dhow, traditional Persian Gulf trading ship

Arrowheads found in Qatar in 1960 and ash from ancient campfires in Muscat found in 1983, both dated to around 6000 B.C., are the oldest examples of nomadic pastoralists living on the Arabian peninsula. Remains from Neolithic camps seems to indicate that the climate was wetter at that time and there was more food for grazing animals than today. Nomads are thought to have ranged between Iraq and Syria in the north a the Dhofar region of Oman in the south.

Shells and fishbone middens, dated to around 5000 B.C., found near Muscat is the earliest evidence of fishing communities along the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Artifacts found at one of the middens (heaps of shells of marine life remains) included stone net sinkers, a necklace of shell, soapstone and limestone beads, finely-carved shell pendants. Graves contained human skeletons buried on beds of oyster shells or with sea turtle skulls. Analysis of the human remains turned up evidence of malaria and inbreeding. There was little evidence that they ate anything other than what they could take from the sea.

Early Bronze Age (2500-2000 B.C.) cultures existed in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Some believe Arabia was the original home of a number of Semitic tribes the wandered as settled in the Mesopotamia.

The earliest settlements in the Persian Gulf date back to the 4th millennium B.C. The are usually associated with the Umm an-Nar culture, which was centered in the present-day United Arab Emirates. Little is known about them.

Mesopotamia and Persian Gulf Trade

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. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

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.*

Pre-Islamic Arabian art

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 importance.*

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.*

Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia, Indian and Middle Eastern Trade

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. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

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.*

Mesopotamia-era civilizations

Persian Gulf in the Ancient World

Archaeological evidence suggests that Dilmun returned to prosperity after the Assyrian Empire stabilized the TigrisEuphrates area at the end of the second millennium B.C. A powerful ruler in Mesopotamia meant a prosperous gulf, and Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian king who ruled in the seventh century B.C., was particularly strong. He extended Assyrian influence as far as Egypt and controlled an empire that stretched from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. The Egyptians, however, regained control of their country about a half-century after they lost it. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

A series of other conquests of varying lengths followed. In 325 B.C., Alexander the Great sent a fleet from India to follow the eastern, or Persian, coast of the gulf up to the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and sent other ships to explore the Arab side of the waterway. The temporary Greek presence in the area increased Western interest in the gulf during the next two centuries. Alexander's successors, however, did not control the area long enough to make the gulf a part of the Greek world. By about 250 B.C., the Greeks lost all territory east of Syria to the Parthians, a Persian dynasty in the East. The Parthians brought the gulf under Persian control and extended their influence as far as Oman.*

The Parthian conquests demarcated the distinction between the Greek world of the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Empire in the East. The Greeks, and the Romans after them, depended on the Red Sea route, whereas the Parthians depended on the Persian Gulf route. Because they needed to keep the merchants who plied those routes under their control, the Parthians established garrisons as far south as Oman.*

In the third century A.D., the Sassanians, another Persian dynasty, succeeded the Parthians and held the area until the rise of Islam four centuries later. Under Sassanian rule, Persian control over the gulf reached its height. Oman was no longer a threat, and the Sassanians were strong enough to establish agricultural colonies and to engage some of the nomadic tribes in the interior as a border guard to protect their western flank from the Romans.*

This agricultural and military contact gave people in the gulf greater exposure to Persian culture, as reflected in certain irrigation techniques still used in Oman. The gulf continued to be a crossroads, however, and its people learned about Persian beliefs, such as Zoroastrianism, as well as about Semitic and Mediterranean ideas.*

Judaism and Christianity arrived in the gulf from a number of directions: from Jewish and Christian tribes in the Arabian desert; from Ethiopian Christians to the south; and from Mesopotamia, where Jewish and Christian communities flourished under Sassanian rule. Whereas Zoroastrianism seems to have been confined to Persian colonists, Christianity and Judaism were adopted by some Arabs. The popularity of these religions paled, however, when compared with the enthusiasm with which the Arabs greeted Islam.*

Failaka Island, the Link Between Mesopotamia and Asia?

