The Romans Explore Western and Southern Arabia

This is taken from Dr. Rafat Amari's book, "Islam in Light of History"

Author: Dr. Rafat Amari/Monday, November 13, 2017/Categories: Islam, History of Islam, Archaeology and Islam, Backgrounds of Islam, Islam in Light of History Book, Article

The Romans Explore Western and Southern Arabia

By Dr. Rafat Amari

The Roman Expedition into western and southern Arabia accurately described the villages which were built in the area of central western Arabia, but a city called Mecca was never mentioned.

In the year 30 B.C., Egypt became a Roman province. The Romans then wanted to control the Arabian regions along the Red Sea, especially south of the city called Leuce Kome on the shore of the Arabian Red Sea. From there, through the central western shore, were places where savage tribes were acting as pirates and threatening sea navigation. The Romans also wanted to control Yemen and, subsequently, the spice trade coming from India through Yemen.

   Rome trusted the military campaign to Gallus, the governor of Egypt. He was unsuccessful, but his campaign provides more historical accuracy for us. Gallus departed from the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea with 10,000 Roman soldiers, 1,000 Nabataean soldiers, and some other Roman allies in the region. The Nabataeans were ruled by the Roman Empire at that time, so they promised to help the Romans in this expedition as soldiers and guides.  The Nabataeans were ideal as guides because part of northern Arabia along the Red Sea was under the Nabataean domain. Strabo, the famous geographer and historian, took part in the expedition and wrote about it in his 16th book. This gives to the expedition a special value in terms of geography; it is a highly-documented expedition, and not a narration of any kind.

   The expedition had special importance for a geographer, because it was not the journey of a traveler who might have missed cities deeper inland. It was a military expedition, intended to control all the villages and cities which might threaten Roman trade within this strip of land.  The Romans were very thorough and would not have missed a city. The Roman Expedition went through the strip of land which geographers used to explore along the Red Sea, which I defined previously as extending from the shore to at least 100 miles inland. The Romans wanted to subdue every village because of the continuing piracy which originated from central western Arabia. Therefore, no city or village was left alone in this military expedition.

    The expedition arrived at Leuce Come, which means the “white village.” This village was part of the Nabataean territory at the time of the expedition.  Strabo attested to the flourishing of the land route through this village to Petra, and from there to Egypt and Syria. This village is placed in the today map of Arabia at El Haura, 25 7 N., 37 13 E.[1][1] Leuce Come is about 280 miles from the place where Mecca was later built. To the south of this village lay the central western part of Arabia along the Red Sea, which was uninhabited in 103 B.C. But now, because the land route along the Red Sea had started to flourish, there had been a few villages built since 103 B.C., which Gallus occupied. These villages are mentioned in the narration of Strabo, who was an eyewitness to this important expedition.

    After Leuce Come, Gallus marched to the south, through Nabataean-controlled lands. Strabo describes the nature of the region with these words:

Gallus moved his army from Leuce Come and marched through regions where water had to be carried by camels.

Gallus marched until he reached the desert assigned to Aretas, his kinsman, by King Obodas of Nabataean. We assume that Gallus was marching toward the village of Egra about 1,100 Greek stadia from Leuce Come (about 137 miles).  Strabo described this part under Aretas, as follows:

It afforded only zea, a kind of coarse grain, a few palm trees and butter instead of oil.[1][2]

It is a description of a deserted tract of land with few stations on the caravan route coming from the south. These stations are mainly Nabataean stations to protect and control the trade passing through this area.

    Then Strabo described the next segment of the central-western Arabian campaign with these words:

The next country which Gallus traversed belongs to nomads and most of it was truly desert; and it was called Ararene, and he spent fifty days arriving at the city of Negrani.

That was a city of Najran on the border of Yemen about 385 miles south of Mecca, and about 125 miles from the shore of the Red Sea. We understand from the description of Strabo that the central western tract of Arabia along the Red Sea during the time of the expedition had few changes since the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. This region was described by previous geographers as uninhabited in its northern part, and inhabited by Bedouins in its southern part, until reaching the more-civilized people near Yemen.  At least three of the stations which the Nabataeans had built on the caravan road became small villages, which were mentioned in this expedition. The situation was likely similar to that of the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.

