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Outline of the History of Ancient Southern Arabia by Walter W. Muller
Prehistoric times in the south of Arabia remain largely unresearched so that quite a few of the conclusions drawn thus far are based on guesswork. But as we have evidence of human settlement for all major periods of the Stone Age it can hardly be assumed that there was no continuous human settlement in Southern Arabia prior to the first millennium B.C. Furthermore, there was the rock drawings in the areas adjacent to the desert in which collectors, hunters and herders of the period between the fifth and second millennia depicted themselves, their weapons, their customs and their daily life. Hunting featured prominently in the life of these ethnic groups, who differed in appearance from later inhabitants of the region, so that one may assume that they were driven out of their settlements by the territorial expansion of the southern Semitic tribes. The Sabeans, just as the Mineans, Qatabanians and Hadramites who spoke a different language, were immigrants coming from the north probably from the north-eastern Arabian region on the Arab-Persian Gulf –who brought with them the rudiments of what was to become the highly developed civilization of Southern Arabia. The earliest kingdom we read about in the reports on Southern Arabian is that of Saba (Sheba) with its capital Marib. It covered an area on the edge of the desert in the dry delta of the Adana wadi which, during the bi-annual rain periods, irrigated this rainless, arid zone and thus made cultivation possible. Examination of the sediments found in the Marib oasis has shown that irrigation in this region goes back to the late third millenium B.C. In addition, Marib held a commanding position on the important caravan route that ran from the areas on the Indian Ocean which produced frankincense to the Mediterranean, winding along a chain of watering places on the edge of the wadis, between the mountains and the desert. Probably the first mention of a caravan on the so-called frankincense route is contained in the Old Testament (I. Kings 10 ) which tells of the visit of the legendary Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (10th century B.C.). This report suggests that trade relations were being established or expanded. A Sabean, Itamra, identified as a Sabean ruler by the name of Yitea amar, is mentioned as one of the bringers of tribute in the great inscriptions of the Assyrian king , Sargfon II, dating from 715 B.C. This is most probably due to the fact that the Assyrians had gained control of the port of Ghazza where the frankincense route reached the Mediterranean. And 30 years later, around 685 B.C., the Sabean, Karibilu, sent gifts to the Assyrian king, Sanherib, when the foundation stone for the Bit akitu was laid. We do not know exactly when, in the first half of the first millenium B.C. the Sabean inscriptions began to appear, since there are hardly any interconnections with historical events outside Southern Arabia. Probably the oldest ones are the rock inscriptions in the region around Marib. These formulae constantly repeat that the God Attar, during the period in which the dedicator served him as a priest, blessed Saba with abundant rain every autumn and spring. For generations, the members of a certain tribe are presented in these inscriptions as eponyms and many cases given a title as “ friend” of the regent. This information provides us with a rough chronology of the Sabean rulers. Wall inscriptions tell us that Marib had, at a very time, developed into the largest town of ancient Southern Arabia and become the focal point of the Kingdom of Saba, which had expanded considerably under the rule of Karib’il Watar. We have a lengthy report (EES 3945) of that ruler’s deeds. This report gives a detailed account of the territories conquered in the south-western part of the Arabian Peninsula, the destruction of Ausan in the south with the aid of the vassal Qataban (Qitaban) and Hadramawt, and also describes the expansion of Saba as far as Nagran in the north-west. Two generations later Yada’il Darih was on the throne. He consolidated Saba’s power and went down in history as the builder of the great temples. He takes credit for three oldest and most important temples to the God Almaqah: Awam/Mahram Bilqis outside Marib, Sirwah and Marabum/ al-masagid. In the second half of the 6th century B.C. , two successive rulers built the great dam of Marib with its impressive locks (CIH 623, CIH 622) and numerous spillways. There is another report of royal deeds (RES 3943), probably relating to the second of these rulers Yita’ amar Bayyin, indicating that the Sabean empire extended from Nagran to the Indian Ocean but also telling of the suppression of uprisings by vassals. Here the Minaeans are mentioned for the first