Arabs Book Summary - Arabs Book explained in key points
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Arabs summary

Tim Mackintosh-Smith

A 3,000 Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires

4.2 (181 ratings)
30 mins
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    The lives of early Arabs revolved around three things – water, trade, and war.

    Landscapes have always shaped the destinies of people from the Arabian Peninsula. Geographically, the region can be divided into three zones: the rocky northwest, the arid and sandy central plateau, and the fertile southern part. 

    One thing connects all three areas: the lack of water. The people of the Arabian Peninsula developed two approaches to finding water: in the more fertile south, they captured and stored rainwater through large-scale agricultural works. This facilitated political and social organization. In the other parts of Arabia, people roamed the desert from well to oasis. These rootless roamers, who grouped themselves into tribes, were the first people to have been known as Arabs. Their nomadic freedom has been a hallmark of Arab culture ever since. 

    Eventually, the settled southern Arabs and the nomadic groups began to come together to trade. In the first century BCE, settled Arabians from the south began trading frankincense and other valuables across the mountains, traveling by camel. But luxury goods weren’t the only things to spread along the trade routes. Poetry was used by early Arabs to keep records, pray, and communicate in general, and it was wildly popular, passed across communities from north to south. 

    The first written reference to Arabs is by an Assyrian king, who fought a coalition of Arab tribes and thousands of their camels in 853. The reference is indicative of the relationships Arabs had with neighboring empires: to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and later the Persians, Arabs were pests, raiding their trade caravans and stealing their camels. 

    Arabian tribes got a lot better at fighting each other, as well as outsiders, when they added horses to their arsenal. Camels were great for plodding to battle, but the speed and agility of horses, combined with new innovations like the saddlebow and stirrups, spurred Arabs to become an effective fighting force. 

    Arabs at the time didn’t consider themselves one people. But contact with two imperial enemies gradually changed this. From the west came the Romans; from the east came the Persians. Both these empires thought of the various Arab tribes as a group, and gradually Arabs began thinking of themselves that way, too. 

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    What is Arabs about?

    Arabs (2021) is a deep dive into the 3,000-year history of the people we know as Arabs. It’s an exploration of the forces that gave birth to the idea of Arabs as a group – and the forces that have kept them apart ever since. 

    Who should read Arabs?

    • Lovers of a good yarn
    • Those fascinated by transnational histories
    • News junkies looking to go deeper

    About the Author

    Tim Mackintosh-Smith has lived for 30 years in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. He’s written several books about the Arab world, both vivid histories and travelogues alike. In 2011, Newsweek magazine named him one of the twelve finest travel writers of the past 100 years.

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