Mecca And Its Cube: Part 2

April 20, 2023 Category: History, Religion

A brief look at the historiography surrounding the Meccan cube—as it purportedly existed in pre-Islamic times—is quite revealing. According to some Arabian lore, a leader named Asad Abu Karb constructed a shrine known as the “Kaaba” in the EARLY 5th century; though details remain sketchy.  This account likely referred to the Yemeni Kaaba; not to the cubic shrine that would later be erected in (what came to be) Mecca. And recall that that cubic shrine in Rakmu / Petra (the Nabatean Kaaba) dates back even earlier.

The history of the region goes back much further than traditional Islamic lore accounts for; so it is important to view the pertinent timeframe in a broader context. I explore the history of the Levant in my essay, “The Land Of Purple”. To keep things in perspective, it’s worth noting that worship in the region goes back to the Neolithic Age…long before even the Sumerians emerged in the late Chalcolithic Age.  Jericho was founded around 10,000 B.C.  The monolith at Jibal al-Khashabiyeh (located in what is now southeast Jordan) is at least 8 millennia old.  (In the northern Levant, the port-city of Ugarit emerged at the end of the 7th millennium B.C.  Ebla, Nagar, Mari, and Kish emerged at the end of the 4th millennium B.C.) The precursors to the Nabataeans were the Lihyanites, who’s history dates back to the 7th century B.C.

To begin, let’s consider the fabled Hashim ibn Abd Manuf, who was purported to have been MoM’s great grandfather in Islamic lore. According to some Islamic records, it was he who founded Mecca in the late 5th century.  But then again, there are legends of the founding of a settlement at the location-in-question by a Qusay[y] ibn Kilab, who was a member of the Banu Kinana.  That was said to have occurred at some point in the 5th century.

So what of the Meccan cube? In the Koran, the most auspicious place is not referred to as “kaaba” [cube], but simply as a “house” or “place of prayer”—that is: “bayt” or “masjid” (2:127, 3:96, 8:35, and 22:25-33).  The house is alternately described as “ancient” or “sacred”.  In only ONE Koranic passage do we encounter the term “kaaba”.  In Surah 5, the lexeme is used twice.  It is referenced in verse 95 as a place to make an offering (“hadya”).  Two verses later, it is one of two terms used to name a place—along with “sacred house” (“bayt al-haram”).  How is THAT described?  Again, the place where offerings are made. {25}  That’s it.

And what of Mecca?  The name is used ONLY ONCE in the entire Koran (48:24).  The passage is simply referring to a place where god “withheld their hands from you and your hands from them.”  (The term “Bakkah” is used once—in 3:96—as a name of the place where god erected the “first house”.)  In the earliest days of the Mohammedan movement, we hear only of the “umm al-qura”, meaning “mother of settlements”.  This would be a peculiar appellation for “Makkah” when it would have made more sense to simply refer to it as, well, “Makkah”.

Clearly, in its earliest days, Mecca’s prominence would have been solely ascribable to its new status as the Islamic temenos; not to any other historical geo-political significance.  Even if it had existed prior to the early 8th century, it would have been just a collection of tents and mud huts—an isolated hamlet in a barren desert (rather than a major trading hub); which may have served as a center for local Bedouin legends / superstitions.  The sacred place—whatever it was, wherever it might have been—was originally dubbed the “masjid [al-haram]” (meaning an auspicious place of supplication; a venue for prayer).

The keepers of the “Kaaba” before MoM’s fabled ministry were said to have been the Banu Hashim.  The actual name of that tribe’s eponymous patriarch (Hashim) was Amir al-Ula.  As it turns out, he was a Hanifiyya: a Syriac-speaking people who honored the Abrahamic tradition (yet considered themselves neither Jewish nor Christian).  As his name indicates, he was an “amir” (chief) of Al-Ula…which was the (later) Arabic moniker for Dedan.  Dedan was a Nabataean trading hub 730 kilometers north of Mecca; and was considered the sister city of the Nabataean capital: Petra.

Hashim was purportedly the son of Abd Manaf ibn Zayd [alt. Qusai] ibn Kilab ibn Murrah ibn Ka’b ibn Lu’ayy ibn Ghalib ibn Fihr ibn Malik ibn An-Nadr ibn Kinana.  So what of the ancestor eleven generations back?  Kinana was said to have been the progenitor of Hijazi Arabs.  He is tied to Ishmael via one of the latter’s fabled sons—either Nebayot[h] or Kedar.  How?  Well, Kinana’s father was purportedly Khuzayma ibn Mudrika ibn Ilyas ibn Mudar ibn Nizar ibn Ma’ad ibn Adnan; meaning that he was an Adnanite.

But wait.  In Mohammedan genealogy, the idea is that Kinana was descended from the original Kedarites.  The problem is that the Kedarites were an Aramaic-speaking people who lived in the land that became Nabataea.  (Their capital was Duma[tha]; based on the Assyrian moniker, “Adumatu” from the Iron Age.)  This explains why, in his “Antiquities Of The Jews”, the Roman historian, Josephus identified the descendants of Ishmael (the Arabs) as the Nabataeans—who, he mentioned, “occupied the lands extending from the Euphrates to the Red Sea.”  It was the sons of Ishmael, Josephus noted, “who conferred their name on the Arab nation and its tribes.”  We know about the early Kedarites from the record of their female rulers from the 8th century B.C.  (Queens Zabibe, Samsi, Yatie, Te’elhunu, Tabua, and Adia were mentioned in the Annals of Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III as vassals of his empire.)

