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Volume 31, Number 2March/April 1980

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Enter the Greeks

Written by Jon Mandaville
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

As Great Britain clearly demonstrated k in the 19th century, empires mean big money in international trade, and that of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. was no different. He and his army, in a lightning campaign of nine years against the world, attached an enormous eastern empire to the Mediterranean mercantile network of Greece. Founding some 70 cities called Alexandria, judiciously scattered across this territory, he knotted the whole together, "making," as one illustrious historian put it, "international economic routes the basis for a universal empire."

Suddenly, governments from North Africa to India shared a common Hellenistic style of government. Not the same government; Alexander and a few of his advisers had the sense to allow each region to retain its traditional gods (though Alexander made himself, in every case, the latest) and usually its style of bureaucracy too. But the highest positions, in military affairs especially, were held in each region by Greeks.

Thus a slight mix of Hellenistic practice was added to regional cultures wherever, and however briefly, these Greeks ruled. More to the point - the economic point - a common currency came to be accepted throughout the empire. Alexander's silver drachma has been found - and forged - more widely than any other ancient coin we know.

Under this umbrella of common style and currency, the traditional barriers of war and politics, and the usual suspicion of foreigners, were lowered a little and international trade bloomed as it never had before, even on the Arabian Peninsula, where the increase in trade brought Greek traders and trading towns and the contact and influence of a new civilization. Hellenism had come to the Peninsula.

To understand why it did so, however, we must cast our minds back in time. For Alexander, once, wouldn't have given two cents for Arabia, nor would have any of his traders, were it not for the fact that profound changes had already taken place within the Peninsula itself in the preceding centuries. In the 700 years before Alexander's conquest of the East, the Peninsula's peoples had experienced an economic and social revolution of their own. It was brought about by the domestication of the camel, probably about 400 B.C., and by the rise in demand - by northern civilizations - for incense, the aromatic gums called frankincense and myrrh, the sole source of which were the regions now called Yemen and Oman.

The peoples of these regions - the South Arabians - responded to the demand by developing a web of secondary roads that, by 330 B.C., knitted the southern highlands of the Peninsula together, from the Yemen coast on the Red Sea across the southern edge of the Peninsula, and through the Hadhramaut to the edge of Oman. Over these roads traders moved the frankincense and myrrh from hillside villages down to the towns, there to be purchased by agents representing international trading firms and more than a few Middle Eastern states.

But that was just part of the trade; the agents also gathered consignment of cinnamon and other spices and goods brought from India on coastal vessels that sailed in short hops from port to port along the coast of India and then crossed to the Peninsula near the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf. These other goods along with the incense were then shipped to the north and this, in turn, involved what are called the Northern Arabians - actually the early Bedouins. By domesticating the camel these peoples had been able to penetrate the desert, and as the demand for incense grew they became a vital part of the trade since they, and only they, knew how to transport the South Arabian products. They developed the routes that crisscrossed the vast deserts of the Peninsula - routes that, in effect, were highways with watering stops set far apart between stretches of barren sand. Like the freeways of today that emerged from the proliferation of the automobile and truck, the caravan trails emerged from the use of the camel - and were useless without the camel.

The North Arabians, eventually, formed what were really large transportation companies which organized huge camel caravans - some including hundreds of camels - and contributed to the development of commercial centers along, and at the terminals of, the routes.

This was a lucrative business, the incense trade. Along with trade in Indian goods, the South Arabians, by controlling the collection network, founded and enriched the state called Saba - sometimes known in the West as Sheba - and other powerful states. Revenue from the incense trade provided the capital to build the magnificent dams and irrigation systems for which the Sabaeans are famous (See Aramco World, March-April 1978) and also, further north, contributed to the vitality of the Nabataean state that built the famous Petra (See Aramco World, September October 1965, May-June 1966). A key link in the transportation chain, the Nabataeans controlled the overland routes from Ma-dain Salih, near Medina in today's Saudi Arabia, up the Red Sea coast to Egypt and Syria.

The incense trade had more than a little to do with the founding of cities in the center of the Peninsula as well. Just as villages and towns grew up by water holes along the routes of the great American cattle drives - and at the intersections of federal highways later - so they grew up on the caravan crossings running from Yemen, on the northeast diagonal, to Babylonia and the Assyrian and Persian empires, skirting the edge of the Empty Quarter to al-Hasa and Tarut, the old Dilmun territory.

