Map of the Arabian Peninsula
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The Arabian Peninsula

The Arabian Peninsula

March 2017 - The Arabian Peninsula is part of West Asia that sticks out to the south, and is only separated from Africa by the narrow Red Sea. The peninsula is very dry and hot and sunny. It hardly ever rains there. But still the Arabian Peninsula has often been one of the richest places on Earth.

One reason is that Arabia has a lot of coastline, and people who lived there could make a living fishing or gathering mussels and clams and oysters and seaweed on the beaches. As early as the Stone Age, they were also going diving for pearls, and selling the pearls to people in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Another reason is that Arabia is located between India and Africa and West Asia, so people living in Arabia became great traders, using African donkeys and Central Asian horses and camels to carry loads of Indian cotton and medicines and dyes, sugar, and steel, African ivory and ostrich eggs and coffee, Chinese silk and porcelain, West Asian wool and Greek wine, Roman wine-glasses and gold, and many other things and selling them - and some enslaved people - to other people.

But also, by building dams and being very careful with their water, people in Yemen, in the southern part of Arabia, were able to grow plenty of food themselves, even though the Arabian Peninsula is so dry.

Soon after those dams collapsed in the 500s AD, the new religion of Islam convinced millions of people around the world that Mecca and Medina, two cities in the north-west of the Arabian Peninsula, were important places to go visit. Mecca became not only a religious center but also a center of Islamic scholarship. When Spanish and British warships forced Arabian people to stop trading in the 1500s and 1600s, though, the Arabian peninsula became much poorer as Europe got richer.

Less than a hundred years ago, people in the Arabian peninsula realized that they also had a large part of the world's oil lying under their land, and in 1938 they started to drill for oil and sell oil all over the world. That's where most of the Arabian peninsula's money comes from today.

Learn by doing: visit a camel at the zoo
More about West Asia's environment
History of the Arabian Peninsula

Bibliography and further reading about the Arabian Peninsula:

More about the Arabian Peninsula
More about Mohammed and the origins of Islam home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 27 April, 2017