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Appendix 42:
Finding the Twelve Lost Tribes of Ishmael

Copyright 2002 CanBooks

Web Site The Nabataeans


Most of us are familiar with the ancient story of Abraham and his desire to have a son. In the Biblical account of his story, Abraham first has a son through his 'handmaiden' Hagar. This son is named Ishmael and is Abraham's first born son. When Abraham's second son is born, this son, named Isaac, is declared the 'son of promise.' The Jews today claim decent from Abraham through this second son, Isaac. Few people today, however, know what happened to the descendants of Ishmael. It is often assumed that they simply became the Arabs of the Middle East, but to most of us, our knowledge of them stops there.

The Biblical record of Ishmael tells us that God promised Abraham that Ishmael would have twelve sons and that he would become a great nation though them. (Genesis 12). Later, in Genesis 25 we are presented with a list of the descendants of Ishmael, which does indeed include twelve sons. This list is repeated in I Chronicles 1:29-33.

Ishmael's sons are listed as:

 NabajothKedar Adbeel
 MibsamMishma Dumah
 MassaHadad Teyma
 JeturNaphish Kedemah

These sons eventually took wives, had children, and through these children, tribes were formed. These tribes made up the nations that dwelt from Havilah to Shur, and from Egypt to Assyria. The descendants of Ishmael, however, were not the sole tribes in the Arabian Desert. Other tribes emerged from other sources. Some of these became the people of South Arabia and others also wandered and settled in Arabia.

Below we will examine the twelve sons of Ishmael, and try and determine what might have happened to them.

More information is known about the dependence of Ishmael's eldest son, Nabajoth than any of the others.

In the Bible, Qedar and the tribe of Nebayot were renown for sheep raising. Isaiah 60:7. Their names are frequently found together in Assyrian records.

Nabajoth is specifically mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, who identified the Nabataeans of his time with Ishmael's eldest son. He claimed that the Nabataeans lived through the whole country extending from the Euphrates to the Red Sea, and referred to this area as 'Nabatene,' or the area that the Nabataeans ranged in. Josephus goes on to say that it was the Nabataeans who conferred their names on the Arabian nations. (Jewish
Antiquities I.22,1) Josephus lived and wrote during the time that the Nabataeans were in existence, and supposedly, he obtained his information directly from the Nabataeans themselves. These Nabataeans spoke and wrote an early form of Arabic and thus they were often referred to as 'Arabs' by Greek and Roman historians.

Previous to this, Assyrian records tell us of King Ashurbanipal (668-663 BC) who was fighting with the 'Nabaiateans of Arabia.' Then in 703 BC a group of Chaldaeans and neighboring tribes rebelled against Sennacherib, the Assyrian ruler. The ancient records of Tiglath Pilezeer III list, among the rebels, the Hagaranu (possibly the descendants of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael), the Nabatu (very possibly the descendants of Nebayoth, the eldest son of Ishmael) and the Kedarites (descendants of Ishmael's second son). According to the records, these tribes fled from Assyria into the Arabian Desert and could not be conquered.

The Assyrian kingdom eventually broke into two as two brothers began to rule, one the King of Babylonia and the other the King of Assyria. In 652 BC conflict broke out between these two brothers, and in support of the Babylonian king, the Kedarites invaded western Assyria, were defeated, and fled to Natnu the leader of the Nabayat for safety. (As described in the records of Esarhaddan) Later the Kedarites and the Nabayat attacked the western boarders of Assyria but were defeated. After their defeat, Natnu's son, Nuhuru was declared the leader of the Nabatu.

