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EMERGENCE OF SOUTH ARABIAN CIVILIZATION

OUTLINE OF THE HISTORY OF ANCIENT SOUTHERN ARABIA

Yemen was one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East. The five principal kingdoms in ancient
southern Arabia were Saba (8th century BC – 275CE), the oldest, the most important and most powerful among
them, followed by Hadramawt(1000 BC - 300 CE) , Awsan (800 BC - 500 BC), Qataban (800 BC - 100 CE) ,
Ma’in (600 CE - 100 CE) and Himyar (100 BC – 520 CE). The three successive civilizations which
controlled the lucrative spice trade were Minaean, Sabaean and Himyarite. The mighty Sabaean
civilisation endured for about 14 centuries and was based not only on the spice trade, but also on
agriculture.

The kingdom of Saba makes its first appearance in world literature in the form of the Queen of Sheba (named
Makeda in Ethiopian tradition and Bilqis in Islamic tradition), who travels to Jerusalem to behold the fame of
King Solomon (ca. 980 BC) (1 Kings 10). The location of Saba has thus become closely linked with national
prestige, as various royal houses have claimed descent from the Queen of Saba and Solomon. Long the most
vigorous claimant has been Ethiopia and Eritrea, where Saba was traditionally linked with the ancient Aksumite
Kingdom (520 – 570 CE). As Ethiopia has remained a Christian state, the connection to Queen Saba has been
an important one, especially to the ruling family, the Solomonic dynasty. The tradition that the biblical Queen of
Saba was a ruler of Ethiopia who visited King Solomon in Jerusalem in ancient Israel is supported by the 1st
century ad Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who identified Solomon’s visitor as a queen of Egypt and
Ethiopia.

Recent archaeological evidence has not given strong support to the Ethiopian claim. However, today most
scholars believe that, at most, the kingdom of Saba controlled some coastal regions of Ethiopia and Eritrea
while being centered on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, modern Yemen. Linguistic evidence also
points to a close historical relationship between the two sides of the Red Sea, as South Semitic languages are
found only in two places: southern Arabia (modern Yemen and Oman), and the Horn of Africa (Eritrea and
Ethiopia).

FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO THE RISE OF SOUTH ARABIAN CIVILIZATION

The ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy, who described Yemen as Eudaimon Arabia (better known in
its Latin translation, Arabia Felix) meaning "fortunate Arabia" or Happy Arabia, due to its relatively

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fertile land and adequate rainfall in a moister climate, a feature which helped sustain a stable
population.

Geography

The Peninsula of Arabia may be described as a vast rectangle of more than a million square miles in extent,
placed between Africa and the mainland mass of Asia. The Red Sea, which forms its western boundary, is part
of a great rift valley which continues northwards though the Gulf of Akaba, the Dead Sea, and the River Jordan;
the huge convulsions which produced it have piled up mountain ridges which rise steeply along the coast from
Hijaz to Yemen..1

1. J.J. Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam, London, 1965, p.1

Southern Arabia presents an inhospitable front to the Indian Ocean; its long coastline has a few natural
harbours, and its inhabited valleys lie inland and free from prying strangers. Its principal division, the
Hadramawt, was famous in remote antiquity as the land of incense.Physically, Yemen consist of a strip of fairly
heavily cultivated plain, the Tihamah, lying along the Red Sea, to the east of which is a tangled mass of
mountain, shading off into foothills, steppe, and finally the great Arabian sand desert.

Climate

The climate of Arabia is distinguished chiefly by high temperature and the absence of moisture. The autumn
monsoon deposits heavy showers in the coastline of Oman and Yemen, but the steep hills force the rain-laden
clouds to ascend rapidly and discharge their contents before they have passed over the inland slopes; the winter
and spring rains of the Mediterranean region are scattered sparsely over the Northern deserts, the Nufud, where
the wilderness blossoms like a rose for a short season, but the southern interior is beyond their range and is in
consequence a dreadful waterless waste, the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter, which until recent times has
rarely been crossed by European travellers. 2

Except in the high country, the summer is intense, yet the climate is not on the whole injurious to human health.
The dryness of the atmosphere mitigates the strength of the sun’s rays ; the nights are cool; in winter snow often
lies in the highest valleys of Jabal Shammar, a chain of hills immediately south of Nufud, and frost is unknown
in the highlands of the Yemen.In the north, the land of Midian , the mountains are wild and desolate, but in
Yemen, the Arabia Felix of the ancients, the hillsides receive a substantial rainfall, and rain crops and (since the
16th century ) the coffee bean are grown in fertile valleys. Here in the south-west corner of the peninsula, arose
the earliest civilizations of old Arabia, those of the Minaeans and Sabaeans.

RISE OF KINGDOM OF SABA

The Sabean kingdom is located in what is now the Aseer region in southwestern Yemen, and its capital, Ma'rib,
is located near what is now Yemen's modern capital, Sana'a. As according to tradition, the eldest son of Noah,
Shem, founded the city of Ma'rib. During Sabean rule, Yemen was called "Arabia Felix" by the Romans who
were impressed by its wealth and prosperity. The success of the kingdom was based on the cultivation and trade
of spices and aromatics including frankincense and myrrh. These were exported to the Mediterranean, India,
and Abyssinia where they were greatly prized by many cultures, using camels on routes through Arabia, and to
India by sea.

The capital city of the Sabaean state was Ma’rib, which was wealthy thanks to the advantageous position of its
geography. The capital city was very close to the River Adhanah. The point where the river reached Jabal Balaq

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was very suitable for the construction of a dam. Making use of this condition, the Sabaean people constructed a
dam at this location at the time when their civilisation was first established, and they began the advanced
irrigation system which consisted of large water tunnels in mountains and dams. The most impressive dam,
known as the dam of Ma'rib was built ca. 700 BCE, provided irrigation for about 25,000 acres of land.
Agriculture in Yemen thrived during this time .They indeed reached a very high level of prosperity. The capital
city, Ma’rib, was one of the most developed cities of the time. The Greek writer Pliny, who had visited the
region and greatly praised it, also mentioned how green this region was.

