Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Origin and Identity of the arabs - Part 4

The Arabian Kush and the Ishmaelite Myth

Even though the name Kush is usually associated with Ethiopia because of the Greek translation of that name, Kushite peoples were in early times the inhabitants of the whole Arabia, Southern Mesopotamia, Elam and a branch of them reached India as well. Indeed, in ancient records the term Kush may have different meanings and often it can be understood only by the context, and it is possible to distinguish at least four different lands which in some periods were known as "Kush": Sumer, the Horn of Africa, India and Arabia. The same happens with the term Havilah, that was a Kushite tribe -- they should not be mistaken for the Semitic Havilah, that is identified with Khawlan in Yemen. This people was originally settled in Northern Arabia, between Egypt and the Euphrates, and their land was later inhabited by Yishmaelites (Bereshyit 25:18) and Amalekites (Shmu'el I, 15:7). From their original land, different branches of the Kushite Havilah emigrated to Elam, India and Africa because of the Semitic expansion in the Middle East, making it difficult a precise identification of the land which the ancient documents call by such name.

The Assyrian records mention Kûsh and Mušuri in reference to the Northern Arabian peoples conquered by Asarhaddon, as a different event from his conquest of Egypt, and the same peoples are mentioned as tributaries by earlier Assyrian kings, who have not conquered Egypt.

These names recall the Biblical brothers Kush and Mitzrayim, namely Ethiopia and Egypt, very closely associated in ancient times but obviously located in Africa. Therefore, we find both names also on the Arabian side of the Red Sea, which is attested by several Assyrian documents. For instance, in the black obelisk of Salmaneser III he mentions in detail the tribute received from different lands, and concerning Mušuri it consists in "camels having double humps" and other animals. Such kind of camel is Asian and not Egyptian, and what is more, Egyptians usually did not even employ the African kind (dromedary, with one hump). Later, other Assyrian kings like Tiglath-Pileser III and Ashurachiddin (Assarhaddon) received camels as part of the tributes paid by different kingdoms in Arabia and Persia, but not any camel is mentioned among the booty taken after the conquest of Egypt. Consequently, Salmaneser's "Mušuri" is different from Egypt, yet having the same name.

Another interesting detail is that Salmaneser does not mention any king of Mušuri, unlike he does regarding the other kingdoms, and it is unthinkable that the Assyrian king would have not been proud of mentioning the Pharaoh among his tributaries. Indeed, the Arabian Mušuri were a confederation of nomadic tribes without any organized state, and this is confirmed by the fact that later Tiglath-Pileser assigned an "Arubu" (Arab?) as governor over Mušuri, whose name was Idiba'ilu, name that may indicate his belonging to the Ishmaelite tribe of Adbe'el.

The absence of monarchy in Mušuri by that time is confirmed by later Assyrian accounts attesting that the royal house of that country was founded as a vassal kingdom of Assyria during the reign of Assarhaddon. Sargon II mentions the king of Mušuri together with those of Aribi (a queen), Sheva, Khayappa, Tamudi and other kingdoms, all of them located in Arabia. It is remarkable that before the Assyrian rule, the sovereigns of these lands were mainly priestess-queens, a typical Ethiopian tradition that seems to have been replaced by the Assyrian-styled male monarchy.

The existence of Kush and Mušuri in Arabia are essential for the identity of the Ishmaelites and in some way also the Midyanites, as it will be shown afterwards.

Now let us consider the table of peoples and tribes of Arabia given above. This distribution is confirmed by the historic sources and show that the Arabs cannot be classified exclusively as Ishmaelites and not even as fully Semitic. Arabs resulted from a complex of tribes gathered into two groups: Southern and Northern Arabian. The ethnicity of these tribes is as follows:

  1. Southern Arabians were originally Kushitic (Ethiopic). The most ancient Sabeans were closely related with Nubians and Abyssinians dwelling on the opposite shores of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Their country roughly coincides with modern Yemen, where the Kushitic Sabeans have left some hints that allow to identify them as tribes that created a sort of organized states or kingdoms, reported in ancient chronicles as Sabatan, whose capital was the city of Shabwah. They transferred some typical Ethiopic features to their Semitic successors, like the female-ruled monarchy, common to all ancient Arabia. These seven Hamitic tribes were partially displaced to the Horn of Africa and Meroë by the Semitic Sabeans (Yoqtanites) that came after them, but a large number intermarried and were assimilated into the new nationalities that emerged from the mixture of both groups.

The identity of the twelve Yoqtanite tribes faded away with the formation of different kingdoms: Sheva, Ma'in, Awsan, Qataban, Hadhramawt and Himayar. The Sabean peoples did not keep history records for centuries, until they had relationships with Assyria, and the first mentions of them come from external accounts like the Hebrew Bible and the Assyrian Chronicles. Since the time when they began to document their own history, the Semitic influence appears evident because they are ruled by kings, not queens. This seems to be the result of a process from the early period in which the Kushitic culture was still dominant and of which the only account we have regards the Queen of Sheva, who is contended by Arabs and Ethiopians as their own queen. The female monarchy seems to have come to an end with the determinant Assyrian hegemony.