Tellingly, the records of Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III from the 8th century B.C. identify the rebels as “Nabatu” / “Nabayat” (Nabataens) and Kedarites.  Meanwhile, Ezekiel associates Arabia the princes of Kedar (27:21).

So who ACTUALLY dwelled on the western part of the Arabian peninsula?  According to Abrahamic lore, that would have been the Qahtanites.  But they were ADVERSARIES of the Adnanites.  Revisionists try to address this genealogical snafu by linking Adnan to an offshoot of the (Yemeni) Himyarites dubbed the “the Banu Jurhum” in Mohammedan lore (referred to in Greek as the “Gorrhamites”).  The whole thing falls apart upon scrutiny.

Visibility is far from clear when attempting to peer through the swirling haze of disparate historiographies.  Some of the ancestors of the Nabataeans may have been the Baz[u] and [k]Haz[u] tribes of the Wadi Sirhan (at the eastern frontier of Moab), who were probably related to the early Lihyanites of Dedan and Hegra (corresponding to the Biblical Edomites and/or Midianites).  An offshoot of the proto-Nabataeans was likely the Banu Tayy (farther to the east), whose name accounted for the Syriac moniker used to refer to all Ishmaelites.

Curiously, the mercantile people of “Nabatu” (the Nabataeans) are not explicitly accounted for in the Mohammedan version of Abrahamic taxonomy.  This is further testament to the fact that those Arabs who became Mohammedans (i.e. the Ishmaelites / Saracens) saw themselves as part of the Nabataean peoples.  

It was their language / script that linked Aramaic—via the Arabs’ (Nabataean) Syriac vernacular—to what would become proto-Arabic—as attested by the intermediary Kufic script (as I explore in my essay on “The Syriac Origins Of Koranic Text”).

That the Nabataeans do not appear in tales of pre-Islamic times (the so-called period of ignorance) is very telling.  It only makes sense of the early Mohammedans were THEMSELVES (descendants of) Nabataeans.  That their self-identification changed stands to reason.  That they were not at all inclined to ACCOUNT FOR the Nabateans makes perfect sense; as they clearly didn’t find the need to account for…themselves.

As usual, the omission—nay, obfuscation—ends up being the most incriminating thing about a historiography.  Only if the Mohammedans WERE the Nabataeans would this make any sense. (!)

It makes sense that the early Mohammedans abandoned the place that had been inextricably associated with paganism for so many centuries…in favor of Kufa, where the new language would be developed.  They were, after all, asserting a proud, NOVEL Ishmaelite identity, in contra-distinction to the Jewish and Christian legacy, which had been tied to Jerusalem.  It’s no wonder the Umayyads opted to move their base of operations to Damascus, and then to place a NEW temenos at a novel location: in the Hijaz between the port of Jeddah and Ta’if.  This transition occurred at some point between Ibn al-Malik and the advent of the Abbasids.  (All the while, Jerusalem would retain a prominent place in Mohammedan lore, as it was the jumping-off point for the fabled Night Journey; and was thenceforth referred to as “Al-Quds” / “Al-Maqdis” / “Al-Muqaddas”.)

Let’s consider the first three caliphs after MoM’s death: Abu Bakr, Ummar, and Uthman (from 632 to 656).  These leaders may well be (at least partly) apocryphal, as they are said to have ruled from Yethrib-cum-Medina.  But in 656, the capital is moved OUT of the Hijaz…to KUFA.  Why would the Mohammedan leadership suddenly move the base of operations FROM the city of the prophet to…Kufa?  This would have made no sense.  A more likely explanation is that Kufa was THE FIRST Mohammedan capital—that is: after Rakmu (Petra) was abandoned.  Then, just five years later (after Ali’s death), the Umayyads moved the capital farther north: to Damascus.  (The first Abbasid caliph, As-Saffah of Hawara promptly moved the capital BACK to Kufa.  Then, he temporarily re-located it to Anbar while the NEW capital, Bag-dad was being built.)  It might be noted that Kufa was where the great philosopher, al-Kindi was from (that is: the man who brought Indian numerals to the new Arabic nomenclature).  It was ALSO where Numan ibn Thabit ibn Zuta ibn Marzuban was from (a.k.a. “Abu Hanifa”, the man who founded the most popular school of Islamic jurisprudence to the present day).

By the last of the four fabled “Rashidun” caliphs (Ali), the capital of Dar al-Islam was KUFA. {4}  Kufa was selected not for its strategic location, but because of its close proximity to the old Lakhmid capital of Al-Hira[h]; which had been a thriving city in the middle of Mesopotamia.  Hira was a Syriac-speaking municipality with which the (former) Nabataeans would have been very familiar; and—to top it off—was known for a presence of the Abrahamic faith (ref. Abda of Hira).  (Damascus was out of the question, as it was governed by the pesky Umayyads.)  Also established around that time (by the Umayyad governor, Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf) was the garrison city of Wasit—situated exactly between Basra and Kufa, across the Tigris from the ancient Syriac city of Kashkar.  (Both Al-Hira[h] and Kashkar were soon abandoned, in favor of their Mohammedan counterparts.)

