The United Arab Emirates is a comparatively young country, though its territory has been inhabited for more than sixteen thousand years. In terms of the human migration, foreign contacts and commercial relations, the Emirates have rather beneficial location. The country is situated at the crossroads between the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf in the sea, and the Eurasian landmass and the Arabian Peninsula on the continent. For thousands of years, the lands of the United Arab Emirates had plenty of ports and continental trade centers. Consequently, the country was deeply involved in foreign contacts and played a significant role in the network of trade routes at the first and second century AD.
The history of commercial and foreign relations of the UAE counts thousands of years. Five thousand years ago, Dilmun merchants came to the UAE to provide the cities of Sumer with various resources. Being closely interconnected with foreign countries, the lands of the Emirates made a considerable contribution to the establishment of the first complex urban civilization in the world. Later on, Chinese and Indian wanderers travelled through the Gulf to the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid. Historically, it was the first time when commercial routes, pioneered and controlled by merchants originated from the Gulf region, spanned all along the Old World. At the beginning of the first century AD, the route of overland caravan started between the cities of southern Iraq and Syria. There was also discovered evidence of seaborne travel to the port of Omana and afterwards to India. Luxury products and pottery that were imported from India, Iran and the Mediterranean region began to emerge on the territory of the UAE. The discovered ports of the period contained large quantities of imported goods, which demonstrated participation and contribution of the Arabian Peninsula in the western Indian Ocean commercial network.
The Periplus is a manuscript that documents the list of ancient coastal landmarks and ports. Its twelve sections are devoted to Arabia. At the same time, the territories of the United Arab Emirates are mentioned in the context of other countries and continents. In terms of African pre-Akusmite period, strong links with South Arabia are described. Moreover, during the times of the Periplus, there existed strong South Arabian connections with the territory of modern Somalia, which at that period controlled the mentioned lands (Tomber, 2008).
The existence of a number of ports on the lands of the United Arab Emirates was discovered and proved by archeological finds. The Periplus mentions Okelis, Muza, Kane/Qana, Eudaimon Arabia, Moscha Limen and Syagros as lands involved in the sea trade. However, only Qana, Moscha and Muza were named as ports. At the same time, only Moscha and Qana, which were established with the shift from overland to seaborne trade routes, were archeologically discovered. In the early centuries AD, overland trade co-existed with seaborne commercial contacts. Timna and Qana contributed greatly to both trade networks.
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Qana was a vital point in the incense trade, which was first discovered by Europeans in 1840s. During the excavations of Husn al-Gurab, archeologists discovered a lighthouse dated between the middle of the first century BC and the late first century AD. Graphical finds demonstrated its functioning as an incense warehouse. The Periplus named Qana a vital collecting and distribution point for frankincense, which was an embarkation point for ships to South and North India. According to Tomber (2008), “In the Middle period, Qana was the major port for the Hadramawt and subsequently Himyarite kingdom” (p. 104). Additionally, the presence of Indian cooking vessels, including storage jars and Organic Black Ware suggested contacts with India and the presence of its residents on the territory of Qana.
The royal place of Shabwa, the capital of the Hadramawt, was situated on the northeast of Qana. Shabwa was the place where caravan converged on the sea routes. At the same time, discovered inscriptions indicated the visits of Palmyrenes, Chaldeans and Indians on the territory of Shabwa. The signs of external influence were also observed in other aspects of material life, including architecture. Additionally, a diverse array of Roman amphorae, coarse wires and fine from the first to forth centuries AD were detected at Shabwa. The finds originated from Egypt, the Western Mediterranean, Syria, the Aegean, and Mesopotamia. Discovered at Shabwa, Aqaba amphora was an example of Late Roman pottery. Moreover, Ptolemaic, Aksumite and Late Roman coins were also found on the territory of the site.
Foreign influences were observed at Timna, another focal point for the Arabian overland trade. A pair of bronze lions with South Arabian inscriptions was discovered at the capital of Qataban. Tomber (2008) claims, “There is an exotic range of Augustan fine wares, particularly Italian and Syrian sigillata, glazed wares from Asia Minor and Egyptian faince” (p. 106).
