Meluhha, Gerrha, and the UAE – The Search for National Identity of a Young Nation. Part II
A Predestination, and A Millennia Long Path of Global Trade and Wealth
By Prof. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis
I. National History, National Identity and Colonialism
II. Orientalism and Hellenism
III. UAE Historical Heritage Threatened by Academic Colonialism
IV. Neighboring Nations & Cultures – Key Components of UAE National History
V. National History of the Emirates - Diachronic Trends
VI. Assyrian - Babylonian Literature about UAE territory: Meluhha
VII. Assyrian – Babylonian ‘Meluhha’: UAE territory, not Indus Valley
VIII. Assyrian – Babylonian Texts about Meluhha – Emirates
IX. Meluhha – Emirates, and the Late Use of ‘Meluhha’ in Assyrian Imperial Annals
X. The Aramaean Foundations of UAE History: the Rise of Gerrha (539 BCE – 642 CE)
XI. Gerrha, Achaemenid Iran, and the Interconnectedness between Africa and Asia
XII. Gerrha’s Prominence in Antiquity -of the Present UAE Rise
XIII. Gerrha and Alexander the Great
XIV. Why Gerrha Cannot Be Located in Al Ehsa Province of Saudi Arabia
XV. Macedonian Naval Expeditions around the Peninsula, and Gerrha
XVI. Arsacid Parthian Iran, Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Gerrha
XVII. Agatharchides on Gerrha and the Sabaean (Sheba) Yemenites
XVIII. The Romans in Egypt, the Roman Naval Expedition in Yemen, and Gerrha
XIX. Strabo’s Textual References to Gerrha
XX. Gerrha and the Anonymous Author of the Text ‘Periplus of the Red Sea’
XXI. Pliny the Elder and Gerrha
XXII. Ptolemy the Geographer - his Description of Yemen, Oman, and the Emirates
XXIII. Sharjah (Sarkoe) aand Umm Quwain (Kawana) Mentioned by Ptolemy the Geographer
XXIV. The Correct Location Gerrha in UAE, and Ptolemy the Geographer
XXV. Western UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Al Ehsa as per Ptolemy the Geographer
XXVI. UAE Islands Mentioned by Ptolemy the Geographer
XXVII. The Rise of the Sassanid Empire of Iran, and the End of Gerrha
IX. Meluhha – Emirates, and the Late Use of ‘Meluhha’ in Assyrian Imperial Annals
The exorbitant use of the geographical term ‘Meluhha’ in the imperial inscriptions and the Annals of the Neo-Assyrian emperors, and more particularly those of the Sargonid dynasty (722 – 609 BCE / Sargon of Assyria – Sinakherib – Assarhaddon – Assurbanipal) has confused many scholars; it is true that during this period, Assyrian scribes used the term ‘Meluhha’ to describe the land of North Sudan that they had customarily described as mat Kusi (land of Cush). This is exactly the country the Ancient Greeks called Ethiopia (lit. ‘’the country of the burned-face people’’), which has nothing to do with the modern dictatorial state of Abyssinia that viciously misused the name of Ethiopia. The end of the 8th and the 7th century BCE was the only period during which the Assyrians invaded Egypt, annexed the Nile Valley to their empire, and kicked the Sudanese (Ethiopian) kings of Thebes (Luxor) back to North Sudan where was located their early capital at Napata (today’s Karima, 750 km south of the present Egyptian – Sudanese borderline, alongside the Nile).
The issue was early noticed by W. F. Albright, a famous Orientalist, who wrote a scholarly article in the scholarly periodical Journal of Egyptian Archaeology (vol. 7, p.80 -7). It was perhaps too early to establish a plausibly trustful conclusion; the article’s title demonstrates the approach: ‘Magan, Meluhha, and the synchronism between Menes and Naram Sin’. No one supports today this farfetched interpretation.
Naming North Sudan and the Red Sea coast of Sudan as ‘Meluhha’ can only be due to an analogy with the earlier use of the term. Many tried to extract a possible reference to dark-sinned or black-head people, whereas others attempted to setup theories of transcontinental resettlements between the Horn of Africa region and the Dekkan, the Indian South, and spoke of a theoretical common origin for both, East Africa’s Kushites and the Dravidians on the West Indian coast. There is nothing to prove any of these farfetched opinions. In this regard, Bernard Sergent’s references to the subject are deprived of any accuracy, let alone proof.