Sure enough, Kufa is where the new liturgical “Arabic” script would be developed; and it is where Abu Hanifa (founder of the predominant school of jurisprudence) would be born and raised.  Its masjid was built in the late 660’s, meaning that even the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya deemed it a very significant place for Dar al-Islam.  This is striking, as the Great Mosque of Damascus was not built until c. 715.  As it happened, that was the same year that Umayyad caliph Al-Walid commissioned the mosques in Medina and Mecca.  (There is no hard evidence of earlier structures at those locations.)

How is it that the Umayyads rushed to build a masjid in Kufa FIRST?  Probably because that was the ORIGINAL home-base for the Mohammedan movement—that is, after Petra was abandoned.  (To reiterate, this mosque pre-dates the Dome Of The Rock by a quarter century.)

As it turns out, the Kufa mosque (commissioned by Mu’awiya) was erected on a pre-existing foundation—likely a pre-Islamic place of worship located on the outskirts of the Lakhmid capital: Al-Hira[h].  The people who built it would have spoken Syriac.

So what of (official Islamic) accounts of Mecca during the time of the Tabi-un and the Tabi al-Tabi-un (the two generations after MoM’s ministry)?  According to the early 10th-century mu-haddith, “Abu Am[i]r” Uthman ibn Sa’id ad-Dani of Cordoba, the fabled Uthmanic Koran (see my essay, “Genesis Of A Holy Book”) was sent to four places: Damascus (Syria), Kufa, Basra, and “Medina”; NOT to Mecca. {35}

What, exactly, was meant by “Medina” here is inconclusive.  While Yathrib was eventually re-christened “Medinat (an-Nabi)” [town (of the prophet)], the term is actually from the Aramaic / Syriac “Medin[a]ta”, simply meaning “province” (which was commonly used for, say, Judea).  Ad-Dani may well have had in mind the Hijazi city that came to be known as Medinat an-Nabi, as it would have been established as a holy place by his time.  Be that as it may, he was simply recounting what had been documented in Mohammedan lore from centuries past—perhaps not realizing that “Medina” might have been used in an alternate way prior to the Abbasid era.

The (actual) provenance of the Umayyad caliphs is probably lost to history.  Of course, the traditional Islamic narrative puts the birthplace for most of them in either Mecca or Medina; as the proffered lore posits the Banu Umayya as Hijazis (being fellow Quraysh, related to the progeny of apocryphal figures like Makhzum ibn Yaqaza and Hashim ibn Abd Manaf).  Yet we know that ALL the Umayyad caliphs probably hailed from SYRIA, not from the Hijaz.  (Some were said to have been born in Medina; but this is highly dubious.)

Some of the earliest Muslims were said to have hailed from Mecca or Medina, but such claims are dubious.  Take, for example, “imam” Malik ibn Anas ibn Malik, known for having penned the earliest compilation of Hadith (the “Muwatta”) at the end of the 8th century.  One of his teachers was Hisham ibn Urwah…who’s father (Urwah) was the son of the famed Mohammedan military commander, Zubayr of Awwam.  Imam Malik’s other teacher was Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri, who’s father was an acolyte of the (anti-Umayyad) leader, Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr…who, it turns out, was ALSO from Awwam.  Awwam was located near the ancient Yemeni city, Ma’rib; and was the site of the Sabaean temple to the deity, Almakah.  Go figure.

The point is worth reiterating: If the hagiography of the Umayyads is questionable, that of the Rashidun caliphs is even more so.  Thus the provenance of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali is—most likely—riddled with farce.  Indeed, from its earliest days, bespoke Islamic legacies were being manufactured—and gilded—as the need arose.  For example, we hear various (somewhat dubious) accounts about Sophronius of Damascus (who by then was in Jerusalem) and about Theophilus of Edessa: both with respect to Umar ibn al-Khattab (the Rashidun caliph following Abu Bakr’s death).  Hence tales of the so-called “Pact of Umar” (with Levantine Christians) as well as dandy relations between the Saracen conquerers and Levantine Jews.  Many of the mis-impressions about this period stem from “History Of The Caliphs”, written in the late 15th century by the Mamluk mu-jaddid, Jalal ad-Din al-Suyuti of Cairo.)

Granted, the extent of comity between the Mohammedans and any Jewish / Christian people they subjugated during this early period is difficult to ascertain.  There was invariably some degree of Abrahamic fellowship between all such peoples; yet relations surely varied from case to case.  The early Mohammedans—who, to reiterate, saw themselves simply as “Mu-min-een” (believers)—fashioned there movement NOT as an entirely separate religion; but in solidarity with fellow “Ahl al-Kitab” [People of the Book].  Indeed, they originally used the term “ummah” to refer to everyone conducting themselves within the fold of the Abrahamic Faith—including Jews, (non-Trinitarian) Christians, and Sabians (see Footnote 30 of “Mecca And Its Cube” part 1).  After all, “Islam” was not seen as NEW; it was simply an attempt to bring things BACK to the Faith as it had originally existed.  So, for the timing being, there was a shared Mosaic identity based on an explicit monotheism—with the Abrahamic deity (the god of the Mikra) as the godhead.  This sentiment was intimated in verse 62 of Surah 2, verses 113-114 of Surah 3, and verse 69 of Surah 5.

