[ Next | Previous | Up ]

Towns and temples – the emergence of south Arabian civilization

Date: 4/29/01
Time: 9:51:06 PM
Remote Name:
Remote User:


Towns and temples – the emergence of south Arabian civilization

By Remy Audouin, jean-Francois Berton, Christian Robin

Beyond the mountain chains and plateaux of the Yemen which stretch in a crescent shape from north to south , from Nagran into the Hadramawt, lies an immensely wide tableland. Sand-dunes here alternate with rocky plains, the monsoon rains are infrequent and unreliable as they are held off by the mountains further to the west. This area is impossible to cultivate, except in the few places where seasonal rivers and water courses from the mountains come down into the plain. Only nomads dwell there, for ever threatened by famine, constantly fighting over the limited resources of the area. And yet it was there, in a region which is by no means one of the more favorable areas of the Yemen, that ancient civilization emerged and developed. A civilization of caravan trade The South Arabian civilization ows a great deal to caravan trade. This trade linked the South Arabian centres of incense production in the eastern Yemen with its markets around the Mediterranean Sea. This vital international trade affords the only reason why the most important ancient towns were situated in the rather arid lower reaches of the rivers instead of the rich and fertile highlands of the Yemen. Agriculture was difficult and costly there: it presupposed the power to control and exploit the seasonal rain-floods with the aid of complex irrigation systems. Again and again these installations were threatened by unusually strong floods; canals and dams had to be maintained in good working order; finally, one had to reckon with years of drought at a time, which put paid to any sort of harvest. The caravan trade started very early. During the New Kingdom Egypt sent expeditions to “Punt” (which may have been the Horn of Africa or perhaps the Yemen) in order to procure incense. They even made an attempt to establish the incense tree in the Nile valley. Saba and the Hadramawt are also mentioned already in the oldest texts of the Bible (going back to the 10th century B.C.). But trade seems to have grown significantly only between the 8th and the 6th centuries B.C. The South Arabian inscriptions only rarely mention this trade, and even when they do, it is in parenthesis. An in scription (about 4th/3rd century B.C.) on a straight section of the city wall of Baraqish runs like this: Ammisadiq … and said …, leaders of caravans, and the Minean caravans who had set off in order to trade with them in Egypt, Syria and beyond the river …, at the time when Athtar dhu-Qabd, Wadd and Nakrah protected them of the attacks which Saba and Khawlan had planned against their persons, their property and their animals, when they were on their way between Main and Rajma (= Nagran), and of the war which was raging between north and south, and at the time when Athtar dhu-Qabd, Wadd and Nakrah protected them and their property when they found themselves in the heart of Egypt during the war between the Medes and the Egyptians, and Athtar dhu-qabd guaranteed to them and their property peace and indemnity until they returned to their town Qarnaw … This almost complete silence of the texts can be explained by the fact that merchants wielded power only in the small caravanning tribe of Main, while the other states were dominated by a warlike aristocracy, who naturally were mainly concerned with their military prowess. Fortunately ancient Near Eastern texts and Greek and Latin writings provide us with supplementary knowledge. Three Assyrian texts from the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. mention “tributes” or presents from Saba. The goods listed there, (incense and precious stones) together with the names of two rulers, point to this being a reference to the south Arabian Sabeans, not, as might be the case, a north Arabian tribe of the same name. It is not known whether those Sabeans were already living in the region of Marib at that time, but archeological evidence going back to the 6th century B.C. indicates that the Sabeans had been settling in that area for a long time and had a considerable period of development behind them. Saba lay outside the reach of the Assyrian armies, therefore the “tributes” cannot have been an expression of political submission: it is much more likely that they were trade tariffs or gifts which were supposed to guarantee smooth trading. Thus the passage constitutes the first, if indirect, reference to Sabean trade with the north. The Bible is much more explicit about that trade. The first Book of Kings mentions a visit to Solomon’s court by an anonymous queen, simply referred to as the “Queen of Sheba” {=Saba}. The commercial purpose of this visit is only indicated in passing as the writer used the account mainly as an