Ethnically, the Southern Arabians are roughly two thirds Semitic and one third Hamitic, and not Ishmaelites at all.

  1. Northern Arabians were called mainly after Avrahamic tribes, which apparently would grant them to be classified into the Semitic stock. Nevertheless, the Kushitic character is strongly remarkable since these lands were inhabited by Hamitic peoples (Kush, Havilah and Mušuri) long before the first Semites arrived in this territory and both groups intermarried. The process of Semitization was completed only under the Assyrian rule, around the 7th century b.c.e.

The origin of these Arabian tribes is connected with Avraham's concubines, Hagar and Qeturah, from whom respectively originated the Ishmaelites (or Hagarites) and the Midyanites (actually one of these tribes, whose name was extended to the others). Avraham was an Akkadian that moved first into the land of Hurrians and then into Canaan. His wife Sarah was an Akkadian belonging to his own family, and this fully Semitic couple generated the Israelites and not any Arab people. Avraham traded also in Egypt and acquired for his wife an Egyptian servant, Hagar, with whom he fathered Yishmael. Besides them, Avraham took also another woman, Qeturah, whose origin is unknown and that is the mother of the Midyanite tribes. Consequently, Ishmael was a Semite only on his father's side, but by his mother's lineage he was Egyptian, and the sons of Qeturah were surely Semitic after their father Avraham, but we do not know where did their mother come from. Here we will consider first the ethnic features of the Midyanites before dealing with the origin and culture of the Ishmaelites.

The Midyanites settled in the region of Mount Sinai (by the Gulf of Eylat, in Arabia, and not in the so-called Sinai peninsula). That land was already inhabited by non-Semitic peoples, namely, the Kü and Mušuri of the Assyrian records, and very likely Avraham's children and successive generations married women from the local people, consequently it is correct to assume that the Midyanites were ethnically less Semitic than Hamitic. In fact, they followed the Kushite tradition of having many queens among their rulers: three successive Assyrian kings (Tiglat-Pileser III, Sargon II and Sennakherib) mention seven Midyanite queens: Zabibi, Shamsi, Te'elkhinu, Yati'ah, Tabu'wa, Yapa'a and Bashi. Such a characteristic is not found in any Semitic kingdom, in which the queen was just the king's wife but very rarely the main ruler.

In support of the Kushite character of Midyan, there are some ancient texts that link the land and people of Midyan with Kush, and also the Hebrew Scriptures suggest this connection: It is typical in Hebrew poetry to compose verses repeating the same concept twice but with different words, like the statement written in Havaqquq 3:7 "I saw the tents of Kushan under sorrow; the curtains of the land of Midyan trembled" -- here the Prophet uses the names "Midyan" and "Kush" as synonymous. Such an identification of Northern Arabians with Kushites explains the controversy regarding the Kushite wife of Mosheh mentioned in Bemidbar 12:1; here the question emerges, whether she is to be identified with Tzipporah the Midyanite or not, and some interpreters like Rashi assert that this woman is indeed Tzipporah. If Midyan would have been so clearly distinguishable from Kush, such a controversy would not have arisen. The conclusion that she was not Tzipporah is understood by other elements and not by this ethnic definition. Furthermore, the Biblical land of Midyan is called Kü in Assyrian records.

The Ishmaelites dwelled near the Midyanites, in the region described as follows: "from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Mitzrayim as you go towards Ashshur. He settled before the face of all his brothers" (Bereshyit 25:18); in other words, their territory extended from the coastland by the Persian Gulf next to Southern Mesopotamia [Havilah] up to the border of Midyan [Shur], which is east of Egypt, along the way that leads northwards; the Ishmaelites settled at the east (meaning of the statement "before the face") of all their brothers [Midyanites and Hebrews]. This territory roughly coincides with the land called Mušuri in Assyrian accounts. In Bereshyit 21:21 is written "Yishmael dwelt in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Mitzrayim". We have already said that Ishmael himself was half Semite and half Egyptian, now we read that also his wife was an Egyptian, and that he settled in the desert area next to Midyan, which was inhabited by Hamitic peoples. How Semitic can his twelve sons be, then? Only one fourth, and three fourths Egyptian.

Of course, if these twelve sons would have founded their tribes within Assyria or Aram, after successive intermarriage they would have become more Semitic, but they settled in Kushite territory and assimilated the local peoples, and blended with their Midyanite brothers, who were like them a mixed breed. Therefore, Salmaneser's mysterious "Egyptians" (Mušuri) that had no king and from whom he took some double-humpbacked camels as tribute were no other than the Ishmaelites. Establishing a documentary comparison, we find that the Biblical "Midyan and Yishmael" are equivalent to the "Kü and Mušuri" of the Assyrian records. It is natural that from the Hebrew viewpoint they were regarded as Semitic for Avraham's sake, but for the Semitic Assyrians they were just Ethiopic/Egyptian tribes.

