distant from Petra, they say, ten days' sail; our merchants report that these places are subject to the king of Charax. The same writers also state, that Apamea12 is situate where the overflow of the Euphrates unites with the Tigris; and that when the Parthians meditate an incursion, the inhabitants dam up the river by embankments, and so inundate their country.

We will now proceed to describe the coast after leaving Charax13, which was first explored by order of king Epiphanes. We first come to the place where the mouth of the Euphrates formerly existed, the river Salsus14, and the Promontory of Chaldone15, from which spot, the sea along the coast, for an extent of fifty miles,16 bears more the aspect of a series of whirlpools than of ordinary sea; the river Achenus, and then a desert tract for a space of one hundred miles, until we come to the island of Ichara; the gulf of Capeus, on the shores of which dwell the Gaulopes and the Chateni, and then the gulf of Gerra17. Here we find the city of Gerra, five miles in circumference, with towers built of square blocks of salt.

Fifty miles from the coast, lying in the interior, is the region of Attene, and opposite to Gerra is the island of Tylos18, as many miles distant from the shore; it is famous for the vast number of its pearls, and has a town of the same name; in its vicinity there is a smaller island,19 distant from a promontory on the larger one twelve miles and a half. They say that beyond this large islands may be seen, upon which no one has ever landed: the circumference of the smaller island is one hundred and twelve miles and a half; and it is more than that distance from the Persian coast, being accessible by only one narrow channel.

We then come to the island of Asclie, and the nations of the Nocheti, the Zurazi, the Borgodi, the Catharrei, the Nomades, and then the river Cynos20.

Beyond this, the navigation is impracticable on that side,21 according to Juba, on account of the rocks; and he has omitted all mention of Batrasave22, a town of the Omani, and of the city of Omana23, which former writers have made out to be a famous port of Carmania24; as also of Homna and Attana, towns which at the present day, our merchants say, are by far the most famous ones in the Persian Sea.

Passing the river Cynos25, there is a mountain, Juba says, that bears marks of the action of fire; also, the nation of the Epimaranitæ, then a nation of Ichthyophagi, and then a desert island, and the nation of the Bathymi.

We then come to the Eblitæan Mountains, the island of Omoënus, the port of Mochorbe, the islands of Etaxalos and Inchobrice, and the nation of the Cadæi.

There are many islands also that have no name, but the better known ones are Isura, Rhinnea, and another still nearer the shore, upon which there are some stone pillars with an inscription in unknown characters.

There are also the port of Gobœa, the desert islands called Bragæ, the nation of the Thaludæi, the region of Dabanegoris, Mount Orsa, with a harbour, the gulf of Duatus, with numerous islands, Mount Tricoryphos26, the region of Cardaleon, and the islands called Solanades, Cachinna, and that of the Ichthyophagi.

We then find the Clari, the shore of Mamæum, on which there are gold mines, the region of Canauna, the nations of the Apitami and the Casani, the island of Devade, the fountain of Coralis, the Carphati, the islands of Calaëu and Amnamethus, and the nation of the Darræ.

Also, the island of Chelonitis27, numerous islands of Ichthyophagi, the deserts of Odanda, Basa, many islands of the Sabæi, the rivers Thanar and Amnume, the islands of Dorice, and the fountains of Daulotos and Dora.

We find also the islands of Pteros, Labatanis, Coboris, and Sambrachate, with a town of the same name28 on the mainland.

Lying to the south are a great number of islands, the largest of which is Camari; also the river Musecros, and the port of Laupas.

We then come to the Sabæi, a nation of Scenitæ29, with numerous islands, and the city of Acila30, which is their mart, and from which persons embark for India.

We next come to the region of Amithoscutta. Damnia, the Greater and the Lesser Mizi, and the Drimati. The promontory of the Naumachæi, over against Carmania, is distant from it fifty miles. A wonderful circumstance is said to have happened here; Numenius, who was made governor of Mesena by king Antiochus, while fighting against the Persians, defeated them at sea, and at low water, by land, with an army of cavalry, on the same day; in memory of which event he erected a twofold trophy on the same spot, in honour of Jupiter and Neptune.31

Opposite to this place, in the main sea, lies the island of Ogyris32, famous for being the burial-place of king Erythras33; it is distant from the mainland one hundred and twenty miles, being one hundred and twelve in circumference. No less famous is another island, called Dioscoridu34, and lying in the Azanian Sea35; it is distant two hundred and eighty miles from the extreme point of the Promontory of Syagrus36.

