TRADE IN THE GULF
The Persian Gulf lies between two of the major breadbaskets of
the ancient world, the Tigris-Euphrates area (Mesopotamia, meaning
"between the rivers") in present-day Iraq and the Nile Valley
in Egypt. Mesopotamia, a part of the area known as the Fertile
Crescent, was important not only for food production but also
for connecting East to West.
Rivers provided the water that made agriculture possible. Agriculture,
in turn, enabled people to settle in one area and to accumulate
a food surplus that allowed them to pursue tasks besides growing
food, namely, to create a civilization. They chose leaders, such
as kings and priests; they built monuments; they devised systems
of morality and religion; and they started to trade.
Mesopotamia became the linchpin of ancient international trade.
The fertile soil between the Tigris and the Euphrates produced
a arge surplus of food; however, it did not support forests to
produce the timber necessary to build permanent structures. The
region also lacked the mineral resources to make metals. Accordingly,
the early inhabitants of Mesopotamia were forced to go abroad
and trade their food for other raw materials. They found copper
at Magan, an ancient city that lay somewhere in the contemporary
state of Oman and, via Magan, traded with people in the Indus
Valley for lumber and other finished goods.
Trade between Mesopotamia and India was facilitated by the small
size of the Persian Gulf. Water provided the easiest way to transport
goods, and sailors crossed the gulf fairly early, moving out along
the coasts of Persia and India until they reached the mouth of
the Indus. Merchants and sailors became middlemen who used their
position to profit from the movement of goods through the gulf.
The people of Magan were both middlemen and suppliers because
the city was a source of copper as well as a transit point for
Indian trade. Over time, other cities developed that were exclusively
entrepôts, or commercial way stations. One of the best known of
these cities was Dilmun.
Dilmun probably lay on what is now the island state of Bahrain.
Excavations on the island reveal rich burial mounds from the Dilmun
period (ca. 4000 to 2000 B.C.). Scholars believe the monuments
on the island indicate that residents, in addition to farming,
earned money from the East-West trade and that other cities on
the gulf coast survived similarly.
The trading cities on the gulf were closely linked to Mesopotamia,
reflected in the similarities between the archaeological finds
in the two areas. The similar finds suggest that the people of
the gulf coast and the people of the Tigris and Euphrates valley
developed increasingly complex societies and beliefs.
The people of the gulf coast differed from those of the interior
of the Arabian Peninsula. The people in the interior were nomads
who had no time to build cities or monuments and no need to develop
elaborate social structures. When the desert provided insufficient
food for their flocks, the tribes pushed into the date groves
or farmlands of the settled towns. Centers on the gulf coast were
subject to such nomadic incursions, as were the people of Mesopotamia.
As a result, after the second millennium B.C. the gulf began to
take on an increasingly Arab character. Some Arab tribes from
the interior left their flocks and took over the date groves that
ringed the region's oases, while others took up sailing and began
to take part in the trade and piracy that were the region's economic
mainstays. These nomadic incursions periodically changed the ethnic
balance and leadership of the gulf coast.
Meanwhile, trade flourished in the second millennium B.C., as
reflected in the wealth of Dilmun. In about 1800 B.C., however,
both the quality and the amount of goods that passed through Dilmun
declined, and many scholars attribute this to a corresponding
decline in the Mesopotamian markets. Concurrently, an alternate
trade route arose that linked India to the Mediterranean Sea via
the Arabian Sea, then through the Gulf of Aden, thence into the
Red Sea where the pharaohs had built a shallow canal that linked
the Red Sea to the Nile. This new route gave access not only to
Mediterranean ports but also, through the Mediterranean ports,
to the West as well.
One of the ways that rulers directed goods toward their own country
was to control transit points on the trade routes. Oman was significant
to rulers in Mesopotamia because it provided a source of raw materials
as well as a transshipment point for goods from the East. Although
a valuable prize, Oman's large navy gave it influence over other
cities in the gulf. When Mesopotamia was strong, its rulers sought
to take over Oman. When Oman was strong, its rulers pushed up
through the gulf and into Mesopotamia. One of the basic conflicts
in gulf history has been the struggle of indigenous peoples against
outside powers who sought to control the gulf because of its strategic
Competition between Red Sea and Persian Gulf trade routes was
complicated by the rise of new land routes around 1000 B.C. Technological
advances in the second and first millennia B.C. made land routes
increasingly viable for moving goods. The domestication of the
camel and the development of a saddle enabling the animal to carry
large loads allowed merchants to send goods across Arabia as well.
As a result, inland centers developed at the end of the first
millennium B.C. to service the increasing caravan traffic. These
overland trade routes helped to Arabize the gulf by bringing the
nomads of the interior into closer contact with their relatives
on the coast.
Data as of January 1993