The fungibility of early Mohammedan identity is also attested by numismatic evidence during the second half of the 7th century: Umayyad coinage up to—and including—caliph Abd al-Malik exhibited both menorahs and crosses. (!)  Indeed, the Syriac patriarch, Isho’yahb III of Adiabene articulated such Abrahamic solidarity in the 650’s; though with qualifications. {8}

When it comes to figuring out what really happened, there exists quite limited archeological evidence.  There is a Syriac inscription on the Church of St. Sergius at Ehnesh from the early 930’s, which announced the recent conquest of the Arabs.  There is, of course, also the Dome Of The Rock—the original inscription of which was commissioned by Abd al-Malik in the last decade of the 7th century.  But these a sparse dots in need of connecting.

For textual clues, we might consider accounts in other extra-Islamic sources like the “Didaskalia Iakobou” (“Doctrina Iacobi” in Latin) [Doctrine of Jacob] (from the late 630’s); the “History” by Armenian bishop, Sebeos (from the late 7th century); as well as the Judaic apocalyptic text, “The Secrets of S[h]imon bar Yo[c]hai” (from the late 8th century / early 9th century).  Also worth referencing are the travelogues of the Bavarian rabbi, Petachiah ben Yakov of Regensburg and the Andalusian rabbi, Benjamin of Tudela (from the late 12th century).  Factoring for the biases of any given source is no easy task.  We know, for instance, to take Coptic Apocalypses like those of Elijah and of Shenouda of Athribis (a.k.a. “Shenute the Great”) with an ample dose of salt; as they are primarily anti-Islamic invectives.

Recall that the city-in-question is mentioned only twice in Islam’s holy book: once as “Makkah” and once as “Bakkah”.  In 48:24, we are told that god withheld the hands of aggressors against the believers in “the valley of Makkah”.  The reference to “Bakkah” in 3:96 indicates that THAT may have been the original version of the moniker (if, that is, we are to even assume that it is referring to the same place as the term used in verse 24 of Surah 48).  Lo and behold: Psalm 84 mentions a pilgrimage through a “valley of Bakkah”…which was clearly referring to a place in the Levant.

It’s worth reviewing the local geography.  Edom and the “Arabah” (later understood as the realm of the Kedarites) were separated by what was dubbed “[har] Se’ir” [hills of Se’ir] (as alluded to in Deuteronomy 33:2).  This is the region in which the “Shasu” and “Horites” dwelled. {32}  It also corresponds to the dominion of the “Amalekites”.  According to traditional accounts, the Amalekites lived in the area that stretched from the eastern Sinai Peninsula—across the Negev—to “[har] Se’ir” (in other words: the area that would later be “Arabia Petraea” / “Nabataea”).  Here’s the kicker: In his “History”, the famed Islamic historian, Al-Tabari reported that the Amalekites operated out of a place called “Makkah”. (!)  So the question arises: Was Al-Tabari mistakenly placing the Amalekites in the central Hijaz…or was he saying that “Makkah” was a toponym that was originally associated with “Arabia Petraea” (that is: Nabataea)?  The answer seems to be THE LATTER; as he goes on to say that the Amalekite king, who ruled from Makkah, battled the armies of Joshua.

Joshua’s fabled conquests were entirely in the Levant—in large part: in what would eventually become “Arabia Petraea” / “Nabataea”.  He never ventured south into Midian (the northern Hijaz).  Upon traversing Edom (into the “Arabah”), the legendary Ephraimite leader headed north, through Moab, up into Ammon.  He then went westward, across the Jordan River, into central Canaan.

Further evidence presents itself: “Arabia Petraea” (as well as “P[h]aran”) was associated with “Makkah” in two Armenian sources.  The first, from the 7th century, was the “Geography” by Ananias of Shirak.  Then, in the 870’s, the Vaspurakan chronicler, Tovma of the Artsrunik wrote the “History Of The House Of The Artsrunik”, reiterating this onomastic parity.  If this were, indeed, the case, it would explain why the Mohammedans opted for this moniker when moving the temenos from Petra to the central Hijaz…even though it was only used ONCE, in passing, in the entire Koran (as the name of a valley in 48:24).

This brings us back to the Nabataean capital city.  Its alternate Semitic name, “Sela” (meaning “[place of] the rock”) was rendered “Petra” in Greek.  It came to be known in Syriac as “Ra[c]hm[u]” (a variation on the Semitic lexeme, “Ra[c]him”, meaning “mercy”), which was alternately rendered in the distinct Nabataean dialect: “Rakmu”.  The city in question was also referred to as the “mother of settlements” and the “blessed city” or “holy site”…BOTH of which were used in Islamic scripture to refer to the temenos (Koran 6:92 and 2:149 respectively).  Note that I explore the various temene of the world’s major religions in my essay, “Pilgrimage” (where I show that it was not uncommon for creeds to alter their temenos when the occasion warranted).

In surveying the historical record, we find that the first reference to a “Mecca” doesn’t even come from an Islamic source.  It occurs in the Latin “Continuatio Byzantia-Arabica” (sequel to the Byzantine-Arab Chronicle) composed c. 744 (during the reign of Umayyad caliph, Al-Walid II) by Christian writers in Andalusia.  When using the term, though, they were referring to a place that was somewhere in western Mesopotamia (effectively, what used to be Nabataea) rather than to a place in the central Hijaz.  The occurrence of the term at this point is extremely telling, as it shows that it was, indeed, in use prior to the ascension of the Abbasids…YET in a way that antedates its serving as the name for a temenos in the central Hijaz.