2. Ibid. , p.1-2

PEOPLE OF SABA AND THEIR CULTURE

The community of Saba was one of the four biggest civilizations which lived in South Arabia. These
people is estimated to have been established some time between 1000-750 BC and to have collapsed
around 550 AD with the two centuries long attacks of the Persians and the Arabs. The Sabaeans were a
Semitic people who, at an unknown date, entered southern Arabia from the north, imposing their
Semitic culture on an aboriginal population. The oldest sources which refer to the people of Saba are
annual war chronicles left from the time of the Assyrian King Sargon II. (722-705 BC) While Sargon
records about the people that pay taxes to him, he also refers to the King of Saba, Yith’i-amara . This
record is the oldest written source that yields information about the Saba civilisation. Yet, it would not
be right to draw the conclusion that the Saba culture was established around 700 BC depending only
on this source, for it is highly probable that Saba had existed for quite some time before it was
recorded in written records. This means that the history of Saba may predate the above. Indeed, in the
inscriptions of Arad-Nannar, one of the latest kings of the state of Ur, the word "Sabum", which is
thought to mean "the country of Saba", was used. If this word does mean Saba, then, this shows that
the history of Saba goes back as far as 2500 BC.

Qehtaniyans: They are the descendants of Ya'rab bin Qehtan. They inhabited Yemen and other parts
of southern Arabia and are called the full-blooded Arabs. The Yemenites of today and the tribes of
Aus and Khazraj which constituted two big tribes of Madina in the early days of Islam are of
Qehtaniyan descent. The Qehtaniyans possessed many states. They made strenuous efforts for the
development of Yemen and have left a number of civilisations as their memorial. Their inscriptions
are being studied now according to scientific methods the Qehtaniyan history has thus been revealed
to some extent. Whatever is said about pre-lslamic culture and civilisation of Arabia is totally related
to this group of the Arabs and is confined to the region of Yemen.

Historical sources telling about Saba usually say that this was a culture, like the Phoenicians,
particularly involved in commercial activities. Accordingly, these people owned and administered
some of the trade routes passing across Northern Arabia. In order for the Sabaean traders to carry
their goods to the Mediterranean and Gaza, and thus pass across Northern Arabia, they had to get
permission from Sargon II, the ruler of all the region, or pay a certain amount of tax to him. When
the Sabaean people started paying taxes to the Assyrian Kingdom, their name began to be recorded in
the annals of this state.

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The people cultivate the ground, or follow the trade of dealing in aromatics, both the indigenous sort
and those brought from Ethiopia; in order to procure them, they sail through the straits in vessels
covered with skins. There is such an abundance of these aromatics, that cinnamon, cassia, and other
spices are used by them instead of sticks and firewood.

Army : The Sabaeans are known to have been a civilised people in history. In the inscriptions of the
rulers of Saba, words such as "restore", "dedicate" and "construct" are frequently used. The Ma’rib
Dam, which is one of the most important monuments of this people, is an important indication of the
technological level this people had reached. However, this did not mean that the military power of
the Sabaeans was weak; the Sabaean army was one of the most important factors contributing to the
endurance of their culture over such a long period without collapse. This extraordinarily strong army
of the Sabaean state is also described in the Qur’an. An expression of the commanders of the Saba
army related in the Qur'an, shows the extent of the confidence this army had in itself. The
commanders call out to the female ruler (queen) of the state:

"We are endued with strength, and given to vehement war: but the command is with thee; so consider
what thou wilt command." (an-Naml: 33)

KINGDOM OF SABA
POLITICAL HISTORY

Yemen has never had definite political borders because it is simply a plethora of tribal units
independent in themselves. The inhabitants of the Tihamah are often African descent, not Arab even;
they have been there between two or three thousand years. The individual tribe has a loyalty within
itself but not to the concept of a country or a monarch; tribes are generally hostile to their immediate
neighbours. The same tribes , as early inscription show, have for thousand years occupied roughly the
same districts .

Saba ultimately absorbed Ma’in and two small principalities, Aswan and Katabans ; her kings known
as mukarribs , combined functions of prince and priest. In 115 B.C. the ancient monarchy was
overthrown by the Hymarites. The king resides in Ma’rib , capital of Saba. He , who determines
absolutely all disputes and other matters; but he is forbidden to leave his palace, or if he does so, the
rabble immediately assail him with stones, according to the direction of an oracle. He himself, and
those about his person, pass their lives in effeminate voluptuousness.

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The Sabaean state had one of the strongest armies in the region. The state was able to adopt an
expansionist policy thanks to its army. The Sabaean state had conquered the lands of the Old Qataban
state. It owned many lands on the African continent. During 24 BC, during an expedition to Magrib,
the Sabaean army utterly defeated the army of Marcus Aelius Gallus, the Governor of Egypt for the
Roman Empire which was definitely the strongest state at the time. Saba can be portrayed as a state
that pursued moderate policies, yet did not hesitate to use power when necessary. With its advanced
culture and army, the Sabaean state was definitely one of the "super powers" of the region at the
time.