Andrew Lawler wrote in Archaeology magazine: “A forgotten sliver of land in the far north of the Persian Gulf, Kuwait’s Failaka Island is home now mostly to camels....But just under the island’s sandy soil, archaeologists are discovering a complex history extending back 4,000 years, from the golden age of the first civilizations to the wars of the modern era. [Source:Andrew Lawler, Archaeology, February 11, 2013 /=]

“The secret to Failaka’s rich past is its location, just 60 miles south of the spot where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers empty into the Gulf. From the rise of Ur, the world’s largest metropolis in the late third millennium B.C., until Saddam Hussein’s attack during the First Gulf War, the island has been a strategic prize. For thousands of years, Failaka was a key base from which to cultivate and protect—or prey on—the lucrative trade that passed up and down the Persian Gulf. In addition, there were two protected harbors, potable water, and even some fertile soil. The island’s relative isolation provided a safe place for Christian mystics and farmers amid the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D., as well as for pirates a millennium later. /=\

Dilum trade

“Currently, archaeological teams from no less than half a dozen countries, including Poland, France, Denmark, and Italy, are at work on Failaka. Given the political volatility of neighboring nations such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria, the island offers a welcome haven for researchers unable to conduct their work in many other parts of the region. “I started encouraging teams to come in 2004,” says Shehab Shehab, Kuwait’s antiquities director. “And I want to encourage more.” /=\

“The mainland of Kuwait is mostly harsh desert, with only a handful of significant ancient sites. The government already sets aside more than $10 million annually to cover the costs of foreign projects in Kuwait, and hopes to promote science as well as encourage heritage tourism. “Shehab’s dream is to create in Kuwait a kind of research center for Gulf basin archaeology,” says archaeologist Piotr Bielinski from the University of Warsaw, who is digging at a prehistoric site on the mainland just north of Kuwait City. And excavators on Failaka are making the most of this unique opportunity, exposing evidence of Mesopotamian merchants, religious structures representing three cultures and spanning more than 2,500 years, a pirate’s lair, and the remains of Failaka’s last battle, ample testimony to the island’s millennia-long endurance.” /=\


Dillum (Dilmun) was ancient Semitic-speaking, city-state and trade center centered mainly on the island of Bahrain that thrived from around 3200 B.C. to 1200 B.C. It was described in Sumerian literature as the city of the gods. Archeologists have found temples and settlements on Dillum, dated to 2200 B.C.

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. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Persian Gulf States: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1993]

Based on textual evidence, Dillum was located in the Persian Gulf, on a trade route between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilisation, and embraced Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the coastal regions of present-day eastern Saudi Arabia close to the sea and to artesian springs. At its height, it controlled the Persian Gulf trading routes. Some scholars have theorized that the Sumerians regarded Dilmun as a sacred place, but there is no ancient textual evidence to back this up. Dilmun was mentioned by the Mesopotamians as a trade partner, a source of copper, and a trade entrepôt. It was among the lands conquered by King Sargon of Akkad and his descendants. The Sumerian tale of the garden paradise of Dilmun may have been an inspiration for the Garden of Eden story. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Dilmunites is the name given to the people of Dillum. They were a maritime people who controlled Persian Gulf trade. Andrew Lawler wrote in Archaeology magazine: “ In the mythology of ancient Sumeria (modern Iraq), Dilmun is described as an Eden-like place of milk and honey. But by 2000 B.C., Dilmunites were leaving their homeland to become seagoing merchants and establish a powerful trading network that eventually stretched from India to Syria. Mesopotamian clay tablets refer to ships from Dilmun bringing wood, copper, and other goods from distant lands. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Archaeology February 11, 2013 /=]

Dilmun in the Sumerian Myth Enki and Ninhursanga

Dilmun-era tombs in Bahrain

The myth of the Sumerians gods Enki and Ninhursanga goes: “Pure are the cities — and you are the ones to whom they are allotted. Pure is Dilmun land. Pure is Sumer — and you are the ones to whom it is allotted. Pure is Dilmun land. Pure is Dilmun land. Virginal is Dilmun land. Virginal is Dilmun land. Pristine is Dilmun land. He laid her down all alone in Dilmun, and the place where Enki had lain down with his spouse, that place was still virginal, that place was still pristine. He laid her down all alone in Dilmun, and the place where Enki had lain down with Ninsikila, that place was virginal, that place was pristine. [Source: J.A. Black, G. Cunningham, E. Robson, and G. Zlyomi 1998, 1999, 2000, Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford University,]

