Alexander the Great had not been long dead before the Parthians, a race of hardy mountaineers, occupied the lands to the east of the Euphrates, made themselves famous in their wars with Rome, and established a wide empire. In the third century it was broken up into petty principalities, and a private citizen who claimed to be heir-at-law of the old Persian kings headed a party, seized the crown, restored the Zoroastrian religion, and raised the empire to a state of power and magnificence scarcely inferior to that of the Great Kings. But the Greeks were still in Asia Minor and Egypt, and it became the hereditary ambition of the Persians to drive them back into their own country. In the seventh century Chosroes the Second accomplished this idea, and restored the frontiers of Cambyses and the first Darius. He conquered Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. He carried his arms to Cryene, and extinguished the last glimmer of culture in that ancient colony. Heraclius, the Byzantine emperor, was in despair. While the Persians overran his provinces in Asia a horde or Cossacks threatened him in Europe. Constantinople, he feared, would soon be surrounded, and it already suffered famine from the loss of Egypt, as Rome had formerly suffered when the Vandals plundered it of Africa. He determined to migrate to Carthage, and had already prepared to depart when the Patriarch persuaded him to change his mind. He obtained peace from Persia by sending earth and water in the old style, and by promising to pay as tribute a thousand talents of gold, a thousand talents of silver, a thousand silk robes, a thousand horses, and a thousand virgins. But instead of collecting these commodities he collected an army, and suddenly dashed into the heart of Persia. Chosroes recalled his troops from the newly conquered lands, but was defeated by the Greeks, and was in his turn compelled to sue for ignominious peace. In the midst of the triumphs which Heraclius celebrated at Constantinople and Jerusalem, an obscure town on the confines of Syria was pillaged by a band of Arab horsemen, who cut in pieces some troops which advanced to its relief. This appeared a trifling event, but it was the beginning of a mighty revolution. In the last eight years of his reign Heraclius lost to the Saracens the provinces which he had recovered from the Persians.
The peninsula of Arabia is almost as large as Hindustan, but does not contain a single navigable river. It is for the most part a sterile tableland furrowed by channels which in winter roar with violent and muddy streams, and which in summer are completely dry. In these stream-beds at a little depth below the surface there is sometimes a stratum of water which, breaking out here and there into springs, creates a habitable island in the waste. Such a fruitful wadi or oasis is sometimes extensive enough to form a town, and each town is in itself a kingdom. This stony, green-spotted land was divided into Arabia Petraea on the north and Arabia Deserta on the south. The north supplied Constantinople, and the south supplied Persia, with mercenary troops; the leaders, on receiving their pay, established courts at home, and rendered homage to their imperial masters. The princes of Arabia Deserta ruled in the name of the Chosroes. The princes of Arabia Petraea were proud to be called the lieutenants of the Caesars.
In the south-west corner of the peninsula there is a range of hills sufficiently high to intercept the passing clouds and rain them down as streams to the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. This was the land of Yemen or Sabaea, renowned for its groves of frankincense and for the wealth of its merchant kings. Its forests in ancient times were inhabited by squalid negro tribes who lived on platforms in the trees, and whose savage stupor was ascribed to the drowsy influence of the scented air. The country was afterwards colonised by men of the Arab race who built ships and established factories on the east coast of Africa, on the coast of Malabar, and in the island of Ceylon. They did not navigate the Red Sea, but dispatched the Indian goods, the African ivory and gold dust, and their own fragrant produce by camel caravan to Egypt or to Petra, a great market city in the north.
The Pharaohs and the Persian kings did not interfere with the merchant princes of Yemen. In the days of the Ptolemies a few Greek ships made the Indian voyage, but could not compete with the Arabs who had so long been established in the trade. But the Roman occupation of Alexandria ruined them completely. The just and moderate government of Augustus, and the demand for Oriental luxuries at Rome, excited the enterprise of the Alexandrine traders, and a Greek named Hippalus made a remarkable discovery. He observed that the winds or monsoons of the Indian Ocean regularly blew during six months from east to west and during six months from west to east. He was bold enough to do what the Phoenicians themselves had never done. He left the land and sailed right across the ocean to the Indian shore with one monsoon, returning with the next to the mouth of the Red Sea. By means of this ocean route the India voyage could be made in half the time. The goods were thereby cheapened, the demand was thereby increased, the Indian Ocean was covered with Greek vessels, a commercial revolution was created, the coasting and caravan trade of the Arabs came to an end, the Romans destroyed Aden, and Yemen withered up and remained independent only because it was obscure.
