[07/March/2004] Sana`a, (Saba)- Old Testament records (Chronicles II/9 and Kings 1/10) describe, how the "Queen of the South" (as she is referred to in other places) traveled from the land of the Sabeans along the "Gold and Incense Road" to meet King Salomon in Jerusalem. According to the story, she brought along with her "a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones". But it is not only the Old Testament that mentions the Sabean civilization. The Koran adds some interesting aspects in Surat Saba (No. 34), the Sura on Sheba. In Surat an-Naml (the ant; No. 27) the hoopoe bird brings back news of Sheba and reports to Solomon: "I come to thee from Sheba with sure tidings. Lo! I found a woman ruling over them and she has been given abundance of all things, and hers is a mighty throne". It shall be explained later, how the records of the Holy Books can be explained.The classical authors, though referring to a much later period, give a more detailed view into Arabia Felix. According to Hero-dotus (5th cent. BC): "Arabia is the only country which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia and cinnamon ...... the trees bearing the frankincense are guarded by winged serpents of small size and various colors". Diodorus Siculus writes in the second half of the first century BC, that all of Arabia exhumes a most delicate fragrance; even the seamen passing by Arabia can smell the strong fragrance that gives health and vigor. He also mentioned gold mines so pure, that no smelting was necessary.
The Greek Strabo (born 62 BC) gives the most detailed account of the various kingdoms of South Arabia. This famous historian explains, that "the land is inhabited by four great peoples: first the Mineans, (inhabitants of Main) with their capital Karna (Qarnaw). The Sabeans with capital Mariba (Mareb). They are followed third By the Qattabanians, whose capital seat is Tamna (Timna). Towards the west the Hadhramis have settled in the town of Sabota (Shabwa)".What is the real story behind these records and what was "Arabia Felix" like? This question cannot be answered easily. The little we know about pre-Islamic Yemen comes from epigraphically material (inscriptions on walls, columns, statues) and records of Greek and later Yemeni historians. The picture we have so far on ancient Arabia is far from complete. Much research still needs to be done especially in the field of archeological survey. The early settlements of the South Arabians seem to have concentrated on the south western border of the great desert, the Ruba al-Khali (empty quarter). This is not surprising, since the wadis coming from the Yemeni highlands carried along precious water and soil making the wadi mouths towards the desert fertile and green. All settlements that were later to become capitals of whole kingdoms, were set in fer-tile wadi beds. They include from north to south: Najran in Wadi Najran; Qarnaw in Wadi al-Jawf (later capital of the kingdom of Main); Timna in Wadi Baihan (capital of the kingdom of Qata-ban); Hadjar Nab in Wadi Markha (Capital of the kingdom of Awsan); Shabwa high up in Wadi Hadhramaut (Capital of the kingdom of Hadhramaut) and even the port city of Aden in Wadi Tuban. Up to the present day agriculture is possible in the lower wadi delta and along both sides of the riverbed, even if the wadi does not give water all year round.One might ask, where do the inhabitants originally come from? Arabs in general are very fond of genealogy and take pride in their lineage and ancestry. According to their own tradition, the legendary forefather of all South Arabians is Qahtan and his 24 sons. Qahtan can be identified with the Biblical Joctan, a descendant of Shem (first son of Noah) of the fourth generation. According to the same tradition, all Northern Arabs are descendants of Adnan, the son of Ishmael, brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Hebrews. Both Ishmael and Isaac were sons of Abraham, who is of a much later generation than Qahtan. Most prominent representative of the Adnan-Arabs is of course the Prophet Mohamed of Al-Qoreish, the leading tribe at Mecca.Yet the Qahtan Arabs consider themselves the true and original Arabs, since Adnan (coming after Abraham) belongs to a much later generation than their forefather. "Arab al Areba" means "original 'Arabs" and pertains to the Qahtanis, the South Arabians. While "Arab al Mustariba" means "arabized Arabs" and pertains to the Adnanis in the North.Among the sons of Qahtan are famous names like A'zaal (believed to have been the original name of Sana'a) and Hadhramaut. Another son is Ya'rub and his son Yashjub is the father of Abd Shams, who is also called Saba. All Yemeni tribes, trace their ancestry back to this Saba, either through Himyar or Kohlan, his two sons.