TOWN AND TEMPLES

TOWNS : Most of the earlier buildings were constructed of unburnt bricks, the later ones of stone. The
use of woods increased; new types of buildings emerged with stone foundations, wooden beams in the
upper storey, and sanctuaries with majestic gateways. The oldest town fortifications are to be found in
Wadi Raghwan , about 40km north of Ma’rib. Karib II Watar , son of Dhamar Ali and ‘mukarrib’ of
Saba had two city walls constructed there : al – Asahil and Khirbat Sa’ud. Both structures consisted
two firm stone faced outward with a filled in cavity between. Both town walls had protusions in their
fortifications. These two settlements , together with Jidfir ibn Wadi Jufra , show the first wave of
expansion of Saba to the north. In the subsequent period, the Sabaean occupied entire Wadi al Jawf, a
large, well irrigated valley with an undoubtably considerable population. There, several principalities
or small kingdoms had been in existence

Around 5th century BC , a new type of fortification wall emerged : a stone wall supported from behind
by a brick wall which was 2-3 m thick. This wall which was first constructed in Jawf show that Jawf
must have suddenly leapt to enormous prosperity at that time.

The buildings in the town 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. The houses had stone foundation,
and the upper storey consisted of a wooden framework filled with unburnt bricks. The inscriptions and
the comparison with traditional Yemeni houses suggest that these houses must have been high
buildings.

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TEMPLES : Each town had its sanctuaries, some of which were sited within the city wall and some a
little outside. The sanctuaries consisted rows of pillars with geometrical, plant or animal ornaments.
The sanctuaries outside the towns served the tribes of the surrounding areas while the temples within
the city 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 Ma’rib and the temple of Sirwah.

IRRIGATION ECONOMY

Ma’rib was celebrated not only for its temples and palaces, but above all for the dam which was built a
few miles outside its wall to catch and distribute the waters of its local river, the Wadi Dhana, and so to
irrigate a broad expanse of the surrounding countryside. Twice a year, the water from the periodical
monsoon rainfall had to be collected and channeled through an efficient irrigation system. This effort
was a rational concept, a superior degree of planning co-ordination, and highly developed technology.
So remarkable feat of hydraulic engineering and a high degree of technical skill among the Sabaean
people.

It is true other cities in ancient southern Arabia sported similar installations, but in importance and
size, none of these could compete with the irrigation system of Ma’rib. Its fame spread far beyond the
borders of Southern Arabia. In its own era, the Ma’rib Dam, a construction meant for water
conservation and distribution was looked with awe and admiration

CULTIVATION

Agricultural produce grown in the Ma’rib oasis provided with food not only for the inhabitants, but
probably also the caravaneers and their camels, and was, to a certain extent, exported. The maximum
cultivatable area of 96000 hectares equaled in value and area twice that size because it yielded two
crops a year.

Traces of ploughing, rest of tree plantations and other features are important indications as to the
workings of planned agrarian economy in Saba. Grown in Saba, were wheat, barley, millet, wine, date
palms and certain fruits. On extensive pastures clover-like culmiferous plants were cultivated.

TRADE

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Since the earliest days, the south Arabian states, in particular the powerful Saba, had been a trade
center of the Arabian peninsula. The precious home-grown fragrant resins, myrrh and frankincense,
much sought after by the ancient world that used them in rituals and for medicinal purposes, were not
the only reason for the country’s wealth and the prosperity of the inhabitants ; another reason for this
economic boom was southern Arabian’s role as an intermediary. Just as merchandise from Africa and
India was unloaded on the south coast and dispatched by land as far as the commercial centers of the
Mediterranean , Babylon and Egypt , so Mediterranean products reached their Asian and African
destinations via Ma’rib.

An Assyrian inscription records indicates that in the 10th century B.C. camel caravans were already
traveling, laden with products of the East, between South Arabia and Palestine. From this time
onwards Arabia was drawn into the stream of international trade. It is possible that the disorders in
Egypt, which followed the fall of the ‘New Empire’ in the eleventh B.C. and led to the loss of its
overseas territories, enabled the South Arabians to secure naval control of the Red Sea and establish a
virtual monopoly of the incense traffic from the Hadramawt and the spice trade with India. Kingdom
of Saba also expanded their caravans westward towards Africa; their ships controlled the Straits of Bab
al Mandab, the straits leading to the Red Sea.

RELIGION

The primitive religion of the desert was restricted to the worship of trees, streams and stones in which
the deity was supposed to reside. But in the more advanced and civilized kingdoms of the south a
higher type of religion developed. Instead of sticks and stones, the heavenly bodies were the object of
worship curiously akin to that of the Babylonians. The south Arabians were not only highly talented
builders and organizers and inventors of technologically advanced irrigation installations : they were
also , above all very pious people. Their deep religiosity informed all aspects of their public and
private lifves. The gods were invoked for help, favour , pity, protection and health, grant fertility as
well as a good harvest. The oracle played an important role .

The strong faith of the people found an expression not only in invocations but also in many examples
of material culture – in effigies and buildings. Stone temples, often consisting of big sanctuaries

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flanked private chapels , were erected in principal cities, and endowed revenues of incense-forests and
other landed estates, and a sacrificial priesthood. intimate affinity to the deity is the characteristic of
the Sabean religion.

Their main temple - Mahram Bilqis, or temple of the moon god (situated about three miles from the
capital city of Marib) - was so famous it remained sacred even after the collapse of the Sabean
civilisation in the sixth century BC.

