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Arabia Felix : Yemen prior to Islam

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Jun, Bum Sun
Term Paper, AP European History Class, September 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Ancient History of Yemen
II.1 23rd Century B.C. - 8th Century B.C.
II.2 8th Century B.C. - 5th Century B.C.
II.2.1 Kingdom of Saba
II.2.2 Kingdom of Awsan
II.3 5th Century B.C. - 2nd Century B.C.
II.3.1 Kingdom of Hadhramaut
II.3.2 Kingdom of Main
II.3.3 Kingdom of Qataban
II.4 2nd Century B.C. - 6th Century A.D.
II.4.1 Kingdom of Himyar
II.4.2 Kingdom of Aksum
III. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Ancient history of Yemen is famous for its legendary prosperity. Until the Islam arrival in the 7th century, Yemen had highly flourished based on its monopoly on spice trade and fertile soil. The Greek philosopher Ptolemy thus coined the term "Eudaimon Arabia", which the Romans translated to "Arabia Felix", fortunate Arabia.
            Although the prosperity of ancient Yemen is a well-known fable, it lacks substantial proof. Archaeologists have had difficulty exploring the region due to harsh climate and have found rather disappointing amount of relics. However, thanks to the early development of characters in the area, Southern Arabians left ample written documents since 9th century B.C. Thus, through these annals, we can assume how glorious Yemen was back then, and what the main factors that contributed to their success were. This paper will cover the ancient Yemeni history until 628 A.D. when the Yemen was converted to Islam, categorizing it into five chronological sections.

II. Ancient History of Yemen

II.1 23rd Century B.C. - 8th Century B.C.
            According to Arab tradition, Yemeni people had their origin in Qahtan, a descendent of Noah¡¯s first son, Shem; hence the term Semites. Qahtani Semites were dominant in the southern Arabia from 23rd century B.C. to 8th century B.C. Yet, the history during this era is veiled in mystery due to lack of written sources; Qahtani Semites did not have their own character and were nearly isolated from the neighboring Mesopotamian civilizations by the Arabian Desert.
            Nevertheless, there is a famous anecdote that describes the Qahtani prosperity during the era: the fable of Queen of Sheba. In the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, the first Book of Kings, chapter 10, verses 1 ? 10 says:
            "The queen of Sheba heard of Solomon's fame and came to test him with hard questions. She arrived in Jerusalem with a very large retinue, camels laden with spices, gold in great quantity, and precious stones. When she came to Solomon, she told him everything she had in her mind, and Solomon answered all her questions; not one of them was too abstruse for the king to answer. When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon, the house which he had built, the food on his table, the courtiers sitting round him, and his attendants standing behind in their livery, his cupbearers, and the whole-offerings which he used to offer in the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit left in her. Then she said to the king, 'The report which I heard in my own country about you and your wisdom was true, but I did not believe it until I came and saw for myself. Indeed I was not told half of it; your wisdom and your prosperity go far beyond the report which I had of them. Happy are your wives, happy these courtiers of yours who wait on every day and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God who has delighted in you has set you on the throne of Israel; because he loves Israel for ever, he has made you their king to maintain law and justice.' Then she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great abundance, and precious stones. Never again came such a quantity of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon." (1)
            The prosperity of Sheba during her reign is mentioned in another holy book. The Quran confirms the level of cultural advances during King Solomon by the hoopoe bird who said: "I have come to you from Saba with definitive news. I found a women reigning over the Sabaeans. She was bestowed upon with everything and had a magnificent throne." (2) (The Holy Quran, Surat Al-Naml, verses 22 and 23)
            The Queen of Sheba, also called Bilqis, lived around 10th century B.C. She was one of the mukkaribs, the ¡°priest-kings¡± which refers to the tribal leaders of South Arabia and Eastern Africa. During her reign, the Kingdom of Sheba was probably at its heyday, probably due to its extensive monopoly on spice trade. Nonetheless, due to lack of records, it is difficult to further understand the history of Sheba other than its economic prosperity.

II.2 8th Century B.C. - 5th Century B.C.
            At the turn of 9th century B.C., the Phoenician alphabet was introduced to Southern Arabia. Thus, recording of Yemeni history began since then. From the 8th century B.C., several minor kingdoms emerged in Southern Arabia: Kingdom of Saba, Kingdom of Qataban, Kingdom of Hadramaut, Kingdom of Awsan, and Kingdom of Ma¡¯in. Among these countries, Saba was the most predominant one until 5th century B.C. when other kingdoms rose as its competitors.

