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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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The most important evidence, however, comes in the form of inscriptions, and it is thanks to the work of their interpreters—principally Christian Robin and Iwona Gajda of the French National Center for Scientific Research—that the story of Himyar can finally be told in detail. In translating these recently uncovered inscriptions, Robin observed that, although the texts were written in Sabaic, a number of them use phrases like “amen” and “shalom” and contain Jewish names such as Isaac and Yehuda. Several make even more explicit references to Judaism, including several mentions of “the people of Israel,” a list of the divisions of the priesthood in Hebrew, and allusions to the existence of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. A Greek inscription in the port city of Qana, discovered by a team of Russian archaeologists, likewise points to the presence of synagogues in Himyar.

The deciphering of these artifacts has made it become possible to fill in some of the gaps in Himyar’s history as a Jewish kingdom. Its rulers likely converted to Judaism sometime around 380 C.E. (According to later Muslim tradition, this conversion happened under the influence of two visiting rabbis from Mecca.) Later on, Himyar’s kings solidified their rule over southern Yemen before expanding north and east across the Arabian Peninsula.

At first, the Himyarite leaders seem to have been fairly reticent about their new religion. In fact, the strongest evidence for the date of their conversion comes from the sudden absence of references to polytheism and not from overt support for Judaism. But as the fifth century wore on, they became more vocal. Robin has argued that Himyar’s rulers promoted Judaism as a way of solidifying their power over a kingdom fragmented by tribal and ethnic divisions. With time, though, faith overshadowed politics. Himyar came to be seen as a “new Israel” in its own right, and its rulers proved to be willing to fight for it with a startling militancy.

Yet, surprisingly, there is no mention of Himyar anywhere in the rabbinic tradition. In an email to me, Bowersock suggested that the rabbis might have felt unwilling to accept the Himyarites as Jews because they were not ethnically Jewish. Robin on the other hand thinks that their silence could have had to do with a reluctance to provide ammunition for millenarian aspirations. It’s a mystery, though, and one wonders if the real reason wasn’t something else. Could Himyar’s story, with its wars, kings, campaigns, and usurpations, have lapsed into obscurity because it stood so far outside the expected Jewish narratives of exile, persecution, and domination?

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In The Throne of Adulis, Bowersock, a classicist and historian of the ancient world, places Himyar in an international context. He shows the ways in which its rulers attempted to navigate a course through the great-power conflicts of late antiquity and how their efforts ultimately ended in catastrophe. Along the way, he tells a story rife with intrigue, treachery, and ambition, underpinned by scholarly detective work of the most patient and demanding kind.

Axum stele

The Axum Stele. (Courtesy of Werner Forman/Art Resource)

Bowersock focuses much of his attention on Himyar’s neighbor to the west, the powerful kingdom of Axum. Based in the Ethiopian highlands, Axum at different times controlled territory stretching from Sudan to the shores of the Red Sea. For many years, it controlled Himyar as well, before losing control of the region around 270 C.E. It didn’t take the loss lightly. For over 200 years, Axum’s Christian kings harbored designs on the Jewish kingdom across the Red Sea. Around 520 C.E. they finally succeeded in getting it back. They installed a puppet king on Himyar’s throne—a Christian who was soon deposed in a coup by the Jewish Yusuf.

Himyar was threatened by Axum’s irredentist ambitions. By virtue of its position on crucial maritime trade routes to India, it was also pulled into a conflict between even larger powers. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the Middle East was split between the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires. As in the Cold War in the 20th century, the rivalry between these superpowers was ideological as well as political, and it created allegiances and enmities with far-flung states. The Byzantines supported Christians beyond their borders, while the Zoroastrian Persians backed various groups—including Jews—who they hoped could keep the Byzantines in check.

Both empires courted allies among the Arab tribes, although neither controlled lands in the Arabian Peninsula. Himyar played an important part in this game. Traditionally on the Persian side, it had switched sides when the Axumites installed their client king. When Yusuf seized the throne, he needed to switch back, having angered not only his neighbors in the region but also their powerful backers in the Byzantine Empire. According to Bowersock, although Yusuf’s move against the Himyarite Christians may have been in part about enforcing religious unity, it was also an attempt to win back Persian approval and defend against reprisals from the Christian powers.

Yusuf’s massacre was a brutal power play. It was also a gamble, and it backfired almost immediately. The persecution of Arab Christians gave the Axumites a pretext to take back what had once been theirs. Led by their king, Kaleb, they launched an invasion as soon as they heard the news from Ramla. According to one chronicle, the Byzantine emperor urged Kaleb on, telling him “to go forth, whether by sea or by land, against the abominable and criminal Jew.” Yusuf defended himself as best he could. In a rare instance when an inscription can be tied to a specific moment and event, one of his generals used a cliff as a billboard to brag about the “14,000 men he had killed, the 11,000 prisoners he had taken captive and the 290,000 camels, cows, and goats” the king had seized from neighboring lands.

Although Himyar didn’t leave much of a trace in the Jewish tradition, its real legacy might be in the history of Islam

Before the year was out, the Axumites launched an aquatic invasion across the Red Sea. Yusuf tried to stop them from getting a beachhead by stretching a giant iron chain across the bay where they intended to land. It proved to be a memorable deed, but not a successful one. Within the year Yusuf was dead. His death marked the end of the Jewish kingdom. Under its new Ethiopian rulers, Himyar became Christian. Its people converted, and its synagogues were closed or turned into churches. For a generation, it remained a potent force in southern Arabia, after which the territory came under the sway of the Sassanians, becoming a remote province of a distant empire. The memory of the Jewish kingdom was kept alive mostly by its enemies—in Arabic histories, Syriac chronicles, and Greek martyrs’ lives.

Although Himyar didn’t leave much of a trace in the Jewish tradition, its real legacy might be in the history of Islam. Bowersock writes that “the tumultuous events in sixth-century Arabia” were the “crucible of Islam.” The wars started by Yusuf’s massacre profoundly re-organized power relations in the Arabian Peninsula, shifting the Jewish Arab tribes into the Persian camp while putting the pagan ones at a distinct disadvantage. This realignment mattered profoundly in the oasis towns of the Nejd and Hijaz, where Muhammad would announce his revelation a hundred years later.

Robin goes even further in arguing for a connection between Himyar and Islam. Muhammad faced the same challenge as the kings of Himyar: how to unify a highly fractious, polytheistic, tribal society. And it seems likely that he knew the kingdom’s history; the Quran alludes to the “people of the ditch,” a phrase thought to refer to the martyrs of Najran. Putting the two together, Robin suggests that when Muhammad turned to monotheism as a way to unite the fractious tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, there’s a possibility he had the memory of Himyar in the back of his mind.

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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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