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Volume 16, Number 1January/February 1965

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Inside Arabia Felix

In South Arabia, archeology has cast new light on ancient legends…

Written by G Lankester Harding

Archeologists—we must admit it—do spoil things. No sooner does a nice romantic legend get hold of the public's fancy than the archeologists begin to poke about with their shovels and sooner or later come up with a fragment of something or other that ruins the legend for all time. And there's no better example of that tendency than the effects of exploration upon that most durable and romantic of legends: the ancient and fabled kingdoms in the mysterious regions called, however loosely, Arabia Felix.

Arabia Felix—Fortunate Arabia—was the name chosen by the Romans for the lands on the southern fringe of the Arabian Peninsula, some of which were known until recently as the Aden Protectorates, now the Federation of South Arabia, and Yemen. It would seem today, perhaps, in looking upon a region that is little more than empty plateau and arid desert, that the Romans exercised somewhat less than acute judgment in choosing such a name. But that's today. At the time there were many reasons for the Romans to believe that South Arabia was a blessed land. For one thing, neither they nor anyone else knew enough about that mysterious and unexplored land to refute or dispute the legends about Arabia Felix.

Those legends, going back many years prior to the rise of Roman power, held that it was out of the South Arabian kingdoms that the Queen of Sheba emerged in all her glory to confront King Solomon in all of his. They held, too, and the Greek geographer Strabo set it down in writing, that the inhabitants of Sheba had amassed vast treasures—stores of alabaster, spices, perfumes, ivory, tortoise shell, precious woods, pearls and silks—which they occasionally brought forth in great quantities to exchange for gold and silver. Another Greek, Agatharcides, added to the story with an arresting description of the South Arabian coastline:

"A heavenly and indescribable fragrance seems to strike and stir the senses," he wrote breathlessly. "Even far out from land as you sail past you do not miss the fragrant odors blowing from the myrrh bushes." Lastly, to confound skeptics, if there had been any skeptics, there was the indisputable fact that the South Arabians did have access to rich sources of incense, myrrh and spices, and that they had developed a very real and very profitable trade in those goods.

It is a curious thing, of course, that archeologists would wait so long before exploring a region that seemed to have played such an important role in ancient history and which spawned such wondrous tales. Yet it was precisely the conditions that kept the Romans and others from delving too deeply into the legend that held modern scientists at bay too: a harsh climate and difficult terrain. These conditions included, as one writer put it, "steep barren mountains ... deserts with no recorded rainfall, jungles and fever-infested desertic plains ..." Other men added such unpleasant intelligence as the abundance of scorpions and centipedes, the scorching temperatures and the stifling humidity. Even today travel is difficult. Great distances of desert, mountain or high plateau must be traversed merely to get from A to B and there's nothing to see on the way. Thus it was not until 25 years ago that the archeologists moved into South Arabia and began to probe the sources of the great legends and discovered that romantic and exciting as they may be, they are almost entirely without foundation.

The ancient kingdoms of South Arabia were known as Ma'in and Saba (Sheba)—in what is now Yemen—and Qataban, Hadhramaut, Himyar and Ausan. But instead of being kingdoms of great wealth they were kingdoms of traders—middlemen who sent their seamen and navigators off across the Indian Ocean to what are now India and Indonesia for shipments of spices which were then sent by caravan up the Red Sea coast to Petra for distribution throughout the civilizations of the east and the west. The traders held a tight monopoly on the routes by which their seamen, skillfully riding the treacherous monsoons which swept across the Indian Ocean, sought and found their products. It was a brisk trade which provided South Arabia with a prosperity that, if immeasurably more modest than legend claimed, was, nonetheless, substantial. But it was incense and myrrh that comprised the real basis of the kingdoms' income.

For modern man it is perhaps difficult to grasp the importance of incense in the ancient world. It is, after all, merely a gum resin, derived from a tree, which gives off a fragrant smoke when burned. Yet in the ancient world it was a vital substance, one that was essential to those involved and mysterious ceremonies by which priests and priestesses at innumerable altars in innumerable temples placated and petitioned innumerable gods. Myrrh played an essential role in embalming and was also added to lime to impart a high gloss to walls. The kingdoms of South Arabia were the principal producers and importers of both substances and so tightly controlled the routes their caravans used in bringing their valuable products to what is today called Jordan, that they managed to keep this monopoly. Eventually, however, the Romans began to send ships down the Red Sea to compete more cheaply and swiftly with the caravans, with the result that the South Arabian kingdoms were seriously hurt. In the 4th century, as Christianity reached further into pagan lands, supplanting many pagan rites, the demand began to lessen. Then, in the 7th century, there came Islam, which not only had no need for incense, but firmly opposed its use. For Arabia Felix it was the last blow. Its scattered kingdoms sank swiftly into oblivion.

In establishing the outlines of those occurrences, archeologists have had a most difficult time. Even without the definite contrast between the legendary splendor and the dismal reality, the few remnants of the real kingdoms that have been found and examined are distinctly disappointing. Except for capital cities such as Timna in Baihan, capital of ancient Qataban, and Shawah, capital of ancient Hadhramaut, the sites are small even by ancient standards and suggest a level of competence in architecture, sculpture and craftsmanship barely comparable to that of the Egyptians and Sumerians. At the same time it must be said that there have been some very interesting discoveries made—such as some rather remarkable achievements in building with mud brick.

