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Over the desert, for countless ages, have wandered the Bedouins, pitching their great, black tents wherever they are lucky enough to find a well and scanty pasture for their flocks of camels, sheep and goats. The Arabian barbs (horses) are as famous as the camels, although they cannot go for nearly so long without water. Their beauty, speed and courage soon attracted Western eyes, and between 1689 and 1728 three of them were taken to England; all the thoroughbred horses now racing in England are descended from these.
The Bedouins themselves "the dwellers of the desert" number about 1,500,000, and they lead much the same life as their ancestors did in the days of Mohammed, 1,500 years ago. The townsfolk and settled farming communities make up the rest of the total population of about 17,000,000. They all speak Arabic and all are Moslems, for the great Prophet Mohammed was born in Mecca, and Arabia is the cradle of the Moslem faith, known as Islam. (See the articles islam ; mecca ; mohammed.)
Up to the 19408, few Arabs were able to make much of a living from this barren country. They grew tobacco and coffee and fruit in the Yemen, sugar and cotton in Oman, and dates in any part where there was water. Rare spices such as myrrh and frankincense came fom the south coast, and pearls from the Persian Gulf.
Since then, however, there have been tremendous changes. In Saudi Arabia and near the shores of the Persian Gulf in Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, rich oilfields were discovered. The local rulers of these territories, who had little money before, now receive enormous incomes from the sale of this oil through foreign oil companies or state-owned concerns. Oil has brought power as well as wealth. With the oil money, old towns are being rebuilt and new industries established. Education and social welfare have been improved and the use of cars and aircraft has brought people who live far apart in closer touch with each other. There is a network of radio stations, and most parts of the peninsula can receive television broadcasts. Regular air services link Arabia with Egypt, Jordan and the Sudan, and a railway links the Persian Gulf with Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. The Hejaz Railway between Medina and Damascus in Syria is being restored. Many Arabs who used to wander about the desert on foot or on camels now live and work in the modern towns on the oilfields.
It is usually only in the older towns, such as Riyadh and Mecca, that the visitor can still see camel trains squeezing through the narrow streets, Arab urchins goading, or driving on, their donkeys, loaded with vegetables or firewood, and water carriers selling drinks from their leather bags. Here the houses are built of sun-dried bricks, whitewashed on the outside and surrounded by a courtyard with a high wall. The windows usually have no glass, but can be closed with wooden shutters to keep out the sun by day and the cool winds by night. Indoor heating comes from wood burnt in a metal brazier, and there are rugs and cushions on the floor where people sit cross-legged for their meals.
The Prophet Mohammed was born about 600 years after Christ. After his death at Medina, the Caliphs (an Arabic word for "successors") soon spread his religion and the power of his new kingdom north, south, east and west from Arabia. Actually the Caliphs never ruled from Arabia, their capitals being first in Damascus (Syria), then in Baghdad (Iraq), and finally in Cairo (Egypt). The greatest days of the. Arab Empire were under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who was made famous in The Arabian Nights, but later the Arabs began to quarrel and fight amongst themselves and Arab power soon declined. In 1285 the Mongols burned Baghdad and three centuries later the city was over-run by the Turks, together with Damascus, Cairo and Jerusalem. The Turks were also Moslems and the Sultan of Turkey declared himself to be the new Caliph, but then he neglected Arabia and the rest of the old Arab Empire and let it sink to a low level.
In 1750 a warlike religious movement called Wahabism arose in Arabia. Its leader was the Emir of Nejd, in the heart of Arabia, and he and his followers wanted to make people obey the laws of the Koran, the scripture of the Mohammedan faith. The Wahabis occupied the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but in 1818 they were defeated by the Sultan's forces and had to accept his rule again. Wahabism survived, and when Ibn Saud made himself Emir of Nejd in 1902 he forced the Turks out of central Arabia.
In World War I Turkey joined Germany, and the other Arabs seized the chance to revolt. The Sherif Hussein, keeper of the Holy Cities, proclaimed himself King of the Hejaz, in the northwest, and made an alliance with Great Britain and France. He and his sons (Faisal, who later became King of Iraq, and Abdulla, who was to be King of Jordan), with the daring help of Lawrence of Arabia, led the Arab armies from the Hejaz to Damascus by the side of Lord Allenby's forces from Palestine. Turkish rule over Arabia and countries to the north ceased.