illustration of Solomon’s fame. Scholars seem to be unanimous in their opinion that this account tells us more about the period when the passage was actually composed (around the 6th century B.C.) than the time of King Solomon (10th century). It appears that Saba was the envy of its neighbours in the 6th century, because of its riches based on its trade in incense and other precious commodities. A few centuries later Greek and Latin authors give equally envious accounts of the incredible wealth of the Sabeans. Thus, e. g., Agatharchides of Kindos, an Alexandrian scholar of the 2nd century B.C., has this to say: No people appears to be wealthier than the Sabeans and Gerrheans (in NE Arabia, in the Gulf), for they have piled up in their treasuries all the riches that they have gained from Europe and Asia. They are the ones that have made Ptolemy’s Syria rich it is they who have, amongst many other things, made it possible for the Phoenicians to make lucrative deals. Their luxury is not only displayed in marvelous embossed and engraved metal work and in the variety of their drinking vessels but in their beds and tripods, which are also unusually large. This luxury reaches its climax in the many house-hold objects which are known to us well many of these people own royal riches. It is said that they have numerous gold and silver columns , and the doors of their houses are decked with ornaments and jewels. Even the walls between the columns are said to be magnificently decorated. Small wonder then that the Romans could not wait to conquer south Arabia as soon as they had occupied Egypt! A number of favourable circumstances contributed towards the wealth of the south Arabia. In that country, as well as in the Horn of Africa across the sea, a large number of priceless plants were growing, highly valued throughout the Mediterranean, - the trees from which the precious resins were extracted. The consumers could not buy the goods on the spot even if they had known where exactly those products were coming from: the enormous distances, the all but unbearable climate, and the local people themselves could organise that trade. At the time of the Assyrians and Persians (8th - 4th century) this was done by the South Arabian tribe of Saba; subsequently , during the time of Hellenism, the tribe of the Mineans (end of 4th to 1st century B.C.). The caravan trails depended as much on the political situation and trade connections as on the geography of the area. In order to make one’s way from the main centres of production (which were in the eastern Yemen) to the Mediterranean Sea, one had to avoid the mountains as far as possible and , at the same time, find enough water and food for men and beasts. There was practically only one trail in South Arabia which fulfilled all these requirements: from Shabwa, the capital of the Hadramawt, it went through the desert, following the Yemenite mountain ridge to Timna, the capital of Qataban, from there via Marib, the capital of Saba, via Baraqish, past the Jabal al-Lawdh, to Najran. Being completely level, the track offered no natural obstacles; artificial irrigation safeguarded the water and food supply for the caravans. It is therefore not surprising that the ancient capitals along this trail were situated at the points where the most important valleys entered the plain. The “miracle” of Saba The reputation of the Sabeans as an important trading nation is, if we are to rely on the evidence of the Bible, already documented for the 6th century B.C. Archeology, too, points to considerable changes in the 6th century B.C., which resulted in the rapid emergence of a highly developed civilization. This extremely sudden development is reminiscent of another, similar one, which has been called the “miracle of Greece”. The most obvious expression of this development is the change in building materials. From about that time onward the more prominent buildings were constructed of dressed stone, while up to that point only unfired mud bricks had been used. The use of stone presupposes the mastering of a whole range of techniques: for quarrying, cutting, smoothing and transporting the stones, and, of course, for erecting the buildings. Once these techniques had been mastered, locks and reservoirs of large dimensions could be built which were capable of withstanding the force of the gushing waters. At that point, irrigation systems were built in all the large valleys which opened out into the desert; the cultivated areas could be extended and the population rose significantly. Soon large sanctuaries were erected, which were entered through monumental propylaea of heavy monolithic pillars. Work was started on the stone walls which were to be the fortifications of the towns. At the same time, i. e. the 6th century B.C., the first written documents in the form of stone inscriptions appeared. The oldest of these are very short and invariably refer to religious rites