II.2.1 Kingdom of Saba
            Saba was the leading power in Yemen especially under the kings Yath?¡¯amar (last quarter of the 8th century B.C.) and Karib¡¯il Watar (first half 7th century) (3) Although the relationship between Sheba and Saba is unclear, many claim that these two are identical. One of the widely accepted theories is that Sabaeans originally resided in the northern Arabian Peninsula (Kingdom of Sheba) and moved down to South around 9th century B.C. forming the Kingdom of Saba centered at its capital Marib.
            The city of Marib is allegedly founded by the son of Noah, Shem. Although now barren and dry, Marib was then a lush oasis teeming with palm trees and exotic plants. (4) Sabaeans had reached a considerable level of architecture that they constructed the Marib dam around 700 B.C. which provided irrigation for more than 100 square km. The dam lasted for a millennium until it collapsed in the 6th century.
            Kingdom of Saba was the center of spice trade: it imported large amount of spice from modern day India and Indonesia and exported them to Assyria, Egypt and Gaza. Port cities like Aden functioned as the intermediary between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea while the capital, Marib was in control of in-land trade route. The country not only imported, but also raised some spices like frankincense and myrrh. In fact, Marib was one of only two main sources of frankincense (the other being East Africa), so Saba had a virtual monopolyon it. (5) Frankincense was especially profitable then, since it was essential in religious ceremonies.
            Sabaeans had a distinct religion of their own. The two highest deities were the Moon God Il-Mukah and his spouse or daughter Shamsh, the Sun Goddess. Mahram Bilqis, the supremest temple of the Moon God, was revered as sacred even after the collapse of the Sabaean civilization. Sabaeans performed absolute submission to their gods and goddesses. Worshippers offered to the gods themselves and their children, registered vows, and attested their fulfillment (6). Sabaean religion considerably influenced the following religions near the Arabian Peninsula, especially through religious terminology.
            Sabaean language belongs to the Semitic language family. It was spoken not only by Sabaeans but also by many other peoples around them, including Hashidites, Sirwahites, Humlanites, Ghaymanites, Himyarites, Radmanites (A HREF = "#7">(7) etc, from 10th century B.C. to 6th century A.D. It was written in South Arabian Arabic which only noted consonants.

II.2.2 Kingdom of Awsan
            There was another kingdom called the kingdom of Awsan which was bordering with the Kingdom of Saba. Hagar Yahirr, its capital, flourished as the center of in-land trade. In fact, the city was an exceptionally large city for South Arabia back then. With its markets and caravanserai, Hagar Yahirr attracted numerous traders. Influenced by Hellenistic culture, the city was
            filled with temples and mudbrick dwellings, and some statues of its kings or mukkaribs were even dressed in Greek clothing. Although the exact date is unclear, the kingdom seems to have been destroyed around 7th century by Karib¡¯il Watar's Sabaean army.

II.3 5th Century B.C. - 2nd Century B.C.
            Around the 5th century B.C. Sabaean dominance over Southern Arabia was broken with the emergence of three other major kingdoms including Hadhramaut, Qataban, and Ma'in. Actually, these kingdoms had existed since around 8th century B.C. but Saba had been so powerful that their influence remained negligible. However, as Ma¡¯in took over the essential caravan route from Saba, Sabaean control weakened throughout the region, thus allowing Hadhramaut, Ma¡¯in, and the newly founded Qataban to raise their power.

II.3.1 Kingdom of Hadhramaut.
            Kingdom of Hadhramaut was located in the Eastern part of modern day Yemen, with its capital Sabwa. Like many other kingdoms, its main source of income was incense and cinnamon. The port city of Qana was the center of trade in the kingdom.
            Most of early records on Hadhramaut can be found in Sabaean inscriptions. Until the the 4th century B.C., Hadhramaut had to stay as an ally with the kingdom of Saba. Nonetheless, as soon as Ma¡¯in gained control over the caravan route, Hadhramaut turned to Ma¡¯in and joined it as a confederate for commercial reason.