Whatever one might think about this type of genealogy, it shows clearly the central position of Saba. And indeed, the Kingdom of Saba (Sheba) always was the most prominent and powerful kingdom of Arabia Felix. For this reason the South Arabians are sometimes referred to as Sabeans and their language, though differences prevailed according to region, is called Sabean.The early settlers between the Yemeni Highland and the Ruba al-Khali were not only excellent farmers, but traders as well. From the second half of the third millennium BC, Egypt imported large quantities of incense from the land of "Punt". Punt was probably Somaliland; the only place where myrrh and frankin-cense grow naturally as in Ye-men. Yet because of close geographical neighborhood, earliest trade links between Yemen and the eastern coast of Africa are probable. When Queen Hat-shepsut of Egypt sent a large fleet down the Red Sea to the land of Punt in the early 15th cent. BC (described in drawings on her temple in Deir El-Bahari, Egypt), it might not only have been Som-aliland, but both sides of the Red Sea including Arabia.The demand for frankincense was ever increasing and its sweet fragrance scented temples from Karnak, across the Fertile Crescent to Nineveh. Incense and myrrh were luxury goods and expensive; yet they were thought indispensable for winning the favor of the gods. No matter what religious feast was celebrated, incense had to be burned. If the small farmer wanted the gods to bless his fields or simply show his gratitude for the good harvest, he would burn incense. Thus, with the rising demand, the Sabeans were quick to improve their methods of trade and transport.Shahir (in lower Hadramaut) and Dhofar (now in Oman on the border with Yemen) were the two leading producers of frankincense. The high incense bushes (Boswellia) and myrrh trees (Balsamodendron) were cut at certain places and the outflow of gum resins collected later. From Dhofar two ways would lead into the interior: either on land to Shabwa in Wadi Hadramaut; or by sea along the Arabian shores to the port of Qana, now Bir Ali in South Yemen. (Another ancient sea route went along the north-western shore to the port of Gerrha in the Arabian Gulf). From Qana the goods were trans-ported overland to the north on a track that later came to be known as "the gold and incense road".Originally, the overland transport was accomplished by mules and donkeys that were tiresome and needed frequent rest and watering. However, since the 11th century BC mules and donk-eys were substituted for large caravans of camels. The camels could walk whole day and part of the night without stopping and didn’t require fresh water every day. Thus it became possible to cross the long way from Qana on the Indian Ocean to Ghaza on the Mediterranean Sea in 60 to 70 days. Since the caravans grew in size (up to two or three thousand camels in one caravan), tight organization and effective protection were required along the way. Roadposts with soldiers and places for lodging and food for men and camels were re-quired. Yathrib (now Medina) was one of them. Further to the North followed Dedan (now al-Ulla), Tabuk and later Petra.This must have been the situation at the beginning of the first millennium BC. Ghaza, at the northern end of the incense road, belonged to a kingdom whose successful leader, King Salomon built a large fleet manned by Phoenician seamen to be sent south for the gold of Ophir (probably in South Arabia). When Salomon's fleet and the Sabean merchants came into direct competition with each other, the ruler of the beginning of the incense road (called Queen Bilqis in Arab tradition) found it necessary to come into direct contact with the ruler of the northern end (King Salomon). Obviously they came to a mutual agreement, since "King Salomon gave to the Queen of Sheba all that she desired, whatever she asked was given to her by the bounty of King Salomon. So she turned and went back to her own land, with her servants". (I King X). The trade on the incense road was as prosperous as ever.Local products were not the only ones the Sabeans traded with. Being excellent seamen the Sabeans learned quickly to make use of the changing monsoon winds, blowing their ships to the Indian coast and back within one year. From India came spices, ebony, silk and fine textiles to the port of Qana. Another important trade partner were the Africans along their eastern coast and is-lands (Zanzibar, Madagascar). Rare woods, feathers, animal skins and gold were shipped from Africa to the port of Aden.Together with incense, the imported goods were transported along the incense road and sold in Ghaza without revealing the true place of origin. Maybe this is one of the reasons, why the clas-sical writers believed that all the goods originated from "Arabia Felix" and then concluded that this place must be incredibly rich and wealthy. Maybe the Sabeans deliberately spread fantastic stor-ies about their country, like "the winged serpents" of Herodotus, to cover their trade secrets in a shroud of mystery and thus keep them protected.The wealth of the road stations along the incense road continued to grow. The street was kept in good order and even partly paved with flat rocks. The leader of each station would receive taxes up to one tenth of the transported goods. Security along those roads was guaranteed; but it was forbidden and considered a severe offense, if a road station was simply bypassed without entering. This wealth made it possible to construct highly sophisticated dams and irrigation systems for the growing population. Temples became the spiritual center of a city-state after erecting defensive walls. The political leaders of the city states eventually became kings, who claimed an increasing territory around the capitals. Soon they would come in conflict with each other and start wars among themselves with varying for-tunes.In the late 5th Century BC, the Kingdom of Saba emerged once again as the most powerful one, conquering the Kingdom of Awsan with the important port of Aden and establishing colonies in Ethiopia across the Red Sea (which was later to become the Kingdom of Axum). When the Sabeans grew weaker, the kingdoms of Ma'in, Qataban and Hadhramaut reasserted their independence. Yet Saba remained the central power, the spinal cord of Arabia Felix, well into the first Christian centuries.No matter how fierce their internal competition grew, the Arabian merchants were always careful to guard their secrets about the origin of certain goods. The long incense road and the resulting geographical isolation through rough mountains and deserts protected Arabia Felix. Only once did the Romans attempt to conquer Arabia and make it part of the Roman Empire. However, the expedition under Aelius Gallus (24 BC) was a complete failure before it reached Mareb. As Strabo tells us, the Nabatean guide from Petra had purposely misled Aelius Gallus' forces into the desert. This geographical isolation together with the production of the much wanted frankincense, the well kept trade secrets and the highly advanced agriculture were the main reasons why Yemen was called "Arabia Felix" at this time of history.
