capital of the South Arabian kingdom of Ḥimyar, located approximately 8 km (5 mi.) south-southeast of the modern Yemeni town of Yarim and approximately 8 km east of the San῾a-Taiz-Aden highway (14°13′ N 44°24′ E). It sits at the eastern edge of an extensive intermontane valley near the head of Wadi Bana. Its identity has been known locally since antiquity and is confirmed by Ḥimyarite inscriptions found at the site.
Ẓafar, the Sapphar or Tapharon of classical authors, may have been founded as early as about 115 BCE, the beginning of the Ḥimyarite dating system. It was certainly in existence by the mid-first century CE, when it was mentioned by Pliny (Nat. Hist. 6.26.104 and by the unknown author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (22–23). The earliest inscriptional evidence for Ẓafar consists of the Ḥimyarite royal titulary, “king of Saba and lord of Raydan,” which occurs as early as the mid-first century. Raydan is generally understood to be the royal palace at Ẓafar.
Early explorers of the area include the Carsten Niebuhr expedition, which passed nearby in 1763, and Ulrich J. Seetzen, in about 1810. The Austrian South Arabist Eduard Glaser visited the site in the late nineteenth century. Interest in the site increased again in the 1960s and 1970s, with research surveys by Giovanni Garbini, Wolfgang Radt, Walter W. Müller, Paolo Costa, and Raymond Tindel.
Today the site of Ẓafar is a ruin. No major Ḥimyarite features survive. Its condition is the result of war, earthquake, and the heavy reuse of its building stones. The site is situated on a somewhat elongated hilltop whose lower, broader, southern end is occupied by a small village and a museum. A rubble-strewn acropolis rises above the village. Foundations and retaining walls can be traced at some points, and various chambers and tunnels have been cut into the soft rock of the hillside. The valley to the west of Ẓafar is fertile and receives sufficient rainfall to support agriculture. Remains of Ḥimyarite dams, aqueducts, and terrace walls are found throughout the vicinity.
The most comprehensive description of the site is preserved in the Al-Iklil by the tenth-century Yemeni historian al-Hamdani. He listed three palaces: Raydan, Shawhatan, and Kawkaban, and named nine city gates. Raydan, the oldest known Ḥimyarite royal palace, probably occupied the acropolis; it is often attested in Ḥimyarite inscriptions and the acropolis at Ẓafar is still known locally by that name. Shawhatan, which is also mentioned in an inscription (RES 3383), probably occupied the northernmost extension of the acropolis, which was still known in the nineteenth century as the Fortress Shawhat. A dedicatory inscription (ZM [Ẓafar Museum] 1; published by Garbini, 1969) mentions a fourth palace, HRGB (vocalization uncertain). A church was built at Ẓafar as the result of the mission of Theophilus Indus, in about 350; three other churches may have been built there during an Ethiopian intervention in the sixth century. The names of other, nonroyal buildings are also known from various dedicatory inscriptions. In one instance the dedicant was clearly Jewish and included a brief Hebrew formulary in his otherwise South Arabic inscription. Nothing survives of the churches at Ẓafar except, perhaps, for a small cross in relief built into a house in a nearby village.
It is the anonymous building rubble covering the site that provides the best cultural profile of Ḥimyarite Ẓafar: fragmentary architectural elements, bas-reliefs, inscriptions, and sculpture. Stylistically, its motifs can be grouped into two broad categories. The first is the geometric style indigenous to South Arabia. Its elements include rectilinear stepped recess panels and polygonal columns with layered rectilinear capitals. It includes only a few naturalistic motifs such as ibex and bull heads. The motifs of the second are drawn from the orientalized Hellenism of Late Antiquity. Its elaborate vine scrolls, staring frontal busts, winged Victories, griffons, sphinxes, and fantastic hybrid creatures are well attested at Ẓafar. A considerable range of skill both in composition and execution is found in this second category. There is very little mingling of elements from the two categories.
These remains probably date primarily from the fourth and fifth centuries, during the period that Ẓafar was the undispute capital of Ḥimyar, and Ḥimyar the overlord of all of South Arabia. Unfortunately, historical sources for this period are very sparse. The less scrupulous execution of the few inscriptions that survive from this period suggest a general cultural decline. Sectarian rivalry between Christians and Jews exploded into violence during the early sixth century, leading to intervention by both Ethiopia and Persia. Ẓafar, the scene of sieges and massacres, was abandoned as a capital. South Arabia ended the pre-Islamic period as a Persian dependency with a Sasanian governor ruling from San῾a. Ẓafar gradually declined to the small village it is today.
[See also Ḥimyar.]
- Costa, Paolo M. “Antiquities from Ẓafar (Yemen).” Annali Istituto Orientali di Napoli 33 (1973): 185–206; 36 (1976): 445–456.
- Doe, Brian. Monuments of South Arabia. New York, 1983.
- Garbini, Giovanni. “Note e discussioni: Una nuova iscrizione di Šaraḥbi'il Ya῾fur.” Annali Istituto Orientali di Napoli 29 [nos. 19] (1969): 559–566.
- Hamdānī, al-. Al-Iklīl: The Antiquities of South Arabia, Being a Translation from the Arabic of the Eighth Book of al-Hamdānī's Al-Iklīl. Translated and edited by Nabih A. Faris. Princeton, 1940.
- Shahīd, Irfan. “Byzantium in South Arabia.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 33 (1979): 25–94.
- Tindel, Raymond D. “Ẓafār: Archaeology in the Land of Frankincense and Myrrh.” Archaeology 37.2 (1984): 40–45.
Raymond D. Tindel