In the South Arabian pantheon, the primacy was held by the moon-god, who was venerated under a
variety of names. He was Almakah to the Sabaeans, Wadd to the Minaeans while in Hadramawt he
was known as Sin.The supreme god was joined in the inferior capacity of spouse or daughter, the sun-
goddess Shamsh. Other deities were Athtar, the morning or evening star, Ta'lab, "Patron of Riyâm",
Haubas, Rammâm, and others-names which may be merely epithets of the moon-god. Submission
towards and

ARTS AND POETRY

Many Yemeni poets were associated with the extensive collection of poems recorded since the rise of
Sabaean kingdom. These poems explained and detailed on many things i.e. everyday life, culture, big
events such as wars, reaction and feelings over something which occurred, leaders, legal system, with
all kinds of styles. Yemen is a land of poetry and literature. The two greatest figures in the medieval
period were al-Hamdani, the historian and geographer, indeed “the tongue (“lisan”) of Yemen” as he is
called (d.945 A.D. in Sana’a , and Nashwan bin Said al Himyari (died near Haidan in 1178 A.D.) Al-
Hamdani, whose importance was conveyed to Western orientalists by the Austrian school in the last
century, is mentioned in many parts of this catalogue. Nashwan, whose principal work was edited by
Alfred von Kremer in 1865, is the subject of Qadi Ismail bin Ali al-Akwa’s study in this catalogue. It
opens up completely new sources of material on Nashwan’s writings and particularly his views on
politics and his relationship with the scholars of his time. Also dealing with the subject of literature is
Muhammad Abduh Ghanim’s contribution, which ranges from the pre-Islamic age to the early modern
era and presents various poets in beautiful verse and numerous anecdotes.
Hamdani preserved through his writing many of the works of early Islamic Yemeni poets, though his
own poetry was but modest of standard. Al Hamdani handed down a poem by a knight of the Hamdani
tribe who wrote it probably toward the end of the heathen period. His name was Malik ibn Harim al

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Wadi’I al Hamdani, and the poem is about the town Ma’in , ancient capital of ancient Minaean
kngdom ; the following is an excerpt ;

Ours are the best horses in the world


We are wearing the shining armour
And carry swords we inherited from ‘Ad
We shall protect the Jauf as long as Ma’in exisr
Down there in the valley opposite ‘Arda !
Should anyone wish to take it from us we shall pursue him
To the height of the Yamama and Jarada

INSCRIPTIONS

Numerous inscriptions have told historians of the Sabaean’s intellectual, spiritual life, the way state
and its legal system were organized. Written evidence consist of many thousands of inscriptions,
carved in stone, engraved in rock faces of bronze objects or moulded in bronze, and ranging in date
from somewhere in the first half millennium BC down to the middle 6th century AD. Greek
geographer Eratosthenes stated that the population of South Arabia was divided into four principal
‘nations’ ; Minaic, Sabaic, Qatabanic and Hadramitic. The form of script used for Old South Arabian
Language ( as the four languages are collectively styled), was termed by writers of Muslim date
musnad : this term in fact is used in the inscription themselves for ‘an inscription’. The musnad scripts
found in central and north Arabia recording various ancient Arabian speech-form. The musnad script
consist of a consonantal alphabet of 29 distinct linear letter forms. The direction of the writing is from
right to left, while a simple stroke is used to separate one word from the next. The Sabaic inscriptions
are vastly more numerous than those in the other three languages and the sites which have yielded
them cover a wider area.

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PRE - ISLAMIC YEMEN

The knowledge on South Arabian paganism is rested on the contents of monumental inscriptions and
on archaeological data, to the exclusion of mythological texts or archives. The relation of the Sabaeans
to the divine was deeply rooted in both their private and public life. Many of the ancient personal
names express a relation of the bearer to the god, and every activity commemorated by an inscription :
offering, building of a house or a tomb, etc., was placed under the protection of one or several deities.

Each of the south Arabian kingdom had their own national god, who was the opatron of the principal
temple in the capital. In Saba, this was Ilqamah, in the temple of the federation of the Sabaean tribes in
Ma’rib. He was considerd the Sun-god, as a secondary protecting deity and as a guardian of the
Sabaean dynasty. Several tribal groups had their own divine ‘patron’. In Saba, Ta’lab (ibex)was the
patron of the tribal federation of Sum’ay. Known deities were also invoked as protective deities of
persons, construction etc. Gods are frequently represented by their symbol-animal ; bull, snake, eagle,
gazelle, or more frequently by an abstract symbol ; bludgeon, thunder bolt etc.

The temples, derived from pre Islamic haram, comprise essentially an enclosure, mostly rectangular in
form, toward the far end of which a sort of canopy accommodated the cella or the idol of the god. The

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temple Ilqamah in Ma’rib had exceptionally the form of a vast elliptical enclosure, made of a wall
some 30ft. high.

The temples played an important role in the public life. Each locality had its own temple or shrines.
The more important served as administrative centres in charge of the collection of the sacred tithe.
Various kinds of temples officials , whose functions are ill-defined, were in the service of god. In Saba,
a class of priests of ‘ Attar belonged by birth to three different clans, each of which provided
succession , an eponym priest called ‘kabir’ who remained in charge for seven years. Besides tithe
collection , the kabir also had to interpret the god’s oracle on official issues and he was in charge of
magical practices intended for obtaining rain and irrigation.

POST – ISLAMIC YEMEN

Islam came to Yemen around 628, during Muhammad's lifetime. Muhammad was joined by Abu Musa
al As’ari with several of his brothers and tribesmen who made he journey from Yemen by sea. Active
missionary work only became possible after the conquest of Mecca in 630. The Prophet sent several of
his companions to Yemen to spread Islam there and to collect alms taxes. Thereafter Yemen was ruled
as part of Arab caliphates, and Yemen became little more than a remote province. Islamic Yemen
became part of the huge religious empire which set out to conquer the world. Yemenites played an
important role in this process. It is not primarily for their military record, however, that the Yemenites
have gained a place in the history of Islam, where they are mainly remembered for their peaceful
achievements.

When the Prophet Muhammad united the Arabian Peninsula in the Islamic faith and the Arabs set out
to conquer the world, they came from totally different civilizations. There were the tradesmen from
Mecca and Medina, the Bedouins of the vast deserts and semi-deserts, the farmers from the small
principalities in the north which were under the cultural influence of Byzantium and Persia, and the
southerners, the Yemenis, who accounted for perhaps half of the population of Arabia and had enjoyed
the fruits of civilization for at least one and a half millennia. No wonder that the goods produced in

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southern Arabia were of the finest quality and in great demand, and that they were highly praised by
poets before and after the rise of Islam. Since these commodities until recently not only enjoyed
literary fame but were the mainstay of Yemen’s economy, they are worth studying a little more closely.