Yet, it is clear that for an erudite emperor like Assurbanipal (669 – 625 BCE), an analogy existed between the specific term’s earlier use and the Sargonid times’ adaptation. If we make the correct assumption that, for the Sargonid emperor’s scribes, there could not be any identification of ethnic content between the people inhabiting 3rd – 2nd millennium BCE Meluhha and the 1st millennium BCE Kushites at Egypt’s southern borders, we can understand that the only analogy used was of geographical character.
What geographical analogies could exist between the 3rd – 2nd millennium BCE ‘Meluhha’ – Emirati coastland in the Gulf and the 8th – 7th century BCE ‘Meluhha’ – Kush/Ethiopia and the Sudanese coastland in the Red Sea? Based on Assyrian world perceptions, geographical concepts, and attitudes toward the surrounding environment, we can take into consieration the following:
a. the Gulf was viewed as a lower level of the earth’s surface (or simply ‘more in the south’), compared to the Mediterranean (that they called ‘Upper Sea’). This conceptualization must have also been extended to the Red Sea when Assyria under the Sargonids invaded Northwest Arabia,, and – last – Egypt.
b. In the Gulf area, the furthermost point known to the ancestors of the 7th century BCE Assyrians was Meluhha (located beyond Tilmun and Magan); in the Red Sea region, the furthermost point known to the 7th century BCE Assyrians was the Sudanese coastland of Kush (Ethiopia).
c. While Tilmun and Magan in the Gulf area and the Egyptian coastland in the Red Sea region were occupied by Assyrian forces of Assarhaddon and Assurbanipal (7th century BCE), Meluhha was an uncontrolled land beyond the borders of the vast Assyrian empire, either we take into consideration the early use of the term (in today’s Emirates’ coastland in the Gulf) or we refer to the latter use of the term (in today’s Sudanese coastland in the Red Sea).
d. Finally, in both cases, Meluhha was located on the right side of the sea as the Assyrians looked either from Mesopotamia toward the Gulf’s eastern confines (early use of the term) or from Palestine and Egypt toward the Red Sea’s southern parts (latter use of the term). The Assyrian viewpoint was later diffused among the Greeks and the Romans, and this attested for instance in Arrian’s Indica. Speaking of the Gulf coastlands of the Arabian Peninsula, Arrian says exactly this (Indica, 43):
“On the right side of the Red Sea beyond Babylonia is the chief part of Arabia, and of this a part comes down to the sea of Phoenicia and Palestinian Syria, but on the west, up to the Mediterranean, the Egyptians are upon the Arabian borders”. (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/a
Here, we have first to specify that the Ancient Greek term “Red Sea” encompasses the Indian Ocean, the Gulf and what we call today ‘Red Sea’, which was then called ‘Arabian Gulf’; Arrian used in this case the all-inclusive term “Red Sea” instead of the usual term “Persian Gulf” because he was discussing about the coastlands of the Arabian Peninsula and he wanted to point out that the land extended from “the right side of the Red Sea beyond Babylonia” to the territories of Egypt and Palestine.
In this text, we can easily notice the prevailing attitude of seeing the Gulf coastlands of the Arabian Peninsula as “the right side of the sea beyond Babylonia”. So, the Sargonid Assyrians, who invaded and annexed Egypt, would similarly view the Kushitic – Sudanese coastland of what we call today ‘’Red Sea’’ as “the right side of the sea beyond Egypt”.
At this point, we can safely conclude that Meluhha represents the earliest phase of pre-Islamic Antiquity of today’s Emirates, and that the existing Assyrian – Babylonian literature about Meluhha illustrates the Emirates’ earliest civilization and cultural heritage, which has already been evidenced thanks to a certain number of archaeological excavations. The identification of Meluhha with the Arabian Peninsula’s coastland beyond Qatar and up to the straits consists in the most solid effort of locating the Ancient Mesopotamians’ ‘Far East’. In fact, the cuneiform literature evidencing Meluhha forms the earliest bulk of national historiography for the modern Emirati nation.