or building work. These inscriptions are in Sabean; their building work. These inscriptions are in Sabean; their characters, the same that were later also used in Ethiopia, may have been derived from alphabets existing in Southern Mesopotamia. It was not fully standardised at that time, as can be seen in the variants for three or four letters. A few centuries later, however, the South Arabian alphabet had been consolidated and had achieved its final form. The South Arabian alphabet is related to the Phoenician; at the same time it is a rare example of an alphabet which is not directly based on it. It has been kept alive in the Ethiopian alphabet, albeit enriched by additional symbols enabling it to transcribe vowels. A second characteristic of this script is its stability: between its origins in the 6th century B.C. and its disappearance in the 7th century A.D. only two letters (and rather infrequent ones at that) changed shape. This stability only applies to the basic form of the letters; their detailed execution did develop, and the differences often act as guides in the dating of inscriptions. Originally the letters were irregular and clumsy but soon they became firmer and were made up of clearer components. Later the lines began to curve and the ends to thicken; the last phase is characterised by various decorative elements, in particular strokes and triangles. In the beginning the content of these inscriptions was, as has been mentioned already, rather scant and their execution fairly clumsy. Soon, however, firm rules were established; writing became an important means of decoration, especially on the facades of state buildings. In that period the first long texts were produced. Two of them. On the two sides of a block of South Arabian civilization. The triumphal account of Karib Il Watar The two inscriptions, which are still in the Sabean temple of Sirwah, contain an account of the achievements of the Sabean ruler Karib Il Watar, son of Dhamar ali. The first inscription tells in particular of eight wars while the second contains a list of the building work and acquisitions of his reign. Karib II’s wars were fought against the tribes in the extreme south of the Yemen, in the Jawf, and in the region of Najran. If the document can be believed, those were very fierce struggles. In the last campaign, for instance, 5,000 enemies are supposed to have been killed, 12,000 taken prisoners, and 200,000 head of cattle carried off. There are no indications as to the reasons for these wars; only in the case of the last two campaigns are we told that they were fought in retaliation for the murder of Sabeans. The outcomes of these struggles do, however, throw some light on possible underlying reasons: tributes are mentioned; land, and alien people or irrigation systems are acquired “for Almaqah” (the great Sabean god) and for Saba. In two cases the inscriptions mention specifically that Sabeans were sent to settle in the conquered areas. Sometimes land and irrigation system were returned to, or newly bestowed upon, allies or vassals. One instance shows quite clearly the intention to annihilate the vanquished tribe: in the case of Ausan Karib II destroyed the palace of the king and dismantled and carried away the inscriptions of that palace and of the temples of Ausan. These texts afford a very precise picture of the organization of the states of South Arabia, at least of how the Sabeans saw them. The “state” is referred to in the formula of “ Almawah, Karib II and Saba”. Suggesting that it rests on the three pillars of the ruling tribe, its chief god, and its ruler. The tribe of Saba appears to have been modest in size: its territory included the regions of Marib, of Sirwah, and of Raghwan (half-way between Marib and Baraqish). To these we must add the Sabean colonies in the areas of conquered or annexed tribes. An ancient ruin can be identified as Sabean by the fact that the inscriptions on the site mention Sabean by the fact that the inscriptions on the site mention Sabean power and the Sabean pantheon in this context is Nashan (present dau as Sawda), which on its annexation by Saba, had this condition imposed: “to erect a temple to Almaqah within the town”. The tribe of Saba formed the nucleus of the state. With the aid of several territories under its rule, together with its colonies, it more or less controlled the vast tribal lands between Nagran and Hadramawt. Two degrees of dependence can be observed: some tribes were vassals of the Sabeans, almost in a state of slavery. Tribes in that situation would lose their political independence along with their religious freedom. This state of affairs would be symbolised by the destruction of their royal palace and the dismantling of their main secular and religious inscriptions. Others were only subjected to a protective rule: a tribe in that situation retained its own institutions and pantheon. At its head the tribe had its