At the end of the second century BC a new power emerged in South Arabia: the Himyarites. The tribe of the Himyarites may have originally belonged to the Kingdom of Qataban since both worshipped the same god "Wadd". The tribe moved west into the central highland and founded the new capital Dhofar a few kilometers south of present Yarim. Beginning from 115 BC their leader claimed the title "King of Saba and Dhu Raidan" (Raidan being the mountain upon which Dhofar was built). Soon the Himyarites came into conflict with the Sabeans and in retaliation the King of Mareb himself used the same title "King of Saba and Dhu Raidan". it was one kingdom, but ruled by two kings belonging to different dynasties.In 275 AD, the powerful King Shammar Yuharish led his troops of Himyarites to victory over Nadjran, Mareb (the Sabeans later reconquered their capital) and Hadhramaut. He succeeded in uniting much of Ye-men, assuming the new title "King of Saba and Dhu Raydan and Hadhramaut and Yamnat" (Yamnat may have been the name of the Southern part of Yemen). From his time on the Himyarite kings are known as Tubba kings, amply praised for their courage and leadership in traditional Yemeni poetry.A hundred years later Abukar-rib Asad, who was titled "Asad al-Kamel"-the perfect one, fulfilled the highest aspirations of Shammar Yuharish. Under his leadership the old Sabean state with Mareb as the capital ceased to exist as an independent kingdom. The Axumites, who had become a strong power and had occupied the Tihama and part of the highlands more than once, were driven back to Ethiopia. During his rule pre-Islamic Yemen probably reached its greatest expansion including southern parts of present Saudi Arabia and Oman as a whole.Many changes happened during the two Himyaritic periods (115 BC - 275 AD; 275 AD - 525 AD). The Greek Hippalus (1.Century AD) is credited with the discovery of the changing monsoon winds, blowing the sailing boats to India and back. The great monopoly of the Sabeans for trade with India and Africa was broken. Now Roman ships could leave Egypt in early June for the port of Aden. The south-west monsoon would then carry them to India in Septem-ber. After doing trade and busi-ness for two months, the ships could be back in Alexandria by February.The Persian empire greatly encouraged the trade over the ancient "silk road" running through Persia and connecting India and the Far East with the Fertile crescent. The "gold and incense road" of Arabia Felix was no longer the only channel for the luxurious and exotic goods. The demand for frankincense dropped considerably when Christianity was made the state religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius in 395 AD.The Himyarites themselves moved the trade route up to the mountains. Muza (now Mokha) became their main port. From there the goods were transported to Dhofar, the capital and eventually via Sana'a to the north, especially to Mecca which be-came an important trade center.Another factor that lead to the decline of "Arabia Felix" was ideological breakdown. Traditional religion was no longer accepted without questions and the authority of the clergy decreased steadily. When the old religious belief broke, the unity of society, tied together by a common faith, broke as well. Irriga-tion systems were no longer given the proper care. The continuous wars with the Himyarites and among the kingdoms themselves disrupted the orderly and regimented life of the Sabeans. Many abandoned their old homes and emigrated north to Mecca and Syria (even today some Syrian families claim to be descendants of Saba) or east to the Gulf States (most prominent offspring of these emigrants is Sheikh Zaed bin Sultan, President of the Arab Emirates). The emigration of Sabeans became especially heavy, when the Mareb Dam broke several times due to negligence and lack of maintenance.As a result of the ideological breakdown, the two big monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity became rather successful in spreading their faith among the Arabs. Jewish emigrants came to Arabia probably after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Emperor Titus in 70 AD. Christian missionaries were sent out later from Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Among the late Himyarite kings were Christ-ian converts as well as Jewish converts. Both faiths had major congregations in bigger cities. Churches were built in Nadjran, Dhofar, Aden, Muza and later in Sana'a.Yemen became heavily involved in the Persian - Byzantine power struggle, When Yousuf Athar (Dhu Nuwas), the last Himyarite king and follower of the Jewish faith, started a cam-paign of bloody persecution against the Christians, Constantinople took the chance to bring Yemen into its sphere of influence by mobilizing troops from Christian Ethiopia. Abraha