With the collapse of the Nabonid state of Babylonia (539 BCE), and the subsequent rise of Achaemenid Iran, the Emirates’ National History enters a new chapter that is more important, better documented, and lasts for more than a millennium, down to the arrival of Islam.
X. The Aramaean Foundations of UAE History: the Rise of Gerrha (539 BCE – 642 CE)
Whereas the Emirates as Meluhha was for more than two millennia a land at the confines of the Mesopotamian world, following the rise of Achaemenid Iran and the subsequent great changes for the then known world, the same land acquired greater importance, because it was located at the epicenter of a vast and complex network of trade routes that interlinked the Mediterranean world, Iran and the East African coastlands with Central Asia, India and China.
During this period, the Emirati territory was not known under a particular ethnic name or toponymic; to refer to the most authoritative ‘Geography’ by Ptolemy, a corpus dated back in the 2nd century CE, the entire territory of today’s Oman, Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia up to the modern city of Dammam was part of ‘Felix Arabia’ (Eudemon Arabia in Greek), which was a term used to denote basically Yemen.
At this point, we have to mention the classical geographical division of the Arabian Peninsula into three parts, after their particular natural characteristics:
a. Petraia Arabia (lit. Stone Arabia), an area identified with modern Hedjaz, the mountainous, arid land that stretches between Jordan’s southern borders and Najran oasis,
b. Desert Arabia, the central part of the territory of the modern state of Saudi Arabia, and
c. Felix Arabia (in total contrast with the earlier parts, as it was endowed with natural riches and abundant vegetation).
Modern scholars make a dramatic mistake, identifying Felix Arabia with only Yemen. In fact, Najran is a historically permanent and inalienable part of Yemen. Furthermore, ancient geographers and historians considered as parts of the Arabia Felix the following modern territories: Oman, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and part of the the Arabian Peninsula’s northern coast between Qatar and Kuwait.
The above division demonstrates that even in the Late Antiquity, the Gulf’s southern coastlands were not as dry and arid, as desert and barren as they have been over the last few centuries. More importantly, this division corresponds to the fundamental traits of the historical identity of the UAE, placing the country naturally, historically and culturally closer to Oman and Yemen than Hedjaz (Saudi Arabia).
As we already said, the aforementioned division was geomorphologic of character; it helped people distinguish lands as per their own natural characteristics. This makes clear to modern scholarship and researchers that, had the Emirates’ territory been arid and desert at those days, Ptolemy the Geographer would have classified it as part of the Desert Arabia – which he did not! Because of the area’s geomorphologic traits, divisions of ethnological – cultural – linguistic character followed the lines predetermined by nature. People living in the Emirati coastland, Oman, Yemen and Najran were far more interconnected at all levels than the marginalized Arab inhabitants of Hedjaz.
As far as Political Geography is concerned, Felix Arabia was never one state, kingdom or empire; the vastness of the wealth, the diversity of the economic activities, and the imperatives of the landscape (mountains, wadis, and coastlands) allowed the formation of many separate kingdoms that for most of the pre-Islamic times were equally strong and wealthy, and therefore managed to remain independent. Rivalries and wars were relatively scarce because the wealth, which was pretty well shared by all, did not allow for these developments.
What follows is a brief diagram of the political institutions that existed across Felix Arabia. In the area of occupied Najran and North Yemen, the major states included Sheba, Qataban and Himyar. The latter controlled also the western parts of the modern state of South Yemen and the city of Felix Arabia, which is identified with the modern city of Aden. Sheba (with Marib as capital) was the militarily stronger Yemenite state, whereas Qataban developed an entire thalassocracy across the Indian Ocean already before the prevalence of Achaemenid Iran over Babylonia. Qatabani sailors were great specialists in local meteorology, and used effectively the monsoons to sail fast, safely and effectively. They also explored the East African coastlands mainly from the Horn of Africa and further to the South, as far as modern Mozambique.
Around the end of the 2nd century BCE, Sheba and Himyar waged a war against, and prevailed over, Qataban – to the detriment of all, because their victory signified weaker naval control over the Red Sea straits; this unfortunate development allowed Ptolemaic Egypt to expand in the area. United Sheba and Himyar ruled over the East coast of Africa that they colonized, taking benefit of the earlier Qataban presence and know how.