ruler, who represented his people, and who was given the title of “King”. In spite of retaining its own pantheon the tribe acknowledged Sabean rule, in particular by worshipping the Sabean main deity Almaqah. In Karib II’s list of such tribes he simply mentions their names and those of their kings; the names of their deities are not included. Such tribes, too, had to pay tribute, which might be in the form of cattle, or sometimes, perhaps partly, be paid through the erection of a public building. Thus the king of Kaminahu (present day Kamna) in Nashq (now al-Bayda) built two towers of the city wall “for Almaqah, the kings of Marib and Saba”. The Sabean federation – Saba and its tributary groups – is referred to in Karib II’s text as “the children of Almaqah”. It is headed by the Sabean king, whose federal function is expressed in his title “mukarrib”,i. e. “the covenant maker”. The Sabean state did not see itself as the sole ruler of Southern Arabia. Karib II recogni9zed two more kingdoms, the Hadramawt and Qataban. This can be seen by his references to their names in conjunction with their respective official deities, i. e. Sayyin and Hawl for the Hadramawt, and Amm and Anbay for Qataban. These two kingdoms were confederates (“brothers”) of Saba. It may be surmised that they had made a treaty with Saba to regulate the caravan trade on which they all depended for their livelihood. The ruler of the Sabean federation, then, was graced with the title of “maker of covenants”. This title is no longer. In evidence from the 3rd century B.C. onwards. At that time the Qatabani ruler began to use it, and a little later it was transferred to the King of Hadramawt. Thus it would appear that it was not permissible to use the title “mukarrib” in two states simultaneously. Evidently the term implies a certain position of supremacy over the whole of South Arabia. This interpretation would explain the fact that in the formula used in the induction of the Sabean mukarribs no single deity is mentioned by name but the following generic wording is preferred: “ when he established the community of each god and every patron, of each pact and every confederation”. If such a political structure existed it would, together with the toleration of certain religious taboos, be the only indication that the South Arabians considered themselves members of one and the same culture. The later development of the South Arabian kingdoms The caravan trade played a decisive part in the development of South Arabian culture. Its chief result were the riches it brought to the country, but a second was of equal importance: the contacts it established between the south of the peninsula and the centres of near eastern culture: Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia, and this in spite of distances of over 1500km. Their influence is felt in the fields of architecture and sculpture, but this contact may be assumed -- even though this is difficult to prove -- to yave affected various craft techniques (stone and metal work, irrigation). This trade was a constant occasion for dynamic new development during the millennium before the Christian era but, reversely, the decline of that exchange at the beginning of our era brought about the gradual decline of the South Arabian civilisation. South Arabian culture cannot have depended entirely on the monopoly of its precious wares and the exchange with the civilisations of the near east. Two more contributing factors might be mentioned. The first was that of political centralisation. Thus, at the time of Karib II, the lower region of the Jawf was still divided among at least four tribes. Without a modicum of political unity development was unthinkable. The tribe of Saba emerged as the most important centre, its position at the mouth of the most abundant wadi being a decisive factor. There must have been other reasons, however, as both the Hadramawt, where incense was collected, and Najran had similar natural advantages. Perhaps Saba had always been a federation, and as such was predisposed to the assimilation of new groups? As the covenant was sealed amongst the tribes it was put into practice by common worship. Thus, the sanctuaries of all tribes had to be equally accessible. This fact may explain the siting of many temples outside the city gates. From the allocation of certain areas and irrigation systems to individual tribes we can deduce that there was some central planning; it is difficult to see exactly how strong it was. The number of public buildings, however, points to the fact that a highly centralised administration was at work. Such a power would account for the work commissioned by Karib II, who built several city walls, executed a large number of irrigation projects, and who also had the administrative power to employ the 71000 prisoners that he had taken in the eight wars of his reign. Even so, the inscriptions of the smaller tribes under the