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Volume 49, Number 2March/April 1998

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New Light on Old Yemen

Written by Richard Covington
Photographs courtesy of Institut Du Monde Arabe

Her Egyptian hairstyle, fashionable in Yemen in the first century, has lost its black coloring over the centuries. The lapis lazuli inlay that decorated her oval eyes has long since disappeared. But the sculptured alabaster head that archeologist Alexander Honeyman unearthed in the 1950's and dubbed "Miriam" endures the indignities of age with a bemused smile, as enigmatic and serene as a South Arabian Mona Lisa.

The "Miriam" sculpture is among the most striking pieces in a ground-breaking exhibition devoted to the little-known pre-Islamic cultures of Yemen. Yemen: In the Land of the Queen of Sheba, which opened last fall in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), traces the cultural evolution of this little-known territory of chilly highland plateaus and daunting deserts at the southern heel of the Arabian Peninsula. The exhibition ranges from Paleolithic times through the era of the caravan kingdoms and their legendary wealth, and on through the bitter wars that were followed, ultimately, by the coming of Islam in the early seventh century.

Comprising some 500 pieces, the exhibition marks the first time that such an extensive array of alabaster sculptures, stone inscriptions, Neolithic statues and funerary steles from Yemen has been displayed in the West. Fully 377 of the works have been lent by Yemeni institutions, principally the National Museum and the Military Museum in San'a', the Museum of Aden and a host of regional museums. The exhibition has also gathered pieces from the American Foundation for the Study of Man in Falls Church, Virginia, the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde in Munich, the Louvre and the British Museum as well as other public and private collections.

Unlike ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, whose archeological sites and artistic heritage have been studied for centuries, much of pre-Islamic Yemen is only now coming to light. Despite a wealth of some 10,000 known inscriptions in stone, reconstruction of daily life in Yemen is still very much a work in progress. "We know hardly anything about their social and political structures, and still less about their anthropology," explains Christian Robin, a French archeological specialist. "Daily life remains a near-total mystery."

The broader strokes of history, however, are fairly well known, and there is enough here to make even the most determined explorer dizzy. Robin divides Yemen's pre-Islamic history into four phases: the arrival of Semitic-speaking tribes around 1200 BC; the unification of the region around 700 BC by the Sabaean king Karib'il Watar ("the Great"); the decline of the caravan kingdoms of Saba', Qataban and Hadhramaut around the first century BC; and the revival of a single state under Himyarite kings in 300. That period was an era of relative peace that then deteriorated into foreign-sponsored civil wars and brought the transition to Islamic rule.

Curiously, in spite of the exhibition's subtitle, the Queen of Sheba (the land known today as Saba') is absent. There are simply no references in the exhibition to that fabled, l0th-century-BC queen who showered the king and prophet Solomon with incense, gold and jewels. This is for good reason: Though both the Qur'an and the Bible mention her, no artifact has been discovered—either in Yemen or in Ethiopia, which also claims the queen—that attests to her existence. Despite a host of Arab, Persian, Ethiopian and European paintings that depict the encounter of the queen and Solomon in his palace in Jerusalem, there is no archeological trace of it. And so, despite the exhibition's crowd-pleasing name, its curators have wisely downplayed the legend.

For Europeans, exploring Yemen has always been a risky business. In the handful of European expeditions undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of explorers lost their lives, and much of what is known about ancient South Arabian culture today is still due to the extensive archeological inventory by the 10th-century Yemeni scholar al-Hamdani, whose writings served as a guidebook for the Europeans since the earliest expeditions. Apart from two expeditions led by the American archeologist Wendell Phillips in the 1950's, it is only since the 1970's that major Yemeni archeological sites have been comprehensively excavated.

It was Phillips' team that uncovered "Miriam," one of several alabaster heads discovered in the cemetery near Tamna', capital of the caravan kingdom of Qataban that flourished for nearly a millennium, from the seventh century BC to the second century of our era. Scattered over almost 20 hectares (50 acres), the city was said by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder to contain some 65 temples.