The remaining places and nations on the mainland, lying still to the south, are the Ausaritæ, to whose country it is seven days' journey among the mountains, the nations of the Larendani and the Catabani, and the Gebanitæ, who occupy a great number of towns, the largest of which are Nagia, and Thomna with sixty-five temples, a number which fully bespeaks its size.

We then come to a promontory, from which to the mainland of the Troglodytæ it is fifty miles, and then the Thoani, the Actæi, the Chatramotitæ, the Tonabei, the Antidalei, the Lexianæ, the Agræi, the Cerbani, and the Sabæi37, the best known of all the tribes of Arabia, on account of their frankincense; these nations extend from sea to sea.38

The towns which belong to them on the Red Sea are Marane, Marma, Corolia, and Sabatha; and in the interior, Nascus, Cardava, Carnus, and Thomala, from which they bring down their spices for exportation. One portion of this nation is the Atramitæ39, whose capital, Sabota, has sixty temples within its walls. But the royal city of all these nations is Mariaba40; it lies upon a bay, ninety-four miles in extent, and filled with islands that produce perfumes.

Lying in the interior, and joining up to the Atramitæ, are the Mitæi; are the Minæ; the Elamitæ41 dwell on the sea-shore, in a city from which they take their name.

Next to these are the Chaculatæ; then the town of Sibi, by the Greeks called Apate42; the Arsi, the Codani, the Vadei, who dwell in a large town, the Barasasæi, the Lechieni, and the island of Sygaros43, into the interior of which no dogs are admitted, and so being exposed on the sea shore, they wander about there and are left to die.

We then come to a gulf which runs far into the interior, upon which are situate the Lænitæ, who have given to it their name; also their royal city of Agra44, and upon the gulf that of Læana, or as some call it Ælana45; indeed, by some of our writers this has been called the Ælanitic Gulf, and by others again, the Ælenitic; Artemidorus calls it the Alenitic, and Juba the Lænitic. The circumference of Arabia, measured from Charax to Læana, is said to be four thousand six hundred and sixty-six miles, but Juba thinks that it is somewhat less than four thousand. Its widest part is at the north, between the cities of Heroopolis and Charax. We will now mention the remaining places and peoples of the interior of Arabia.

Up to the Nabatæi46 the ancients joined the Thimanei; at present they have next to them the Taveni, and then the Suelleni, the Arraeeni47, and the Areni48, whose town is the centre of all the commerce of these parts.

Next come the Hemnatæ, the Aualitæ, the towns of Domata and Hegra, the Tamudæi49, with the town of Badanatha, the Carrei, with the town of Cariati50, the Achoali, with the town of Foth, and the Minæi, who derive their origin, it is supposed,51 from Minos, king of Crete, and of whom the Carmæi are a tribe.

Next comes a town, fourteen miles distant, called Marippa, and belonging to the Palamaces, a place by no means to be overlooked, and then Carnon. The Rhadamæi also—these too are supposed to derive their origin52 from Rhadamanthus, the brother of Minos—the Homeritæ53, with their city of Masala54, the Hamirei, the Gedranitæ, the Amphyræ,

....the Ilisanitæ, the Bachilitæ, the Samnæi, the Amitei, with the towns of Nessa55 and Cennesseris, the Zamareni, with the towns of Sagiatta and Canthace, the Bacascami, the town of Riphearma, the name by which they call barley, the Autei, the Ethravi, the Cyrei and the Mathatræi, the Helmodenes, with the town of Ebode, the Agacturi, dwelling in the mountains, with a town twenty miles distant, in which is a fountain called Ænuscabales56, which signifies "the town of the camels."

Ampelome57 also, a Milesian colony, the town of Athrida, the Calingii, whose city is called Mariva58, and signifies "the lord of all men;" the towns of Palon and Murannimal, near a river by which it is thought that the Euphrates discharges itself, the nations of the Agrei and the Ammonii, the town of Athenæ, the Caunaravi, a name which signifies "most rich in herds," the Coranitæ, the Œsani, and the Choani59. Here were also formerly the Greek towns of Arethusa, Larisa, and Chalcis, which have been destroyed in various wars.

Ælius Gallus60 , a member of the Equestrian order, is the sole person who has hitherto carried the Roman arms into these lands, for Caius Cæsar, the son61 of Augustus, only had a distant view of Arabia. In his expedition, Gallus destroyed the following towns, the names of which are not given by the authors who had written before his time, Negrana, Nestum, Nesca, Masugum, Caminacum, Labecia, and Mariva62 above- mentioned, six miles in circumference, as also Caripeta, the furthest point of his expedition.

He brought back with him the following discoveries—that the Nomades63 live upon milk and the flesh of wild beasts, and that the other nations, like the Indians, extract a sort of wine from the palm-tree, and oil from sesame.64 He says that the most numerous of these tribes are the Homeritæ and the Minæi, that their lands are fruitful in palms and shrubs, and that their chief wealth is centred in their flocks.

