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Volume 31, Number 2March/April 1980

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City of the Sands

Written by Jon Mandaville
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

It is a classic lost city buried in drifts of sand with just the broken ramparts - showing. It sits in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula, an ancient city where, at first glance, no city ought to be: such towns were founded on the banks of rivers or by ocean inlets.

Actually Fao too was built on a river, but a river of sand, not water, a golden stream pouring out of an ocean of gold - the Empty Quarter - and its name, which means "fissure" or "gap", suggests it. The ruins of Fao (also written Fau or al-Faw) rest in the shadow of the high cliffs of the Tuwaiq Escarpment, on the south side of a gap in that long ridge that runs 1,000 miles down the center of the Peninsula. The vertical cliffs tower 450 feet above the floor, a nearly impenetrable wall save where the rare breaks occur.

The excavation of Fao, begun in 1970 under the direction of Dr. 'Abd al-Rahman al-Ansary of the University of Riyadh, is proving the town to be one of the most important finds in Peninsular archeology today. Digging has been underway for a relatively short time, yet already, in the market sections, our new historians have uncovered Hellenistic alabaster busts, bronze lion heads, frescoes of horseback hunting of wild camels and inscriptions in South Arabian script documenting names and places, trade, politics and religion.

Still, it will be a long time before the full importance can be seen. Because, al-Ansary explains with a smile, "It's rather warm down there." Al-Ansary has picked up a British taste for understatement, along with excavation technique, at Leeds. Temperatures, he continues, run a daytime average of 120 degrees Fahrenheit around the Empty Quarter for half the year. At most, only three months are open for full-scale work, so the digging season is short.

"And that’s not our only problem," al-Ansary goes on. "We're terribly short of trained workers. I'd give the world for a surveyor, someone who can handle a transit. But where am I going to find one? Every surveyor in the country is tied up in road work and development projects." He doesn't mention it, but he himself clearly has trouble finding the time to work on his dig; digging season falls while the university is in session and he has to teach and administer his department. In America and Europe, universities have faculty enough to cover both teaching and excavation; not in Saudi Arabia, yet. And in Saudi Arabia, teaching must come first.

Despite all these problems, each year since 1970 al-Ansary has come back to this sun-beaten, wind-blown mound at the mountain gap to clear a few more walls, sift another cubic yard of sand and dust and rubble.

"Why?" I asked. "What keeps you going on it? What do you think you've found here?"

It took a while - good academics blanket their discussion with paragraphs of conditionals, particularly when it involves their own research - but eventually the answer came.

"There's a good chance, a good chance, mind you, that we're dealing with Kindah here."


Two great empires ruled Europe and the Middle East in the first 600 years of our era: Rome and Persia. Between them, but south of the main battlefields, as neutral as any region could be in this polarized world, were the Arabs of the Peninsula.

There, since the flourishing heyday of Hellenistic times, trans-Arabian trade had fallen off a little; constant wars in the north periodically disrupted passages and impoverished markets. Between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100, seamen discovered that they could ride the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean directly from India to the mouth of the Red Sea and back. It was an important discovery; until then they had been restricted to short coastal hops to ports along the rim of the peninsula and then along the coast of India. As a result South Arabian ports - in today's Yemen and Oman - began to decline. Persian occupation of the southeastern coast of the Peninsula, today's Oman, limited still further the opportunities of the coastal ports to join in the Indian trade that had once made them rich.

Though fluctuating more widely, the markets were still there. And though the ships now came direct to what is now Yemen, there remained the problem of moving the goods from there north, to Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. Although they could have now ridden the monsoon; up the Red Sea, navigation among the dangerous shoals was still too hazardous. So the caravan routes running north and diagonally northeast stayed busy; for Romi and later for Byzantium, these were still the only routes to the treasured incense, and so remained as important as ever.

A near monopoly of a commodity desired by others generally means money for a better life; politically speaking, how ever, it can be risky. The lands on the southern rim of Arabia were to learn this when Rome, seeking control of the world market, attempted to secure control of the Red Sea trade. In June of 25 B.C. - yes, June, with the heat of summer already burning the land - Octavian Augustus, newly victorious over Mark Antony as successor to Julius Caesar, and with carteblanche from the Roman Senate, ordered out the Egyptian Legion under the command of Prefect Aelius Gallus for a 1,300-mile march down the Red Sea coast to the center of Yemen.

