An age-old cultural entity, Yemen potentially derived from the ancient designation YMNT, meaning the southern coastal region of present-day Yemen, which lay south of the ancient incense kingdoms ringing the Arabian desert during the first millennium BCE. In Islamic times the name signified a vaguely defined southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. A small group of Arab, European, and North American archaeologists and philologists have contributed to what is known of the history of Arabia Felix, as Yemen was called in antiquity.
Strategically located between Africa and Asia and geographically protected by both sea and desert frontiers, ports on the coasts of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean complemented desert trade routes, giving direct access to the sources of frankincense (e.g., Boswellia sacra, from Dhofar and the eastern Ḥadhramaut) and myrrh (e.g., Commiphora myrrha, found as far west as Shabwa today) required for religious services throughout the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean. Volcanic glass, carnelian, and agate are found in Yemen; other stones and aromatics were imported (for reexport) from Africa and India. Although trade connections with the rest of the Near East have not been demonstrated before the tenth century BCE, the Egyptians may have regarded the land of Punt (a source of semiprecious stones and aromatics, with which they had been trading since the third millennium) as lying on both sides of the Red Sea; the land called Meluḫḫa in ancient Mesopotamia may, at times, have included Yemen. Camel caravans from the interior mountains crossed the edge of the desert, moving northward along the Red Sea coast to Petra, Gaza, and Alexandria, while seafarers traded with India and Africa. The Queen of Sheba (1 Kgs. 10:1–13) reputedly brought such objects, albeit incense is not specifically mentioned, to Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon, but the significance of the text is controversial. Geographic isolation and excellent communications allowed a near monopoly on the aromatics trade, generating wealth through the first centuries CE, when Roman seaborne competition emerged. A decline in the demand for incense in the Mediterranean swiftly followed the advent of Christianity and the fall of Rome.
Tectonic crumpling on the southwestern edge of the Arabian shield produced the mountain ranges dominating the area between the desert and the sea. Volcanic activity on the desert rim ceased several millennia ago, but not in the central highlands, where a late first-millennium BCE site has been covered with lava. The monsoons break the mountains down, cutting gullies and passes, enabling communication, and rendering the land fertile, while filling the sails of trading vessels (the southwestern monsoon in fall, and the northeastern in spring). Wadis bring the water to both the sea and the desert; the erosion of the high western mountains (including the highest point on the Arabian Peninsula) creates the broad plains of the western Tihama (and covers historical-period archaeological sites under meters of debris); and the lower southern ranges occasionally descend straight into the sea. Those wadis leading inland empty into the Ramlah al-Saba῾tayn, a lobe of the Empty Quarter (the vast sea of sand dominating the southern center of the Arabian Peninsula, roughly between Najran and the United Arab Emirates).
Part of Wadi Jawf, which flows into the Ramlah al-Saba῾tayn on the northeast, was the Minaean kingdom whose capital was at QRNW (modern Ma῾in). YT̮L (modern Baraqish) is on a plateau separating the Jawf from Wadi Dhanah with the Sabaean capital at Maryab (modern Marib). To the southeast lay the Qatabanian kingdom with its capital Timna῾ (modern Ḥayd Kuḥlan) at the mouth of Wadi Bayḥan. The roads to Marib led over the mountains across the virtually inaccessible Mablaqah Pass, or farther north on the edge of the desert through the Najd Marqad. Mountain ranges cut the Wadi Markha ῾Awsan kingdom from Wadi Bayḥan to the west and from the desert to the north. Unlike the other kingdoms, Wadis Markha and Jawf each have several large mounds, and the capital of ῾Awsan, MSWR, remains to be identified at one of the mounds in Markha.
In the early Holocene period, a river valley may have joined the Jawf across the Ramlah al-Saba῾tayn with Wadi Ḥadhramaut to the east. In historical times, the capital of the Ḥadhramaut kingdom at ancient Shabwa was on the southern edge of the mouth. Wadi Masilah is the tail end of the wadi leading south to the Arabian Sea, but the main route joining the Ḥadhramaut with the sea follows Wadi Du'an (with the site of Raybun) up to the high plateau (the southern Jol) and down to the coast. The island of Socotra is 350 km off (217 mi.) the coast.
Prehistory and History.
Artifacts show that parts of Yemen have been inhabited since the earliest Lower Paleolithic. Developed Oldowan material near the Bab al-Mandeb and in the Ḥadhramaut suggests that the Red Sea was crossed more than a million years ago, and that Yemen was first settled directly from Africa. Acheulean material is found sparsely throughout the confines of modern Yemen. Levallois and Mousterian of the Acheulean tradition are more common, using both locally available flint and quartzite. Upper Paleolithic blade cultures have so far been confirmed only in Wadi Du'an and on the northern edge of the Ḥadhramaut. Epipaleolithic artifacts are conspicuously absent.
Desert Neolithic (c. 6000–3000 BCE?) traditions using unifacially and bifacially retouched projectile points, as well as Rub al-Khali Neolithic tanged arrowheads, are found in the mountains and desert. Points indicate that hunter-gatherer economies corresponding to the Epipaleolithic continued to dominate in the desert, but in the Upland Neolithic tradition similar, albeit crudely executed, foliates are associated with circular and oval huts and incipient ovicaprid pastoralism.