Hadhramawt was another independent state within the geographical region of Arabia Felix; it controlled the central and eastern part of the modern state of South Yemen and parts of the Dhofar region. Furthermore, Omana was an independent state during the first two centuries of the 1st millennium CE.
No major state existed in the part of Fekix Arabia that stretched beyond Omana, from the Ormuz straits to the estuary of Euphrates and Tigris. Smaller towns and villages depended on the few sizeable cities. Thanks to several Ancient Greek and Latin texts, we know many names of cities, towns and villages that existed at those days on today’s Emirati territory. The most important was the richest: Gerrha. Within an interconnected world of commercial and cultural exchanges, Gerrha rose gradually to global prominence, 2000 years before the modern state of the Emirates materialized a global economic miracle.
XI. Gerrha, Achaemenid Iran, and the Interconnectedness between Africa and Asia
Before expanding on Gerrha and its plausible location, it is important to briefly describe the major historical developments that helped increase the area’s importance worldwide.
After the fall of Babylonia to Kurosh (Cyrus) in 539 BCE, Iran expanded in Mesopotamia, Eastern Anatolia, Syria, and across the East Mediterranean coastland. Cyrus’ successor, Kambujiya (Cambyses) expanded greatly in Africa, invading and annexing Egypt, parts of Libya, and the North of Sudan (525 BCE). The early Achaemenid expansion needed urgently an excellent administration of the newly acquired lands and coastlands. Cambyses’ successor, Daryavush (Darius) proved to be a visionary administrator and managed to quickly setup a well organized empire, perfectly interconnecting its parts by means of safe land routes and maritime connections; due to the size of the Achaemenid empire, the communication / transportation infrastructure brought faraway lands, like India and Egypt, Oman and the Balkans, Russia and Yemen, much closer. Due to the Achaemenid imperial ideology, which was molded after the Assyrian prototype, the world became a smaller place. Suddenly, the territory of today’s Emirates and Oman became very important.
To establish an alternative route to Egypt, which was already an Iranian province, Darius favored the establishment of a regular maritime connection; to do so, he asked Scylax the Caryander to undertake the circumnavigation of the Arabian Peninsula, starting from the Gulf, alongside the Arabian Peninsula coastlands, and across the Red Sea up to Arsinioe (Suez). At Arsinoe ended the old ‘Suez Canal’ that Pharaonic times’ Egyptians had first dug in order to transfer their fleet from the Nile and the Mediterranean to the Red Sea; during the 1st millennium BCE and prior to the Iranian invasion and annexation, the old canal was fallen in desuetude. Darius reopened the canal to facilitate straight contact and transportation between Egypt and Iran through the alternative route, instead of crossing Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia to Iran; the inauguration stele (a trilingual document in Babylonian Cuneiform, Old Persian Cuneiform, and Egyptian Hieroglyphic) was found in modern excavations and shed light on this point. This great development increased the importance of the wider region of the Emirates and Oman, as almost the entire Egyptian trade of Iran was transited through this area.
Although controlling a vast empire stretching from Central Asia and North India to North Sudan and Libya in Africa, and to Ukraine and Macedonia in Europe, Darius did not control militarily some rather nearby countries, namely Oman, Yemen (central part of Arabia Felix) and the Horn of Africa (today’s Somalia); however, he managed to attach them to his global vision and imperial policy. As a matter of fact, at those days, for the Iranian Empire, the direction toward further expansion was the West. Darius and his successor, Hashayar Shah (Xerxes), attempted to annex Carthage and the Greek cities-states south of Macedonia; however, in either case, they marked little success. The military expansion effort of the Iranians proved to be fruitless, but at the same time it helped the Yemenite states survive, prosper, and expand their influence over East Africa. This strengthened their position and increased their wealth. This situation lasted due to the fact that the Achaemenid Empire of Iran did not invade, annex or fully control the territories across the Gulf’s southern coast, except for the parts of today’s Emirates and Oman that are close to the Ormuz straits.
Controlling Yemen and Somalia would in fact be far more important for Xerxes and his vast empire than invading the tiny and marginal Greek states or even subduing Carthage and gaining control over the West Mediterranean trade in the process. The relative Iranian indifference for Oman, Yemen and the Horn of Africa region proved to have a great impact on the National History of the Emirates.