In retrospect it was a desperate venture, but then Octavian Augustus, new to the East, was desperate - for money to pay off the troops and politicians who had helped him to power. And it did seem, as Strabo, the narrator of the story, says, that the venture would be worthwhile. Advisers had told Augustus that Yemen had, for centuries, continuously sold aroma tics and precious stones to the north - paid for with gold and silver - but had bought little from the north in return. Rome, in short, suffered from an imbalance of payments. What Augustus proposed to do was correct the imbalance - and incidentally pay off his debts - by simple conquest.

Another factor encouraging Augustus in his plan was that the Nabataeans - the Arab state in northwest Arabia which controlled that section of the trade highway - had volunteered to provide guides and troops for the expedition.

Strabo, and nearly all of the Romans after, were convinced that the guides deliberately led the expedition astray - and someone certainly seems to have done so. Following Nabataean recommendations, for example, the Romans staged their proposed amphibious attack at Cleopatris, an Egyptian port on the Red Sea opposite modern Yanbu' in Saudi Arabia.

It would be much faster, the Nabataeans said, than marching through the Sinai Desert (and thus through their own territories, one might add) and they were probably right. Except that the Roman shipbuilders at Cleopatris, expecting to fight naval battles instead of simply transporting soldiers, built galleys so big that they were worse than useless for the shoals and shallows of the Red Sea. Before the mistake was noticed, 80 galleys lay on the ways, ready for launching, and more time was consumed rebuilding them as transports. Thus it was the end of July before they could ferry the 10,000 men to Yanbu.

Already ill from the well water that they had drunk in Egypt, the Roman troops were in no condition to continue. So there Aelius Gallus was obliged to camp through the worst of the summer.

Yet once begun, the march moved remarkably well, considering the terrain. Strabo declares that the Nabataean guides took them deliberately over the worst terrain, having no intention of leading them to the Yemeni capital of Marib, hoping that they would perish on the way. That may or may not be true, but certainly the Romans had no easy time of it.

It is true that they met little resistance; only two Romans fell, for example, in one of the larger engagements south of Najran. Moving down the eastern side of the Yemeni highlands, they came at last to a walled city; called "Marsyaba," it was, by every indication, Marib.

But by then the Legion had reached the end of its tether; climate, disease and accident had taken a large toll. Thus, when prisoners told Aelius Gallus that "the land of incense" was only two days' march further south, the Roman was skeptical. The expedition had been on the road for six months, and he knew by now that a vague "two days" could well mean a year. Aelius Gallus turned back.

It took two months of fast marching through the spring weather to bring the Legion back - what was left of it. Only seven men, says Strabo bitterly, were lost in actual fighting; the rest, perhaps a third of the whole, fell to hunger, sickness, exhaustion and accident. Aelius Gallus, therefore, had some explaining to do when he was called up before a commission of inquiry in Alexandria.

"You were told to find Marib," they said.

"I did," he replied.

"In that case, where is the gold, the silver?"

"Marsyaba," he responded wearily, "was a heavily fortified town... I should also like to point out that every information I had showed the source of the incense to be further south..."

The Nabataean leaders were questioned; they supported Gallus' story. None of them was believed. The career of Aelius Gallus was truncated, the leader of the Nabataeans decapitated and Rome - after one subsequent failure in trying to seize control of the head of the Gulf - gave up on direct intervention.

In place of direct conquest, then, Rome shifted to the annexation of territories closer to Egypt and Syria and the signing of treaties of friendship with peoples further to the south to do her work for her. Rome, after all, had to keep a wary eye on the Persian Empire.

In A.D. 106, Nabataea, today's Jordan and northwest Saudi Arabia, was occupied and made a Roman province; this gave the Romans direct control of at least the trade approaches to Egypt. In 120, Palmyra, a desert trading capital to the east of Damascus, was also annexed, giving Rome control of the entrance of Indian goods to Roman territory from the Gulf.

And so the frontiers between the Roman and Persian Empires were drawn in Arabia. The northeast of the Peninsula, old Sumer and Babylon, was an ongoing battleground, tenuously held by Persia. The north central region fell under the Roman influence of Palmyra. The northwest, covering the approaches to Rome's richest province, Egypt, was strongly controlled by the Roman province of old Nabataea.

The fourth century saw a new layer of buffer states added to these frontiers. A strong Arab state emerged on the desert side of southern Mesopotamia, in close alliance with Persia: the Lakhmid dynasty of Hira. The Persians found it easier to let their Arab friends, the Lakhmids, deal with the Arabs of the south and center of the Peninsula in trading matters and warfare. It was also infinitely preferable to have the Lakhmids take the first brunt of the next Roman invasion of Persian territory.