Where might these Andalusian scribes have gotten the term?  As it turns out, the chronicle’s section on Muslim activity seems to have been based on the “Chronicon Mundi”, a Coptic work composed by John of Nikiou[s] at the very end of the 7th century.  As would be expected, that was soon translated into the other two other major languages of the region: Syriac and Greek.  (It would eventually be translated into Latin and Ge’ez as well.  Only much later was it translated into Arabic.  The “Continuatio Byzantia-Arabica” seems to have made use of the Syriac rendering.)  This means that “Mekkah” may have been a known (Syriac) onomastic in the Middle East as far back as the reign of Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan; and—as the present analysis concludes—it had an altogether different meaning at that point in time.  Clearly, it did NOT pertain to the place in the Hijaz now known as Mecca.

If we understand the era of the vaunted “Salaf” (the first three generations after MoM’s ministry) as culminating during the caliphate of Abd Al-Malik ibn Marwan (that is: in the last decade of the 7th century), what else might we note?  According to Al-Tabari’s “History” (vol. 21), the followers of the dissenting caliph, Abdullah ibn Zubayr of Awwam—who purportedly ruled from (read: founded) Mecca—declared that they “turned to the same qibla as he did”.  This was presumably done as a sign of fealty to HIM contra the Umayyads.  (He was in power c. 683 – 692.)  This comment strongly insinuates that there were qibla alternatives at the time, and that Mecca was a novel choice.  As the Mohammedan movement was still in its embryonic stage, we might surmise that this is where later leaders got the idea to designate THAT location, in the center of the Hijaz, as the (still gestating) creed’s temenos.

From all this, we can conclude that Mecca’s founding can be placed at some point between the last decade of the 7th century and the first few decades of the 8th century.  By the time the Abbasids took power c. 750, Mecca would have been a relatively new city.  Notably, the second Abbasid caliph (Al-Mansur) devoted his 21-year reign to two major projects:

  • Establishing the future capital of Dar al-Islam, “Madinat as-Salam” [City of Peace] in Mesopotamia.  That was later christened with a Persian onomastic: “Bag-dad” (meaning “God-given”).  The original inhabitants of that site were a Syriac-speaking people, possibly even Nabataens.
  • Developing the still-nascent Mecca—a process that was recounted by Al-Azraqi in his “Kitab Akhbar Makkah” [Book Of Reports On Mecca].  The Arab historiographer proffered a smorgasbord of conjecture about the (apocryphal) history of Mecca and its cubic shrine prior to the reign of Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik (who’s rule had ended over half a century earlier).  (Much of the lore surrounding Mecca likely used this account as a touchstone.)  Al-Azraqi then outlined the extensive development undertaken by Al-Mansur in the late 750’s and early 760’s, to which he was personally witness.  Any conception of Mecca was thereafter based on the city as it existed following such civic development.

It is worth noting that the first three Abbasid caliphs were NOT Hijazis; they hailed from the old Nabataean trading hub, Hawara [Syriac for “White”].  (The next two were from Rey, in Persia!)  Meanwhile, Kufa remained an auspicious place in the Muslim world through the 9th century, as attested by, say, the emergence of the controversial esotericist, [Abu Musa] Jabir ibn Hayyan.  Many who were born in Kufa moved to the capital, Baghdad, starting in the late 8th century—as with Hisham ibn al-Kalbi (author of the “Kitab Al-Asnam”) and, later, the Ali’d historian, Abu Muhammad Ahmad ibn Atham al-Kindi (author of the “Kitab al-Futuh”).  Ibn Hisham hailed from Basra; and instead moved to Egypt.

It makes sense that when Makkah (alt. “Mecca”) was eventually established, it was positioned at roughly the halfway point between (what became) the port of Jeddah and the inland settlement of Ta’if (see Appendix 1).  When was that?  Sometime between the reign of Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (around the turn of the 8th century) and the time the Abbasids came to power in 750.

Of course, the Mohammedan lore about Mecca did not begin until in the 9th century—primarily with the “sira[h]” literature initiated by Abu Muhammad Abd al-Malik ibn Hisham (who claimed to have based what he knew on an earlier, now lost, bio by Ibn Ishaq).  He was from Basra (which had been founded across the Tigris from the ancient Syriac city of Kashkar).

Meanwhile, Hisham ibn Muhammad ibn al-Sa’ib ibn Bashir (a.k.a. “Ibn Al-Kalbi”) penned the “Kitab al-Asnam” [Book of Idols], which also contributed to tales surrounding the Islamic temenos. {5}  He was from KUFA…as were BOTH Ibn Mas’ud (the most esteemed reciter of the Koran amongst the Salaf) AND Abu Hanifa (the man who founded what is, to this day, the most prominent school of jurisprudence).

The Hadith literature began in the LATE 9th century. {6}  The first man known for being familiar with ALL the major Hadith collections was from Basra (Ma’mar ibn Rashid).  And his teacher?  From Basra (Qatada ibn Di’amah al-Sadusi; a.k.a. “Abu Khattab”).  And HIS teacher?  Yep, also from Basra (Abu Sa’id ibn Abi al-Hasan Yasar).  Who else was one of the first pioneers of Hadith material?  Shu’ba ibn al-Hajjaj [ibn al-Ward Abu Bustam al-Ataki]…who hailed from, you guessed it, BASRA.  