We also learn from the same source that the Cerbani and the Agræi excel in arms, but more particularly the Chatramotitæ;65 that the territories of the Carrei are the most extensive and most fertile; but that the Sabæi are the richest of all in the great abundance of their spice-bearing groves, their mines of gold,66 their streams for irrigation, and their ample produce of honey and wax. Of their perfumes we shall have to treat more at large in the Book devoted to that subject.67

The Arabs either wear the mitra,68 or else go with their hair unshorn, while the beard is shaved, except upon the upper lip: some tribes, however, leave even the beard unshaved. A singular thing too, one half of these almost innumerable tribes live by the pursuits of commerce, the other half by rapine: take them all in all, they are the richest nations in the world, seeing that such vast wealth flows in upon them from both the Roman and the Parthian Empires; for they sell the produce of the sea or of their forests, while they purchase nothing whatever in return.

Foot Notes

1 In B. v. c. 21 and 22.

2 Who called himself the King of kings, and was finally conquered by Pompey.

3 The Mediterranean.

4 See B. v. c. 12.

5 Salmasius thinks that this should be written "Nombei;" but Hardouin remarks that the Nombæi were not of Arabian but Jewish extraction, and far distant from Mount Libanus.

6 The only resemblance between them is, that each is a peninsula; that of Arabia being of far greater extent than Italy. It will be remarked that here, contrary to his ordinary practice, Pliny makes a distinction between the Red Sea and the Persian Sea or Gulf.

7 "In eandem etiam cœli partem nulla differentia spectat." A glance at the map will at once show the fallacy of this assertion.

8 In B. v. c. 12 and 21.

9 In c. 30 of the present Book.

10 Mentioned in B. v. c. 21, if, indeed, that is the same Petra.

11 Omana or Omanum was their chief place, a port on the north-east coast of Arabia Felix, a little above the promontory of Syagros, now Ras el Had, on a large gulf of the same name. The name is still preserved in the modern name Oman.

12 In Sitacene, mentioned in the preceding Chapter.

13 Or rather, as Hardouin says, the shore opposite to Charax, and on the western bank of the river.

14 Called Core Boobian, a narrow salt-water channel, laid down for the first time in the East India Company's chart, and separating a large low island, off the mouth of the old bed of the Euphrates, from the mainland.

15 The great headland on the coast of Arabia, at the entrance of the bay of Doat-al-Kusma from the south, opposite to Pheleche Island.

16 This is the line of coast extending from the great headland last mentioned to the river Khadema, the ancient Achenus.

17 So called from the city of Arabia Felix, built on its shores. Strabo says of this city "The city of Gerra lies in a deep gulf, where Chaldæan exiles from Babylon inhabit a salt country, having houses built of salt, the walls of which, when they are wasted by the heat of the sun, are repaired by copious applications of sea-water." D'Anville first identified this place with the modern El Khatiff. Niebuhr finds its site on the modern Koneit of the Arabs, called "Gran" by the Persians; but Foster is of opinion that he discovered its ruins in the East India Company's Chart, situate where all the ancient authorities had placed it, at the end of the deep and narrow bay at the mouth of which are situated the islands of Bahrein. The gulf mentioned by Pliny is identified by Foster with that of Bahrein.

18 The modern island of Bahrein, according to Brotier, still famous for its pearl-fishery.

19 Now Samaki, according to Ansart. Its ancient name was Aradus.

20 Hardouin takes this to be that which by the Arabians is called by the name of Falg.

21 On the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf.

22 Considered by modern geographers to be identical in situation with the Black Mountains and the Cape of Asabi, and still marked by a town and district named Sabee, close to Cape Mussendom.

23 In the modern district still called Oman.

24 On the opposite coast.

25 He calls it Canis, evidently thinking that "Cynos" was its Greek appellation only: as meaning the "Dogs'" river.

26 Or the mountain "with the Three Peaks."

27 Stephanus mentions this as an island of the Erythræan Sea. Hardly any of these places appear to have been identified; and there is great uncertainty as to the orthography of the names.

28 From which came the myrrh mentioned by Pliny in B. xii. c. 36.

29 Or the Tent-Dwellers, the modern Bedouins.

30 By some geographers identified with the Ocelis or Ocila, mentioned in c. 26, the present Zee Hill or Ghela, a short distance to the south of Mocha, and to the north of the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb. Hardouin says, however, that it was a different place, Acila being in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf, in which he appears to be correct.

