A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 24, 2012

New Work on the Jewish Himyarite Kingdom of South Arabia

The Fall 2011 publication of the Institute for Advanced Study contains this piece by Glen Bowersock called "The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Kingdom in Arabia." A quote:
Friends and colleagues alike have reacted with amazement and disbelief when I have told them about the history I have been looking at. In the southwestern part of Arabia, known in antiquity as Himyar and corresponding today approximately with Yemen, the local population converted to Judaism at some point in the late fourth century, and by about 425 a Jewish kingdom had already taken shape. For just over a century after that, its kings ruled, with one brief interruption, over a religious state that was explicitly dedicated to the observance of Judaism and the persecu­tion of its Christ­ian population
My reaction was, what, people don't know about the Himyarites? It's pretty much old news to specialists in late antiquity, early Islamic history, Byzantine history, and the history of Ethiopia. Now, the average man in the street may not fit into any of those categories, but I would have expected the "friends and colleagues" of Professor Bowersock, a distinguished expert on late antiquity, to know the basic outlines. Anyway, this blog has been stuck in the last couple of centuries lately, so the article is an excuse for a digression to provide you some weekend reading. Bowersock is working on a book on the subject, but the linked article is rather brief and introductory. Still, one of my old mentors, Irfan Shahid, did the landmark studies of pre-Islamic Arab relations with Byzantium, including one called The Martyrs of Najran, which relates directly to this subject, so I have an excuse to pontificate though I'm in no way qualified to really talk about the subject. The rest of this post is me, not Bowersock, and may not be how he interprets the period.

Arabia and Vicinity 565 AD (Wikipedia)
See Link for Creative Commons attribution
In the centuries immediately before the rise of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula was something of a competitive ground for the great regional powers of the day: the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the Sassanian Empire in Iran, and the somewhat smaller Ethiopian Empire. Two of these, Byzantium and Ethiopia, were Christian (though divided by the Orthodox-"Monophysite" split), and the Sassanians were revivalist Zoroastrians.

In addition, there had long been a series of kingdoms in South Arabia, most famously Saba (as in the Queen of Sheba) and its neighbor and successor Himyar. These spoke a group of Semitic languages more closely related to the languages of Ethiopia than those of northern Arabia, and were sometimes under Ethiopian control. From the fifth century, as noted, Himyar's kings converted to Judaism. It may be that they saw this as a means of counterbalance to their Christian and Zoroastrian great power neighbors, or as a means of proclaiming neutrality; in any event, it was one of the rare instances (like the conversion of the Khazar Kingdom in western Asia centuries later) where a kingdom with no direct connection with Jewish history adopted Judaism as its official faith.

The rest of the Arabian Peninsula outside what we now call Yemen was a zone of regional power competition, with the more powerful neighboring powers cultivating local Arab tribal kingdoms as client or satellite states. Byzantium's client state was the Ghassanid Kingdom, based at Jabiya in the Golan Heights and embracing what is now parts of Syria, Jordan, and northwestern Saudi Arabia. Like their Byzantine patrons, the Ghassanids were Christians, though of the Monophysite variety. To their east, in what is today Iraq and northeastern Saudi Arabia, lay the Lakhmids, based at Hira on the Euphrates in Iraq, a client state of the Sassanians. Though mainly Christian rather than Zoroastrian, they were Nestorian Christians, like most Christians in the Sassanian sphere of influence. The Ghassanids and Lakhmids formed buffer states between Byzantium and Persia and between both of those powers and the nomadic Arab raiders of the peninsula.

The Himyarite Kingdom in South Arabia also had its own client buffer state in the northern part of the peninsula: this was Kinda, which ruled Hadramawt and the Najd, and was usually under Himyarite influemce. (Imr'ul-Qays, the great pre-Islamic poet, was a son of one of the last Kings of Kinda.) Meanwhile the Hijaz, including the caravan cities of Mecca and Yathrib (later Medina), provided the trading corridor among these rival powers, where all the competing political and religious tendencies would be in evidence.

This is the context in which the Jewish Himyarite Kingdom flourished and eventually fell. Leaving aside a lot of history (mostly known from Byzantine, Syriac, Ethiopian, and early Islamic Arab histories, though there are some Old South Arabian inscriptions and coins confirming the basic outlines), Himyar ruled the region in the fifth and sixth centuries AD; the downfall began after the accession of Joseph or Yusuf, known to history as Dhu Nuwas, as King. Some feel he was a usurper of the rightful Himyarite line. In either 518 or 523 (the chronology is confusing) he attacked the towns of Zafar and Najran, largely Christian towns in southwest Arabia under the control of the Ethiopian Kingdom of Axum, killing the Christian population. King Kaleb of Axum, the Ethiopian Negus, went to war against Dhu Nuwas, with a Byzantine Navy providing assistance in an alliance of Christian states against the Jewish Himyarites.

That was the end of the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar; Dhu Nuwas was killed and Himyar came under Axumite rule. Eventually a Christian viceroy of the Axumite King named Abraha made himself ruler; Islamic tradition speaks of a raid he made against Mecca in the "Year of the Elephant" (570 AD or somewhat earlier), said by some to be the year of the Prophet Muhammad's birth. Abraha's successors eventually lost their independence to Persian rule.

With that little glimpse into pre-Islamic late antiquity, enjoy your weekend.

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