Places to which men and women would once journey in the expectation of discovery and adventure are today the easily accessible resorts of the tourist. Desert regions which no more than fifty years ago were the homelands of tribes still following an ancient way of life now house vast complexes of industry. In tracing the pioneering journeys of the explorers of Arabia we have to remember the world as it appeared to them, with its blank spaces, its uncertain delineation, its unknown hazards.
The ancient Greeks and Romans had skirted the coasts of Arabia and sailed through the Red Sea and the gulf that was sometimes called Arabian and sometimes Persian, but through the dark ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire Europeans no longer ventured to the East. The Crusades turned Europe's attention once again to the lands of the Arabs, but they were matters of political intervention and religious zeal that had little to do with exploration.
By the time Europeans began to look again towards the East with thoughts of trade and discovery, much that the ancient wayfarers discovered had been lost. The process of exploration had to begin afresh.
It was the Italians, the Portuguese and the Spaniards who took the initiative in voyaging eastwards once again, setting up new trade routes across lands and seas that were by now under the nominal control of the Tartar moguls and the Ottoman Turks. In the fourteenth century, following the voyages of Marco Polo and his successors, Arabia and the Levant, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf became once more the highways and staging-posts of trade between Europe and the East. From Basra the commodities of the Orient were taken by land to Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut, where they were picked up by the galleys of Venice. The pilgrim caravans of Mecca began to carry the spices and drugs of the Indies back to Cairo and Damascus.
In the late fifteenth century King John of Portugal set out to find India by the land route. With his Arabic-speaking companions Pedro de Couillan and Alfonso de Payua, he went from Naples via Rhodes to Cairo and through the Red Sea to Aden. De Couillan became the first European since the last days of the Roman Empire to make a recorded visit to the Arabian mainland. The Portuguese went on to win command of the seas and to dot the coastlines of Arabia, the Indies and Africa with their fortresses and trading stations.
The Dutch stirred too. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries their fleets began to compete with Spaniards and Portuguese in the . . .