Another vital point in the Arabian incense trade was Moscha Limen (Khor Rori). The city-port was founded to facilitate Hadrami trade with Oman and the Gulf in the third century BC. In the late first century BC and early first century AD, the site was rebuilt by Shabwaian colonists. The site aimed at providing Qana with incense. The Periplus claims that due to seasonal peculiarities Indian ships spent winter months at Moscha Limen rather than at Qana. Another proofs of Indian presence on the territory of Knor Rori were a bronze statue of a female and a coin of Kanishka. However, according to archeological excavations of the twentieth century, Moscha Limen was Qana satellite and a facilitator for Qana’s commercial relations, not an independent oversea port. Other finds prove the fact of ancient commercial relations of the territory of the site. They include facts suggesting that the early settlements defended trade routes in the first century AD. Similar to Qana, ceramic assemblage in reduced quantity was found at Moscha Limen, including Hadrami Organic Storage Jars and the ‘Palestinian’ storage jars.
The village of Eudaimon Arabia is described in the Periplus as a significant trans-shipment point between India and the West. Discovered finds comprise Aksumite and Roman coins dated between the fourth and sixth century AD. Tomber (2008) appeals to the following citation from the Periplus: “[…] since vessels from India did not go on to Egypt and those from Egypt did not dare sail to the places further on but came only this far, it used to receive the cargoes from both […]” (p.102).
From earliest times, South Arabia had close contacts with East Africa rather than with the Roman world. The history of Arabia Felix to the Romans or pre-Islamic Yemen discloses the history of the incense lands. Saba, Qataban, Ma and Hadramawt were involved in the overland incense trade on the territory of the UAE. The heart of trade was in each of the respected capitals at Marib, Timna, Qarnaw and Shabwa. Sabaeans and the Himyrates were the most powerful kingdoms, which controlled South Arabia and most of Azania. At about 300 AD, external relations became crucial, and Arabian embassies started to visit Persian and Ethiopia. Consequently, the Ethiopic presence in South Arabia lasted until the Persian intervention. Thereafter, the territory of South Arabia was controlled by Persia and Ethiopia until 628 AD. In the sixth century, the Himyarites were middlemen for the Romans.
The aromatic trade at the UAE was established since the eighth century BC and continued to flourish. The most frequent export items after aromatics were frankincense and myrrh. The aromatics trade followed a number of commercial routes though areas controlled by Nabataeans and destined for the Mediterranean. Nabataean pottery that was found at Marib, Qana and Khor Rori discloses trade relations between the regions.
Subjected to South Arabia the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean was involved in trade routes from the Red Sea to India with its Indian red resin and aloe. Within Indo-Roman trade routes, the Gulf, controlled by Arab-Persian merchants, was geographically and politically separate. The ports of Omana and Apologos were mentioned in the Periplus. Both sites in the Persian Gulf were in close contacts with Qana and Sumhuram, distributing Roman fine wares and other products (Rutten, 2007). The Arabian Gulf played a significant role in commercial relations and the network of trade routes connecting remote areas.
Ed-Dur and Mleiha were located on the Arabian side of the Gulf. According to De Paepe, Rutten, Vrydaghs, and Haerinck (2003), “ed-Dur was the largest and only substantial coastal site between Qatar and the Straits of Hormuz during the first two centuries of the Christian era” (p.208). Archeological excavation of the site recognized 37 distinct wares, which proved commercial contacts and exchange of commodities with distinct regions, such as southern Mesopotamia, South Arabia, the Indo-Pakistani borderlands and western Mediterranean region. Local traders, who were sailing along the Southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, connected both major trade routes, as well as distributed Mediterranean imports, South Arabian goods and the Gulf commodities to dwellings around the Red Sean and the Indian Ocean. A number of excavated vessels, fabrics and coins prove the fact of intense and multiple commercial contacts.
The territory of the United Arab Emirates has beneficial location in terms of participation in commercial activity. As a result, South Arabian ports played a significant role as a place of redistribution and exchange of imported merchandise within the countries that were involved in foreign trade.
De Paepe, P., Rutten, K., Vrydaghs, L., & Haerinck. E. (2003). Archaeology of the United Arab Emirates. Proceedings of the first International Conference on the Archaeology of the U.A.E. A Petrographic, Chemical and Phytolith Analysis of Late Pre-Islamic Ceramics from ed-Dur (Umm al-Qaiwain, UAE). London: Trident.
Rutten, K. (2007). The Roman fine wares of ed-Dur (Umm al-Qaiwain, UAE) and their distribution in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Arabian Archaeology & Epigraphy 18, 8-24.
Tomber, R. (2008). Beyond the Roman world. Indo-Roman trade: From pots to pepper.
London: Gerald Duckworth & Co.