Funny how it is only once we go far back to the mists of the 7th century that we suddenly encounter hagiographies of key figures who (purportedly) hailed from Medina or Mecca.  In other words, when records became a bit clearer, suddenly NOBODY of import happened to be from those two places.

One of the more bold claims is that the 8th-century figure, Malik ibn Anas hailed from Medina.  Did he?  Probably not.  (It’s worth noting that both he and his teacher, Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri, served the Umayyad caliphate in Syria.)  Yet lore surrounding him quickly cropped up once an entire school of jurisprudence, based on his teachings, was inaugurated.  (It is ALSO worth nothing that his famed student, Abu Abd-ullah Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i hailed from Gaza City; and ended up teaching in Fustat / Cairo, where he inaugurated his own school of jurisprudence.)

Bear in mind that testimonies about MoM’s life were all from at least one and a half centuries after their legendary subject’s death.  Moreover, the authors of ALL FIVE of the most vaunted (“sahih”) Hadith collections hailed from a faraway land: the north-eastern-most reaches of Persia.  (As his name states, Bukhari was from Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan; Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, Ibn Khuzaymah, and Al-Hakim al-Nishaburi were from Nishapur in Khorasan; and Ibn Hibban was from Bost in what is now Afghanistan.)

In sum: Prevailing impressions come from material composed centuries after the fact.  And ALL of the key players plied their trade in the Egypt, the Levant, and/or Mesopotamia.  This indicates that tales of Mecca in the hagiography of the Salaf—and, thus, likely the Sahaba and MoM himself—are almost certainly farcical.  The most plausible explanation for the traditional Islamic narrative: Mohammedan historiographers indulged in flights of fancy to create a useful origin myth.  Indeed, any account of Mecca (or Medina, for that matter) during the Rashidun and Umayyad eras are likely figments of their imaginations.  And any account of Mecca during the Abbasid, Fatimid, and Ayyubid eras is—shall we say—highly dubious.  (Again, much of the mis-information that abounds can be traced back to a book from the late 15th century: Al-Suyuti’s “History Of The Caliphs”.)

The earliest PERSONAL accounts of the city are not found until the early (Bahri) Mamluk period—that is: the late 13th and into the 14th century.  And as we’ll see, it wasn’t until the later (Burji / Circassian) Mamluk period that the first quasi-credible accounts can be found—that is: from the late 14th and into the 15th century.

The 14th century corresponded with the first century of (post-Seljuk) Ottoman rule, during which somewhat dependable accounts start to emerge of the Hijaz.  During that time, the Ottomans were more focused on frontiers to the northwest, not southward into Arabia.  Consequently, they seemed to have only been obliquely aware of the Islamic temenos.  Prevailing impressions would have likely derived from hearsay from pilgrims.  The Mamluks had sovereignty over the Levant and Hijaz until the early 16th century, whereupon the Ottomans finally expanded southward and seized control.  At THAT point, detailed accounts would have started to become more dependable.

What, exactly, was going on with Mecca between its beginnings in the early 8th century and the advent of the Mamluks half a millennium later is unclear; as that period is shrouded in the mists of history.  All we have available to us now is overwrought Mohammedan folklore touted by a panoply of dubious sources—from Ibn Hisham to Al-Tabari (both of whom harkened back to a fabled account by Ibn Ishaq).  Suffice to say: All of that material should be taken with a vat of salt.  Alas.  Muslim apologists are incorrigible on this point. {7}

One of the earliest attestations of a “Makkah” was by the 14th-century Berber traveler, Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Battutah in his highly-embellished travelogue, “Gift To Those Who Contemplate The Wonders Of Cities And The Marvels Of Traveling” (a work that came to be known as the “Rihla[t]”).  His (purported) visits to the city were seven centuries after the Mohammedan seizure of the city (see Appendix 2).  The travelogue was redacted c. 1356—almost three decades later—by the Andalusian writer, Ibn Juzayy “al-Kalbi” of Granada.  (The Black Death would have hit Mecca in the intervening time—around 1349.)  In the travelogue, it is noted that the cubic shrine was not the original.  The previous “Kaaba” had been razed (so the story goes), and a newer one had been built in its place. {2}

It is not until the modern era, then, that we become aware of any substantive details of the small Hijazi city—which would be fashioned as the axis mundi for Dar al-Islam.  Even during the Ottoman era, the information about Mecca is rather sparse; and narratives about the city were slowly formed—in an ad hoc manner—over the course of centuries.  This was done by various people who cobbled together choice tidbits from myriad (often dubious) sources.

Recall that the Hadith accounts were not composed until the late 9th century.  Those were based entirely on a smorgasbord of apocrypha about the Seal of the Prophets, who (so the story went) hailed from Mecca.  Such folklore had emerged over the previous couple centuries; and was finally formalized by, of all people, PERSIAN writers (with the first Hadith collections). {5}

No hub named “Mecca” was involved in the trading routes of the region during Late Antiquity.  The “Periplus Of The Erythraean Sea” (from the late 1st century) shows all key mercantile hubs in Abyssinia (northeast Africa, dubbed “Barbaria”) and along the Hijaz (western Arabia). {9}  It mentions the Sabaeans and Himyarites, and recognizes key places; but—tellingly—it does NOT include a trading hub in Thamud (the Hijaz) located about 80 kilometers inland from present-day Jeddah…which was to the south of the port at Charmutha (located near present-day Yanbu)…which was itself just south of the port at Leuke Kome (located west of present-day Tabuk). For more on the port cities of the Red Sea, see Appendix 1.