“In Dilmun the raven was not yet cawing, the partridge not cackling. The lion did not slay, the wolf was not carrying off lambs, the dog had not been taught to make kids curl up, the pig had not learned that grain was to be eaten. When a widow has spread malt on the roof, the birds did not yet eat that malt up there. The pigeon then did not tuck the head under its wing. No eye-diseases said there: "I am the eye disease." No headache said there: "I am the headache." No old woman belonging to it said there: "I am an old woman." No old man belonging to it said there: "I am an old man." No maiden in her unwashed state ...... in the city. No man dredging a river said there: "It is getting dark." No herald made the rounds in his border district. No singer sang an elulam there. No wailings were wailed in the city's outskirts there.

Ninsikila said to her father Enki: "You have given a city. You have given a city. What does your giving avail me? You have given a city, Dilmun. You have given a city. What does your giving avail me? You have given ....... You have given a city. What avails me your giving?" "You have given ......, a city that has no river quay. You have given a city. What does your giving avail me?... (Enki answered Ninsikila:) "When Utu steps up into heaven, fresh waters shall run out of the ground for you from the standing vessels on Ezen's shore, from Nanna's radiant high temple, from the mouth of the waters running underground." "May the waters rise up from it into your great basins. May your city drink water aplenty from them. May Dilmun drink water aplenty from them. May your pools of salt water become pools of fresh water. May your city become an emporium on the quay for the Land. May Dilmun become an emporium on the quay for the Land."

“"May the land of Tukric hand over to you gold from Harali, lapis lazuli and ....... May the land of Meluha load precious desirable cornelian, mec wood of Magan and the best abba wood into large ships for you. May the land of Marhaci yield you precious stones, topazes. May the land of Magan offer you strong, powerful copper, dolerite, u stone and cumin stone. May the Sea-land offer you its own ebony wood, ...... of a king. May the 'Tent'-lands offer you fine multicoloured wools. May the land of Elam hand over to you choice wools, its tribute. May the manor of Urim, the royal throne dais, the city ......, load up into large ships for you sesame, august raiment, and fine cloth. May the wide sea yield you its wealth."

The city's dwellings are good dwellings. Dilmun's dwellings are good dwellings. Its grains are little grains, its dates are big dates, its harvests are triple ......, its wood is ...... wood.) At that moment, on that day, and under that sun, when Utu stepped up into heaven, from the standing vessels on Ezen's shore, from Nanna's radiant high temple, from the mouth of the waters running underground, fresh waters ran out of the ground for her. The waters rose up from it into her great basins. Her city drank water aplenty from them. Dilmun drank water aplenty from them. Her pools of salt water indeed became pools of fresh water. Her fields, glebe and furrows indeed produced grain for her. Her city indeed became an emporium on the quay for the Land. Dilmun indeed became an emporium on the quay for the Land. At that moment, on that day, and under that sun, so it indeed happened.”

Dilmun Trade

Dilmun copper bull head

Many goods that traveled through the Persian Gulf went through the island of Bahrain. There was an early Bronze Age trade network between Mesopotamia, Dilmun (Bahrain), Elam (southwestern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan) and the Indus Valley.