Sabean authority (e.g. Mein, Kaminahu, or Haram) practically never speak of Saba and its rulers. Evidently these tribes were considered equals in spite of being tributary. Within their own confines there was, therefore, no need to acknowledge Sabean sovereignty. The second condition that South Arabian societies had to fulfill in order to make full use of the opportunities offered by the trade with foreign countries was the acquisition of foreign techniques and their dissemination throughout the state. Unfortunately we learn little about social strata from the inscriptions: besides a class of free citizens (i. e. the aristocracy) there were also bondsmen, but no details emerge about these working classes. Like elsewhere, specialisation in ancient South Arabia must have been based on a large urban population. Marib, the capital of Saba, which by far surpassed all other South Arabian towns in importance, must have been such a centre, in which new techniques were invented and disseminated. The first towns of South Arabia: the example of the Jawf The valleys which open out into the eastern desert, like e.g. the Jawf, have not always formed such an arid landscape as they do now. Rainfall seems to have been more frequent than today and created flood waters which were channeled into the fields through tributary irrigation canals. These rain floods deposited their sediments in the irrigated areas, thus creating firm fields. Grain was planted there (barley and millet), date palms grew around them, and there were even some small groves to be found, Thus a non-migratory population could find food, there were sufficient supplies for the caravans and wood for building. From the middle of the 2nd millennium onward, if not earlier, the land in the lower reaches of the wadis which join the Ramlat as-Sabatayn was being cultivated. How agriculture started there still remains uncertain as there have not been a sufficient number of excavation finds. So far only two stratigraphic sequences have been established, one in Hajar bin Humayd in Qataban, the other in Shabwa in the Hadramawt. Unfortunately neither of these sites has produced pottery in sequences or complete buildings. Although fortifications must have existed to fend off Bedouin threats, none have been found. In spite of this, later fortification systems, e.g. the linked tower houses of Hinu az-Zuayr, appear to be based on the ones of that period. Here, too, it is not clear whether they developed on the edge of the desert or originated in the Yemeni highlands. South Arabian civilization appears to have started in Marib shortly before the middle of the first millennium B.C. Most of the earlier buildings were constructed unburned bricks, the later ones of stone. The use of wood increased; new types of buildings emerged with stone foundations, wooden beams in the upper stories, and sanctuaries with majestic gateways. The oldest town fortifications are to be found in Wadi Raghwan, about 40km north of Marib. Karib II Watar, son of Dhamar Ali and “mukarrib” of Saba, had two city walls constructed there: al-Asahil and Khirbat Saud. The first had a circumference of 740m, the second one of 645m. Both structures consisted of two firm stone faced outer walls with a filled in cavity between. Both town walls had protrusions in their fortifications. Many inscriptions by the builder and his successor are still in place today. These two settlements, together with Jidfiri ibn Munaykhir in Wadi Jufra, show the first wave of expansion of Saba to the north. In the subsequent period the advance continued. They occupied the entire Wadi al-Jawf, a large, well irrigated valley with an undoubtedly considerable population. There, several principalities or small kingdoms had been in existence, e. g. Haram or Kaminahu. Their fortifications were razed and a new city wall erected on top of the tell. Around the 5th century B.C. a new type of fortification wall emerged: a stone wall, supported from behind by a brick wall which was 2-3m thick. This wall is punctuated at regular intervals by wide protrusions which are linked by facades. The first wall of that type is that of Marib, the first in the Jawf that of al-Bayda. The latter is around 1500m long and extremely well preserved. It boasts 91 dedicatory inscriptions, still in place. The oldest of these were placed by Ilsama Nabat, a king of Kaminahu. The care taken in their execution and the regularity of the stones used show that the jawf must have suddenly leapt to enormous prosperity at that time. All towns were at that time commissioning important building work. Powerful walls were erected, 1150 m long in Main, and 1175m in as-Sawda, with one or more gates of complex design. The projections in the walls were getting higher and higher (in al-Bayda they were 4.50 m high, in Main 8m, and in Baraqish they reached 14 m) and moved over closer together, thus making the fortresses impenetrable to any attackers