At the same time, the Lakhmids came to have considerable influence in the Persian court, on at least one occasion choosing the .successor to the Persian throne. Their court life at Hira was a lavish one, attracting businessmen - and poets in search of patronage as well - from all over the Peninsula. They carried their share of influence into central Peninsular politics, and along with it brought knowledge of Persian cultural and administrative style.

Shortly after the establishment of Lakhmid Hira and parallel to it, a Roman buffer state appeared in the northwest, taking in at its height Jordan, Syria and Palmyra: the state of the Arab Ghassanid dynasty. Subsidized by the Romans, it functioned, like Hira, as a buffer state, a center of patronage and Peninsular politics and - indirectly - as a school for Roman manners.

The client and buffer states lay not only in the north of the Peninsula; the south was fair game for imperial politics as well. On the Roman side, the emperors and governors of Egypt, with uncomfortable memories of the Aelius Gallus campaign, all too aware of the difficulties of outright conquest of Yemen through Arabia, shifted their efforts to the African coast of the Red Sea.

Now, a little before the Romans, the Greek Ptolemies of Egypt - another off-shoot of Alexander's campaigns - had begun the development of port facilities there, as an alternative to dealing with the Peninsular merchants. Adulis - modern Massawa on the Eritrean coast - was itself founded by the Ptolemies and did Indian Ocean business in spices and silks and cottons along with such prosaic African goods as gold and elephants. (The Ptolemies were obsessed by elephants.) Though the Ptolemies pushed through the Bab al-Mandab strait of the Red Sea down the Somali coast, they had no luck breaking South Arabian dominance of the Indian trade. But the precedent was there for the Romans to follow, and follow it they did.

Octavian Augustus moved immediately after the failure of the Yemen expedition to establish friendly relations with the ruling dynasty of Aksum, which controlled northern Abyssinia and the Eritrean coast. It was an alliance which would last the life of Rome. Its value to the empire was first proven in 340 when, with Roman aid in arms - not men - Aksum moved into Yemen, occupying it wholly for 35 years and its coastline sporadically thereafter.

The Persians, of course, could not leave this southern threat to their bid for control of the Indian Ocean transit trade to rest unchallenged. They reinforced their settlements in Oman, signed treaties with Arab tribes to the north and west of them, and built a solid alliance with the Himyarite dynasty of Yemen, who had been overthrown by the Aksum invasion.

And then, surrounded by the entangled politics of these buffer states to the north, south, east and west, came Kindah.

Kindah, established some time in the fourth century in the center of the Peninsula, was a buffer state to no one. True, it had friendly relations with the Himyarite dynasty of Yemen; initially, in fact, it was an offshoot of it. But after those earliest years, the Himyarites were too busy, balancing ostensible Persian friendship against Roman/Aksum threats, to manipulate Kindah - or even offer much tangible support.

Independent of direct Roman and Persian pressures, Kindah expanded rapidly outwards and to the north, touching the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf coastlines, raiding Roman Ghassanids and conquering Persian Hira. It was, for a little while, a powerful state the heartland Arabs could call their own. And its capital might be - there's a "good chance," says al-Ansary-Fao.

Greater knowledge of Kinda hangs on the work of al-Ansary and other new historians of the Peninsula; precious little is known now. The Ghassanids were written about by prolific Roman historians and geographers; the Lakhmids also are reasonably well described by outside contemporary writings. What we have on Kindah are elusive poetic references; oral traditions copied down centuries after the events they describe, and twisted by later family jealousies; occasional references in Byzantine chronicles to raids on the southern frontiers.

Tradition tells us this much: Hujr, a distant relative and friend of a Himyarite king, was appointed to govern the territories to the south of present-day Riyadh following a successful Himyarite campaign there. Later, Hujr married his son Amr to a cousin of the Himyarite king; on the death of his father, Amr succeeded to what was now a state in central Arabia, taking on the title "king." And so the dynasty was established, and with it, to the best of our knowledge, the first independent central Arabian state. And Fao,which apparently was there as highway trading town centuries before Kindah developed into a state, seems to have grown with it, and to have become the capital. It isn't certain, but if s likely.

