since antiquity a major port city (12°46′ N, 45°02′ E) on the Gulf of Aden, now in Yemen. Modern Aden is associated with the northwestern port on Bandar Tawahi, but the ancient and medieval port appears to have been on Sira Bay, on the eastern side of the irregular oval volcanic promontory known as Aden (῾Adan). The ancient city was located at Crater, the hollow of the volcano washed by the waters of Sira Bay. In antiquity, Aden may have been an island intermittently, especially at high tide. Ancient land and sea communications routes met at Aden, as known primarily from deductions and later sources. The very few inscriptions found in Aden may not come from there originally, and South Arabian texts name many cities called Aden. It is not clear when the present name came to be associated with this particular city. The principal pieces of direct evidence concerning Aden are the famous water tanks and the ancient text the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
From prehistoric until modern times, the city at the present location of Aden has been an emporium, importing and exporting, serving the masters of the interior, rather than becoming a power in its own right. Historically the port of Aden served the frankincense trade of the kingdom of 'Awsan in Wadi Markha in the first half of the first millennium BCE and then the kingdom of Saba (Sheba) in the following centuries, before falling into the hands of the kingdom of Qataban and later Ḥimyar. Informed speculation suggests that the historic role mirrored a prehistoric precedent—the importation of frankincense from Dhufar and Somalia and the transshipment by the overland trade route heading north.
During the first centuries of Islam, apart from continuing to serve as an emporium, Aden may have become a primary source of glass, which was exported to the Levant and the Far East, again perhaps in continuation of an earlier tradition. During the Rasulid period (thirteenth century), Aden imported Chinese products and exported horses. It would seem that the temporary decline of ancient Aden in the first centuries CE can be associated with the rise of the Himyarite port Muza (near modern Mocha, on the Red Sea coast) and the Ḥadhramaut port Qana' (modern Bir ῾Ali, 500 km [310 mi.] farther east), which flourished from roughly the first century BCE until well after the demise of the Hadhramaut kingdom. Historically, Aden probably dominated the seaborne import-export frankincense trade during the entire first millennium BCE.
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a shipping guide dating to the first–third century, describes all of the ports in the region, defining the South Arabian coast as “Ausanic” (thus associated with the kingdom of 'Awsan) and reports that the port of Aden (Eudaimon Arabia or Arabia Felix) was sacked, possibly by the Roman Emperor Claudius (41–54 CE). It has been equally plausibly argued, however, that the plundering was the work of a Ḥimyarite king. Because the date of the Periplus itself is not certain, the destruction may have occurred anywhere from first to the third centuries CE. Regardless of the date, the eclipse was only temporary; and Eudaimon Arabia was flourishing again soon thereafter.
The most overwhelming archaeological feature of Aden consists of the famous Tawila tanks. Carved into the rock of a narrow cleft on the southern edge of Crater, they have a combined capacity of some 136,500,000 1 (30 million imperial gals.) of water. They were filled completely In 1993, showing that the capacity corresponded to the extraordinarily irregular rainfall patterns of Aden, where 70 mm (2.8 in.) annual rainfall was the mean in the 1980s. That the tanks were remodeled by Islamic and British rulers is clear, but the date of their conception is not.
Apart from random soundings and an attempt to reestablish the ancient coastline, archaeological research in Aden itself has never been undertaken, and the objects supposedly coming from the city and neighboring regions cannot be regarded as reliable sources. The column capitals found 3 m (10 ft.) beneath the surface in the city are medieval and not ancient.
Dating to the third and early second millennia and revealing parallels to both Africa and the rest of the peninsula, the pottery from the sites of Ṣubr and Bir Nasser, some 25–30 km (15.5–18.6 mi.) north, suggests, however, that Aden was indeed a trading center in prehistoric times. Prehistoric import pieces can have reached Ṣubr only after passing through Aden, and the same route applies to the Greco-Roman finds from the district northwest of Ṣubr. The Qatabanian material from Bir Fadhl, one of the mainland suburbs of the modern city, underlines the continuous importance of the site. Thus, despite the dearth of material, dispersed artifacts and written South Arabian and medieval sources indicate that Aden always served as a major port despite occasional periods of decline, such as that mentioned in the Periplus.
- Casson, Lionel, ed. and trans. The “Periplus Maris Erythraei”: Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Princeton, 1989.
- Doe, Brian. Southern Arabia. London, 1971. Guide to the most important published sources relating to Aden.
David A. Warburton