in a country such as this, or such as the sahara of africa, it is natural that no people would seek to dwell and that it have a scarce population. it is equally natural that whoever settles in such a desert has done so for the sake of the refuge the desert provides and that he entertains no purpose beyond survival. the inhabitants of the oasis, on the other hand, may envision a different purpose. but the oases themselves remain unknown to any but the most daring adventurer prepared to venture into the desert at the risk of his own life. except for yaman, the arabian peninsula was literally unknown to the ancient world.
the geographic position of the peninsula saved it from de-population. in those ancient times, men had not yet mastered navigation and had not yet learned to cross the sea with the confidence requisite for travel or commerce. the arabic proverbs which have come down to us betray the fact that men feared the sea as they feared death. trade and commerce had to find another road less dangerous than the sea. the most important trade route was that which extended from the roman empire and other territories in the west to india and other territories in the east. the arabian peninsula stood astride the two roads connecting east and west, whether by way of egypt or by way of the persian gulf. its inhabitants and masters, namely the bedouins, naturally became the princes of the desert routes just as the maritime people became princes of the sea-lanes when sea communications replaced land communications. it was equally natural that the princes of the desert would plan the roads of caravan so as to guarantee the maximum degree of safety, just as the sea navigators were to plan the course of ships away from tempests, and other sea dangers. “the course of the caravan,” says heeren, “was not a matter of free choice, but of established custom. in the vast steppes of sandy desert which the caravans had to cross, nature had sparingly allotted to the traveler a few scattered places of rest where, under the shade of palm trees and beside cool fountains, the merchant and his beast of burden might refresh themselves. such places of repose became entrepots of commerce and, not infrequently, sites of temples and sanctuaries under the protection of which the merchant pursued his trade and to which the pilgrim resorted."[heeren's researches: africa, vol. i, p. 23, quoted by muir, op. cit., pp. ii-iii.]