time. Saba, on the coast of the Read Sea , extended its territory by establishing colonies across the sea in Abyssinia. This is proved by the Sabean inscriptions found there. The nucleus of the Minaean territory was the large river oasis extending to the north-west of Marib and known since the Islamic period as al-Gawf. Originally a Sabean and then a dependent territory with a well-developed municipal structure, Main gradually began to sever its ties with Saba, became completely independent towards the end of the 5th century B.C., and in the next century entered a long period of economic prosperity. During this period the Minaean empire controlled most of the long trade route which the caravans from Southern Arabia took a good two months to cross on their way to the Meditertanean. To protect this route the Minaeans established a colony far out in the north-west of Arabia, in the oasis of Dedan. The confrontation between Saba and Main for control of the frankincense route is illustrated by an inscription (M 247) describing a battle between Media and Egypt which is probably a reference to the subjugation of Egypt by Artaxeres III Okhos in 343 B.C. In this inscription, the two leaders of the Minaean community of Dedan express their gratitude for the fact that their property had been saved from attacks by Sabean on the caravan route between Main and Nagran. What were at that time the worldwide communications of the Minaeans are reflected in their inscriptions which refer to Ghazza, Egypt, Ionia, Sidon in Phoenicia, Ammon, Moab Yatrib (later known as al-Madina) and other places. In as epitaph (M 338) on a sarcophagus found in ?Egypt, a Minaean recounts that he delivered perfumes to an Egyptian temple. On the Greek island of Delos with its temples dedicated to Apollo and Artemis, two Minaeans erected an altar to their native God Wadd (M 349), and in the Roman world people spoke of “Minaean frankincense” because it was mainly the Minaeans who traded in this much demanded product. At about the same time as Main, around 400 B.C., Qataban too was able to free itself of the Sabean yoke and to expand its territory considerably. At the height of its power in the third and second centuries B.C. ,Qataban extended as far as the Indian Ocean in the south and to within a day’s journey of the Sabean capital Marib in the north. As these other ancient kingdoms of Southern Arabia grew in strength it became urgent for the Sabeans, seeing themselves hemmed in, to fortify Marib, their easternmost base. They also managed to bring the routes leading into the Yemenite highlands more and more under their control. An inscription (CIH 375) in the Awam temple, dating to the second half of the 4th century B.C., tells us, for example, that the Sabeans repelled an attack by Qataban and that the dedicator of the text brought peace to Marib. Like Marib, the capital of Saba, and Timna, the capital of Qataban, Sabwa, the capital of Hadramawt, was also situated on the edge of the Saihad desert. Its exposed position clearly resulted from its location on an important artery of the ancient trade route leading from the Indian Ocean in the east to Nagran in the north-west. The earliest references to Hadramawt in Sabean inscriptions suggest that it was an ally or vassal of the mighty Sabean empire up to the 4th century B.C., when it became an independent kingdom and acquired tremendous economic significance because of its possession of Dhofar, the area in the east where the frankincense grew. For centuries four kingdoms of more or less equal strength rivaled one another in ancient Southern Arabia, but in the last quarter of the 2nd century B.C. a shift of power took place. The Minaean empire and parts of western Qataban were conquered by Saba, while Radman, formerly a province of Qataban managed to gain independence and to dipossess Qataban of some of its southern territories. The only serious outside threat in those early days came in 25/24 B.C., when a Roman army under Aelius Gallus, governor of Egypt, penetrated Southern Arabia with Nabatean guides. Nagran was conquered and the former Minaean towns were destroyed opened their gates to the enemy. Marib held out, however, and the Romans were forced to retreat through lack of water and disease. Previously, Alexander the Great’s plan to conquer Arabia had been scotched by his early death and now it was the failure of this expedition which thwarted the Roman desire to annex prosperous Happy Arabia. The Qatabanian kingdom continued to decline. Its capital Timna was destroyed in the first quarter of the 1st century A.D. by Hadramawt, and other parts of Qataban fell to Saba and Hadramawt. At that time Himyar was the emerging power in Southern Arabia. Probably the first mention of Himyar occurs in a Hadramite inscription (RES 2687). Dating from the beginning of the 1st century A.D., which reports