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Yemen, the Crucible of al-Qaida, Was Once a Powerful Arabian Kingdom Run by Jews

A new book sheds light on the complicated conflicts among Jews, Christians, and pagans in the pre-Islamic Middle East

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Late Antique Southwest Arabia, map based on I. Gadja, Le royaume de Himyar à l’époque monothéiste (Paris, 2009), p. 139. (Courtesy of Oxford University Press)
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Yemen was one of the first nations to be converted by Muhammad’s followers in the seventh century C.E., and it has been a Muslim country ever since—now known as a refuge for al-Qaida and a regular source of global terror alerts, like this week’s scare about liquid explosives that shut down U.S. embassies across the Middle East. However, 1,500 years ago Yemen was ruled by a dynasty of Jewish kings. Their kingdom, called Himyar, lasted for 150 years and profoundly changed the course of Arabian political and religious history.

Himyar’s memory was preserved for centuries by only a few inscriptions and stray mentions in later chronicles known to just a handful of experts, most of whom doubted the extent of the kingdom’s Jewish affiliation. Recently, though, Himyar’s history has come into focus, thanks to new discoveries in epigraphy and archeology. Now a new book by G.W. Bowersock, The Throne of Adulis, is making these discoveries available in English for the first time and shedding new light on the complicated conflicts among Jews, Christians, and pagans that shaped the Middle East before the arrival of Islam.

The origins of Himyar are obscure. The kingdom seems to have coalesced at some point toward the end of the third century C.E. in the territory of what is today southwestern Yemen, and its kings gradually expanded their rule over the southern half of the Arabian Peninsula. Their dynasty lasted until the third decade of the sixth century when the last Himyarite ruler was overthrown by an expedition sent by the Christian king of Axum, in present-day Ethiopia. No chronicles or manuscripts from Himyar itself have survived. Most of what we do know comes from inscriptions carved on stelae and cliff faces in Sabaic, a now-extinct South Arabian language whose alphabet has more in common with modern-day Ethiopian scripts than with written Arabic. These mentions are numerous but brief and often fragmentary, leaving much room for interpretation.

Yet a few contemporary accounts of Himyar do survive. Written by outsiders, they offer precious information about the kingdom’s political and religious life, albeit through hostile eyes. Most of these texts are religious in nature and concern the lives of saints and martyrs who lived in the vicinity of Himyar. The most vivid and surprising is a letter, written in Syriac in the early sixth century, that claims to be an eye-witness record of a pivotal episode in the kingdom’s history that would bring an end to the Jewish dynasty. The author of the letter, Symeon of Beth Arsham, was a priest and the leader of one of the Christian communities in the Persian Empire. He was also an avid traveler and a tireless advocate for the rights of his co-religionists, followers of the Monophysite branch of the Christian Church. Symeon, in short, was a diplomat, troubleshooter, and propagandist—a sixth-century version of the roaming political activist of today.

In 524 C.E., Symeon’s wanderings brought him to a high-level political conference in the North Arabian desert. Then as now, the Arabian Peninsula was a fertile territory for superpower rivalry and sectarian strife. The summit of 524 brought together representatives from all the forces with an interest in the region: ambassadors from the Byzantine and Sassanian (Persian) empires, their Arab clients—the sheikhs of the great Jafnid and Nasrid clans—and delegates from different branches of the Christian Church. Negotiations were proceeding smoothly when an unexpected visitor arrived. He was an envoy from Himyar, and he had come to announce that there was a new king named Yusuf (or Joseph) on the throne.

In his letter, Symeon recounts the envoy’s story in detail. After overthrowing his predecessor, Yusuf ordered all the Christians in his kingdom to convert to Judaism and killed those who refused. He also attacked the neighboring community of Najran and massacred its Christians after violating an offer of safe conduct. The envoy acted as a mouthpiece for Yusuf, announcing his hostile intentions and boasting of the many men and women he had executed by fire and beheading. In Symeon’s no doubt embellished retelling, the envoy’s testimony also includes moving speeches by the king’s victims, in which they extol Christ and praise martyrdom before heading off to slaughter.

