African presence in early Arabia


A SUMMARY account of the Moors in antiquity would be incomplete without at least a brief overview of the African presence in early Arabia. 

The Arabian peninsula, first inhabited more than 8 000 years ago, was early populated by blacks. 

Once dominant over the entire peninsula, the African presence early in Arabia is most clearly traceable through the Sabeans. 

The Sabeans were the first Arabians to step firmly within the realm of civilisation. 

The south-western corner of the peninsula was their early home. This area, which was known to the Romans as ‘Arabia Felix’, is today called Yemen.  

In antiquity, this region gave rise to a high degree of civilisation because of the fertility of the soil, the growth of frankincense and myrrh, and the close proximity to the sea and, consequently, its importance in the trade routes. 

The Sabeans have even been called ‘the Phoenicians of the southern seas’.

We hear of the Sabeans in the 10th Century BC through the fabled exploits of its semi-legendary queen. 

This woman had all the qualities of an exceptional monarch, and appears to have ruled over a wealthy domain embracing parts of both Africa and Arabia. 

She is known as Bilqis in the Koran, Makeda in the Kebra Negast, and the Queen of Sheba in the Bible. 

The three of these documents provide a relatively clear picture of a highly developed state distinguished by the pronounced overall status of women. 

Bilqis/Makeda was not an isolated phenomenon. 

Several times, in fact, do we hear of prominent women in Arabian history; the documents they are mentioned in providing no commentary on husbands, consorts or male relatives. 

Either their deeds or inheritance, perhaps both, enabled them to stand out quite singularly. 

The Sabeans apparently possessed a dedicated matrifocal culture and society.

Around the beginning of the first millennium BC, the period in which Bilqis/Makeda is thought to have lived, we find the emergence of a number of large urban centres characterised by elaborate irrigation systems. 

With the domestication of the camel, the southern Arabians could effectively exploit the region’s greatest natural resources — frankincense and myrrh — which from the earliest historical periods, were much prized and sought after. 

The purest and most abundant sources of frankincense and myrrh were in southern Arabia and Somalia, just across the Red Sea. 

We hear of the Sabeans during the reign of the powerful Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 BC). 

In a series of inscriptions detailing Assyrian military successes, there is specific mention of Pir’u, the king of Musru; Samsi, the queen of Arabia; lt’amra, the Sabean — the(se) are the kings of the seashore and from the desert — I received as their presents gold in the form of dust, precious stones, ivory, ebony-seeds, all kind of aromatic substances, horses (and) camels. 

It was during the 7th Century BC that the Sabean rulers became known as mukarribs (priest-kings). 

This new form of government may well represent the accelerating Semitisation of Arabia. 

The earliest known Sabean construction projects, including the mighty Marib Dam (South Arabia’s most enduring technical achievement), were initiated during this period. 

Two mukarribs, Sumuhu’alay Yanaf and Yithi’amara Bayyim, cut deep watercourses through the solid rock at the south end of the site. 

The Marib Dam, which served its builders and their descendants for more than 1 000 years, was traditionally believed to have been conceived by Lokman, the sage and multi-genius of pre-Islamic South Arabia. 

In effect, the Dam was an earthen ridge stretching slightly more than 1 700 feet across a prominent wadi. 

Both sides sloped sharply upward, with the Dam’s upstream side fortified by small pebbles established in mortar. 

The Marib Dam was rebuilt several times by piling more earth and stone onto the existing structure. 

The last recorded height of the Marib Dam was slightly more than 45 feet. 

Although the Marib Dam has now practically disappeared, the huge sluice gates built into the rocky walls of the wadi are very well preserved. 

They continue to stand as silent but effective witnesses to the creative genius of the South Arabian people. 

When the periodic but powerful rains did come, the mechanism divided the onrushing waters into two channels, which ultimately sustained the area’s inhabitants. 

Such was the force generated by the turbulent waters, however, that the Marib Dam was periodically washed out. Reconstruction was a formidable task. 

In one such operation, 20 000 workmen were employed, some of them coming from hundreds of miles away. 

At some point during this period, perhaps even earlier, there is evidence of South Arabian settlement in Ethiopia’s Tigre Province. 

The remains of actual South Arabian settlements have been found principally at Yeha, Matara and Haoulti. 

The resulting co-mingling of Ethiopian and Sabean cultures led to the development of the powerful African kingdom of Axum. The earliest Ethiopian alphabet is of a South Arabian type. 

The Axumite script itself is apparently a derivative of Sabean. Even the name Abyssinia is thought to have been taken from the Habashan, a powerful south-western Arabian family that eventually settled in Africa. 

From this period, Ethiopia became known in Arabic scripts as Habashat and, its citizens, Habshi. 

This early Ethiopian-Sabean era, beginning during the early 5th Century BC, lasted a century. 

As the sceptre of South Arabian supremacy passed from Saba’s grasp, and also Ma’in (an early rival of Saba and apparently governed by a grand council), Qataban (another regional state) emerged as the area’s foremost power. 

Timna, one of the more archaeologically explored sites in South Arabia, was Qataban’s capital and its major urban centre. Qataban reached its zenith around 60 BC and, right afterwards, went into a period of rapid eclipse. 

The power in South Arabia then shifted back towards Saba, in the west, albeit in a lesser form and Hadramaut in the east, which occupied and destroyed Timna. 

The kingdom of Ausan, a lesser known state, also became distinct at this time. 

Ausan had such extensive commercial ties with Africa, that in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (ca. 75), the entire East African seaboard is known as the ‘Ausanitic Coast’. 

Following the rise of Axum, Africans assumed a highly aggressive role in Ethiopian-South Arabian relations.


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