ANCIENT Arab historians have preserved the tradition that some time in the distant past the coastlands of the Red Sea and the environs of Mecca were devastated by a great catastrophe. The dating of this memorable destruction has great significance for Biblical studies. What was the cause of this calamity, and when did it occur? Several Arab historians have preserved this tradition of a terrible destruction. The account handed down by Abu'l Faraj in his Book of Songs is as follows:
The tradition reports that the Amalekites violated the privileges of the sacred territory and that the Almighty God sent against them ants of the smallest variety which forced them to desert Mecca. Afterwards the Lord sent drought and famine and showed them the clouded sky at the horizon. They marched without rest toward those clouds which they saw near them, but were not able to reach them; they were pursued by the drought which was always at their heels. The Lord led them to their native land, where He sent against them "toufan" — a deluge (trans. F. Fresnel, Journal Asiatique, 3rd Series, vol. VI (1838), p. 207).
The same catastrophe is also recorded by Mas'udi. The children of Hadoram (Gen. 10:27) — Jorham in Arabic — were among the first who had settled in the vicinity of Mecca. Here they lived in proximity to Amalekites and lesser tribes, until "an impetuous torrent swept them all away in a single night" (Mas'udi, Les Prairies d'Or, trans. Barbeir de Myenard and Pavet de Courteille, vol. II [Paris, 19651, page 359). Quoting the ancient poet al-Harith, a descendant of the few Jorhamite survivors, Mas'udi reflects:
From al-Hajun up to as-Safa all became desert; in Mecca the nights are silent, no voice or pleasant talk. We dwelt there, but in a most tumultuous night in the most terrible of devastations we were destroyed (Mas'udi, vol. II, p. 359).
When did this great cataclysm take place? Again, Mas'udi provides the answer. He records the tradition that Ishmael, the son of Abraham by Hagar (Gen. 16:15), settled in Mecca where he married the daughter of Modad, a Jorhamite. After Ishmael's death, his son Nebajoth briefly ruled the city. Next the Amalekites became powerful, but won the Jorhamite Arabs, under their leader al-Hareth, defeated them and maintained predominance over the city "for about three hundred years." At the end of this period, when the Jorhamites were being ruled by another Sheikh called Modad, they were defeated by the Ishmaelites, who had grown in numbers, and were forced to leave Mecca. The tribe retreated northwest to the Red Sea coast, where shortly afterward "an impetuous torrent swept them all away in a single night" (Mas'udi, pp. 358, 359). Umayya ben Abu es-Salt alluded to this event in the following words:
In the days of old the Jorhamites settled in Tehama [the low-lying coastal plain of the Red Sea], and a violent flood carried them all away (ibid., p. 359).
Note that this event took place a little over 300 years after the death of Ishmael. There are just over 300 years from that date until the Exodus (Gen. 17:24, 25; 25:17; Ex. 12:40). What the Arabs experienced was most likely nothing other than some of the effects of the catastrophes and plagues which devastated Egypt! The "impetuous torrent" which "is known by the name of 'Idam' (fury)" could have been the huge tidal wave generated by the collapse of the waters after the Israelites had crossed through the Red Sea. Imagine the force generated by two five-mile long walls of water suddenly crashing together. Preceded by a violent storm (Ex. 14:21, 24, 2 5 ), this tsunami raced up and down the narrow land-locked sea, wreaking havoc along the low-lying coast. Whole coastal tribes were swept away. Even Mecca, which is on the edge of the plain, lay in ruins. Survivors were either absorbed among the other descendants of Joktan and of Ishmael, or else dispersed abroad. Thus the flood that engulfed Pharaoh's host may indeed still live in the memory of the Arabs as a very real cataclysmic event!