Arabia, the great south-western peninsula of Asia. Its greatest length from NW. to SE. is about 1800 miles; its mean breadth, about 600; its area, 1,230,000 sq. m.; and its population conjectured to be 5,000,000. It is bounded on the N. by the highlands of Syria and the plains of Mesopotamia; on the E., by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman; on the S., by the Arabian Sea; and on the W., by the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Midway between Mecca and Medina runs the tropic of Cancer. Ptolemy is supposed to be the author of the famous threefold division into Arabia PetrAea, in the NW.; Arabia Felix, to the south of Mecca; and Arabia Deserta, in the interior. Modern divisions are: the Sinaitic Peninsula (see Sinai), between the Gulfs of Suez and Akaba; the Hedjaz ('the Barrier'), the larger and northern strip to the east of the Red Sea; Yemen, the southern and smaller strip to the east of the Red Sea; Hadramaut, the region along the southern coast; Oman, the extreme south-eastern end of the peninsula; El-Hasa, along the Persian Gulf; Nejd, the central highlands of Arabia.
In shape, Arabia is an irregular parallelogram, broadest at the southern end; in character, it is mainly African. The vast central plateau rises from a height of 2500 feet in the N. to 7000 feet in the SW., and is bounded by western and southern mountain chains, the former attaining, to the south of Mecca, a height of 8500 feet. Between the mountains and the sea is a low hot strip of land, partially fertile, of varying width. There is a desert in the north of the interior, the mountainous country of Nejd near the very centre, and to the south of Nejd another very sterile sandy desert (Dahna). Hedjaz and Yemen extend from the Red Sea indefinitely towards the interior, and consist partly of the Tehama, or low country, along the sea, and partly of the mountain district beyond. Mecca and Medina, with their seaports Jiddah and Yembo, are in Hedjaz. Yemen is on the whole well watered, has rich and fertile valleys, and contains one-fifth of the whole population of Arabia. Yemen possesses two very important commercial towns, Mocha and Loheia, situated on the coast of the Red Sea. Hadramaut resembles the Hedjaz in character. Oman is mainly mountainous, is partly very fertile, and possesses the good harbour of Muscat. It has considerable trade, and some manufactures of cotton, silk, and arms. Hasa is comparatively level and fertile. Large portions of Arabia are perfectly arid; nowhere does a river reach the sea all the year round; but the more fertile portions are so extensive as to constitute two-thirds of the total area: one-third of the whole may be accounted desert and uninhabitable.
Politically, Hedjaz, Yemen, and El-Hasa are really three Turkish provinces; the Sinaitic Peninsula is in Egyptian hands; England exercises much influence in Hadramaut through her possession of Aden; the Sultan of Oman is independent, and in alliance with England; Nejd, the seat of the once powerful Wahabi State, is independent. The Emir of Shomer or Shammar pays a small annual tribute to the Sherif of Mecca, in recognition of Turkish supremacy.
The Arab is of medium stature, muscular make, and brown complexion. Independence looks out of his glowing eyes; by nature he is quick, sharp-witted, imaginative, and passionately fond of poetry. Courage, temperance, hospitality, and good faith are his leading virtues; but these are often marred by a spirit of rapacity and sanguinary revenge. His wife or wives do the work, keep the house, and educate the children. Arabian life is either nomadic or settled. The wandering tribes, or Bedouin, who have, however, their allotted winter and summer camping-grounds, and a strong attachment to their own mode of life, entertain notions of the rights of property differing seriously from those regulating the West; yet even their most marauding tribes are not without a traditional code of law and honour, the only law recognised among them; the enforcing of it is left to every tribesman. The settled tribes, styled Hadesi and Fellahs, are despised by the Bedouin, who scorn to intermarry even with the few artisans that accompany every tribe. The Bedouin are several times outnumbered by the settled population, and therefore must not be regarded as normal Arabs, who are adventurous, commercial, and willing to become sailors. Yet mountain and desert barriers and patriarchal anarchy make Arabia the 'anti-industrial centre of the world.' The export of coffee, dates, figs, spices, and drugs, though still considerable, is said to be only a shadow of the old commerce which existed before the circumnavigation of Africa. The government is patriarchal, and the chief men of the various tribes have the title of Emir, Sheikh, or, in a religious sense, Imam.
Before the rise of Mohammed the history of the peninsula is obscure and confused; one bond of union amongst the tribes, constantly at war with each other, was the Kaaba, a small rude temple of unknown antiquity, where the idols of the tribes, over 350 in number, were kept. The grand epoch in Arabian history, the Hegira (Hedjra), is Mohammed's flight in 622 a.d. from Mecca to Medina, where he gathered his first body of adherents, and commenced actively the establishment of his doctrines by the sword and otherwise. Now for the first time the Arabian tribes became united under one sceptre, and were powerful enough to erect new empires in three quarters of the world - in Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Persia; in Egypt and the north of Africa; and in Spain. The dominion of the Arabs, from the time of Mohammed till the fall of the califate of Bagdad in 1258, or even to the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, is an important period in the history of civilisation. The Arabian literature became the vehicle of a characteristic culture, and Arabic scholars were the main cultivators of philosophy and science - including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, etc - in the middle ages.
But the movements that had so much effect on the destinies of other nations left Arabia itself in a neglected and exhausted condition, and the peninsula was broken up into several distinct and unimportant principalities. In the 16th and 17th centuries the Turks, Persians, Dutch, and Portuguese took possession of parts of the country. The native orthodox Moslem Wahabi empire was founded in Central Arabia about 1760, shattered in 1812 by Mehemet Ali of Egypt, and again restored. And now the country is politically distributed as above described.
See works by Pococke, Niebuhr, Burckhardt, Burton, Palgrave, Welsted, and Doughty and Lady Anne Blunt.