So what of Mecca’s location?  The place-in-question would have been barren desert (no fertile ground, no water, no lush vegetation); so there would have been no reason for anyone to venture there.  (If anything, during the relevant period, the area would have been occupied by the ancient Quda’a tribe.)  My hypothesis is that the port of Jeddah, on the coast of the Hijaz directly opposite the bustling Abyssinian port of Trinkitat, preceded the establishment of Mecca; and that Mecca was established thereafter.  (Other Abyssinian ports in the vicinity included Berenike Epi-Deires and Aydhab.)

Jeddah started being used as a port in the 640’s or 650’s, it seems—pursuant to the Saracen take-over of North Africa.  Trinkitat (which had previously been known alternately as “Ptolemais Theron” and “Epitheros”) would have thereafter been a shipping hub from grain and Zanj—that is: the export of foodstuffs and African slaves to the Arabian peninsula.

Over the course of the next century, it would be decided that a new holy city—a distinctly Arabian temenos—be created; and that it should be called “Makkah” (alt. “Mecca”).  The location was about 80 kilometers inland from the port-in-question.  The location was exactly halfway to the inland town of Wajj (later referred to as “Ta’if”), which was home to the Syriac-speaking Banu Thaqif of the Qays Aylan (a break-away group from the Mudar, who had been affiliated with the Kingdom of Kinda).

Especially notable was the Nabataean King Abgar V of Edessa [Osroene], who reigned in the 1st century A.D.  He was known as “King of the Arabs”—as attested by the Roman historian, Tacitus.  The Abgarid Dynasty ruled until the mid-3rd century.  Meanwhile, from the 1st century B.C. through the 2nd century A.D., an Arab Dynasty known as the Emesenes ruled much of Syria.  They worshipped a godhead that was known as “El Gabal” (later rendered “Ilah al-Gabal”; Romanized to “Elagabalus”), meaning “god of the mountain”.  A sacred black stone was located in the main shrine to him.  (Emesa is now the city of Homs; Halab is now the city of Aleppo; Urhay [“Edessa”] is now the city of Urfa.)  The influence of these kingdoms may have stretched as far east as Duma[tha] (from the Assyiran “Adummatu”).  Their populations would have predominantly spoken Syriac. {26}

It makes sense, then, that the entire area—from Al-Sham (in the north) to Midian (in the south)—was referred to as “Arabia Petraea” (alt. “Palaestina Salutaris”) by the Romans.  To wit: Nabataea was synonymous with “Arabia”.  In speaking of “Arabs” during Late Antiquity, expositors had people from this region in mind.  Hence “Arabia” did not mean the Arabian Peninsula PER SE, as it does today.  It referred to the portion of the Levant to the east of Canaan, and stretching down into northwestern Arabia—as far south as Dedan (now known as “Al-Ula”) and Hegra (Arabized to “Al-Hijr”; now known as “Mada’in Salih”) and as far north as Tadmor (Palmyra) and Hatra (known by its Syriac moniker, “Beit Elaha”; House of God).  All such cities were Syriac speaking; and all of it was ethnically ARAB.  So while “Arabia Petraea” included the upper reaches of the Hijaz (in the south), it also included Osroene (in the north).  There are illustrations of this geographical purview.  In the Old Testament literature, the region was often referred to as “Kedem” [the East], which was equated with Arabia (Gen. 10:30, 25:6, and 29:1).  And in his letters, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) said that he went on a three-year sojourn to the EAST…into “Arabia”.  He was traveling from Damascus.

Paul’s account of going east from Damascus into “Arabia” (that is, into the eastern Levant) can be found in Galatians 1:15-17.  The term “Arabia” was effectively synonymous with Nabataea (that is: “Arabia Petraea”), which stretched as far north as Damascus.  (Also note references in 1 Maccabees 5:25/39 and 9:35; as well as 2 Maccabees 5:8).  In Second Corinthians 11:32–33, Paul says that “King Aretas” tried to arrest him in Damascus.  This would have referred to the Arab king, Aretas IV, who ruled Nabataea from 9 B.C. to 40 A.D.

What was going on in this region culturally?  The Ghassanid capital (located where the Golan Heights meets the Hauran plain) was Jab-i-Yah, which meant “chosen by god” in ancient Semitic.  This shows that the Ghassanids had already adopted the Abrahamic idiom—replete with onomastics; and was adopted by the Umayyads as a major military hub.

The authors of the Hebrew Bible referred to the language of the Arabs (spec. the Nabateans) as “leyshon Kedar” [“tongue of the Kedarites”].  The Kedarites were referred to as the “sons of Ishmael” (alt. “Ishmaelites”); as Kedar was, indeed, one of the sons of Ishmael.  This nether-region betwixt Egypt and Judea was vaguely referred to as “Kedar” in Exodus; and so is the place where the Israelites “wandered in the wilderness” for 40 years.  (It was alternately referred to as the “Arabah” and “P[h]aran”.)

