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An empty quarter

Arabia is the huge peninsula lying between northeast Africa and the bulk of continental Asia. Its long southern coast faces across the Indian Ocean towards India. So it is well placed for trade.

But until the 20th century the region has had no other natural advantages. The centre is a desert, as inhospitable as its name suggests ('Rub' al Khali', the Empty Quarter). Here only nomads can live, moving with their camels from oasis to oasis. The tough simplicity of their existence becomes the characteristic of the people of this peninsula, the Arabs, and of the religion which they spread from here through much of the world, Islam.

The Sheba of legend: from the 8th century BC

Only the southwestern coastal area of Arabia is sufficiently fertile to encourage a settled existence - indeed this is the only part of the peninsula with enough rainfall to provide permanent rivers.

By the 8th century BC there are rival kingdoms in existence in this area. The most successful of them is Saba, featuring as Sheba in the Bible.

According to the Bible, the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon because she has heard of his wisdom. To please the great king, she brings camels laden with spices and gold and precious stones.

There is no historical basis for the story, but by about 715 BC the rulers of Saba do feature in the records of tribute sent to Assyria. And the queen's rich caravan of camels is a fair reflection of the trade which brings wealth to this corner of Arabia. Spices from India and the east come ashore at Aden and are carried up the western coast of the peninsula to Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Mecca before Islam

The town of Mecca, in a rocky valley with no agricultural resources, develops in the centuries immediately preceding Islam into a place of considerable prosperity. There are two good reasons. It is a trading post on the caravan route from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. And it has become Arabia's most important place of pilgrimage.

By at least the 4th centurylarge numbers of pilgrims arrive in Mecca to perform a ritual act of walking seven times round a small square building known as the Ka'ba (Arabic for 'cube'). The building is full of idols, which are the objects of worship. It also includes a sacred black stone, possibly in origin a meteorite.

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