Gallus wanted to subdue the region to protect the trade from the piracy coming from this area. His plan was to occupy all the cities found in this dangerous tract, but he did not find any city until he reached Najran. This demonstrates that Mecca was not yet built in those times – that is, around 23 B.C.  Gallus occupied Najran, then Asca (within Yemeni territory). Going south, he occupied a city called Athrula, then advanced toward Marsiaba (probably Ma'rib, the capital of Saba). He assaulted and besieged the city for six days, but desisted for want of water. He lost only seven soldiers in war against the Arabians of Najran and in the battles south of it. Most of the losses in his army came from lack of water and supplies, and disease.

If Mecca had existed at the time of the Roman Expedition, it would have been impossible to be missed by a weary army which needed a city in which to rest and replenish supplies.

The hardships of Gallus’ army were because of the huge distances, which existed between the small few villages in this tract of central Arabia where Mecca was built in later times. This caused many soldiers to die from a lack of water and supplies. The Romans accused Syllaeus of not helping them as a guide because he chose paths between the villages and cities that were longer than they should have been. This did not affect the plan of passing through all the villages which existed in the area, since the villages and cities were known by all contemporaries to the expedition, and confirmed by the inhabitants. In other words, each village or city knew the name of the next city or village which Gallus needed to visit on the way to Najran and the other cities of Yemen.

    Since subduing all of central western Arabia was an important goal for the expedition, Gallus would not have missed a city like Mecca, if it had existed then.

    Another thing to consider is that after Gallus failed to occupy the Yemeni city of Marsiaba, he replaced Syllaeus as a guide, and instead depended on native experts to return to Negrana and then to the Nabataean village of Leuce Come. Consequently, he made the return trip more quickly, passing through the few villages which were built on the caravan road where Mecca was eventually built. Strabo mentioned them by name, but never mentioned Mecca.[1][3] Ultimately, Gallus withdrew from the war. The huge distances between the villages, which were built on this central Arabian tract, created a logistical travel problem for an army of more than 11,000.  Gallus lost thousands of his soldiers because of lack of water and supplies.

    The Roman historian, Dio Cassius, described the failure of the expedition in his book, The History of Rome. Here’s what he wrote:

At first Aelius Gallus encountered no one, yet he did not proceed without difficulty; for the desert, the sun, and the water (which had some peculiar nature) all caused his men great distress, so that the larger part of the army perished.[1][4]

This advances our argument. If Mecca had existed as a city, it would have been Gallus’ main goal to control it. No cities are described by any of the historians, except for the few villages I mentioned previously which were built on the caravan road. If Mecca had existed, it would have been an important place to rest, to replenish supplies and to prepare a person to traverse the rest of this terrible tract toward Najran and the other Yemeni cities. No one who planned to occupy a desert would abandon its main city. But that desert had no city in existence like Mecca; that is why the expedition had its hardships and problems with supplies.

    What this ultimately shows us is that the claims of Islam that state that Mecca was a city that flourished during the time of Abraham are unsubstantiated and false. All the records of the historians of the time show that Mecca was not in existence until the 4th century A.D., certainly not in the time of Abraham. If Islam is wrong on this key assertion, how can we trust it in other assertions?




[1][1] Wilfred Schoff on his comment on The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,  Munshiram Manoharial Publishers Pvt Ltd. ( New Delhi, 1995), page 101

[1][2] The Geography of Strabo,  Book XVI. 4 .  24

[1][3] Regarding the expedition of Gallus; He returned to Negrana in nine days after he failed to occupy Marsiaba in Saba. Negrana is Najran, about 650 kilometers south of Mecca. On the 11th day he reached a village called Hepta phreata, then he went to another village named Chaalla, then on to another village named Malotha which, most probiblay, was Malothan located close to the actual city of Jadda, which is about 30 miles from Mecca. But between Malotha or Malothan and Egra (north of where Mecca was later built) there were no villages mentioned by Strabo who accompagned the expedition. Gallus badly needed urgent supplies of water and food, but he could not find villages which could give him rest, and re-supply his troops in the area where Mecca was eventually built.
See The Geography of Strabo,  Book XVI. 4 .  24

[1][4] Dio Cassius: History of Rome, Book LIII. xxix.3-8.

For more on the subject of History and Mecca, we refer the reader to Dr. Amari's book: Islam in light of History



Copyright 2004 by Dr. Rafat Amari. All rights reserved.



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Dr. Rafat Amari
Dr. Rafat Amari

Dr. Rafat Amari

Scholar in comparative religions and Author of over 30 books

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