The first in a series on pre-Islamic sources adduced for Mecca.
Next: 2) Macoraba.
“Hieron d’ hagiōtaton hidrutai, timōmenon hupo pantōn Arabōn perittoteron.”
“A very sacred temple has been established there which is highly revered by all the Arabs.”
—Diodorus Siculus, tr. Stanley M. Burnstein
Ancient literary sources do not have much to say about the Red Sea coast of Arabia. A king of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus (r. 283–46 BCE), sent a fact-finding expedition down the coast to chart the region before he launched his campaigns into northern Arabia. The expedition, led by a certain Aristōn, produced a report for military use. The report has disappeared, but it is generally assumed to have been the main source of the historian and geographer Agatharchides (2nd century BCE) in his seminal work, On the Red Sea. This too has disappeared, but some of the text was preserved and reworked into three later studies: the Bibliotheca Historica of Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE), the Geographica of Strabo (1st BCE–1st CE), and much later – but arguably the best preserved – the Bibliotheca of Photius (9th CE). These three sources, read side by side, give us some idea of what Agatharchides had to say about the western coast of Arabia.
According to Agatharchides, somewhere south of the Gulf of Aqaba is a bay or gulf (kolpos) that runs inland about 500 stadia—a very improbable number, roughly 90 km. The mouth is too craggy for ships to traverse. Around the bay live a hunting people called something like the Batmizomaneis or Banizomeneis. Diodorus uniquely includes the detail that a “very sacred temple has been established there which is highly revered by all the Arabs.” A few modern commentators have identified this temple with the Kaaba, which – according to Islamic tradition – the ‘Arabs’ had uniquely, universally revered long before Muhammad’s lifetime. The first to make this identification was probably Edward Gibbon, who was so confident in the connection, he admitted his surprise that no one had seen it before.
But Gibbon was mistaken. As our sources move on from the bay, southward down the coast, they encounter the lands of a people called the Thamūd (Thamoudēnoi). We have no hard and fast borders for the lands occupied by the Thamūd, but ancient and Islamic sources place them in the northwest of the Peninsula, not far from the Nabataeans and Arabia Petraea. Gibbon explicitly puts the temple between the Thamūd in the northwest and the Sabaeans in the Yemen – an area that may include Mecca – whereas a more careful reading of the Agatharchides tradition places the bay and its vaunted temple north of the Thamūd.
With these parameters in mind, more recent scholars have suggested the long, rocky bay near Wadi Aynuna. This fairly well fits the description, except that it is nowhere near 500 stadia long. Personally, I wonder if Agatharchides’ bay might run all the way to Aynuna from Tiran Island, where the Gulf of Aqaba opens onto the Red Sea coastline. The cluster of peninsulas, islands and reefs at that point may have presented a treacherous passage for ancient ships, resonating with his account. From there, a traveller would have followed the coast to Aynuna, going “inland” as Agatharchides sees it, before turning sharply southeast onto a relatively straight coast. Even this is more like 300 stadia than 500, and extremely speculative besides. We may never know for sure which place Agatharchides was talking about. The Batmizomaneis remain a mystery, as does their temple.
It may be tempting to keep hold of the temple’s description while discarding the geographical context. On this view, Agatharchides/Diodorus was half-right: there was a temple “very sacred” and “highly revered by all the Arabs”, but it was in Mecca, not the northwest. Unfortunately, that is to lean the heaviest on the source’s weakest point. It is entirely plausible that there was a successful temple in the northwest, whereas it stretches credulity that any temple anywhere should have been “revered by all the Arabs”.
The medieval Islamic historical tradition presents the Kaaba as the foremost temple of ancient Arabia, going back centuries. Whatever the merits and pitfalls of that tradition, the earliest sources do not obviously confirm this point. If there really was a centripetal temple throughout the millennium between Ptolemy II and Muhammad, then Agatharchides/Diodorus is the one and only ancient source that might explicitly describe it, and even that puts it in the wrong place. The literary sources for ancient Arabia are foreign and full of holes, but they are not completely ignorant. In my view, their failure to acknowledge a pan-Arabian temple would be a startling oversight.
We can of course choose to suppress the geographical context in order to salvage one convenient sentence. But it would be much easier – more parsimonious – to let the geography stand while moderating the temple’s significance. Agatharchides and his source(s) were outsiders who were more concerned with mapping territories than cataloguing religious practices. The statement about the temple should be read as a simple exaggeration. There was a successful temple near a bay in northwest Arabia. Diodorus does not mention the Kaaba.
Photius, Diodorus and Strabo (English): Stanley M. Burnstein (tr.), Agatharchides of Cnidus: On the Eritraean Sea (1989), 132–173, esp. 152–3 (§92).
Photius and Diodorus (Greek with Latin): Karl Müller (ed.), Geographi Graeci Minores, vol. 1 (1855), esp. 180–1 (§90).
Diodorus (Greek with English): C.H. Oldfather (tr.) Diodorus of Sicily, vol. 2 (Loeb 1935), esp. 216–7 [English].
Strabo (Greek with English): Horace Leonard Jones (tr.), The Geography of Strabo, vol. 7 (Loeb 1930), esp. 342–3 [English].
Jan Retsö, The Arabs in Antiquity (2003), 295–300.
Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall, vol. 5 (1788), 190–1 and n. 45.