The state's source of income was its control of the cross-country traffic in goods from Yemen destined for Persia and Rome; with the money, more towns and fortresses were built, and alliances sealed with independent-minded tribes on the fringes of Roman and Persian territory. The money also bought the loyalty of the tribes around and among the Kindites.

It was a world of tribal politics and tribal society, after all, here in the middle of the Peninsula. Merchant, baker, farmer, or herder, they all belonged to their tribes first and to the Kindites second. As long as the dynasty could hold their tribal confederation together - for that is what the kingdom was - it was a power for empires to reckon with. But once the alliances frayed the confederation loosened.

The last 100 years before the emergence of Islam brought war to the Peninsula and throughout the Middle East. The two world powers, Byzantium - heir to Rome - and Persia, locked themselves for the last time in a struggle for supremacy, 100 years of warfare so costly in lives and money that it brought supremacy to neither and collapse to both. All of the Peninsula, ultimately, was involved.

In the south, under orders from Byzantium in A.D. 525, Abyssinia launched a major invasion of Yemen once again. After successful campaigns and years of consolidation there, further pressure from Byzantium was exerted on the Aksumites to secure control of the entire Red Sea coastline of the Peninsula. Thus, about 570, an expedition was sent out against Mecca, midway up the coast, the only major commercial center still stubbornly resistant to Byzantine influence. The expedition failed; but it disrupted further the peace and security of southwest Arabia. Worse, it was one threat too many against the Indian trade for the Persians, who were now ruled by the ambitious and aggressive Chosroe. In 575, with the cooperation of the desperate Himyarites, the Persians struck back, routing the Abyssinians and occupying Yemen for themselves. They held it for 50 years, up to the eve of the coming of Islam.

In the north, Byzantine and Persian armies marched with their Arab allies back and forth over the plains of Mesopotamia and Syria, a series of campaigns which culminated in the military occupation of Syria, Palestine and Egypt by Persia between 610 and 618.

Kindah could not withstand the pressures of the long, intense struggle that went on all around her. The trade from the south was cut to a trickle by the destructive wars fought in Yemen; the wars in the north in any case left her with uncertain markets to receive whatever goods there were. Her income thus diminished, it became well-nigh impossible to hold the tribal confederation together, vulnerable as these tribes were to the blandishments offered them by a Byzantium or a Persia needful of allies.

Only a few years before the Abyssinian invasion of Yemen, al-Harith, king of Kindah, had successfully overthrown the Lakhmids of Hira and bade fair to unite all of the Peninsula under his independent rule. Yet the Lakhmids returned with more than a little Persian help in 529, al-Harith was killed, and the major tribal groups fell to fighting among themselves over policy and power. There was neither money enough nor leadership to put the confederation solidly together again.

Though Kindah was gone, memories stayed strong in the scholarly histories and campfire talk of the Peninsular people, not only because it was the first great Arab state of the center, independent, entirely their own, but because of the story of a grandson of al-Harith, Imr al-Qays by name - his story, and his poetry.

Imr al-Qays, known as the "wandering king," spent his life roaming in exile, seeking far and wide for vengeance against the murderers of his father and grandfather, for the opportunity to regain his patrimony. He traveled beyond the Peninsula; he knew perfectly well that the source of strength in those times of world struggle lay with the great powers. The hated Lakhmids were allies of Persia; he went therefore to Constantinople, with a letter of recommendation from the ruler of the Byzantine client state of Ghassan.

Did Justinian welcome him there on the Bosporus, promise him aid and support? The story says so. But it came to nothing in the end; Imr al-Qays died in Ankara on the way home.

Perhaps the story is not entirely true; we have no solid documentation for it, though the names and places ring right. There seems no question that the man himself existed. His poetry is magnificent; his Ode, full of references to Kindite names and places, is numbered by all literary scholars as one of the Golden Seven, which together stand - like Shakespeare's works in English - as the epitome of Arabic literature.

So, all across the land, Kindite towns including, perhaps, Fao - collapsed into obscurity, to be revived only by medieval Arab literary antiquarians and now, more fully, by the archeological crews of the University of Riyadh. The walls are collapsed and half buried; broken pottery is scattered in the wind-blown hollows. Imr al-Qays spoke better than he knew:

Halt, friends! Let us weep, remembering alove and a lodging

By the edge of the hoisted sands betweenal-Dakhul and Hawmal,

Tudih and al-Miqrat, their trace not yeteffaced

For all the swirling of the south winds andthe northern blasts.

This article appeared on pages 28-35 of the March/April 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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