The initial enthusiasm for the new religion expressed itself in a massive emigration. Yemenite tribes
played a significant role in the Islamic conquests in Syria , Egypt, Maghreb, Iraq and Iran and settled
with their families in the conquered territories. Yemen is divided between two Islamic sects , the Zaidis
of the north and east, and the Shafi’is of the south and Tihamah, reflecting a real, perhaps even a racial
division.

BIBLICAL ACCOUNT OF QUEEN SHEBA

The meeting of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba had significant repercussions upon the
fate of Israel and the matriarchy of Sheba (believed to be early Ethiopia), and has inspired writers,
artists and readers for centuries. Europeans are more familiar with the biblical account of the Queen of
Sheba’s (Hebrew for Saba) visit to Solomon. It occurs in the First Book of Kings and the Second Book
of Chronicles, the two versions differing only slightly:

“ When the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came
to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing
spices and very much gold, and precious stones … “ Jesus brought the Queen of Sheba from the distant
past into his covenant and placed her on the side of the Just. At the Last Judgement the Queen of the
“South” (Semitic “Yemen”) , too , will sit on the throne and judge: “For she came from the ends of the
earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon (Matthew 12,42 and Luke 11,31).

This wonderful and colourful story has ever since fascinated the peoples of east and west, Jews and
Christians of medieval times, Ethiopia and, of course, the peoples of Islam. It was a source of
inspiration for the artists who created our Gothic cathedrals and Romanesque miniatures, and so many

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artists of later ages such as Piero della Francesca and Ghiberti, Holbein, Veronese, Hieronymus Bosch,
or Cosmas Damian Arab, Persian, Turkish and Indian miniature painters, to whom we are indebted for
some of the most charming masterpieces of Islamic art. A special book is devoted to the Queen of
saba; the object of the exhibition and this catalogue, however, is to portray the old kingdom of Saba,
that political system which for over one and a half millennia played a not insignificant role in the
history and economic development of the Ancient Orient, a kingdom which in many respects can be
regarded as the cradle of Arabian civilization and whose legendary accounts archaeologists, historians
and ethnologists are now beginning to wrest from the sands of the desert. Sheba (from the English
transcription of the Hebrew name sh'va: ‫שבא‬, and Saba, Arabic: ‫سبأ‬, also Saba, Amharic) is a southern
kingdom mentioned in the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) and the Qur'an. The actual location of the
historical kingdom is disputed between Ethiopia and Yemen. However, it is possible that it could have
been situated in Ethiopia and Yemen

In the Old Testament genealogy of the nations (Genesis 10:7), Sheba, along with Dedan, is listed as
one of the descendants of Noah's son Ham (i.e. son of Raamah son of Cush son of Ham). In Genesis
25:3, Sheba and Dedan are listed as sons of Jokshan. Another Sheba is listed in the Genesis 10
genealogy as a descendant of Noah's son Shem, i.e. a Semite. (There the genealogy lists Sheba as son
of Joktan son of Eber son of Shelah son of Arphaxad son of Shem.)

No evidence has been found so far of the Queen of Saba ; nor is any reference made to her in Sabaic
inscriptions. It is, however , worth mentioning that it was by no means unusual for a woman to sit on
the throne in ancient Arabia. Inscriptions of Assyrian rulers in the 18th century B.C. contain many
references to "qeens of the Arabs" who brought tribute or were defeated in battle. The southern
Arabians had the monopoly for two of the most sought after materials of ancient times: frankincense
and myrrah. These two resins only resins only grow in eastern Yemen (Hadramawt) and in Dhafar (the
correct spelling of which is Zafar, today southern Oman, which in those days belonged to the kingdom
of Hadramawt), and in some parts of Somalia. The frankincense route, one of the most ancient
international trade routes, led from Southern Arabia to Ghaza in Palestine , running inland roughly
parallel to the Red Sea and covering a total distance of almost 3,400 km. Not only the production but
also the trade in these goods was in the hands of the ancient South Arabians. There was not a temple or
wealthy home in Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Jerusalem or Rome which did not require these precious
resins and was prepared to pay for their weight in gold. This explains to the historical background to

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the report about the Queen of Saba’s caravan journey to Jerusalem. The story points to the highly
developed system of overland trade in the Arabian Peninsula and at the same time recalls the existence
of queens amongst the Arabs, such an unusual phenomenon in the eyes of contemporary rulers in the
Middle East.

Sheba's caravan of 797 camels, mules and asses was laden with provisions and gifts for Solomon.
Since a camel's saddle could carry 300-600 pounds, the wealth she brought was vast - gold, precious
stones, furniture and spices. Throughout the day, she rode on an extravagant gold palanquin, like a
four-poster bed, richly cushioned, with a roof shielding her from the sun and draperies she could close
for privacy. Her handsome white camel was laden with gold and precious stones. Most likely, she was
also accompanied by an armed guard to protect her from desert brigands, and by her devoted servants.

As Sheba prepared for her journey, she yearned deeply for the wisdom which she imparted to
Solomon. Although she already had a passion for abstract knowledge, her virgin status in a pagan
society, and and her association of wisdom with a young and handsome king most likely fueled her
youthful fervor. Yet the response of her servants reveal that she was not merely a lovestruck
adolescent, enamored with fantasies of her hero. Sheba's own devotion to wisdom likewise inspired
devotion from her people. According to the Kebra Negast, she told them:

"The honouring of wisdom is the honouring of the wise man, and the loving of wisdom is the loving of
the wise man. Love the wise man and withdraw not thyself from him... hearken to the utterance of his
mouth, so that thou mayest become like him... The whole story of him that hath been told me is to me as
the desire of my heart, and like water to the thirsty man."

