The name Arabia, which means “island of the Arabs,” refers to a large peninsula in southwestern Asia bounded by the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, and to the region northwest of the peninsula, including parts of modern-day Syria and Jordan. In ancient times both Greece and Rome tried to control Arabia, attracted by its strategic location at a crossroads of land and sea routes linking Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Greek knowledge of the region was scant until the time of Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C. before he could launch his plan for conquering Arabia. By this time, an Arab people known as the Nabataeans had migrated from present-day Jordan into northwestern Arabia. The Nabataean kingdom prospered, and its capital of Petra became an important trading center. In the 200s B.C. the Ptolemaic dynasty*, Greek rulers in Egypt, established settlements in parts of western Arabia. They called the fertile southwestern coast Arabia Felix (happy or lucky Arabia), the northwestern part of the peninsula Arabia Petraea (stony Arabia), and the interior region Arabia Deserta (desert Arabia).
The Romans first attempted to gain a foothold in Arabia in 25 B.C., when the emperor Augustus sent an unsuccessful expedition there. However, in A.D. 106 the emperor Trajan took control of the Nabataean kingdom, and it became Rome’s Arabia province*. The province became wealthy because important caravan trade routes ran through it. Merchants paid high tolls and taxes to transport precious goods such as frankincense and myrrh* from southern Arabia and silk, pottery, and other products from India and Asia. In the late A.D. 200s, the emperor Diocletian made the southern part of Roman Arabia into a new province called Palestine. Both Arabia and Palestine remained prosperous until they were conquered by the Arabs in the 600s.
* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* frankincense and myrrh fragrant tree resins used to make incense and perfumes