the building of the wall at Qalat, the later Libna, to protect Hadramawt from the wall at Qalat, the later Libna, to protect Hadramawt from the Himyars in the south, who had apparently already occupied large stretches of the coast. They had conquered former Qatabanian and Sabean tertitories and established their capital Zafar at the castle of Raidan in the southern Yemenite uplands. The Himyar metropolis was mentioned for the first time as Sapphar in the sixth book of Pliny’s Natural History, written during the reign of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54 - 68_. Henceforth Zafar challenged Marib for supremacy and the Himyar rulers even claimed Saba by designating themselves “Kings of Saba (Sheba) and Du-Raidan”, a title which from then on the Sabean kings residing in Marib likewise adopted to stress their own claim to be the sole rulers of Yemen> The Periplus Maris Erythraei, a Greek seafaring manual which was probably written in the second half of the 1st century A.D., shows us to what extend the shipping lanes had gained in importance at the expense of the overland routes. That time also marked the beginning of a turbulent period which lated one and a half centuries during which Yemen was weakened by internal strife. Not only the traditional dynasty in Marib and the Himyars but asos other dynasties from the Yemenite Uplands aspired to power. In the last half of the second century, the Qatabanian empire finally ceased to exist. It was annexed by the Hadramite empire, a move which made Hadramawt a dangerous rival to Saba and Himyar. Alhan Nahfan, who ruled Saba during the last quarter of the second century, made a pact with Gadurate, king of the Abyssiniansand Aksumites (CIH 308), who at that time had gained control of most of the Yemenite coastal plain, the Tihama. But his successors resumed the campaigns against the Abyssinians. His son, Sairum Autar ruled large parts of Yemen during the first quarter of the third century. In a battle in the year 217 or 218 he imposed a heavy defeat on the Hadramite army, took their King II azz Yalit prisoner, conquered and razed their capital Sabwah (Iry. 13), massacred many of the nobles, and returned home with rich booty.. Sairum Autar is also the first Sabean king to have undertaken military expeditions into Central Arabia (ja 635), against Rabi at Du-Al Taurim, King of the Kinda and Qahtan, at Qaryat Dat Kahilim; the ruins today are known by the name of Qaryat al-Faw. From the time of the kings Alhan Nahfan and Sa irum Autar onward, the rulers of Southern Arabia relied increasingly on Bedouin camel riders and later horse riders on account of their strategic value in battle. The last two significant representatives of the Sabean dynasty were the Kings Iisarah Yahdib and Ya’zil Bayyin, who ruled the empire as co-regents. They conquered the king of the Himyart on the plain of Hurmatum in the year363 of the Himyaric era ( A.D. 248 or 249) and thus brought large parts of Yemen under their sway. Their further military operations are described by the inscriptions ja 574 – ja 600 from the Awam temple near Marib, in particular the long texts of ja 576 and 577. The first mentions, among other things , the capture of a king by the name of Malikum, whilst the other reports a campaign against Nagran and the expulsion of the Abyssinians. And at the end of the inscription they pride themselves on having destroyed every last enemy, whether from north or from south, from sea or from land. Yet only two decades later the Sabean dynasty also came to an end. Henceforth Marib played a minor political role though the city maintained both its reputation and influence, especially as a religious center. Thus by the middle of the second half of the third century Southern Arabia consisted of only two empires: the Sabean-Himyaric Empire contering in Himyar in the west and the kingdom of Hadramawt , extending from the former Qatabanian territory to Dhofar. Qataban had occasionally been mentioned in reports of Sabean campaigns, but that had ceased long ago. In the last or second last decade of the third century, however King Sammer Yuharis of Himyar set his sights on conquering Hadramawt along with the whole of Southern Arabia. In earlier in scriptions he is named co-regent with his father Yasirum, Yuhanim but in a text from Wa lan (YMN 13) of the year 295, Sammar Yuharis is referred to as sole ruler already bearing the title of “King of Saba’ and Du-Raidan and Hadramawt and Yamanat”, thus demonstrating the unity of Southern Arabia. Yamanat perhaps stands for the territory which formerly belonged to Ausan and Qataban. Since Sammar is also given this longer title in an inscription (ja 656) which describes the war with the kings of Hadramawt, there arises the question as to whether he merely claimed possession of Hadramawt or whether that territory, after a period of