Symeon’s letter sounded the alarm among the Monophysites of the Near East and called their supporters in the wider Christian world to action, setting in motion the chain of events that would cause Himyar’s downfall. Yet Symeon’s narrative has also proven to be an enduring puzzle for historians over the centuries. With little independent evidence to corroborate it, it seemed hard to believe that Symeon’s story was true. Was there really a Jewish king in Yemen? Where had he come from? And why would he order the persecution of so many Christians, especially when it would cost him his rule?

***

Joseph Halévy, one of the first Western scholars to study the ancient history of South Arabia, was among those who doubted the accuracy of Symeon’s account. Born in Adrianople in the Ottoman Empire (now Edirne in Turkey), Halévy was a self-taught expert on ancient Near Eastern history and languages. He worked for years as a schoolteacher in Bucharest before being hired by French Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1868 to study the Falasha in Ethiopia.

After the success of this mission, the French Academy hired Halévy to lead a scientific expedition to Yemen. He spent years traveling across the Yemeni desert in the company of Jewish guides before returning to Paris. He brought with him hundreds of inscriptions in the then-unknown Sabaic language, which he helped to decipher. But for all his expertise, Halévy simply refused to believe that the King Yusuf from Symeon’s letter was really Jewish, insisting that he must have been a Christian follower of the Arian heresy instead.

Eduard Glaser, one of Halévy’s scholarly rivals, disagreed. Like Halévy, Glaser was a pioneering Jewish Arabist, a self-taught expert on ancient languages, and a fearless traveler. He had made several trips to Yemen, mostly in disguise, and he had amassed a trove of artifacts and inscriptions, most of which are now in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. In translating his finds, Glaser noticed that a number of the inscriptions he had uncovered asked for the blessing of the “Lord of the Jews.” He concluded that Symeon’s letter was indeed accurate: King Yusuf was a Jew. Not only that, but by the time Yusuf seized power, Himyar had been a Jewish kingdom for over 150 years, something no one had suspected for centuries.

Halévy and Glaser sparred with each other in print multiple times, with neither being able to persuade the other. In subsequent decades, the controversy over Himyar’s Jewish identity remained unresolved. For many years, scholars were reluctant to recognize Himyar’s monotheism as Jewish, in part because there had not been contemporary documentary proof of the religion as Jewish and in part because the reports that suggested that it was were in medieval Arab histories. For a time, scholars adopted a compromise position, arguing that Himyar’s people—or at least their rulers—practiced a kind of home-grown monotheism. They named this hypothetical religion “Raḥmānism,” after the old Sabaic word for “the merciful,” which shows up again and again in the Yemeni inscriptions. Raḥmānism, they argued, had been influenced by Judaism but stayed distinct from it, remaining a local phenomenon until it was driven out, first by Christianity and then by Islam.

Recently, however, the theory of a separate, local, Himyarite religion has come under fire. New discoveries in archaeology and epigraphy strongly suggest that many Himyarites were in fact Jewish. Several of these finds come not from Yemen, but from Israel. One of these was found at the Beth She’arim necropolis, a famous cemetery near Haifa in which Jews from all over the diaspora were buried in late antiquity. There archaeologists, led by Zeev Weiss of Hebrew University, discovered a burial cave, dating to the fourth or fifth century C.E., with a sign painted in Greek announcing that it “belonged to the Himyarites.” It seems that pious Jews from Himyar traveled north to be buried in the Jewish homeland. Excavations at Zafar, the Himyarite capital, led by Paul Yule of the University of Heidelberg, have also uncovered a chamber that may have been used as a Jewish ritual bath, as well as wall reliefs that incorporate Jewish iconography.

Other tomb inscriptions—one in Aramaic for a certain Yoseh from Zafar in Yemen, and another, in both Aramaic and Sabaic, for “Leah, the daughter of Judah”—likewise demonstrate that Jews from Himyar had strong ties to the Holy Land and could move with ease between the worlds of South Arabia and Northern Palestine. More proof of the presence of Jews in Himyar comes from Yemen itself. Signet rings, one carved with a menorah and another with a picture of a Torah niche, point to how important the new religion became as an expression of individual identity.

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Yemen, the Crucible of al-Qaida, Was Once a Powerful Arabian Kingdom Run by Jews

A new book sheds light on the complicated conflicts among Jews, Christians, and pagans in the pre-Islamic Middle East