Today, in the dictionary, “Arabic” qualifies a person coming from “Arabia and from any country or community whose language is Arabic”.

Thus, “Arabic” does not only designate a geographic territory or an ethnic group but also a population united by language. In Antiquity, the definition is different.

“Arab” then designates different populations who have in common to inhabit the Arabian Peninsula. Their languages are diverse, but they all belong to the Semitic group and are therefore more or less close to the Arabic language codified later by Muslim grammarians.

The term “Arab” first appeared in the 9th century BC in Assyrian sources. He then refers to populations in northwestern Arabia and the margins of Syria and Mesopotamia:

in other words, it is non-Arab populations who first use this term. In the 7th century BC, a Yemeni text used the word “Arabic” which then means “nomadic pastor” or “Bedouin”: it was the first time that this word was used in Arabia itself.

However, we know from the rare texts which have reached us that the Arabs did not designate themselves thus but according to the name of their tribe.

These Arabs in fact include very varied populations, which occupy the Arabian peninsula. The most populated regions are in the south, which is more water, in large oases, and along the shores of the Arabian Persian Gulf.

So there are semi-nomadic pastors, or Bedouins, traders, and farmers. Geographic and climatic conditions also make it possible to distinguish these populations.

The Greeks and then the Romans distinguish “Petra Arabia” (of stone), in the north, which is a Roman province, “Deserted Arabia” where the nomads live and, finally, “Happy Arabia”, greener and enriched by the trade-in aromatics.

Pliny the Elder describes the Arabs as traders or brigands: in fact, brigandage, or raiding, is practiced against the caravans of merchants in order to secure resources for certain tribes. This practice also continues after the rise of Islam.

Arabia also has kingdoms or large tribal groupings. There are of course those of ancient Yemen, like the famous kingdom of Sheba, but there are others located in the north, like the Nabataean kingdom with its capital Petra (today in Jordan).

In the large oases of Western Arabia, large trading cities have developed: one can cite al-Oula, the ancient Dedan in the Hijaz, or Qaryat al-Faw in the south of Arabia.

Archaeological excavations have revealed vestiges testifying to a refined culture and the richness of these kingdoms. In eastern Arabia, that is to say in the region bordering the shores of the Gulf, Arab kingdoms have developed.

The vestiges of ed-Dour or Mleiha in the United Arab Emirates attest to this; excavations at Mleiha have also revealed the close links between this region and the Nabataean kingdom.

In the fourth century AD, the inscription on the tomb of Imrou al-Qays, located in southern Syria, gave him the title of “king of all Arabs”. This king was also a poet, at least part of whose work has come down to us: it greatly influences Islamic Arabic poetry.

With the rise of Islam and the Arab conquests from the shores of the Atlantic to Central Asia, it is not only a religion that is spreading, but it is also Arab populations that are settling in new territories, and a new culture developing around the Arabic language. This is why, even today, we speak mainly Arabic from Morocco to Iraq.

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