The Bronze Age (c. 3000–1000 BCE) brought the expansion of animal husbandry and the introduction of pottery, polished stone tools, and the cultivation of cereals. Settlements (circular and oval huts and hearths) grew exponentially, so that the largest are more than 10,000 sq m, while others, fewer than 1000 sq m, became more numerous. Archaeological evidence of the earliest direct connections with northeast Africa, Mesopotamia, and India has not yet been found, but contacts must have existed, as indicated by the site of Ṣubr (just south of Lahej), with pottery similar to late third-early second-millennium BCE material from the north and east.
Toward the close of the Bronze Age, the South Arabian kingdoms (c. 1000 BCE–600 CE) arose on the desert fringe, each kingdom associated with an urban capital in each of the major wadis opening into the Ramlah al-Saba῾tayn, just on the edge of the area where myrrh trees grow. In competition with one another, the kingdoms vied for political, economic, and military control of the trade routes. The chronology of the ancient incense kingdoms depends on some tenuous correlations, the most important identifying Karib'īl-Watar of Saba' (Sheba) who conquered the kingdom of ῾Awsan as Karabilu the Sabaean who rendered tribute to Sennacherib of Assyria in about 685 BCE. An inscription referring to a war between Persia and Egypt cannot be placed later than the fourth century BCE.
After conquering ῾Awsan (c. 700 BCE?) Saba' was dominant until Ma῾in and Qataban became independent (c. 400 BCE). Competitive coexistence continued until Saba' and Ḥadhramaut swallowed them (first centuries CE). However, the Ḥimyarite mountain kingdom, with its capital at Ẓafar, progressively conquered Saba' and the Ḥadhramaut (third century CE) before the Ethiopians (with support from Byzantium) swept in (c. 525 CE). The Ḥimyarites subsequently brought in the Persians, who stayed put. Yemen was still under Persian rule at the adoption of Islam. The coastal ports changed their allegiances, as in the case of Qana' (Bir ῾Ali), the port of the Ḥadhramaut, which must have replaced another port in the first century BCE and yet continued to flourish after Shabwa fell, until just before Islam.
The emergence of Islam coincided with the demise of the ancient kingdoms. The tribal components of the ancient kingdoms reasserted themselves, fragmenting the country's apparent unity. By the end of the tenth century CE, Yemen had become a theater in the confrontation between the various streams of Islam. Fatimid generals vied with insubordinate ῾Abbasid vassals and rebellious Zaydi tribesmen for control of the mountainous highlands, while the Ayyubids finally imposed their rule before being eclipsed.
Ancient South Arabia.
The people inhabiting these desert, mountain, and coastal regions seem to have identified themselves as a single cultural group, using the same system of writing and worshipping the same gods since the dawn of history. It would appear that the politicoreligious title mukarrib was only borne by one person in all of the South Arabian area at any one time, indicating a common identity despite political differences. The primary members of the South Arabian pantheon were probably Venus (Athtar, a male: cf. Ishtar), the Moon, and the Sun, assigned different roles (and names) in the various kingdoms. Stone temple dedicatory inscriptions in monumental characters are among the most important South Arabic texts. Commercial transactions were recorded in a cursive script on palm sticks.
From the seventh century BCE, ancient South Arabian cities were generally surrounded by defensive walls, more commonly identified in the western than the eastern part of the country. Within the walls stood tall tower houses with rock foundations and superstructures of mud brick reinforced with wood (e.g., at Shabwa and Timna῾). South Arabian coins, bronze objects, stone incense burners, and pottery are the usual small finds. Most urban and town sites are laid out around large open areas, and with prominent sanctuaries, both intra- and extramural.
Prehistoric sanctuaries and cemeteries were frequently placed outside the associated settlement or along nomadic routes. The rectangular peristyle temples typical of Ma῾in and Saba' reflect a more sophisticated form of the immediately preceding rectangular prehistoric temples and are found both intra- and extramurally. Some sanctuaries at Marib and Ṣirwaḥ are oval, while temples at Timna῾, Shabwa, and Raybun are rectangular hypostyle halls. Monumental temple porticoes are common throughout South Arabia.
Prehistoric cairns, dolmens, and stone alignments similar to monuments on the northern part of the peninsula are found frequently in the east but rarely in the west. In the historical periods, the rural dead were buried under cairns in a tradition going back to the Neolithic. The urban dead were also buried in silt accumulations (Saba' and Qataban) or in small chambers hewn into mountain rock (Qataban and Ḥadhramaut). Statues or stylized heads in stone boxes accompanied the weapons, jewelry, and other articles of daily use placed in the tombs. Ritual camel burials dating to the historical periods have been found in the south. The wealth of the tomb offerings was the result of trade. Constantly at odds, each of the desert kingdoms was nevertheless dependent on trade with its neighbors, as frankincense had to pass from Dhofar to the Ḥadhramaut, across the Ramlah al-Saba῾tayn and on to Ma῾in and the north, with the myrrh being passed on from Qataban and Saba'. The trading kingdoms were probably initially dependent on the camel, which requires little water, but much fodder, rendering agriculture the dominant activity in the historical periods.
The irrigation systems designed to catch and distribute the monsoon rains are among the most impressive South Arabian monuments. The original (second or third millennium BCE?) distributor structures in Marib were progressively updated and placed at more suitable locations until the ultimate dam (c. 500 BCE–600 CE) was built there, a masterpiece of engineering designed to contain the maximum amount of floodwater for distribution to more than 10,000 ha (24,700 acres) of cultivated land. Throughout Yemen ancient fields can be recognized by silt accumulations up to 30 meters high.
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David A. Warburton