Three hundred years later the Nabatu surface again, this time in the Zenon papyri which date from 259 BC. They mention that the Nabatu were trading Gerrhean and Minaean frankincense, transporting them to Gaza and Syria at that time. They transported their goods through the Kedarite centers of Northern Arabia, Jauf, and Tayma. Early Nabataean pottery has also been found in locations on the Persian Gulf, along the coasts of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. (Tuwayr, Zubayda, Thaj, and Ayn Jawan) There are also ancient references to the Nabatu, as living along the western edges of the Arabian Peninsula and in the Sinai. These Nabatu were also pirates who sailed the Red Sea plundering trading vessels. Later they established bases in a number of seaports, including the port city of Aila (modern day Aqaba), which is only some 120 km from present day Petra.

While most of us think of the Nabataeans as people who transported goods in the desert by camel caravan, it has become increasingly evident that the Nabataeans were also a sea trading people.

It is quite clear from the historical records that in 586 BC, as the Edomites began a gradual migration north, into Jewish lands that had been emptied by Nebuchadnezzar, the tribes of Arabia also began to move northward. From their port city of Aila, (Aqaba) it was only a short move inland for the Nabatu to occupy the quickly emptying land of the Edomites, eventually making it the heart of the Nabataean Empire.

Although the chronology is not yet clear, it appears that some Edomites remained behind. Those that emigrated into Judeah became known as "Idumaeans." These were some of the people that opposed the Jews during the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem under Ezra; and the rebuilding of the city walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah.

In time, the Nabataeans built an impressive civilization based on merchant trade. Their capital was originally the city of Petra, located deep in the sandstone mountains of southern Jordan. Later, Bostra, in southern Syria also functioned as a royal city. The Nabataeans also built a number of other cities, many of them in the Negev, while others were located in Northern Saudi Arabia today, and in other parts of modern Jordan. In 106 AD they seceded their empire to the Romans and eventually their Nabataean distinctiveness disappeared.

As we have already mentioned, the sons of Kedar became known as the Kedarites. The Kedarites were the main military power of the sons of Ishmael. Isaiah speaks of Kedar's 'glory and her gifted archers.' (Isaiah 21:16-17) Ezekiel 27:21 associates Arabia with all of the princes of Kedar, suggesting a confederation under their leadership.

During history, the Kedarites were in constant conflict with the Assyrians. The Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians and even the Roman realized the importance of taking control of the commercial routes in northern Arabia that were under the dominion of the Kedarites (and later the Nabataeans).

Nehemiah's opponent, 'Geshem the Arab' has been identified as one of the kings of Kedar from the mid fifth century BC. (based on a number of North Arabian inscriptions)

Regarding their religion, Assyrian inscriptions tell us that Sennacherib captured of several Arabian deities in the Kedarite city of Dumah. The chief deity was Atarsamain, or the morning star of heaven. (the counterpart of Mesopotamian Ishtar). The tribal league led by the Kedarites was known as "the confederation of Atarsamain, and their cult was led by a series of queen-priestesses in Dumah. The rest of their pantheon of gods consisted of Dai, Nuhai (Nuhay), Ruldai (Ruda), Abirillu, and Atarquruma. Rock graffiti in the Thamudic language reveals that Ruda was known as the evening star, and Nuhay was the sun-god, and they were worshiped in addition to Atarsamain 'the morning star.' Herodotus, in the fifth century BC identified two deities worshiped among the Arabs, as a fertility god called Orotalt (perhaps Ruda, as identified by Macdonald in North Arabian in the First Millennium BC, 1360), and a sky goddess know as Allat. (Herodotus III,3.) Later Allat became referred to in the masculine form as Allah)

The Kedarites are mentioned in a number of places in the Bible, and always referred to as nomads.

Psalm 120:5 This Psalm is a cry of distress, as the writer has fled and lives in a place called Meshech in the tents of the Kedarites.

Isaiah 42:11 Kedar is mentioned in a song of praise.

Jeremiah 2:10 The children of Israel are advised to check with Kedar and see if it is an ordinary thing for a people to forsake their gods and turn to others.

Jeremiah 49:28 This passage presents us with a prophecy against Arabia (Hazor and Kedar) foretelling that Nebuchadnezzar a king of Babylon will destroy them.