In his 1st-century “Historia Naturalis”, Pliny refers to the Kedarites in conjunction with the Nabataeans when discussing the people of northern Arabia (a.k.a. “Arabia Petraea”).  Thus Kedar is roughly what became Nabataea.  The Nabataeans (read: “Kedarites”) spoke Syriac—as did other Arab regimes in the region like the Ghassanids, Tanukhids, and Salihids.  Their original capital was to the east at the archaic Kedarite city of Duma[tha]; but was later relocated to Rakmu / Rekem[o] (better known by its Greek name, “Petra”, meaning “place of the rock”).  As it turns out, “Sela” was the Biblical name for…PETRA. In chapter 42 of the Book of Isaiah (verse 11), Jewish scribes mention the “inhabitants of Sela” [inhabitants of the rock], which likely referred to those who lived in and around Petra. Lo and behold: Muslims eventually dubbed a stone outcropping in Medina “Sela”.

For Romans / Byzantines, Nabataea was referred to as “Palestina Salutaris / Tertia” (as a way to distinguish it from the more northern “Palaestina Prima” and “Palaestina Secunda”).  It was alternately known as “Provincia Arabia” or “Arabia Petraea”.  As far as the Romans were concerned, these were “Arabs” (alt. “Saracens” or “Ishmaelites”): those who lived in the western Levant—from Syria to Midian, from the banks of the Jordan River to the deserts of Babylonia.

So what of others we would now refer to as “Arab”?  Much farther to the south, at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, were the Sabaeans / Himyarites.  Such peoples had mercantile relations with the (Levantine) “Arabs” with whom the Greco-Roman world was most familiar; yet they were invariably referred to as, well, “Sabaeans” or “Himyarites” (and possibly “Katabanians” and “Kahtanites” per a later Ishmaelite taxonomy).  THAT region was referred to as “Arabia Felix” by the Greco-Romans. {27}  Such peoples are vastly different from the “Kedarites” who are referred to in the Assyrian records (spec. those of Ashur-banipal from the 7th century B.C.)  {29} So when we hear of pre-Islamic “Arabs”, we are effectively hearing of the Nabataeans / Tanukhids / Ghassanids, and some peoples farther EAST (like the Salihids and Lakhmids).

Nabataean king Aretas IV (who reigned from 9 B.C. to 40 A.D.) was responsible for the development of Rakmu (a.k.a. “Petra”; likely corresponding to the Biblical “Sela”) skirting the Arabah Valley; as well as the cities along the trade route between Petra and the port-cities of Gaza and Ashkelon. {22}  Note that this was the king mentioned by Saul of Tarsus in is letter to the Galatians when recounting going to east of Damascus into “Arabia” for three years.  (The region was simply referred to as “Arabia” in the Pauline letters, in keeping with the Roman nomenclature, “Arabia Petraea”.) {10}

So it is important to recognize the fundamental difference between “Arabs” of the Levant (with Midian at its southern-most point) and the ancient peoples at the southern-most point on the Arabian Peninsula (who, while “Arabian”, were not the “Arabs” referred to in ancient documents). This distinction can be made in terms of theology (deities worshipped) as well as by the scripts used (Ancient North Arabian vs. Ancient South Arabian).  Doing so entails contrasting gods like Hu-Ba[a]l, Dushara, and Kaabu (in the north) with gods like Haukim, Anbay, Yatha, Basamum, Wadd[um], Athtar, Amm, Almakah, Nasr, Shams, Ta’lab, Dhat-Himyam, Dhat-Badan, and even the Judeo-Christian “Rahman[an]” (in the south).  It also entails contrasting Safaitic / Thamudic inscriptions (in the north) with Sabaic / Sayhadic inscriptions (in the south).  Such disparities clearly indicate two separate peoples. {36}  The former existed within the purview of the Lihyanites then Nabataeans; the latter existed within the purview of the Sabaeans and Katabanians, followed by the Aksumites and Himyarites.  While the maritime trade between the two cultures—up and down the Red Sea—would have exposed each to the other’s memetic repertoire, the degree to which one of these had a cultural influence on the other is difficult to ascertain. {37}  What of Man[aw]at, Al-Uzza, and Allat[u] / Lat[an]?  Contrary to Islamic lore, this triad of goddesses were NABATAEAN, not Qurayshi.  (They are clearly attested in Syriac inscriptions in Nabatu, not on anything in Himyar or Aksum.)

It is important not to get tripped up by genealogical shenanigans, which yield the misleading taxonomies which were concocted post hoc to make sense of the official historiography. Such shenanigans go on and on.  Some Islamic revisionists go so far as to locate the Amalekites in Yemen. (!)  This is done by linking the Yemenis to legendary figures like Kataban and Kahtan—both of whom came to be associated with the Sabaean realm.  The ruse is also accomplished by placing the Lihyanite oasis settlement, Tayma (sometimes rendered “Tema[n]”) in Yemen; which mistakes the Edomite clan (named after Esau’s grandson, through El-i-phaz) for a Yemeni people—a flub that accounts for the misnomer, “Teman-im” for Yemeni Jews.  The notion that Joshua took a random bee-line down to the very bottom of the Arabian Peninsula before proceeding up toward Gilead is, of course, preposterous.

So what were the KEY PLACES throughout the Nabataean domain? It is to a survey of such places that we will now turn.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 - 2010-2019 -
Developed by Malagueta/Br
Note to readers: Those reading these long-form essays will be much better-off using a larger screen (not a hand-held device) for displaying the text. Due to the length of most pieces on our site, a lap-top, desk-top, or large tablet is strongly recommended.


Download as PDF