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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.

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?

***

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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