II.3.2 Kingdom of Ma'in.
            Some historians claim that the Minaean kingdom was founded as early as 13th century B.C, while others date it as late as 4th century B.C. However, considering the fact that Saba had been predominant in the region until 4th century B.C., it is either that Ma¡¯in remained powerless or didn¡¯t even exist until then. Either way, Kingdom of Ma'in rose as a power around 4th century B.C. competing with Saba.
            Ma'in was located north of Saba, centered in its capital Karna. Other than incense and spice trade, Minaeans can be characterized by their distinguished language. Along with Sabaean inscriptions, Minaean inscriptions compose large part of historical records that contribute to study of ancient Yemeni history. It was even discovered as far away as in Delos and Egypt. Minaean writings appear since as early as 1,200 B.C., at the same time period with Sabaean inscriptions; this is why some historians date the kingdom of Ma'in from 13th century B.C. Yet, Minaean language was more like a regional language along Wadi Madhad which later became part of Minaean kingdom. In fact, it would be more precise to be called the "Madhabic language." Unfortunately, Minaean and Sabaean languages disappeared around 2nd century C.E. with the annihilation of both kingdoms.

II.3.3 Kingdom of Qataban.
            Kingdom of Qataban is first mentioned in a Sabaean inscription during the reign of Karib¡¯il Watar around 7th century B.C. However, like other minor kingdoms, it remained as a vassal of Saba which had removed Awsanide threat to Qataban. Later, after Saba¡¯s influence subsided, Qataban reached its zenith of prosperity around 2nd century B.C. Considering its function as an intermediary, Qataban paid more attention to the issuance of legislation, laws and regulations and was more orderly with regard to commerce and markets. (10)
            Qataban thrived in the Baihan valley between Hadhramaut and Saba. Its capital Timna was in the middle of the caravan route connecting Sabwa and Marib. Thus, Qatabanites' main source of income was incense trade plus the tax they received in return for the protection they provided.

II.4 2nd Century B.C. - 6th Century A.D..
            After 2nd century B.C., Himyarites emerged as the leading power in the Southern Arabian Peninsula. They started as a small tribe but soon conquered every other kingdom and united the Ancient Yemen. Since then, Kingdom of Himyar ruled over the region until the Aksumite annexation in 520 C.E.

II.4.1 Kingdom of Himyar
            Himyarites, originally a Semitic tribe, used their own language Himyaritic. Himyaritic inscriptions can be found as early as 8th century B.C. Yet the Kingdom of Himyar, centered in Thifar, was established in 115 B.C. Unlike other kingdoms, they had a relatively stable agricultural base. Thanks to its location which was the southern-most area of the Peninsula, Himyarite kingdom could secure greater amount of rain. Nonetheless, it required dams and canals in order to provide sufficient irrigation. Even though its agriculture was comparatively fruitful, its biggest source of income was still, the trade of frankincense and myrrh. Again, thanks to its location along the coast of Gulf of Aden, it gained control over Red Sea so that they could freely trade with East Africa. With the strong economical support, Himyarite kings could launch numbers of successful military campaigns. By the 1st century, Himyarites surpassed Sabaeans as the strongest power in Southern Arabia and eventually annexed Saba in 25 B.C. Soon, they conquered Qataban and Hadhramaut each around 50 C.E. and 100 C.E.
            Yet, Himyarites soon faced a threat from the West. Romans had conquered Egypt and tried to thwart Himyarite monopoly in the trade in Red Sea. Moreover, kingdom of Aksum in present day Ethiopia began to invade Yemen. King GDRT of Aksum interfered in Yemeni affair allying with Saba. (11) Qataban and Hadhramaut also allied themselves to fight against Himyar. Eventually, Aksum took over the capital Thifar in 225 but Himyarites drove out Aksumite force under BYGT, GDRT¡¯s son from Arabian Peninsula. After that, Saba, Qataban, and Hadhramaut disappeared and Himyarite Kingdom overruled the Southern Arabia.
            Himyarite king Dhu Nuwas imposed Judaism as its official religion in the early 6th century. Historians make numerous speculations on why Himyarites chose Judaism. Some try to explain it in terms of neutrality. In determining its religion, Himyarite kings had to be patient. Since most of its income came from lucrative spice trade, it was important for Himyarites to retain neutrality between Zoroasterian Persia in the East, and Christian Ethiopians in the West. However this theory cannot explain their massacre of Christians later ordered by Dhu Nuwas. Some anecdote suggests another explanation whose preciseness is dubious yet partly explains the massacre:
            "Abu-Kariba's forces reached Yathrib [¡¦], Abu-Kariba laid siege to the city. The Jews of Yathrib fought side by side with pagan fellow inhabitants to defend their town and harried the besiegers with sudden sallies. During the siege Abu-Kariba fell severely ill. Two Jewish scholars in Yathrib, Kaab and Assad by name, hearing of their enemy's misfortune, called on the king in his camp, and used their knowledge of medicine to restore him to health. While attending the king, they pleaded with him to Ilift the siege and make peace. The sages' appeal is said to have persuaded Abu-Kariba; he called off his attack and also embraced Judaism along with his entire army. At his insistence, the two Jewish savants accompanied the Himyarite king back to his capital, where he demanded that all his people convert to Judaism." (12)
            Whatever the reason was, Himyar was converted into a Judaist kingdom and Dhu Nuwas began to suppress other religions including Christianity. Unfortunately, it only outraged king Kaleb of Aksum and induced him to annex Himyar in 520.