Arabia had always been a land of refuge, for in its terrible deserts security might always be found. To Arabia had fled the Priests of the Sun after the victories of Alexander and the restoration of Babylonian idolatry. To Arabia had fled thousands of Jews after the second destruction of Jerusalem. To Arabia had fled thousands of Christians who had been persecuted by pagan and still more by Christian emperors. The land was divided among independent princes-—many of them were Christians and many of them were Jews. There is nothing more conducive to an enlightened scepticism, and its attendant spirit toleration, than the spectacle of various religious creeds each maintained by intelligent and pious men. A king of Arabia Felix in the fourth century received an embassy from the Byzantine emperor, with a request that Christians might be allowed to settle in his kingdom, and also that he would make Christianity the religion of the state. He assented to the first proposition. With reference to the second he replied "I reign over men´s bodies, not over their opinions. I exact from my subjects obedience to the government; as to their religious doctrine, the judge of that is the great Creator."
But it came to pass that a king of the Jewish persuasion succeeded to the throne: he persecuted his Christian subjects and made war on Christian kings, burning houses, men, and gospels wherever he could find them. A Christian Arab made his escape, travelled to Constantinople, and, holding up a charred Testament before the throne, demanded help in the name of the Redeemer. The emperor at once prepared for war, and dispatched an envoy to his faithful ally the Negus of Abyssinia.
The old kingdom of Ethiopia had escaped Cambyses and Alexander, and had lost its independence to the Ptolemies only for a time. The Romans made an Abyssinian expedition with complete success, but withdrew from the savage country in disdain. Ethiopia was left to its own devices, which soon became of an Africanising nature. The priests kept the king shut up in his palace and when it suited their convenience sent him word, in the African style, that he must be tired and that it would be good for him to sleep; upon which he migrated to the lower world with his favourite wives and slaves. But there was once a king named Ergamenes who had improved his mind by the study of Greek philosophy, and who, when he received the message of the priests, soon gave them a proof that they were quite mistaken, and that so far from being sleepy he was wide awake. He ordered them to collect in the Golden Chapel, and then, marching in with his guards, he put them all to death. From that time Abyssinia became a military kingdom. As the princes of Numidia had used elephants after the destruction of the Carthaginian republic, so the Abyssinians used them in pageantry and war long after the days of the Ptolemies, who had first shown them how the huge beasts might be entrapped. Hindus were probably employed by the Ptolemies, as they were by the Carthaginians, for the management of the elephantine stud. In the fourth century two shipwrecked Christians converted the king and his people to the new religion—a beneficial event, for thus they were brought into connection with the Roman Empire. The Patriarch of Alexandria was the Abyssinian pope, as he is at the present day, and during all these years he has never ceased to send them their aboona or archbishop. This ecclesiastic is regarded with much reverence; he costs six thousand dollars; he is never allowed to smoke; and by way of blessing he spits upon his congregation, who believe that the episcopal virtue resides in the saliva, and not, as we think, in the fingers´ends.
Abyssinia had still its ancient sea-port in Annesley Bay, and sent trading vessels to the India coast. The Byzantine emperor, having made his proposals through the Patriarch of Alexandria, and having received from the Negus a favourable reply, dispatched a fleet of transports down the Red Sea; the king filled them with his brigand troops; Yemen was invaded and subdued, and now it was the Christians who began to persecute. Another Arab prince ran off for help, and he went to the Persian king, who at first refused to take the country as a gift, saying it was too distant and too poor. However, at last he ordered the prisons to be opened, and placed all the able-bodied convicts they contained at the disposal of the prince. The Abyssinians were driven out, but they returned and re-conquered the land. Chosroes then sent a regular army with orders to kill all the men with black skins and curly hair. Thus Yemen became a Persian province, and no less than three great religions—that of Zoroaster, that of Moses, and that of Jesus—were represented in Arabia.