31 Nothing relative to Numenius beyond this fact has been recorded.

32 Hardouin and Ansart think that under this name is meant the island called in modern times Mazira or Maceira.

33 There seem to have been three mythical personages of this name; but it appears impossible to distinguish the one from the other.

34 Or "Dioscoridis Insula," an island of the Indian Ocean, of considerable importance as an emporium or mart, in ancient times. It lay between the Syagrus Promontorium, in Arabia, and Aromata Promontorium, now Cape Guardafui, on the opposite coast of Africa, somewhat nearer to the former, according to Arrian, which cannot be the case if it is rightly identified with Socotorra, 200 miles distant from the Arabian coast, and 110 from the north-east promontory of Africa.

35 So called from Azania, or Barbaria, now Ajan, south of Somauli, on the mainland of Africa.

36 Now Cape Fartash, in Arabia.

37 Their country is supposed to have been the Sheba of Scripture, the queen of which visited king Solomon. It was situate in the south-western corner of Arabia Felix, the north and centre of the province of Yemen, though the geographers before Ptolemy seem to give it a still wider extent, quite to the south of Yemen. The Sabæi most probably spread originally on both sides of the southern part of the Red Sea, the shores of Arabia and Africa. Their capital was Saba, in which, according to their usage, their king was confined a close prisoner.

38 The Persian Gulf to the Red Sea.

39 The modern district of Hadramaut derives its name from this people, who were situate on the coast of the Red Sea to the east of Aden. Sabota, their capital, was a great emporium for their drugs and spices.

40 Still known as Mareb, according to Ansart.

41 Hardouin is doubtful as to this name, and thinks that it ought to be Elaitæ, or else Læanitæ, the people again mentioned below.

42 A name which looks very much like "fraud," or "cheating," as Hardouin observes, from the Greek ἀπάτη.

43 Off the Promontory of Ras-el-Had.

44 Probably in the district now known as Akra. It was situate on the eastern coast of the Red Sea, at the foot of Mount Hippus.

45 See B. v. c. 12, where this town is mentioned.

46 Whose chief city was Petra, previously mentioned.

47 Supposed by some writers to have been the ancestors of the Saracens, so famous in the earlier part of the middle ages. Some of the MSS., indeed, read "Sarraceni."

48 Their town is called Arra by Ptolemy.

49 Their district is still called Thamud, according to Ansart.

50 Still called Cariatain, according to Ansart.

51 A ridiculous fancy, probably founded solely on the similarity of the name.

52 A story as probable, Hardouin observes, as that about the descendants of Minos.

53 The Arabs of Yemen, known in Oriental history by the name of Himyari, were called by the Greeks Homeritæ.

54 An inland city, called Masthala by Ptolemy.

55 Agatharchides speaks of a town on the sea coast, which was so called from the multitude of ducks found there. The one here spoken of was in the interior, and cannot be the same.

56 Hardouin observes, that neither this word, nor the name Riphearma, above mentioned, has either a Hebrew or an Arabian origin.

57 Probably the same place as we find spoken of by Herodotus as Ampe, and at which Darius settled a colony of Miletians after the capture of Miletus, B. C. 494.

58 Hardouin remarks that Mariaba, the name found in former editions, has no such meaning in the modern Arabic.

59 Mentioned by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, B. v. 1. 165, et seq. Sillig, however, reads "Ciani."

60 An intimate friend of the geographer Strabo. He was prefect of Egypt during part of the reign of Augustus, and in the years B. C. 24 and 25. Many particulars have been given by Strabo of his expedition against Arabia, in which he completely failed. The heat of the sun, the badness of the water, and the want of the necessaries of life, destroyed the greater part of his army.

61 By adoption, as previously stated.

62 The town of the Calingii, mentioned above.

63 Or wandering tribes.

64 Its uses in medicine are stated at length in the last Chapter of B. xxi.

65 Another form of the name of Atramitæ previously mentioned, the ancient inhabitants of the part of Arabia known as Hadramant, and settled, as is supposed, by the descendants of the Joctanite patriarch Hazarmaveth.

66 Arabia at the present day yields no gold, and very little silver. The queen of Sheba is mentioned as bringing gold to Solomon, 1 Kings, x. 2, 2 Chron. ix. i. Artemidorus and Diodorus Siculus make mention, on the Arabian Gulf, of the Debæ, the Alilæi, and the Gasandi, in whose territories native gold was found. These last people, who did not know its value, were in the habit of bringing it to their neighbours, the Sabæi, and exchanging it for articles of iron and copper.

67 B. xii.

68 The "mitra," which was a head-dress especially used by the Phrygians, was probably of varied shape, and may have been the early form of the eastern turban.