After unearthing roughly 1000 artifacts, Phillips and company moved 70 kilometers (43 mi) northwest to Marib, capital of the rival caravan kingdom of Saba' and the supposed domain of Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba. In its heyday, from 750 BC until the end of the fourth century of our era, Marib counted some 50,000 inhabitants. A massive dam, a technological marvel 680 meters (2230') long, created an oasis that covered 9600 hectares (37 sq mi). In Greek accounts, this welcoming island of green grew to take on virtually continental proportions, described as a place where a camel rider could travel in the shade of palm trees for 40 days straight. More reliable is the calculation that during the semiannual rainy seasons around April and July, floodwaters surged through the Marib waterworks at 600 cubic meters (160,000 US gal) a second, more than twice the speed of the flow of the Seine through Paris.

Toward the end of the sixth century, after a millennium of operation interrupted by destruction and reconstruction, the dam fell into disrepair. The Qur'an, in Sura 34 ("Saba"'), relates how the dam finally failed, destroying the region's irrigation-dependent economy, and the inhabitants of Marib gradually dispersed throughout the peninsula. In 1986, work began to restore the dam as a historical artifact, and it is still under construction. (See Aramco World, March/April 1978.)

Among the sculptures Phillips uncovered in Marib was a sixth-century BC bronze figure 93 centimeters (3') high that is an instructively eclectic amalgam of Near and Middle Eastern iconography. Dubbed "Ma'dikarib" after the name of the donor's son, found inscribed on the torso, the figure (page 5) wears a lion skin with its paws wrapped around his neck and thighs—a symbol of the Greek god Hercules. His nubby beard and the tightly-wound curls of hair that cover his head like an overturned bowl suggest Cypriot and Phoenician statuary. His posture and knee-length skirt resemble Hittite figures, and the curved dagger squeezed beneath his belt is exactly like the jambiyas worn today by Yemeni men. Found in the temple of Awwam, the statue was originally covered with gold leaf, and archeologists believe it was offered to gain favor with the lunar god Almaqah.

Ma'dikarib and the prosperous Sabaean family that commissioned him probably profited in some fashion from the incense caravans that formed some 200 kilometers (125 mi) to the east, in Shabwa, and then lumbered through Saba' laden with frankincense, myrrh, cassia, labdanum gum and cinnamon before turning north for Gaza (See Aramco World, September/October 1994). Sold in markets throughout the Mediterranean, the Yemeni products and trade goods were treasured for medical, cosmetic and religious uses.

No one knows when the incense trade began. The earliest account of a Yemen-based incense caravan describes a robbery and dates to 750 BC. Once the trade was established, the 2500-kilometer (1550-mi) camel trek to Gaza took 65 to 88 days. All along the route, a succession of local rulers grew wealthy by exacting levies in exchange for safe passage through their respective territories. In the first century BC, however, Indian spice merchants and Yemeni incense producers teamed up to adopt faster and cheaper sea routes, and the caravan kingdoms began a long period of decline.

Trusting far too much in the hyperbole of a Persian emissary, Herodotus, the normally circumspect Greek historian of the fifth century BC, took flight into sheer fancy, describing the harvest of the pale yellow frankincense and the amber-hued myrrh. He marveled that the frankincense trees were protected by small, brightly-colored winged serpents, "whereof vast numbers hang about every tree," and that collecting cassia was made hazardous by screaming bat-like creatures, "very valiant," that swarmed around the marshes where the spice grew, attacking the gatherers' eyes.

Writing in the first century BC, the Sicilian historian Diodorus recounted the "waves of gold and silver that inundate the Sabaean kingdom," describing temples encrusted with jewels and houses decorated with precious ivory. Yet today not a stick remains of the sumptuous furnishings he describes.