Her nobles, and her slaves, and her handmaidens and her counsellors answered and said unto her,

"O our Lady, as for wisdom, it is not lacking in thee, and it is because of thy wisdom that thou loved
wisdom. And as for us, if thou goest we will go with thee, and if thou sittest down we will sit down with
thee; our death shall be with thy death, and our life with thy life."
( I Kings 10)

A MEETING OF MINDS

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Although an Ethiopian tale portrays Sheba and her prime minister dressed in man's clothes as they
meet Solomon, most accounts describe her arriving bejewelled and draped in dazzling robes.
Immediately, Solomon gave her a luxurious apartment in a palace next to his, and provided her with
fruits, rose trees, silks, linens, tapestries, and 11 bewitching garments for each day of her visit. Daily,
he sent her (and her 350 servants) 45 sacks of flour, 10 oxen, 5 bulls, 50 sheep (in addition to goats,
deer, cows, gazelles, and chicken), wine, honey, fried locusts, rich sweets, and 25 singing men and
women.

A gracious host, Solomon showed Sheba his gardens of rare flowers ornamented with pools and
fountains, and the architectural splendors of his government buildings, temple and palace. She was
awed by his work on the temple, by his great lion-throne and sandalwood staircase, and by his
enormous brass basin carried by the twelve brass bulls which symbolized the twelve months of the
year. She sought astronomical knowledge, for which he was known; Solomon had developed a new
calendar which added an extra month every nineteen years.

Although impressed by Solomon's wealth, Sheba was more interested in his wisdom. Some scholars
suggest that her visit was also economically and politically motivated, "the conclusion of a trade
agreement governing both land and sea routes, rather than a meeting of mutual admiration." But she
came, according to the Kebra Negast, to learn from him, and according to the Bible, "to prove him
with hard questions."

What were these "hard questions?" Theologians throughout the ages have speculated on their nature,
believing them to pertain to: peace and war, the meaning of life, evil, secrets of death and immortality,
the relationship between spirit and body, sexuality, male/female differences, the role of women, the
reliability of paternity as a basis for an economic system, the cycles of the moon and tides, and the
name and nature of God. Whatever the questions, most sources refer to lengthy discussions occurring
between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

According to Josephus, "upon the king's kind reception of her, he both showed a great desire to please
her, and easily comprehending in his mind the meaning of the curious questions she propounded to
him, he resolved them." Not only did Sheba ask Solomon philosophical questions; she also tested him
with riddles. The Targum Sheni, Midrash Mischle, and Midrash Hachefez describe twenty two of her
riddles:

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"What is it? An enclosure with ten doors; when one is open, nine are shut, and when nine are open,
one is shut," Sheba asked Solomon. Solomon answered, "The enclosure is the womb, and the ten
doors are the ten orifices of man, namely his eyes, his ears, his nostrils, his mouth, the apertures for
discharge of excreta and urine, and the navel. When the child is still in its mother's womb, the navel is
open, but all the other apertures are shut, but when the child issues from the womb the navel is closed
and the other orifices are open."

QUR’ANIC ACCOUNT OF QUEEN SABA

"There was, for Saba, aforetime, a Sign in their home land, two Gardens to the right and to the left;
Eat of the Sustenance (provided) by your Lord, and be grateful to Him: a territory fair and happy, and
a Lord Oft-Forgiving!" But they turned away (from Allah), and We sent against them the Flood
(released) from the dams, and We converted their two garden (rows) into "gardens" producing bitter
fruit, and tamarisks, and some few (stunted) Lote-trees."
(Surah Saba: 15-16)

“ With sure tidings have I come to thee from Saba” ,

says a somewhat unusual messenger to King Solomon in surah 27, verse 22, of the Holy Koran.

Unusual because the messenger is a bird, a hoopoe, the most beautiful and most inquisitive of
Solomon’s subjects, the king who had at his command people, birds and jinn's alike. The hoopoe had
absented itself from Solomon’s entourage and on its flight arrived in Marib, the capital of Saba. There
it had not only discovered a flourishing kingdom but, most strangely of all, a woman on the throne.

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The Qur'an never mentioned the Queen of Sheba by name, though Arab sources name her Bilqis. The
story is similar to the one in the Bible. The Qur'anic narrative has Solomon getting reports of a
kingdom ruled by a queen whose people worship the sun. He sends a message inviting her to come to
him in submission. She replied with a gift after consulting her people. He replied threatening an
invasion. Then one of the jinn servants of Solomon, proposed to bring him the throne of Sheba 'in the
twinkling of an eye'(27:40). The queen arrives at his court, and she is being shown her throne and
when she entered his crystal palace she accepts Abrahamic monotheism and worshipping God alone.

Legends of the Queen of Sheba are common throughout Arabia, Persia, Ethiopia and Israel. In Arabian
tradition, Balqis ruled with the heart of a woman but the head and hands of a man. Islamic stories
portray Solomon as marrying the Queen. In contrast to the Bible,they portray her abandoning her gods
and converting to the God of the Israelites.

Arabian folklore and the Qu'ran present fanciful stories of the Queen of Sheba. Many of these tales
involve magic carpets, talking birds, and teleportation - the miraculous transfer of Balqis' throne in
Sheba to Solomon's palace. One notable tale involves the hoopoe bird, who tells Solomon about Balqis
and delivers to her a demand from him - unless she visits him, he will annihilate her people. In one
story, her foot which is shaped like an ass's foot is transformed into a human foot when she steps on
Solomon's glass floor; in another story, Solomon invents a depilatory in order to remove goat hair from
her legs.