"Persian Gulf" types of circular, stamped (rather than rolled) seals associated with Dilmun have been found at Lothal in Gujarat, India, and Failaka, as well as in Mesopotamia, This is regarded as fairly firm evidence that long-distance sea trade involving Dillum took place.. What was traded is less known but is believed to have included timber and precious woods, ivory, lapis lazuli, gold, and luxury goods such as carnelian and glazed stone beads, pearls from the Persian Gulf, shell and bone inlays, which were traded with Mesopotamia in exchange for silver, tin, woolen textiles, olive oil and grains. Copper ingots from Oman and bitumen from Mesopotamia is likely to have been exchanged for cotton textiles and domestic fowl from the Indus region as examples these as trade goods have been found. The weights and measurements used at Dilmun were identical to those used by the Indus, but different from those used in southern Mesopotamia. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Sumerians established trade links with cultures in Anatolia, Syria, Persia and the Indus Valley. Similarities between pottery in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley indicate that trade probably occurred between the two regions. The Sumerians traded for gold and silver from Indus Valley, Egypt, Nubia and Turkey; ivory from Africa and the Indus Valley; agate, carnelian, wood from Iran; obsidian and copper from Turkey; diorite, silver and copper from Oman and coast of Arabian Sea; carved beads from the Indus valley; translucent stone from Oran and Turkmenistan; seashell from the Gulf of Oman. Raw blocks of lapis lazuli are thought to have been brought from Afghanistan by donkey and on foot. Tin may have come from as far away as Malaysia but most likely came from Afghanistan, Turkey or Europe.

Dilmunites and Even Earlier People on Failaka Island

Dilmun Clay coffin

Andrew Lawler wrote in Archaeology magazine: “The oldest settlement on Failaka was long thought to have been founded in about 1800 B.C. by the Dilmunites,. But on Failaka’s southwest corner, a team from Denmark’s Moesgård Museum has uncovered evidence that Mesopotamians arrived at least a century before the Dilmunites. The finds are centered on a recently unearthed Mesopotamian-style building typical of those found on the nearby Iraqi mainland dating from around 2000 B.C. The structure was later partially covered by a Dilmunite temple.” [Source: Andrew Lawler, Archaeology February 11, 2013 /=]

“There the Danish team excavated an ostrich egg, a shell ladle of Indian manufacture, and pottery similar to that found in what is today Pakistan. These discoveries attest to a vibrant mercantile business run by Mesopotamians themselves, rather than Dilmunite middlemen. The most telling artifacts were four cylinder seals of the type used by scribes to identify Mesopotamian traders and their goods during the end of the third millennium B.C. These seals, found within the building, demonstrate the port’s importance during this first era of global trade. “This is not just a fishing village,” says team director Flemming Hojlund. Instead, the team’s work suggests that Mesopotamians, far from being passive consumers of foreign goods brought by distant seafarers, were active participants in the sea trade. /=\

“By the nineteenth century B.C., Failaka had become a linchpin in the Dilmunites’ operations. At this point, after the Dilmunites had either ousted the Mesopotamians or merely succeeded them, there are no further signs of a Mesopotamian presence. The Dilmunites constructed a large temple and palace complex almost on top of the houses built by the earlier Mesopotamian residents. A French team that excavated the temple in the 1980s suggested that it was an oddity, possibly related to Syrian temple towers. But recent work by a team from the Moesgård Museum in Denmark points to a building remarkably similar to the Barbar sanctuary in Bahrain, considered the grandest Dilmun structure. /=\

“The Failaka temple sat on a large platform nearly 90 feet wide and 120 feet long and the temple itself once measured 60 feet square, only slightly smaller than the Barbar temple. The most impressive remains of the Failaka structure are the shattered, mammoth limestone columns that once supported the temple. Such stone is not found on the island. Dilmunites quarried the massive blocks on the mainland, then ferried them to the island, an impressive feat requiring not only extensive planning and coordination efforts, but also large, seaworthy craft. The columns were also highly valued in later eras, and much of their stone was plundered and taken back to the mainland in antiquity. The Moesgård team is now focusing on the so-called palace, originally excavated in the 1960s, that lies about 30 feet from the temple. Work is still under way, but there are signs that it may have served not as a royal residence but rather as an important series of large storerooms to house the goods that made the Dilmunites a formidable economic power.

Umm an-Nar and Jabal Hafit

At a site on the Umm an-Nar, on an island off of Abu Dhabi, dated to around 2200 B.C., archeologists found enclosed circular graves, 15 to 40 feet in diameter and often two stories high that contained as many as 30 people. Similar tombs have been found from Ras al-Khaimah in the north to Ras al-Hadd south of Muscat and along the Frankincense Trail oasis settlements.