subjugation, had again become independent. Over a period of time, however, he was successful against Hadramawt and, through his policy of aggrandizement, was able to mould Southern Arabia into one large empire and thus ultimately lay rightful claim to the long title. As revealed by the epigraph of Mar al-qais bin Amr, the “King of All the Arabs” who died in 328 and was buried in an-Namara, Nagran belonged to the territory dominated by Sammar since the Bedouins extended their raids as far as that area. There appear to have been other occasional clashes with the Arabs on the open border in the north, according to the inscription ja 660, which describes an incident in which two rebel leaders, bearing typical North Arabian names – no doubt from the Higaz region – escaped from Marib but were caught. Iisarah Yahdib dispatched emissaries to the kings of the kings of the Ghassan, al-Azd, Nizar and Madhig (Z.I. 75). Now Sammar Yuhar is sent his governor of Sada on what mission we unfortunately do not know, as envoy to the king of the Azd and as far as Ctesiphon and Seleukeia, the double capital of the Sassanid empire on the Tigris (Sh 31). However , Hadramawt again freed itself from the Yemeni rulers and had to be reconquered in the second decade of the fourth century under King Yasirum Yuhanim (ja 665) and his son, Damar aliy Yuhabirr (Iry. 32) > But such sporadic attempts to gain independence from the Sabean-Himyaric empire bore no lasting results. The once splendid capital Sabwa sank into insignificance, while increasingly less was heard about Hadramawt and nothing more about Sa’kalan (Dhofar). The first record of the beach of the Marib dam in an inscription (ja 671) stems from the reign of Ta’ran Yuhanim and his son Malikkarib Yuha’min in the second half of the fourth century. The inscriptions made during the reign of these two men mark the end of a long series dedicated to the God Almaqah in the Awam temple. The numerous astral and other deities were superseded by Rahmanan, Lord of Heaven and Earth, and from the time the rulers adopted monotheism, the old temples were left to decay. The first testimonies to this transformation are two inscriptions from Zafar dated 378 (Gl 389 and Bait al-Aswal 2) in which King Malikkarib Yuhan’min and two of his sons record the building of two palaces in the capital “through the power of their Lord, the Lord God of Heaven”. The way for this so-called Himyarite monotheism was paved by Jewish and Christian missionaries. In the early years of the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantius II (337 - 361), for instance, an embassy headed by a certain Theophilos was sent to the Himyarite court. That their mission was successful is proved by the fact that Churches were built and Christian communities established in the city of Zafar and in the Roman emporium of Adan. The first reliable epigraphic testimony to the presence of Jews in Yemen dates to the last two decades of the fourth century, during the reign of King Dar’amar Aiman ((Bait al-Aswal 1). A Southern Arabian who had converted to the Mosaic faith proudly announces that he has built a house. The text not only mentions the religious community Israel but contains a marginal note in Hebrew. One of the greatest rulers in the history of Southern Arabia was Abukarib Asad, who reigned during the first third of the fifth century, part of the time with several of his sons as co-regents. Legends have kept his memory alive down to the present day. Under his rule the Sabeo-Himyarite empire attained its greatest expansion. He mounted military campaigns as far as Central Arabia (Ry 509) and , it is said, even as far as Yatrib(al-Madina). His official title was “King of Saba’ and Du-Raidan and Hadramawt and Yamanat and their (i. e. his) Arabs in the Highlands and on the Coast”. This shows that the Arabian Bedouins of the north, as well as the rural popuation of Yemen, had been considered as a basic element of the state and incorporated into the empire. The reign of his son Surahbi’il Yaffur is fairly well documented by variously dated inscriptions. As reported in a long inscription (CIH 540) on the Marib dam, floods following the autumn rain of the year 449 breached the dam. It was repaired but damaged heavily again the next year. Its reconstruction required considerable labour and material Zafar’s further embellishment is documented by an inscription (ZM 1) which says that Surahbi’il Yafur built a magnificent palace in the capital in 457. From the time of King Surahbi’il Yakkaf, who is mentioned in an inscription dated 467 (CIH 537 + RES 4919), we have records of the martyr Saint Azqir, an Ethiopian, informing us that in the fifth century a sizable Christian community grew up in the north Yemenite trading center of Nagran. The Ethiopian presence and influence are to be seen in an inscription dated 504 (Aion 30, 