THE FLOOD OF ARIM WAS SENT TO THE STATE OF SABA

Examining the Qur’an in the light of the historical data ,there is very substantial agreement here.
Archaeological findings and the historical data both verify what is recorded in the Qur’an. As
mentioned in the verse, these people, who did not listen to the exhortations of their prophet and who
ungratefully rejected faith, were in the end punished with a dreadful flood. This flood is described in
the Qur’an in the following verses:

"There was, for Saba, aforetime, a Sign in their home-land - two Gardens to the right and to the left;
Eat of the Sustenance (provided) by your Lord, and be grateful to Him: a territory fair and happy, and
a Lord Oft-Forgiving!; But they turned away (from Allah), and We sent against them the Flood
(released) from the dams, and We converted their two garden (rows) into "gardens" producing bitter
fruit, and tamarisks, and some few (stunted) Lote-trees. That was the Requital We gave them because
they ungratefully rejected Faith: and never do We give (such) requital except to such as are ungrateful
rejecters." (Surah Saba: 15-17)

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As emphasized in the above verses, the Sabaean people were living in a region noted for its
outstanding aesthetic, fruitful vineyards and gardens. Situated on the trade routes, the country of
Saba had quite a high standard of living and was one of the most favoured cities of the time.

In such a country, where standards of living and circumstances were so positive, what the Sabaean
people should have done was to "Eat of the Sustenance (provided) by their Lord, and be grateful to
Him" as is said in the verse. Yet, they did not do so. They chose to lay claim to the prosperity they
had. They thought that this country belonged to themselves, that it was they who made all these
extraordinary circumstances possible. They chose to be arrogant instead of being grateful, and, in the
expression of the verse, they "turned away from Allah"…

Because they laid claim to all the prosperity they had, they lost it all. As related in the verse, the
flood of Arim destroyed everything they had. In the Qur’an, the punishment sent to the Sabaean
people is named as "Sayl al-Arim" which means the "flood of Arim". This expression used in the
Qur’an also tells us the way this disaster occurred. The word "Arim" means dam or barrier. The
expression of "Sayl al-Arim" describes a flood that came about with the collapse of this barrier.
Islamic commentators have resolved the issue of time and place being guided by the terms used in
the Qur'an about the flood of Arim. Mawdudi writes in his commentary: As also used in the
expression, Sayl al-Arim, the word "arim" is derived from the word "arimen" used in the Southern
Arabic dialect, which means "dam, barrier". In the ruins unearthed in the excavations made in
Yemen, this word was seen to be frequently used in this meaning. For example, in the inscriptions
which was ordered by Yemen’s Habesh monarch, Ebrehe (Abraha), after the restoration of the big
Ma’rib wall in 542 and 543 AD, this word was used to mean dam (barrier) time and again. So, the
expression of Sayl al- Arim means "a flood disaster which occurs after the destruction of a dam."

"We converted their two garden (rows) into gardens producing bitter fruit, and tamarisks, and some
few (stunted) Lote-trees" (Surah Saba: 16).

That is, after the collapse of the dam-wall, all the country was inundated by the flood. The canals that
had been dug by the Sabaean people, and the wall that had been constructed by building barriers
between the mountains, were destroyed and the irrigation system fell apart. As a result, the territory,
which was like a garden before, turned into a jungle. There was no fruit left but the cherry-like fruit
of little stumpy trees.

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The Christian archaeologist Werner Keller, writer of "The Holy Book Was Right" (Und Die Bible
Hat Doch Recht), accepted that the flood of Arim occurred according to the description of the Qur’an
and wrote that the existence of such a dam and the destruction of the whole country by its collapse
proves that the example given in the Qur'an about the people of the garden was indeed realized.

After the disaster of the Arim flood, the region started to turn into a desert and the Sabaean people
lost their most important source of income with the disappearance of their agricultural lands. The
people, who had not heeded the call of Allah to believe in Him and to be grateful to Him, were in the
end punished with such a disaster as this. After the great destruction caused by the flood, the people
started to disintegrate. The Sabaean people started to desert their houses and emigrate to Northern
Arabia, Makkah and Syria.

Since the flood took place after the revelation of the Tawrah and the Bible, this event is described
only in the Qur’an. The city of Ma’rib, which was once a residence for the Sabaean people, but is
now only a desolate ruin, undoubtedly is a warning to those who repeat the same mistake as the
Sabaean people. The Sabaean people were not the only people that were destroyed by a flood. In
Surat al-Kahf of the Qur'an, the story of two garden owners is told. One of these men possesses a
very imposing and productive garden like those of the Sabaean people. However, he makes the same
mistake as them: turning away from Allah. He thinks that the favour bestowed on him "belongs" to
him himself, i.e. he is the cause of it:

The Qur’an tells us that the Queen of Saba and her people were "worshipping the sun besides Allah"
before she followed Sulayman. The information on the inscriptions verify this fact and indicate that
they were worshipping the sun and the moon in their temples, one of which is seen below. On the
pillars, there are inscriptions written in the Sabaean language

And Allah (swt) says in the Qur'an:

Set forth to them the parable of two men: for one of them We provided two gardens of grape-vines and
surrounded them with date palms; in between the two We placed corn-fields. Each of those gardens
brought forth its produce, and failed not in the least therein: in the midst of them We caused a river to
flow.

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(Abundant) was the produce this man had. He said to his companion, in the course of a mutual
argument: "more wealth have I than you, and more honour and power in (my following of) men." He
went into his garden in a state (of mind) unjust to his soul: He said, "I deem not that this will ever
perish, Nor do I deem that the Hour (of Judgment) will (ever) come: Even if I am brought back to my
Lord, I shall surely find (there) something better in exchange."