Everyone in business in the civilized world - and some beyond it - knew of this trade. In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus says, the Scythians of southern Russia used incense in their religious services. But the heaviest consumers lay closer to the source. By 2300 B.C., when the first Egyptian expedition sailed south from Suez in search of aromatics, incense had long been a major commodity in Egypt, where incense meant embalmment and embalmment meant immortality. Further east around the Fertile Crescent it was central to everyday prayers and festival celebrations in Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, and in Rome it was so popular that the empire, at one point, nearly went bankrupt paying for its vast imports.

In return for the incense, Egypt and the other civilizations sent great quantities of precious metals and finely finished goods south. For thousands of years, in fact, this trade enriched Nabataean shippers, the caravan companies in the south, the agents in the South Arabian states, the growers and gatherers, and, in the form of taxes, rulers such as the fabled Queen of Sheba.

Because of the mark-up necessitated by the long land route, the northern powers routinely searched for a sea route to both India and the South Arabian states; even then shipments by sea were the cheapest form of transport. King Solomon, for example, approached the Phoenicians, the master merchant seamen of the day, hoping they could bypass the Peninsular middlemen, and so did the Egyptian pharaoh Necho II and the Assyrian king Sennacherib. But even the Phoenicians failed.

In the last decades of the sixth century B.C. still another power entered the scene. Under a leader called Darius the Great the Persians acquired all of the Fertile Crescent and placed it, along with Persia and northern India, under one ruler. Like Solomon, Necho and Sennacherib, Darius also attempted to find a sea route to India and the South Arabian incense states. Hiring shipwrights and mariners, he built a fleet and about 510 B.C. dispatched it from the other end of the trade route - the mouth of the Indus River - with orders to work its way along the South Arabian coast to Egypt. Unlike the predecessors, this fleet succeeded; it reached Suez. But as it took two and a half years of trial and effort, the camel, even allowing for the middlemen's mark-up, still made better business sense. In economic terms, Darius' decision to send that fleet to Suez made sense, but it also had, much later, political effects that he couldn't have conceived. It brought the Greek leader Alexander, later to be called the Great, to Persia. The head of the Persian expedition, it seems, was Greek, as were many of the seamen, and they, apparently, sent word back to Greece, then a rising young challenger of the long-established Phoenician maritime power. On the lookout for any intelligence that might help them, the Greek merchants carefully filed those reports away. No opportunity presented itself then, but 180 years later - by which time the Athenian imperium had both risen and fallen - the Persian Empire had declined and Alexander had emerged as the ruler of Greece.

The world of that time was a world of turmoil. It was a world too wherein the Greeks were known not as moralists and philosophers, but as generals and mercenaries, serving in the Persian and Egyptian armies. Alexander, who had been tutored by Aristotle, learned too that Greece with her expanding population was desperate for markets for ceramics and other exports. In short, it was a world ripe for conquests and in 334 B.C. Alexander set out to make them.

Initially, Alexander's goal was to avenge earlier Persian defeats of Greece and Greek colonies, but almost immediately he found himself grappling with Greece's other age-old trading rival Phoenicia. From their base in Tyre in today's Lebanon, the Phoenicians put up a stubborn resistance - more so than either Persia or Egypt would - but Alexander prevailed and then turned toward Persia, determined to take all of what the greatest of the Persians had ever held and more.

It was during this period that Alexander won his reputation. In three years, he fought his way to the Indus River - searching, no doubt, for an immortal reputation, but also, a more prosaic goal, for a means of controlling the Indian trade, the northern terminus of which he now held in his hands, as Darius had before him.

Like Darius before him, Alexander sent out a fleet from a small river town near present-day Karachi to chart a prospective sea passage back to home territory. The expedition was more practically designed than that of Darius; the fleet, under the command of his admiral Nearchus, was to coast northwest from India up into the Arabian Gulf and along the coast of Persia, with Alexander and a large section of his army paralleling it on land. The voyage was made without incident in four months (November 327 B.C.-February 326 B.C.), with a break halfway at Hormuz, at the entrance to the Gulf, for repairs and a conference with Alexander, five days' march inland.