The Ishmaelites were associated with Midyanites since early times in such a way that both terms became interchangeable. Their territories were not sharply defined and it seems that only the Midyanites had organized kingdoms and were the leading branch during the first centuries. Progressively, the distinction between both groups vanished by mutual assimilation. Conquered by the Assyrians, the Ishmaelites were not relevant until the Persian period, when the tribe of Qedar assumed the hegemony over the Northern Arabian peoples, but the first true kingdom was founded by the Nabateans, that arose as the leading Ishmaelite tribe in Roman times. The Nabateans extended their dominion up to the present-day Syria under the rule of Queen Zaynab. In that period, they absorbed Semitic cultures like the Arameans and the Idumeans, and the Nabatean language is the oldest one that may be defined as "Arabic", though many scholars disagree.

Taking account of the Hebrew Scriptures and other ancient records, it is possible to establish that the term Arab was originally applied to the Nabateans, that inhabited the wilderness region to the east of Israel, from Edom to Syria (not properly in the mainland of Arabia). Such an identification is confirmed by historians of Roman times like Strabo and Josephus, that used the terms Arab and Nabatean as synonymous. The Nabatean sovereigns were usually called "kings of the Arabs" and their realm was known as Arabia, so that when the Nabatean Kingdom was annexed to the Roman Empire it became the province of Arabia.

The name Nabatean is referred to Ishmael's firstborn son Nebayot, founder of the tribe that prevailed over the northwestern branch of the Ishmaelites and evolved into an organized kingdom, while the southeastern ones kept their Bedouin life-style within the oases of Northern Arabia, of which the tribe of Qedar may be considered the most representative.

The region where the Nabateans settled favoured their development as a Semitic culture that progressively replaced their natural Kushitic character. Intermarriage with Arameans was common and determined the origin of the modern Syrians. In fact, there were no marriage restrictions neither for men nor for women among Nabateans to take foreign spouses, and it is likely that such a practice was even encouraged. Mutual assimilation with the local Semitic population was also decisive in the formation of the Arabic language, whose roots are clearly Aramaic. Unlike present-day Arabs, the Nabateans held women in high regard -- a characteristic common to most of the pre-Islamic Arabian peoples. Women had property and heritage rights, and the Nabatean queens were honoured even more than the kings.

The Nabatean culture experienced a sudden transformation from the nomadic life style and camel breeders to city builders, and it is only since this change happened that the Nabateans have left records of their own culture. Before that time, only some samples of pottery were found, and however not older than the first century b.c.e.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Assyrian Chronicles and other ancient records the first peoples to be identified as Arabs were the Ishmaelite-Midyanite tribes and the same definition is never applied to the southern peoples, who are called by their ethnic name (Sabeans, Mineans, etc.), so how did it happen that the term Arabian was extended to the whole complex of inhabitants of the peninsula? Indeed, the relationships between the northern tribes and the Yemenite kingdoms were rather limited to commercial exchange, but never achieved a solid cultural and political unity in pre-Islamic times.

Such a generalization of the term seems to come from Greek sources: being the Ishmaelites the immediate neighbours of the Persian Empire along the southern border from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, the whole land between both seas was called Arabia after them. In fact it was Herodotus who mentioned Arabians in reference to all the peoples dwelling in the peninsula. It is also well known that the Greeks were not accurate in their geographic and ethnic definitions, as we have many examples of Hellenic names that became widely used even though they are not exact -- like Syria, by which the Greeks intended "Assyria", mistaking both the people and the land.

The different tribes of Arabia did not have any term of their own which would have been recognized by every tribe to identify themselves as "Arabian"; therefore, when the Arabic language took a definitive shape, the geographic names that were widely acknowledged as official denominations were the Greek ones. The term Arab was included into the vocabulary of the Southern languages long time after it was commonly used by the Northern Arabian tribes as self-definition, that means that the word was indeed a foreign term for the peoples settled in the Southern half of the peninsula.

Paradoxically, modern Arabian ethnologists consider the Southern tribes as the original Arabs (but historically they never defined themselves as Arabs in ancient times, while the first tribes that have accepted such denomination appear to be the Ishmaelites). The Arab scholars distinguish Arabians as descending from two different stocks: the "original" Arabs ('aribah), whose forefather was Qahtan -- Yoqtan -- and are the Yemenite group of tribes, and the "arabized" peoples of the north (musta'aribah), whose forefather is said to be Adnan, allegedly an Ishmaelite. Undoubtedly, there is a glaring contradiction in what the same Arab ethnologists declare: that the Ishmaelites are actually arabized and not the original Arabs; hen they claim that all Arabs are Ishmaelites...

by Avraham Sándor