His companion said to him, in the course of the argument with him: "Dost thou deny Him Who created
thee out of dust, then out of a sperm-drop, then fashioned thee into a man? But (I think) for my part
that He is Allah, My Lord, and none shall I associate with my Lord. Why didst thou not, as thou
wentest into thy garden, say: ‘Allah's will (be done)! There is no power but with Allah!’ If thou dost see
me less than thee in wealth and sons, It may be that my Lord will give me something better than thy
garden, and that He will send on thy garden thunderbolts (by way of reckoning) from heaven, making
it (but) slippery sand!- Or the water of the garden will run off underground so that thou wilt never be
able to find it."

So his fruits (and enjoyment) were encompassed (with ruin), and he remained twisting and turning his
hands over what he had spent on his property, which had (now) tumbled to pieces to its very
foundations, and he could only say, "Woe is me! Would I had never ascribed partners to my Lord and
Cherisher! Nor had he numbers to help him against Allah, nor was he able to deliver himself. There,
the (only) protection comes from Allah, the True One. He is the Best to reward, and the Best to give
success." (Surat al-Kahf: 32-44)

As understood from the verses, the mistake of this garden owner was not to deny the existence of
Allah. He does not deny the existence of Allah, on the contrary he supposed that "even if he is
brought back to his Lord" he would certainly find something better in exchange. He held that the
state he is in, was due to his own successful efforts.

Actually, this is exactly what associating partners to Allah means: attempting to lay claim to
everything that belongs to Allah and losing one's fear of Allah thinking that one has some particular
grace of his own, and Allah will somehow "show favour" to one. This is what the Sabaean people also
did. Their punishment was the same - all of their territory was destroyed - so that they could
understand that they were not the ones who were the "owners" of power but that it was only
"bestowed" on them…

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FROM SABA TO ANCIENT MALAY PENINSULA

Arab navigational records date from Muslim times but for countless centuries before then Arabian
sailors were famous and amongst them the name of Sabaeans stands foremost. Did the Sabaeans ever
reach Malaysian waters , and could it have been they who carried on the ancient bead-trade which
have been examined by historians on ancient beads found in the Malay peninsula (Kota Tinggi and
Johore Lama)?

The late Mr. T Braddell in his Abstract of Sijarah Malayu made references to the Sabaeans but since
then sight has been lost of them locally . According to statements of Steiger , Otley Beyer and
Benitez(306, pp: 126-132), ‘Arab relations with the Far East began as early as the time of Babylon and
at that time and its subsequent periods their relations were chiefly with India. Now part of the Arabia
that carried on the trade was only one region – the country of Saba in southern Arabia, known in the
Bible as Sheba. This south or Sheban coast , which lies along the southern part of Arabia partly on the
Red Sea and partlyon the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden , had been home of a seagoing and
commercial people in the earliest period of history. There is no question that at the time of King
Solomon and the building of Jerusalem the Shebans were the greatest seagoing people in Asia Minor.
Just as Phoenecians were the sailors of Mediterranean, so in the same way were the Shebans on the
Indian Ocean. ’

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At pp. 127-128 , they say ‘It is entirely doubtful whether any Phoenecian, Greek or Roman ships ever
got beyond India. But during the Roman times the Roman tried to put the Shebans out of business by
building fleets in the Red Sea ports and the Persian Gulf and trading with India themselves. It may
have been this Roman interference which first started the Sheban ships to seek Oriental ports beyond
India for goods which the Romans could not get. At any rate, Sheban trade beyond India began about
the time of the Roman competition with the Shebans in the Indian trade. The first Arab ships which,
according to the records, went as far westward as South China , date from the time of the first century
of the Christian Era. Ptolemy’s famous geography , published about 150 AD, was based in the main on
certain geographical and sailing directions left by a Phoenician sea captain named Marinas, who lived
and visited the East around 75AD. There is no doubt but that Marinas was himself in China and made
several voyages between East China and Arabian ports. These voyages were undoubtly performed in
Sheban ships, since after the destruction of Carthage, Phoenician ships would not enter the employ of
the Romans. In the Chinese records themselves, the first definite account of Arab trade occurred at the
end of the third century of Christian Era, when the extent and character of a thriving Arab merchant
was described. ’

At pp : 128-129 , they say ‘Probably the stimulus of this competition was the prime motivating force
in extending the Arab commerce beyond India to China and Malaysia in an effort to get their goods at
the source rather than through the Indian merchants. At any rate, we know definitely that Arab trade
with China and Malaysia was actually in existence at least as early as the first century of the Christian
Era’

The suggestion that the Johor beads were carried by the Sabaeans would, therefore , not be without
any foundation. If the fact that Sabaeans had certainly entered China by the beginning of the Christian
Era is accepted, it does not seem necessary to ascribe the fact merely to Roman competition. Sailors
extend their explorations and traders have a habit of extending their trade , particularly when it is easy
to do so. The same monsoon which carried the Sabaeans to and from India would have carried them to
and from Malaysia and China. They would have not gone abruptly to China, on imagines, but rather
have extended their exploration and trade gradually , first into Straits of Malacca and the Malay
Peninsula and down it. From the Malay peninsula an extension to the Sarawak region , and the west
coast of Borneo above it, was a normal and easy one and it had already been pointed out in the
Introduction (This Journal, vol: XIX , Pt:I, p.52) how that was so. From the Malay peninsula passing

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up its east coast and standing across the bottom of the Gulf of Siam to the Indo-Chinese coast was the
normal and easiest way to use the SW(South West) monsoon; and to return to the NE (North East) in
the reverse directions. The Indo – Chinese coast abounded with good harbours and clearly visible land
marks , as all navigational works at the beginning of the nineteenth century show; and from Indo-
China to South China was a further normal and easy extension. But one imagines that all this must
have been gradually and with alterations of fortunes , as far as at all events as trade was concerned.

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