Ezekiel 27:21 In this lament over the city of Tyre, it is mentioned that Arabia, and the princes of Kedar traded lambs, rams, and goats with Tyre.

In the middle of the fourth century BC, the Kedarites seem to fade from history and the Nabataeans then come to the forefront.

The tribe of Adbeel is often identified with the people of Idibi'ilu of the land of Arubu, who became subjects to Tiglath Pileser II (744 - 727 BC). This Idibi'ilu was given the duty as the Assyrian king's agent on the boarders of Egypt. His tribe was said to have dwelt far away, towards the west. From this reference, some historians have thought that the tribe of Adbeel lived in the Sinai.

Mibsam and Mishma
Some historians have wondered if the descendants of Mishma were the founders of the villages around Jebel Misma.

It is thought that these two tribes may have intermarried with the Simeonites (I Chronicles 4:24-27) and disappeared from history as a separate entity.

Dumah is mentioned in the Biblical records as a city in Canaan (Joshua 15:52) It is also associated with Edom and Seir in Isaiah 21:11

Dumah is generally identified by historians with the Addyrian Adummatu people. Esarhaddon related how, in his attempt to subdue the Arabs, his father, Sennacherib struck against their capital, Adummatu, which he called the stronghold of the Arabs. Sennacherib captured their king, Haza'il, who is called, King of the Arabs. Kaza'il is also referred to in one inscription of Ashurbanipal as King of the Kedarites.

From a geographical standpoint, Adummatu is often associated with the medieval Arabic Dumat el-Jandal, which was in ancient times a very important and strategic junction on the major trade route between Syria, Babylon, Najd and the Hijaz area. Dumat el Jandal is at the southeastern end of Al Jawf, which is a desert basin, and often denotes the whole lower region of Wadi as Sirhan, the famous depression situated half way between Syria and Mesopotamia. This area has water, and was a stopping place for caravan traders coming from Tayma, before proceeding on to Syria or Babylonia.

This strategic location effectively made Dumah the entrance to north Arabia. This oasis was the center of rule for many north Arabian kings and queens, as related to us in Assyrian records.

The records of Tiglath Pileser III mentions the inhabitants of Mas'a and of Tema, who paid him tribute. On the summit of Jebal Ghunaym, located about fourteen kilometers south of Tayma, archeologists Winnett and Reed discovered some graffiti texts mentioning the tribe Massaa, in connection with Dedan and Nebayot. These texts refer to the war against Dedan, the war against Nabayat and the war against Massaa. Therefore, these tribes appear to have been close to each other at this time. The tribe of Massaa is possibly connected with the Masanoi of North Arabia as mentioned by Ptolemy, Geography v18, 2.

Those holding to the theory that the Children of Israel crossed the Red Sea into Arabia proper, identify El Maser as the place where the Israelites murmured. (Exodus 17:7, Deut 6:16,9:22,33:8)

Some historians speculate that this tribe may have become known as the Harar, or the Hararina people that lived near the mountains northwest of Palmyra.

Teyma is usually associated with the ancient oasis of Tayma, located northeast of the Hijaz district, on the trade route between Tathrib (Medina) and Dumah. Between Tayma and Dumah is the famous Nafud desert. It is thought that the present city of Tayma at the southwestern end of the great Nafud desert is built on the remains of the ancient oasis by the same name.

Tiglath Pileser III received tributes from Tayma, as well as from other Arabian oasis. The Assyrian recorded recall how a collation headed by Samsi, queen of the Arabs was defeated. The coalition was made up of Massaa, the city of Tayma, the tribes of Saba, Hajappa, Badana, Hatti, and Idiba'il, which lay far to the west. Once defeated, these tribes had to send tribute of gold, silver, camels and spices of all kinds.