Tombs, dated to around 3000 B.C., were found near Jabal Hafit at the Oman-United Arab Emirates border. Artifacts included jars with geometric designs, bronze pins, and stone and faience beads. The pottery is similar to pottery produced at that time in Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of human settlement. Similar tombs have been found throughout Oman and the United Arab Emirates.


The ancient Magan culture thrived along the coasts of the Persian Gulf during the early Bronze Age (2500-2000 B.C.) in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Ancient myths from Sumer refer to ships from Magan carrying valued woods, copper and diorite stone. Archeologists refers to people in Magan as the Barbar culture.

Sumerian texts, dated to 2300 B.C., describe Magan ships, with a cargo capacity of 20 tons, sailing up the Gulf of Oman and stopping at Dilum to stock up on fresh water before carrying on to Mesopotamia. The texts also said Magan was south of Sumer and Dillum, was visited by travelers from the Indus Valley, and had high mountains, where diorite, or gabbro, was quarried to use to make black statues.

Based on artifacts found at its archeological site it was involved in trade with Mesopotamia, Iran, Arabia, Afghanistan and the Indus Valley. Objects from the Indus Valley found at Magan sites in Oman include three-sided prism seals and Indus Valley pottery.

The Magan people subsisted on a diet of fish, shellfish, camel and goat meat, barley, wheat, dates and fruit. They made jewelry with beads made of agate, carnelian paste, steatite (soapstone), shell, bone and gold and produced small animal figures made from a lead-silver alloy.

Magan and Copper

Samad Al Shaan is an ancient site with copper mines and smelting sites that have been dated to the third millennium B.C. Trade from Oman's ancient copper sources was controlled by the Magan culture, who dominated the copper trade in the ancient world. Copper was needed to make both copper and bronze tools and weapons.

A number of Magan era (2500 to 2000 B.C.) copper slag heaps and un-shaped copper ignots have been found at the oasis village of Maysar in central-eastern Oman. A metal workshop was also found there.

The ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia didn't have their own copper sources. Copper mined from mines in the hills around Wadi Jizzi near Sohar in Oman were exported at least as early as 2200 B.C. by the Magan to the Sumerian empire and Elam, another ancient civilization. As other copper sources were discovered and exploited, the influence of the Magan waned.

Ancient Pearling in the Persian Gulf

Andrew Lawler wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Archaeologists excavating on the shores of the Persian Gulf search for what may prove to be the source of the world’s longest-lived economy years, people have settled along the shores of the Persian Gulf, in what one scholar calls “one of the most inhospitable regions on the planet.” Despite its lack of natural resources, such as water or fertile soil, what the Gulf region did have was the world’s most reliable source of pearls, until they began to be grown artificially a century ago. The long history of pearls and pearling in the Persian Gulf was, as a result, largely forgotten due to the collapse of the natural pearl industry in the early1900s. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Archaeology, March/April 2012 ^]

“Soon, the region came to be known only for exporting oil, despite the fact that some of the cities lining the Gulf’s coast actually owe their early origins to pearls. The luminescent gems have been prized as a symbol of luxury since antiquity. The ever-increasing demand for the tiny spheres not only attracted people to the Gulf’s Arabian shores, but also provided the raw material for an economy that may have been one of the most enduring in the world. Nearly all that was known about the ancient pearling industry came from scattered mentions in texts that date only as far back as the fourth century B.C. However, archaeologists working at sites from Kuwait to Oman are now discovering evidence of ancient pearls, pearling, and the pearl trade. Because of this, they are beginning to understand the role the gem played in the region at Neolithic villages, Bronze Age centers, and wealthy cities of the eighteenth century. Says Robert Carter, an archaeologist at the University College London’s new campus in Doha, Qatar,“The societies of the Gulf were shaped by the pearl oyster and trade from the earliest days. ^

