Arabs are not a singular people. Origins are complex and intermingled with many peoples and lines. According to tradition, true Arabs are descendants of Abraham and his son Ishmael and prior to the 20th century, “Arab” designated the Bedouin, tribal-based society of the Arabian desert, which is the birthplace of Arabic. Other Arabs are ethnic groups that have been extant in their lands of origin for millennia. Modern Arab nationalism is a product of 19th- and 20th-century developments and has no prior historical basis. Before the rise of nationalism, most Arabic-speakers identified themselves as members of a particular family or tribe; as residents of a village, town, or region; as Muslims, Christians, or Jews; or as subjects of large political entities such as the Ottoman empire.
Historians generally agree that the ancient Semitic peoples (Assyrians, Aramaeans, Canaanites (including the Phoenicians and Hebrews) and, later, the Arabs themselves) migrated into the area of the Fertile Crescent. Arab invasions came after successive crises of overpopulation in the Arabian Peninsula beginning in the third millennium BC and ending with the Muslim conquests of the 7th century AD. These peoples spoke languages based on similar linguistic structures, and the modern Semitic languages of Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic (the language of Ethiopia) maintain important similarities.
In approx. 1200 BC, the Petra area (in modern Jordan, about 80 kilometers south of the Dead Sea) was populated by Edomites, descended from Esau according to the Bible, and was known as Edom (“red”). Before the Israelites arrived in Canaan and repeatedly battled with them, the Edomites controlled the fertile valleys from the Red Sea at Elath to the Dead Sea, and hence the trade routes from Arabia in the south to Damascus in the north.
Subsequently, the Nabataeans, one of many Arab tribes, migrated into Edom, forcing the Edomites to move into southern Palestine. By 312 BC the Nabataeans occupied Petra and made it the capital of their kingdom. The Edomites were later forcibly converted into Judaism by John Hyrcanus (died 105 BC), and then became an active part of the Jewish people. Petra prospered as the principal city of the Nabataean empire from 400 BC to AD 106 when it was absorbed by the Romans. The Nabataeans flourished in the spice trade and engineered an impressive hydraulic engineering system of pipes, tunnels, and channels that carried drinking water into the city and reduced the chance of flash floods.
After the Roman conquest of Judea, the Nabataeans and others, “Palastina” became a province of the pagan Roman Empire and then of the Christian Byzantine Empire, and very briefly of the Zoroastrian Persian Empire. In 638 AD, an Arab-Muslim Caliph took Palastina away from the Byzantine Empire and made it part of an Arab-Muslim Empire. The Arabs, who had no name of their own for this region, adopted the Greco-Roman name Palastina, that they pronounced “Falastin”.
In 1099, Christian Crusaders from Europe conquered Palestine and took Jerusalem. After 1099, it was never again under Arab rule. The Christian Crusader kingdom lasted less than 100 years. Thereafter, Palestine was joined to Syria as a subject province first of the Egyptian Mameluks, and then of the Ottoman Turks, whose capital was in Istanbul.