The Assyrian king, Sennacherib even named one of his gates in the great city of Nineveh as the Desert Gate, and records that "the gifts of the Sumu'anite and the Teymeite enter through it." From this we can recognize Teyma as being an important place.

Around 552 BC, the Babylonian king, Nabonidus (555-539 BC) the father of biblical Belshazzar (Daniel 7:1) made the city of Tayma his residence and spent ten of the sixteen years of his reign there.

During the Achaemenid period, the city probably became a seat of one of the Persian emperors.

However, by the first century BC, the Nabataeans began to dominate Tayma and it slowly became a part of their trading empire.

Isaiah 21:13-14 Invites the people of Tayma to provide water and food for their fugitive countrymen, in an apparent allusion to Tiglath Pileser's invasion of North Arabia in 738 BC.

Jeremiah 25:23 A prophecy against the oasis city

Job 6:19,20 Job laments at his fall from wealth, and comments that the troops of Tema and the armies of Sheba (Yemen) had hoped for plunder, but now Job had nothing.

Montgomery (Arabia and the Bible) suggests that the descendants of Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah became a group together. Yetur, Naphish, and the Hagarenes are located in I Chronicles 5:19 in the Transjordan. Yeter may be the origin of the Itureans mentioned in Luke 3:1, who were established in the Biqa valley and the southern Lebanon district near Mount Hermon.

A large number of the Itureans converted to Judaism under John Hyrcanus I around 126 BC (Josephus Ant. xiii 9.1) and later a section of Iturea joined the Jewish faith under Arisobulus around 103 BC. (Josephus Ant. 13.11.3)

The descendants of Hagar, Ishmael's mother, have been studied by a number of different people. The Biblical record tells us that during the time of King Saul, Saul fought with the Hagarites who were living east of Gilead. Apparently, they must have moved from this location to present day Iraq because they are found later in the Assyrian records.

W.W. Muller proposed that a city of the people of Hagar would have become 'han-Hagar' when Aramaicized and possibly 'Hagara.' When Helenized it would have become 'Gerrha.' H. von Wissmann proposed that the term 'Hagar' could be used to describe a walled city with towers and bastions. Based on these ideas, archeologists have speculated that the east Arabian kingdom of the Gerrhaeans can be attributed to the descendants of Hagar. If this is true, then history tells us much more of the Hagarites, who would have been known as the Gerrhaeans in the Greek world.

The third century BC writer, Nicander of Colophon mentions the 'nomads of Gerrha and those who plough their fields by the Euphrates.' (A.S.F. Gow and A.F. Scholfield, Nicander, The poems and Poetical Fragments, Cambridge, 1952, p. 111 L. 244. On the date of Nicander, see page 6-8)

The historian, F. C. Movers suggested in 1856 that it was Nebuchadnezzar who exiled the Chaldaean Gerrhaeans as part of a policy to protect the country from menacing Arab tribes. (F. C. Movers, Das phonizische Alterthum, Berlin 1856, iii. 308)

H.G. Rawlinson on the other hand, dated the Chaldaean exodus to the Neo-Assyrian periond, (H. G. Rawlinson, Intercourse between Indian and the Western World from the Earliest Times to the Fall of Rome, Cambridge, 1926, 6). He suggested that after Sennacherib had exterminated the Chaldaeans in 694 BC he sent them to dwell in Gerrha. Perhaps Rawlinson was inspired by the accounts of Sennacherib's campaigns against Merodach-Deladan. (Cf. W. E. James, On the Location of Gerra', AAW v/2(1969),39) who follows this explanation.