The Sabaean Yemenites (of the Sheba kingdom) and their neighbors from Qataban, Himyar and Hadhramawt managed to put under control the rapidly increasing trade between East Africa and Iran; this, added to the wealth accumulated because of the Yemenite products that were already known and sought after in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Iran, and the Mediterranean world, created a wealth surplus. Iranian navies circumnavigated the Arabian Peninsula, establishing better connection between Egypt and Fars, Iran’s political center. However, due to Qatabani Yemenite thalassocracy across the Indian Ocean, a tremendous part of wealth escaped the hands of the imperial administration.
Age-old traders and renowned merchants, the Sabaean Yemenites were used to transfer their merchandises across Hedjaz (Petraia Arabia) to Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. But by now, due to Qatabani Yemenite thalassocracy across the Indian Ocean, the trade volume and the product variety had increased tremendously, and so had the number of purchasers. Yemenite and East African goods were highly demanded in Iran, Central Asia, and Caucasus; they were very much sought after in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Syria and Palestine (the Asiatic lands annexed to Iran), in Egypt and the North of Africa, and across the European provinces of Iran, e.g. Macedonia, Thrace, other parts of the Balkans, and the Ukrainian coastlands.
There was evidently a need for an additional trade route to serve the increased Sabaean trade; the old route across Hedjaz was not enough anymore. Maritime transportation would not serve much in this regard, as it would increase the product cost. A much shorter land / desert route would do. The end of this road that crossed the Arabian Peninsula from Southwest to Northeast was Gerrha.
XII. Gerrha’s Prominence in Antiquity - Harbinger of the Present UAE Rise
Gerrha rose to economic prominence relatively fast, and due exclusively to the Sabaean and East African trade. The location of Gerrha has not yet been properly identified, because no excavation brought to surface such magnificent remains that Ancient Greek and Latin textual references allow us to imagine. There are many good reasons for us to believe that Gerrha was located on the territory of the UAE, and more specifically at Abu Dhabi. This will discuss later; at this point, suffice it to say that there is conclusive historical textual evidence and strong interpretative argumentation refuting the aberration that Gerrha would have been located somewhere in the Saudi Arabian province of Al Ehsa. Those who support this fallacy are either fully unaware of ancient sources or totally bound to colonial agendas; as a matter of fact, there is no evidence to support this fallacy.
Gerrha rose exactly during the times of the Achaemenid dynasty of Iran (550 – 330 BCE). From Gerrha, the Sabaean and East African trade was further transported to either Mesopotamia - Anatolia or to the central provinces of Iran, or – also – to Central Asia. The route started at the northernmost confines of Yemen and the Najran area, passed from the then confines of the vast desert actually known as Rub al Khali, and reached the territory of today’s Emirates at a distance of ca. 350 km from the straits where Iranian navy and army prevailed. This being so, the Sheba / Gerrha land / desert route became a serious alternative to the sea trade route between Egypt and Iran, which was envisioned by Darius; the two routes did not exist in terms of rivalry, simply the Sheba / Gerrha land / desert route escaped totally from the Achaemenid Iranian control, and this ended up in a colossal loss of wealth for the already very wealthy Iranian Empire. This wealth was accumulated in Gerrha. This situation means also that North African and even Egyptian products were transported by sea until the Sabaean harbors in the Red Sea, and then dispatched by caravans alongside the land / desert route to Gerrha.
Gerrha, like the Sabaean Yemenites, had good relations with Iran, and this allowed for lower taxes and customs. The ethnic origin of the Gerrhans is neither Yemenite nor Arab. Ancient Greek sources make state of an Aramaean arrival in the area, probably dated back to the Nabonid Babylonian times (609 – 539 BCE), so before the rise of Achaemenid Iran. The Aramaeans were a Semitic nation, with affinities with the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Phoenicians and the Arabs, who spread in Syria and Mesopotamia first at the beginning of the 12th century BCE; they formed independent kingdoms, like Aram Dimashq, Bit Adini, etc. until they were progressively annexed by Assyria. In the times of Late Antiquity, the Phoenicians, the Babylonians, and other nations of the wider region were assimilated with the Aramaeans. Aramaic writing was initiated among many other nations because the Aramaeans were skillful merchants and crossed vast territories in Asia and in NE Africa. Today, the entire population of Arabic speaking people in Iraq, Syria, SW Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Emirates, Northern Saudi Arabia, SE Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine are Aramaeans, who have been progressively arabized linguistically, due to their earlier islamization.