“The pearls were probably gathered locally from the oysters that were part of the inhabitants’ diet,” says Hans-Peter. Like Carter, Uerpmann suspects that pearling may already have started to become a sophisticated venture at this early time, when the first proto-cities in Mesopotamia were forming. “The tech-nologies for diving, such as [seaworthy] boats and the use of diving weights, were certainly known,”he says. Reed and wood degrade quickly in this climate, however, and dating the few ancient stone weights found along the Gulf is difficult since they were often reused and typically are not found in dateable contexts. Both Uerpmann and Carter say that there are not yet enough data to prove a thriving pearl trade existed, although intriguing evidence to support their claims is being discovered. Fishhooks begin to appear in trenches from this period, as do objects made of mother-of-pearl. Tübingen’s Philip Drechsler, who is digging at a Neolithic site on the Saudi Arabian coast, says that 90 percent of the shells his team finds are from pearl oysters. If pearls were, in fact, being systematically gathered atthis time, as Carter and Uerpmann both suspect, the gems may be associated with the oldest long-distance maritime trading network in the ancient world. ^

Oldest Evidence of Pearling in the Persian Gulf

Andrew Lawler wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Ancient pearls predating the Roman Empire are nearly as rare as early references. In addition, as archaeological artifacts, pearls present great challenges. Their small size makes them easy for excavators to miss without careful sieving. They are also fragile and can degrade rapidly in the ground. Like many gems, pearls are often passed down in jewelry, and the stones are sometimes reused over generations, making them difficult to date. Unlike mining or pottery mak-ing, pearling leaves behind relatively few artifacts. As to the historical record, the difficult job of gathering oysters from the depths of the sea usually took place well out of sight of scribes and all but the most adventurous ancient travelers. Apart from a few tiny pearls found during excavations in Bahrain in the 1990s, there was almost no archaeological evidence of ancient pearling in the area until recently. That began to change a decade ago. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Archaeology, March/April 2012 ^]

Persian Gulf waters

“Just north of Kuwait City, on an uninviting stretch of coast called As-Sabiyah, 30 miles from the Iraqi border, a team co-led by Carter was exploring the remains of a shell jewelry workshop in a Neo-lithic village. Taking extra care to pick out all the beads and worked stone, excavators uncovered a tiny pearl only one-fifth of an inch wide, with a delicate incision. “It probably would have been missed in a normal excavation,” Carter recalls. Radiocarbon dating of organic material found with the pearl placed the workshop at 5300 B.C., making the gem the oldest one yet found in a dated archaeological context. ^

“At thes same site, the team also uncovered the remains of a reed boat covered in barnacles. The two discoveries—the oldest-known seafaring vessel and the oldest-known pierced pearl—offered preliminary evidence that the people of the Persian Gulf had found a way of life that formed the basis of the region’seconomy until the early twentieth century. Since the discovery at As-Sabiyah, archaeologists have dis-covered a number of pearls at other ongoing excavations fromKuwait to Oman. A Danish team uncovered two unpierced pearls while working on the Kuwaiti island of Failaka, just off-shore from As-Sabiyah, which likely date to around the second millennium B.C. A pearl dating to about 5000 B.C. was found in a grave in Umm al-Quwain in the United Arab Emirates, at the eastern end of the Gulf. Farther east along the coast of Oman, near the capital city of Muscat, three perforated pearls were discovered still clasped in the hands of a recently excavated fourth-millennium B.C. skeleton. At Al-Buhais in Sharjah, a United Arab Emirate near Dubai, Hans-Peter and Margarete Uerpmann, from Germany’s Tübingen University, found a remarkable tomb, dating to around 4500 B.C. in which a woman’s pearls were found strung on a necklace. She also had a single pierced pearl on her chin bone. ^

Ancient Pearling Trade in the Persian Gulf

Andrew Lawler wrote in Archaeology magazine: “As part of that network, in exchange for pearls, Mesopotamian merchants may have traded a type of pottery, first found at the site of Al-Ubaid in modern Iraq. Colorful Ubaid pottery is found at sites dotted along the Arabian shores of the Gulf, includ-type of shellfish that produces a stone “which is very expensive throughout Asia and is sold in Persia and other inland regions for its weight in gold.” Isidorus of Charax, a geographer, who lived around the beginning of the first century A.D. .,described men on rafts bringing up shells from the deep that produced large pearls.[Source: Andrew Lawler, Archaeology, March/April 2012 ^]