Most writers, however, have favored a date either in line with the fall of the Chaldaean supremacy a the hands of Achaemenids (eg. A.H. L. Heeren, A manual of Ancient History, (Oxford 1833); O. Blau 'Altarabische Sprachstudien: 2 Theil' ZDMG 27 (1873), 328; H. Kiepert, Lehrbuch der alten Geographie' Berlin, 1878, 188; S. Genthe, Der Persische Meerbusen; Geschichte und Morphologie, Inauguraldiss. (Marburg, 18896), 10; A.W. Stiffe, 'Ancient Trading Centres of the Persian Gulf, iii: Pre-Mohammedan Settlements", GJ9 (1897), 311; Tkac, Gerrha, 1271) or else at some point in the Achaemenid era, (e.g. Kennedy, The Early Commerce of Babylon", 271 and n. 5 believed that the Chaldaeans left Babylon after Darius I re-conquered the city in 488 BC. Cf Shiwek, 'Der Persische Golf', 64) who suggested that the expulsion of the Chalaeans took place during the reign of Xerxes following the brutal repression of the revolt in Babylon of Megabyzus in 482 BC. Because Gerrha is not mentioned by Herodotus, M. Amer proposed an even later foundation in 'The Ancient Trans-Peninsular Routes of Arabia," 135

Strabo 16.4.19 tells us that "from their trafficking both the Sabaeans and the Gerrhaeans have become richest of all (the Arabians). "

Strabo 16.3.3 records: "The Gerrhaeans import most of their cargo on rafts to Babylonia and thence sail up the Euphrates with them, and then convey them by land to all parts of the country." and "The Gerrhaeans traffic by land for the most part, in the Arabian merchandise and aromatics..."

Agatharchides (200 - 131 BC) tells us "... Petra and Palestine where the Gerrhaeans and Minaeans and all the Arabs who live in the region bring incense from the highlands, it is said, and their aromatic products."

Juba (25 BC - 25 AD) and Pliny (AD 77)(NH 12.40.80) records: "For this trade (with Elymais and Marmania) they opened the city of Carra (Gerrha) where their market was held. For they all used to set out on the twenty-day march to Babba and Syria-Palestine. According to Juba's report, they began later for the same reason to go to the empire of the Parthians. It seems to me that still earlier they brought their goods to the Persians rather than to Syria and Egypt," which Herodotus confirms, who says "the Arabs paid 1,000 talents of incense yearly to the kings of Persia."

The location of Gerrha has long been a mystery, and many scholars have guessed at it's location. The list of these would be too long to mention here. Needless to say, the in 1990, D.T. Potts, in his two volume series entitled The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity, (Volume II, From Alexander the Great to the Coming of Islam, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1990) suggests and well defends a suggestion that Gerrha would have been located in the region of the modern port of al-Jubayl in eastern Saudi Arabia. He bases this on Strabo's description that Gerrha was located two hundred stadia distant from the sea, and 2,400 stadia from Teredon (which would have been located near modern day Basra). It is Potts suggestion that there was both a city of Gerrha and also a port of Gerrha and that they were located some twenty miles apart.

The Hagarites are also mentioned in the Bible in: I Chronicles 5:10,19,20 and Psalm 83:6.

There seems to be sufficient evidence to support the theory that the "Arabs" of Roman times were indeed mostly made up of the twelve tribes of Ishmael, and perhaps also a number of other tribal groups. They are called 'Arabs' by the Assyrians, Chaldaeans, Jewish, and Roman records. While they may not have made up the entire 'Arab' identity, they undoubtedly figured strongly in the tribes of Arabia. It is also interesting to note that during Greek and Roman times the Nabataeans slowly become synonymous with the word Arab. During this time the significance of the other tribes fades dramatically. One wonders if the Nabataeans did not absorb all of the Ishmaelite tribes, or at least a large majority of them. This will only come clearer after further studies.



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Bartlett, John R. From Edomites to Nabataeans: A Study in Continuity, Palestine Exploration Quarterly 111, 1979

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Dumbrell, The Tell el-Maskhuta Bowls, Kingdom of Qedar in the Persian Period' Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 203, 1971

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Patrich, Joseph, The Formation of the Nabatean Art, Prohibition of a Graven Image Among the Nabateans, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990

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