A voyage without incident, and with - out success. No great shipping lane grew out of it; only the report of Nearchus of shoals and hostile peoples, of shoals and dozens of place names on the Persian coast to fill out that terra incognita of the Greek geographers, of shoals and coral heads. Was it the shoals that ultimately discouraged development?

More likely, it was the report picked up by Nearchus near Hormuz Island off today's Iran that the people opposite, on the Arabian coast, were already experienced traders in Indian goods with Mesopotamia. As control of such trade fitted in neatly with his plans, Alexander, when his fleet rejoined at the head of the Gulf, ordered construction of another new city near present-day Mohammara; like 69 other cities itwouldbe another Alexandria, although later it would be called Spasinou Charax. Then, ready at last, he began to organize a campaign against the Arabian coast.

Wood was ordered from the north to build a larger fleet at Spasinou, and small scouting expeditions were sent south to Bahrain and around the Qatar peninsula. Nearchus himself was ordered to prepare for the circumnavigation of the Arabian Peninsula, around to Suez. All in vain; scarcely a year passed and Alexander was dead.

Even so the Greeks continued to influence the Gulf. For although the Arabian Gulf India-to-Spasinou line, outflanking the South Arabian traders, never came to pass, the Greek-dominated cultures of the north came to dominate the area. Rather than conquering or outwitting the South Arabians, traders from Hellenized Parthian Persia, Seleucid Syria and Mesopotamia came down and worked with them. By all accounts the partnership was profitable to all concerned.

The Greeks also continued to found cities. On the island of Failaka, off the coast of present-day Kuwait, a Greek trading colony was established shortly after Alexander's death. Further down the coast Greeks traded heavily at Thaj, a town inland from today's Jubail, which occupied about 500 acres. There and at al-Hinnah, another Greek trading town of similar size 10 miles to the northeast, great wells were dug and beautifully lined with fitted stone; some are still in use today.

Other towns were scattered down the eastern coast, their carefully built structures a testament to the solid business activity carried out there by both Greek and Arab alike. (South Arabian inscriptions are commonly found on the walls.) But the greatest of them all was Gerrha, the capital of trade on the east coast of the Peninsula. The riches of Gerrha were fabled among the Greeks. In the second century B.C. the Greek geographer Agatharchides described the "Gerraei" as having become through trade, along with the Sabaeans of South Arabia, "the richest of all the tribes," possessing "a great quantity of worked articles in gold and silver, couches, tripods, basins, drinking vessels, to which we must add the costly magnificence of their houses - for their doors, walls, and roofs are variegated with inlaid ivory, gold, silver, and precious stones."

Enough to make archeologists stammer with anticipation? They're still anticipating. Gerrha is lost.

Considering the reports of later geographers, ifs difficult to believe. It was a town five miles in circumference, says Pliny, writing "around A.D. 50. He even seems to locate it precisely, this town with towers built of great blocks of salt, by saying that opposite Gerrha lay the island of "Tylos," and that inland 50 miles lies the "region of Attene." Fair enough. Archeologists know that "Tylos" is Bahrain and are relatively certain that "Attene" is today's al-Hasa, a huge agricultural complex. Thus Gerrha should lie between the two. But where, precisely? It is not the small, nearly deserted port town of al-'Uqair, our new historians assure us, though the similarity of names is tantalizing. They have looked and they know. So where is it, this city five miles in circumference? Buried beneath the wind-blown sand dunes behind al-'Uqair? Or beneath Dammam, the modern capital of the Eastern Province? Or is it Tarut Island?

Wherever it is, I have no doubt that it will be found, one day, by the energetic crews of the Department of Antiquities and the universities of Saudi Arabia. And when it is found, we will know still more about the passage of Hellenism, on the currents of trade, into the Arab culture of the Peninsula, a culture already variegated and complex enough through contact and cooperation with civilizations which were influential there thousands of years before Alexander and his men set foot on the shore of the Arabian Gulf.

So Hellenism was added to the world of the Peninsula. Alexander's empire would last scarcely another two hundred years, to be replaced by larger empires still - the Parthians in the east, the Romans in the west. Yet the Parthians, the Romans, and the Arabs of the Peninsula between them were equally inheritors of the Hellenistic spirit, adding it to their storehouse of experience, working it into their architecture and fine arts, law and government, poetry and history. All remembered Alexander.

This article appeared on pages 20-27 of the March/April 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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