the Axumite ruled Yemen from ab-out 530 AD to 570 AD. He not only constructed the large al-Qalis Cathedral in the Middle of Sana'a (in Abraha's time Sana'a was firmly established as Ye-men's new capital). Under his rule a final attempt was made to repair the disintegrating dam of Mareb.570 AD is called "the year of the elephant". Three important events are attributed to this year: first the birth of the Prophet Mohammed; second, Abraha's military expedition supported by elephants (hence the year of the elephant) ended in a complete failure and Abraha died shortly afterwards. Third it is believed that the final and greatest catastrophe occurred in Mareb, when floods eroded the dam from be-hind and broke it completely. The Himyarites made a final attempt to restore their power by inviting Persian troops to fight the Ethiopian occupants. The Persians succeeded in 575 AD, but only to bring Yemen into the sphere of Persian instead of Byzantine influence. The Per-sians remained in power until the arrival of Islam.The magnificent and impressive Arabia Felix had come to end. What remains are inscriptions in stone. alabaster statues, ruins of irrigation systems and temples. Sabean names of areas, towns and tribes have survived to the present day. However, the biggest treasures of the Sabean period still lie buried under the sand at the edge of the desert, where the early inhabitants had settled first. So many archeological sites await excavation and will surely add to our very limited knowledge of this great people.With the arrival of Islam, a new era began for the whole Arabian Peninsula including Yemen. Not only did Islam have an immense religious impact on the faith of the people, but t a whole new soci-ety came into being with its own rules of politics and administration based on the laws of the Koran (the Shari'a). Arabia ex-perienced a spiritual revival that had never happened before. And never again was the impact of the Islamic civilization on the rest of the world so profound, than during the early centuries of its expansion.The year 628 AD (the year 6 of the Hijra) is considered the historic year of Yemen's acceptance of Islam. One of the first to follow the call of the Prophet was Badhan, the Persian Governor of Sana'a. Other prominent figures followed quickly, often bringing their whole clan or family to the new faith. Abu Musa ben Ash’ari, Sheikh of Asha'er tribe in Wadi Zabid, is one of the famous tribal leaders who converted to Islam together with his people. When Abu Musa visited the Prophet in Madina, he was greeted by Prophet Mohammed by the famous words that have became a proverb ever since:"People of Yemen have come to you. They are the most amiable and gentle hearted of men. Faith is of Yemen and wisdom is Yemeni (the last sentence became the motto of the modern Sana'a University). Sheikh Abu Musa returned to Wadi Zabid in 630 AD and built a mosque near a well, where people naturally met to water their cattle. Two hun-dred years later Mohammed ben Zaid founded the city of Zabid at this very place.Moslem missionaries were sent to Yemen to give legal and theological council. Maadh ben Jabal was sent to al-Janad, near present Taiz, and constructed the Janad Mosque. His book on the interpretation of Islamic law is still used as a valuable reference today. Farwa ben Musaik, Waber ben Johanis, and Feirus Dailami, came to Sana'a and built the Great Mosque (all four are still very well remembered names; an eastern quarter of Sana'a bears the name of Musaik). Both mosques have been expanded and remained in service till the present day. They belong to the oldest mosques of the entire Peninsula. The Hamdan tribes in the north of Yemen submitted to Islam when Ali ben I Abi Talib, son-in-law of the Prophet, paid a personal visit to them.Yemenis also fervently participated in the expansion of the Islamic Empire. When the Prophet died in Mecca, Abu Bakr, the first caliph received 21,000 soldiers and officers from Yemen. Half were sent to Syria and the other half to Iraq. However, the Yemenis not only supported the caliph's army, Others emigrated after the battles and settled as merchants, administrators and architects. Even today castles in Spain (former Andalusia) bear such typical Yemeni names as "Yahsub" in Sevilla, "Hamdan" in Cordoba and "Khawlan" in Granada. The entire Umayyad dynasty depended heavily on Yemeni skills in agriculture and administration .Yemen itself became a province at the southern edge of the large Islamic Empire. When the Umayyads moved the capital to Damascus, Yemen moved even farther away from the political center. This situation remained when the Abbasid caliphs founded Baghdad as their new capital. Because of Yemen's remote geographical location, a number of petty states and semi independent kingdoms were established in rapid succession.