Strabo, writing at the end of the 1st century BCE (which means a few years after the Roman invasion of Egypt – 30 BCE), specified in his Geographica (16.3.3) that, after circumnavigating around Arabia, Gerrha was located at a distance of 240 stadia (an ancient measurement) from the Ormuz straits, in a steep gulf creek. He added that first to inhabit Gerrha were Chaldaean refugees from Babylonia. The reference can be best contextualized in the Nabonid times, when the Babylonian kings made an effort to duly control the vast masses of Aramaeans, who had entered their empire or had been relocated there by the Assyrian emperors during the 7th century BCE. Known through Assyrian / Babylonian sources as Kaldu, the Chaldaeans were one of the Aramaean tribes, and had earlier inhabited the southernmost confines of Mesopotamia. We can certainly assume that Aramaeans intermingled with the earlier inhabitants of the wider Meluhha region, but according to Strabo, the city lof Gerrha was founded by the Aramaeans. This is the reason Gerrha excelled in trade and was promoted to a key point in the complex network of trade routes between East and West; the rulers of Gerrha were the allies of the Aramaean merchants who were powerful across the land and desert routes from Upper Egypt and Western Anatolia (Turkey) to Yemen, India, Central Asia, and China.
This left an everlasting stamp on the National History of the Emirates. Aramaeans had already great experience in the trade. Transferring their know how to the area of the Emirates (Meluhha), the Chaldaean Aramaeans effectively turned this place to the world’s most successful economy and to the top transit point in the trade between East and West.
During the Achaemenid times, the Aramaeans controlled the Iranian trade and highly contributed to its expansion. In fact, only Aramaean populations and rulers could make of Gerrha the world’s wealthiest city that ancient textual evidence convinces us that it was. The impact of the Aramaeans on the trade between the Mediterranean and China was unique; Maes Tatianus, an Aramaean, is the first person historically known by his name to have traveled from the area of Syria – Mesopotamia (epicenter of the Aramaeans) to China.
Aramaean alphabetic writing replaced around the end of the Achaemenid times the Old Persian cuneiform writing, thus introducing the alphabet among Persians; Aramaic alphabetic characters were used for the writing of Kharosthi (one of the two early writing systems of Ancient India), and of many Central Asiatic languages.
Benefitting from the vastness of the Achaemenid empire, and utilizing earlier regional trade networks, Aramaeans setup a complex system of trade routes between the Mediterranean and China. Land routes crossed the Iranian plateau and Central Asia and then through Eastern Turkestan to China, whereas sea routes from Egypt and Azania (the name of Ancient Somalia during the Late Antiquity) to the estuary of Euphrates and Tigris in the Gulf and to the Indus Delta were interconnected, thus offering, through the Indus Valley and Eastern Turkestan. an effective alternative to the Mediterranean / Egyptian / East African sea route trade to China.
The position of Gerrha within this vast trade network was of capital importance. Gerrha rose to prominence, by
a) controlling Sabaean Yemenite and East African trade directed to Anatolia, Syria-Mesopotamia, Persia, Caucasus, Central Asia (all five being Iranian provinces) and China,
b) offering a key transit to the Southwest Indian coastlands’ trade with Iran, and vice versa,
c) overseeing merchandises transported from Anatolia, Caucasus, Syria-Mesopotamia and occasionally from the Mediterranean world to Southwest Indian coastlands and states, and vice versa, and
d) being an alternative route for Egyptian and Mediterranean trade with Central Asia and China, and vice versa.
It is evident that to the establishment of the above mentioned trade network, a second sociopolitical factor contributed greatly, besides Achaemenid Iran’s unity, vastness, and communication / transportation infrastructure: the political division of the Indian North and South into many states and nations that were constantly waging war one upon the other, and the traditional dependence of India on sociopolitical and cuktural developments occurring in Iran and Central Asia.
(to be continued)