Geography is often destiny, and Yemen's destiny has been that the region, roughly the size of France and twice the size of Colorado, came to be walled off from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula by volcanic mountain plateaus and deserts. The current exhibition begins with a brief film describing the tectonic plates whose shift, beginning some 30 million years ago, separated the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa. This shift also thrust up two ranges of mountains. Today, one runs parallel to the Red Sea and lifts highland plateaus up to 3000 meters (9600'). The other runs along the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, at a right angle to the first, and rises to some 1800 meters (5800'). Would-be invaders-from land or sea—faced early societies blessed with formidable natural defenses.

The earliest evidence of habitation in Yemen was probably left by nomadic hunters who crossed from Africa some 700,000 years ago. The oldest pieces in the exhibition, however, are rudimentary Paleolithic quartzite hatchets 30,000 years old; Neolithic arrowheads fashioned from flint and obsidian date to 6000 BC.

In the seventh millennium, wall carvings of ibex, buffalo and aurochs, the ancestor of today's oxen and cattle, started appearing, and some are still visible on limestone cliffs. Even at this early stage, these severe, schematized carvings prefigure both the formal rigor and the austere lack of figural embellishment that distinguish later Yemeni art.

Among the first known sculptures is a bearded warrior figure with a jaunty face, stylized like a Paul Klee drawing. Dating from around 2000 BC, the stone stele was discovered as part of an ensemble of similar steles forming a circular tomb. The statues headed up an extraordinary alignment of standing stones several kilometers long; the stones appear to have served both as guideposts to tombs and as territorial border markers.

Slab-like, broad-shouldered granite statuettes with tiny heads, several fine examples of which have been found in Hadhramaut, appeared around the same time. Their purpose remains a mystery. According to Marie-Hélène Bayle, chief of cultural programs at the IMA, "some archeologists see them as idols, principally because they would like to be able to fix a date for the beginning of religious belief. But so far, there's no proof."

Like the birth of faith, many other aspects of antique Yemen also remain the subject of academic dispute. Even the chronology of inscriptions is in contention, as some archeologists insist that particular works were created some two centuries later than the dates given in the exhibition. Dating sculptures according to their style is an even riskier business.

"Because the Yemenis were very conservative artists who preserved aesthetic styles for centuries, a rougher-hewn piece that looks as if it were made well before more polished works may in fact have been created long after them," Bayle explains. "Older styles recur long after new ones had been adopted."

Archeologists generally try to date pieces according to the strata in which the finds occur, but the Yemeni sites have been sifted through and looted so often that this technique has proven unreliable. In the jumble of most sites, older pieces frequently end up closer to the surface than more recent works.

Of the many clear inscriptions found, only a handful allude to religious practices, and virtually nothing is known of the myths and beliefs that informed early Yemeni civilization. Among the earliest evidence of a belief system is an eighth-century BC votive stele offered to Almaqah, a deity who was revered throughout the region. Although each tribe venerated its own pantheon of gods, Almaqah, along with Shams, the goddess of the sun, and Athtar, the god of rain and fertility, were all related to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar and the Canaanite goddess Astarte. Almaqah, Shams and Athtar were among the handful of deities common to disparate Yemeni tribes.

The burning of incense, naturally enough, was a way to propitiate the gods, and the exhibition's array of incense altars ranges from simple household burners to a rare bronze temple altar supported by a quartet of horned ibexes, and fanciful models shaped like miniature castles, complete with corner turrets (page 7).

According to a number of inscriptions, only priests and dignitaries were allowed access to the inner sanctums of the temples. Believers from lower social classes left offerings in terracotta bowls on the temple steps. The gods were supposed to respond to prayers through oracles or by appearing in supplicants' dreams.

The earliest written inscriptions started appearing on ceramic pots and bowls around 1200 BC, but it was not until four centuries later that artisans began etching inscriptions into slabs of stone. The German explorer Ulrich Jasper Seetzen copied the first stone inscriptions in 1810, and in 1841, after British sailors brought back more elaborate writing samples, a pair of German philologists, Wilhelm Gesenius and Emil Rödiger, unscrambled two-thirds of the 29-character alphabet. The remaining third was not deciphered until half a century later.