insufficiently acquainted with siege techniques. The growing fortifications thus do not so much constitute a reaction to enemy attacks as a parading of wealth, a theory borne out by the quality of construction and the abidance of decorations. These walls bear many inscriptions, some describing the building materials and the process of erection, others relating which famous personalities commissioned particular sections of the fortifications (e.g. the members of the family of Gab an in Baraqish). Others again tell about trade with North Arabia (Dedan, Gaza etc.) , with Egypt or the Syrian-Phoenician coast (Tyre). Building activity appears to have occurred mainly in times of economic boom, e. g. in Main in the period form the 4th to the 2nd century BC. Within those walls secular and religious buildings were erected, their siting depending on whatever land was owned by the ruling tribes and also by the nature of the ground. The buildings were close to each other, streets were not part of the plan and there seem to have been no squares except for open areas left between buildings. Of the houses only the stone foundations (ground floor) remain, frequently covered by the rubble of the superimposed stories. These consisted of a wooden framework, filled in with unburned bricks. The inscriptions and the comparison with traditional Yemeni houses suggest that these, too, must have been high buildings with a reception- room on the uppermost floor. In particular the palaces of Farw in as-Sawda and Salhin in Marib must have looked like that. The more modest dwellings –built of brick – were mainly to be found outside the city walls. Each town had its sanctuaries, some of which were sited within, some a little outside, the city wall. These sanctuaries consisted of rows of pillars with geometrical, plant or animal ornaments carrying equally ornate or inscribed architrave's. The sanctuaries which are situated outside the towns are now called Banat Ad by the Bedouins. They are dedicated to individual deities, e.g. Wadd in as-Sawda, athtar dhu-Qabd in main. The best preserved among these temples is the one of as-Sawda. This is a small building with a central courtyard which is approached from the west through monumental double propylaea. The center court is closed towards the east; pillars form further porticos to the right and left. The entrance posts are decorated with snakes, ostriches, lances, goats, ibices and pomegranates; there are also some engraved figures of women standing on pedestals. Content and meaning of these ornaments carved into the stone are uncertain. The sanctuaries outside the towns served the tribes of the surrounding areas while the temples within the walls were meant for the town population. Such federative sanctuaries can be found near almost every important town of the Hadramawt or the jawf, only two of them, however, boast fortifications: the Mahram Bilqis of Marib and the temple of Sirwah. The central place of federal worship in the jawf was on the mountain massif of Jabal al-Lawdh, whose summit rises to a height of 2150 m in the north east of the valley. Several sanctuaries which were built there from the 5th century B.C. onward emphasize the Importance of that site, which must have been a place of worship for a long time. The building at the foot of the mountain is 98 m long and 41 m wide. It contains two large rooms with many low bench seats, and it probably never had a roof, Many deities were worshipped there but its particular purpose seems to have been to house an assembly through which a covenant was formed between the individual tribes. On that occasion the delegates from the various tribes may have partaken of a ritual meal. Behind the building a long processional path led up to the summit. A second building with benches and a small sanctuary with numerous stelae and altars (incense altars and sacrificial altars) stand just below the chain of mountain peaks. There are buildings with very similar arrangements in Dish al-Aswad near Marib, which suggests that the earliest mukarribs of Saba (around the 5th century B.C. ) held this ceremony in several places. About six centuries later, in the 1st century A.D., the kings of Saba and dhu-Raydan revived the practice of celebrating a ritual meal and sealing the covenant in those very sanctuaries on the Jabal al-Lawdh. The research work done by the French archeological mission in the Jawf has not yet succeeded in solving all the problems posed. How did the material culture of the first South Arabian settlements develop? Should we be looking to foreign influences rather than a long independent development in an endeavour to interpret some of the monuments and their ornamentation? Further research should enable us to answer these questions.

For more information, e-mail us at gpc@y.net.ye

--------------------------------------------- Copyright © 1997 General People's Congress

Last changed: September 15, 2002