Mud brick is hardly a material to inspire glorious architecture, yet in the area formerly known as the Eastern Protectorate, where great valleys slash through vast areas of high, blank tableland, it was—and still is—not only the chief building material, but was developed to a surprising degree of perfection. The buildings include great houses, four, five and even eight stories high, and one sultan's palace with an estimated 1,000 rooms. Although in fact the ground plans of some of those structures were developed from nothing more than a ground plan laid out with lime, the architectural details were carefully and beautifully done. White, lime-plastered exteriors of most buildings gleam brilliantly in the sun and the hard, highly burnished floors and walls reflected a technique otherwise unknown except in Neolithic houses of about 5000 B.C. in such areas as Phoenicia and Turkey.

Another interesting aspect of South Arabia's archeological findings is the existence of completely isolated square buildings, with front entrances on the first floor above rather than on the ground floor, with ladders to provide access and entrance, obviously a security measure. A third find is the great irrigation works in Baihan and the Eastern Protectorate, many in disuse for 2,000 years. Employing obstructions to divert waters from the river beds, the systems channeled the water into otherwise arid areas by means of an elaborate system of main and subsidiary canals, spillways and sluices, constructed on mud banks raised above the level of fields. Amid the vast areas of once-fertile, now-arid fields, the stone irrigation systems still stand in, perhaps, silent reproof.

Other discoveries in South Arabia include a series of imposing gateways, like those of Shabwa, Timna (modern Hajar Kohlan) and Mayfaat (modern Naqb al-Hajar), which, curiously enough, do not seem to have had gates or any other means of closing. There are no signs of the usual holes at threshold level in which the gate post revolved, and at Mayfaat, where the gateway is still intact to a considerable height, there is no indication that hinges might have been inserted anywhere. The mystery is compounded by the impregnability of the walls, which could have withstood fierce onslaughts, though to what avail is difficult to comprehend unless the gates could be closed.

On the cultural side, South Arabian sculpture has a certain local individuality. Usually the human body is treated as merely a pedestal on which to place portrait heads, many of which are excellent both technically and artistically, although the tops of the heads are left unfinished—as though a wig, cap or other headdress were to be added later. The South Arabians could also cast in bronze fine life-size statues and large, decorative plaques, lamps and caskets, as well as small, delicate figurines with inlaid eyes. Some work was done in local alabaster and gold jewelry from royal tombs of Ausan suggests that they were at least accomplished craftsmen if not imaginative designers.

In unraveling the story of Arabia Felix, archeologists leaned heavily on a source of information not always available: writing. The South Arabians may not have been masters of a golden empire, nor creators of great temples, but they were prolific writers. In all the regions they inhabited, they left tens of thousands of alphabetic inscriptions, some merely names, others important historical documents. Unfortunately the inscriptions being so available diverted attention from the basic ABC of archeology: pottery. The result has been that attempts to assign even approximate dates to finds in the area have failed. There are, in fact, only two reference points for dating in South Arabia; one is the 1951 excavation by Wendell Phillips of the stratified site in Wadi Baihan going back as far as the 8th or 9th century B.C. and the other is Miss Caton-Thompson's excavation at Huraidha in Hadhramaut, which relates to the period from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C. The findings of the Phillips expedition, unfortunately, have never been published and for practical purposes are useless. For sites in Hadhramaut the Caton-Thompson work is immensely useful and enables investigators to assign approximate dates to other sites of similar nature where sherds of the same type are found. It is, however, very limited in application, because when sherds are found which cannot be compared to those of Huraidha it is only possible to guess, on the basis of comparison, whether they pre- or post-date that material.

Even the inscriptions themselves present a problem. Although there is scarcely any site without at least remnants of carved inscriptions, and although some of the big sites have complete or fragmentary texts by the hundreds, the value is limited because of the lack of dating. At Timna, for example, almost every stone of the great South Gate is inscribed and the texts are long and historically valuable. Furthermore, many thousands of inscriptions from all over South Arabia have been collected and published and many of them mention kings of Saba, Qataban, Hadhramaut and other kingdoms. But no dates can be assigned with absolute certainty, and identification of the names mentioned depends on the works of the few Greek and Roman writers who took an interest in this part of the world and who mentioned the same rulers. Even the South Arabian alphabet which required many centuries to develop and which, between the pre-Christian era and the 6th century A.D., went through a series of very marked changes, gives no clue to dates because there is no reference point. In short, archeologists have a remarkable wealth of subject matter but, ironically, have not a single reliable chronological bench mark from which dating can begin.

In many ways, then, South Arabia is still a land of mystery. If archeologists have spoiled the romantic legends of Sheban riches, they still have only touched the surface of what remains to be discovered and it is still possible that future discoveries may rival, or even overshadow, the legends that gave the region its historic if inaccurate name.

G. Lankester Harding, C.B.E., F.S.A., was Director of Antiquities in Jordan from 1936 to 1956, during which time he wrote The Antiquities of Jordan and participated in the recovery of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He lives in the village of Dar'oun in Lebanon.

This article appeared on pages 24-27 of the January/February 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: ARABIA

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