II.4.2 Kingdom of Himyar
            After Kaleb killed Dhu Nuwas in a battle and annexed Himyar, he installed a viceroy named Sumyafa Ashwa who ruled until 525. However, the viceroy was deposed by an Aksumite general Abraha who was supported by the Aksumite army in the Arabian Peninsula. Kaleb sent an army across the Red Sea to suppress Abraha but was defeated. Since then, Yemen was ruled by Abraha and his sons until 570, when the Sassanid army took over the area. About 60 years later, Yemenis were converted to Islam when the Persian governor Badhan did so in 628.

III. Conclusion
            None of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms formed a vast empire like Rome or Persia, yet they could flourish in wealth. The primary cause of their prosperity was, without a doubt, trade. Although agriculture developed with its well-established irrigation system like the great Marib Dam, its profitability was limited due to climatic difficulty. Southern Arabia was probably the most suited place for an international trade, since it was the checkpoint where products from sea were transferred to caravans heading in-land. The traders imported and cultivated frankincense and myrrh and exported them across the Red sea to Eastern Africa or across the Arabian Desert to Northern countries. The governments also received taxes from the traders for providing protection. Hence, ancient Yemen could reach such legendary prosperity worth being called "Arabia Felix."
            Yet, as military pressure from both west and east intensified, Yemeni kingdoms could no longer maintain monopoly on trade. Eventually, kingdom of Aksum annexed Yemen first, and then Sassanid Empire conquered it again. Then, after Yemen was converted into Islam, its prosperity began to fade away and now only relics and inscriptions in old languages hint us about its past glory.


(1)      Quoted after Ethiopian Treasures
(2)      The Holy Quran, Surat Al-Naml, verses 22 and 23, quoted after Republic of Yemen
(3)      Jona Lendering
(4)      The History Files
(5)      The History Files
(6)      J.A. Hartinger
(7)      Andrey Korotayev
(8)      Similar to present day motel: where caravans took a rest
(9)      Wikipedia : Kingdom of Awsan
(10)      Yemen Times
(11)      Saba, Qataban, and Hadhramaut still existed as vassal states of Himyar
(12)      Quoted after article Himyarite Kingdom in Wikipedia


Note : websites quoted below were visited in May 2008.
1.      Ancient Arabia, from Livius Articles on Ancient History, by Jona Lendering.
2.      Article: Aksum, from Ethiopian Treasures,
3.      Article: Ancient history of Yemen, from Wikipedia.
4.      Article: Kingdom of Awsan, from Wikipedia.
5.      Article: Himyarite Kingdom, from Wikipedia.
6.      Hartinger, J.A. "Saba and Sabeans." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton, 1912. 23 Sept. 2008
7.      Republic of Yemen: 15 Years of Building and Development, May 2005
8.      Article: Saba / Sa'abia / Sheba, from The History Files,
9.      Andrey Korotayev. Ancient Yemen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995
10.      Old Yemeni State of Qataban, Yemen Times Issue: (879), Vol. 14, From 22 September 2005 to 25 September 2005,
11.      G Lankester Harding. ¡°Inside Arabia Felix.¡± Saudi Aramco World, Vol. 16, Number 1.

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