546), according to which the dedicators, whose names are clearly Ethiopian, refer to themselves as envoys and claim to have built a house in the capital, Zafar, during the reign of Martad’ilan Yanuf. In 516 King Madikarib Yafur had to mount another campaign against Central Arabia (Ry 510) to suppress Bedouin uprisings. In the next year King Yursuf As, ar Yat, ar, who us called Du Nuwas according to Arabian tradition, came to power. He professed the Jewish faith and Launched military operations against the Abyssinians in Southern Arabia along with their allies the Christians. The Abyssinians in Zafar were killed, their fortresses in the Yemeni highlands destroyed, and the coastal regions reconquered. The town of Nagran was forced to provide hostages and the oasis was cut off from its access routes (RY 508, Ry 507 and ja 1028). Shortly afterwards, at the end of the year 518, the besieged Nagran fell and many members of the Christian community were put to death in various ways. The martyrdom of the Himyarite Christians was an event which evoked great sympathy throughout the Christian regions of the Orient and prompted the Abyssinians to prepare a military intervention, first made in 523, was led by the Abyssinian King Ella Asbeha with the aid of a fleet containing many ships provided by Byzantium. Yusufs army was completely routed, the king himself killed, and Yemen conquered. Southern Arabia became an Abyssinian dominion, first under the local Christian vassal simyafa then under the former Abyssinian General Abreha (Abraha). In 542, when the Marib dam was again breached, Abreha was still viceroy or governor of the Abyssinian king and the East Roman Emperor, a delegation from Persia, and emissaries of Central and North Arabian princes.An inscription dated 547, reporting of a campaign against the rebellious Maadd in Central Arabia (Ry 506). States that Abreha had already styled himself king. The most recently dated inscription of the Himyarite era (CIH 325) is from A.D. 554. It virtually marks the end of the well-documented ancient Southern Arabian epoch and heralds the decline of the Sabeo-Himyarite empire. Social tensions, the extreme feudalism of the powerful aristocratic clans, the decline of central authority which placed foreign powers in a stronger position, the growing influence of the Bedouin element through the influx of horsemen and tribes from Northern Arabia, the influx of horsemen and tribes neglect of the irrigation system, the disintegration of a well-organized community, decreasing demand for frankincense from Southern Arabia and finally the rapidly dwindling trade on the old inland caravan routes, -- all of these factors had contributed to the undermining of its ancient civilization. Events of the second half of the sixth century and the first quarter of the seventh century are hardly accessible to the historian for want of accurate dates, but they are no more than a sequel. Towards the end of his reign, Abreha launched yet another military campaign against the North which has been preserved in the memory of the Arabs because of the elephants accompanying it. Abreha failed to take Mecca as he had intended and the operation had to be abandoned and the operation had to be abandoned. Between 570 and 575 the pro-Persian group in Yemen made contact with the Sassanid king through the Lakhmid princes in Al-Hira. The Persian King of Kings sent troops under the command of Wahriz, who helped the semi-legendary Saif ibn Di Yazan to drive the Abyssinians out of Yemen. Southern Arabia became a Persian dominion under a Yemenite vassal and thus came within the sphere of influence of the Sassanian empire. Later another armuwas sent to Yemen, and in 597/8 Southern Arabia became a province of the Sassanid empire under a Persian satrap. This development was a consequence of the expansionary policy pursued by the Sassanian King Khourau II Parwez (590-628), whose aim was to secure territories bordering on the Persian empire, such as Yemen, The beginning of the seventh century witnessed the final destruction of the Marib dam. This disastrous event, referred to in the 34th surah of the Koran as “the Flood”, caused the desolation of the Marib oasis. Following the death of Khosrau II in 628, then the Persian governor in Southern Arabia, Badhan, converted to Islam and Yemen followed the new religion. Thus for the first time in history the Arabian Peninsula was politically united and able to build up strength to a level unknown during the able to build up strength empire, even at the height of its power. To this day the past is present everywhere in Yemen, in ruins and in inscriptions. Nowhere else in the Orient does there exist such a strong, unbroken continuity form the many names of places and tribes that have remained unchanged for almost 3,000 years.
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