“Pearls were very popular in the ancient Roman world. A second-century A.D. funerary portrait from the Egyptian city of Antinopolis shows a woman wearing impressive pearl earrings and a gem and pearl necklace. Most of the pearl trade took place on boats and in small villages and encampments. In Bahrain, evidence has been swallowed up by rapid urban development. Thus, filling in the later years of pearling is difficult. ^ “Several Mesopotamian tablets dating to the third and second millennia B.C. refer to a coveted stone called “fish eyes,” which may be a reference to pearls, although scholars do not agree on the translation of this phrase. What is certain is that by the Roman and Byzantine peri-ods, the Persian Gulf was famous for providing pearls to the rich and powerful in Rome and Constantinople, and then, later, to Islamic courts in Damascus, Baghdad, and Isfahan. Though texts throughout this long era indicate that Arabians practiced pearling, a dearth of Roman-era burials in the area, coupled with the Muslim tradition of burying the dead without jewelry, leave a gap in the archaeological history of pearling. ^

pearl divers at work

“According to some brief texts, the Sassanian Empire, which collapsed with the coming of Islam in the seventh century A.D. ., sought to control the pearling trade and its profits from its heartland in Iran. They also mention that pirates made occasional raids on ships carrying the precious cargo. By the eleventh century A.D.., texts claim sultans from eastern Saudi Arabia took half the pearls found by divers in Bahrain. A century later, travel-ers of the time say Julfar, at the far eastern end of the Gulf, was a major pearling center and that 300 pearl fisheries were scattered across the region. By the time Columbus sailed to America, Bahrain had emerged, perhaps not for the first time,as the preeminent pearling center, with 1,000 boats at its wharves and beaches. One of the nine courtyards (left) that surrounds Zubarah’s large main palace, whose size and grandeur are an indication of the city’s power and wealth during its heyday.” ^


Myrrh is a sap-like natural gum or resin that is extracted frum cuts in the bark of a number of small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora. Myrrh resin has been used for millennia as a perfume, incense, and medicine and was sometimes mixed with wine and ingested. Myrrh is mentioned as a rare perfume with intoxicating qualities in several places in the Old Testament. In Genesis 37:25 the Ishmaelite traders who bought Joseph from Jacob's sons had "camels ... loaded with spices, balm and myrrh". In Exodus 30:23-25 explains that how Moses used 500 shekels of liquid myrrh tas a core ingredient of the sacred anointing oil. [Source: Wikipedia

Myrrh is mentioned in the New Testament as one of the three gifts (alongside gold and frankincense) that the magi "from the East" — The Wise Men — presented to the Christ Child (Matthew 2:11).

Some believe that the myrrh the three wise men carried was the oil used by Jewish high priests to anoint the kings of Israel. Jesus was offered wine and myrrh before the crucifixion (Mark 15:23). According to John's Gospel, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea brought a 100-pound mixture of myrrh and aloes to wrap Jesus' body (John 19:39). The Gospel of Matthew relates that as Jesus went to the cross, he was given vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink (Matthew 27:34); the Gospel of Mark describes the drink as wine mingled with myrrh (Mark 15:23). Muslims still use incense derived myrrh in their holy sites and use the resin for health purposes. Ruth Eglash wrote in the Washington Post, “Frankincense and myrrh, along with gold, are forever intertwined with the Christmas story as the gifts the wise men took to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. While frankincense endured, myrrh almost disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire. The balsamon tree, whose extract was used to make myrrh’s exotic perfumes and embalming oil, no longer grew on the banks of the Dead Sea, where ancient Hebrew farmers worked. Although various species of the plant — known scientifically as ―commiphora — were found in other places in the Middle East, as well as in Asia, Africa and the Americas, the myrrh industry was all but dead in the Holy Land. [Source:Ruth Eglash, Washington Post December 24, 2016]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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