Based on Canaanite script, archaic South Arabian writing was almost identical to its contemporary in Ethiopia, in which each word was separated by a vertical line. Like Ethiopian, the Yemeni letters are rigorously geometrical. Some form circles atop lines; one looks like a pair of triangles stacked along a line like semaphore flags; and others appear as elongated rhomboids. Although these painstaking inscriptions in stone were reserved for boastful recitals of conquest, monumental construction projects, temple dedications, funerary testaments and other formulaic proclamations of power, more extraordinary in their ordinariness is a display of carved wooden sticks that served as rental contracts, tax and debt records; one even seems to be a get-well card.

On one of these sticks, all of which date from the first through third centuries of our era, a woman wrote to her cousin requesting medicine to help cure an illness, and then she asked after the health of the relative and her family. "The stones tell of kings and nobles, while the sticks reveal the lives of the commoners," Bayle explains.

The same alphabet and written language served for at least five distinct spoken languages and lasted until 560, when it was supplanted by Arabic. Despite the profusion of inscriptions on stone and wood, not a single literary composition, poem or even the name of a writer has been preserved, according to Christian Robin.

Throughout the pre-Islamic period, Yemeni artists had a penchant for creating stiff, squared-off figures with frozen features and mechanical gestures. The alabaster statues of three generations of kings from Awsan (page 7) and the limestone figure of Lady d'ad-Dali, whose face resembles that of a 12th-century French saint, are prime examples.

With the arrival of Greek lost-wax sculpture molds and, later, itinerant Greek artisans themselves, Yemeni aesthetics appear to have expanded. A pair of bronze Cupids mounted on lions, discovered in a palace in Tamna' and dating from between 75 BC and 50 AD, were likely cast by local craftsmen from imported molds. Yet by the second century of our era, the traveling Greek sculptor Phocas was collaborating so closely with the Yemeni artist Lahay'mann that each signed one knee of two giant bronze figures.

By this time, merchants had long abandoned camel caravans in favor of maritime trade. In 25 BC, the Romans had made a foolish attempt to conquer the region (See Aramco World, March/April 1980), and although their army of 10,000 lost a third of its men—only seven in combat—they returned with sufficient intelligence on winds and ports to soon assert dominance over the strategic shipping routes. But the Roman fortunes in Yemen were shortlived: The adoption of Christianity by Roman emperors in the fourth century precipitated a crisis in the incense market, one from which it never recovered. With its prosperity in decline, Yemen weakened and grew vulnerable.

By the sixth century, Yemen had become a battlefield for a proxy war between the Byzantine and Persian Empires. Backed by Persia, a Yemeni king named Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar forcibly converted the country to Judaism, and massacred thousands of Yemeni Christians in the process. In retaliation, the Byzantine emperor Justin dispatched a Christian force from Abyssinia which overthrew Yusuf. Under the Abyssinians, the great Marib dam was rebuilt for the fourth time, and San'a' was established as the capital of the kingdom—a status it retains today. After a failed attempt to expand his kingdom by storming Makkah, the Abyssinian ruler Abraha was succeeded by his two despotic sons, who soon earned the hatred of the populace. Seeing the country near revolt, Sassanid Persia sent a force that in turn vanquished the Abyssinian regime and established a satrapy that lasted until the country came under Islamic control in 632.

After 14 centuries of high accomplishment along its own idiosyncratic artistic path, the independent South Arabian civilization largely assimilated the aesthetics of Islam. Despite the ambitious scope of the current, long-overdue exhibition, monumental pieces of the puzzle of ancient Yemen are still waiting to be drawn from the sand.

Paris-based author Richard Covington writes about arts, culture and the media in Europe, the Middle East and Asia for the International Herald Tribune, Smithsonian, Reader's Digest, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the March/April 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1998 images.