Accessing Yemen’s historical importance and possible future role – past traits predestine future’s potentialities:Yemen’s great past and future (Part 1/2) [Archives:2004/746/Culture]

June 14 2004
General View of Zabid showing old castle. (Hodeidah Gov)
General View of Zabid showing old castle. (Hodeidah Gov)
By Prof. Dr. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis
For the Yemen Times

It is certainly an auspicious event to see Yemen's intellectuals joining forces to face the various challenges of the future, and to express their ideas about the possible ways the country will catch up with the developed countries within our global world. The weight they may exercise within the future politics of the country will certainly determine the speed of the development, and the extent of the good news anybody truly wishes to hear from the Great Old Land of the Hadrami Frankincense and the Sabaean Wisdom. On this way towards fast recovery, there is a need for criticism, when one needs an analysis of what went wrong, but there is also a necessity for an overall synthesis and better perception of the great historical past.

Geographical and Historical Determinism
Throughout world history, few factors have been so determining as the geography of a land, and the basic traits of civilization that a people developed at a certain historical moments. Egypt and Meroe in today's Sudan have been the Nile valley countries, flat and delineated by the propinquity of the desert. Babylonia was the flat land between two rivers (Mesopotamia, Beyn un Nahreyn); Assyria was the land of Transtigritane, combining the vast Mesopotamian plains and the surrounding mountains. Persia was the land of the plateau at the east of Zagros series of mountains, and the Hittites felt at home at the Anatolian plateau of Cappadocia that is demarcated by the Taurus and the Pontus series of mountains. Greece is the land of small plains among isolated mounts, and of little islands. In Lebanon the phenomenon is very striking; at the coast, the Phoenicians of Tyros, Sidon, Arad, Byblos, and other cities – states were turned to long navigations and open seafaring, whereas 50 km inland Aramaeans at the Bekaa valley, as well as further on in Damascus, Haleb, Homs, were excelling in cattle-keeping, agriculture and land route trades (as far as China!), being totally disinterested in the sea!

A unique turning point called Yemen
Where does Yemen stand in the 'global' world of the ancient Middle East?
Land of the mountains and the small valleys among them, area of an unprecedented Wadi-phenomenon at Hadramawt, focal point of land routes and desert routes of trade, territory encompassing long and rich coastal strips, turned to various seas, to the Red Sea and to the Indian Ocean as we call these seas now, Yemen has long been the most African part of Asia, or the Asiatic part of Africa!
Undoubtedly, Yemen linked India with Egypt, East Africa with Assyria, Persia with Sudan, Rome with China, all ways – land, desert and sea – involved. But whenever a certain expansion of the many, various and diversified Yemenite peoples, tribes and states took place in the past, it was manifested in Africa. This is probably due to physical delimitations, the Oman coastal strip being too limited a place for expansion, the Hedjaz coastal strip being an uninviting place, the greatest part of the peninsula being desert (Rub' al Khali), and other lands being simply too far! What is closest to Yemen is either the high seas or Africa
Notwithstanding the great achievements of the Sabaean kingdom dating back to the beginning of the first pre-Christian millennium, which can be admired by modern visitors in several places of the Yemenite North, and were hinted at within the Biblical texts (Books of Kings) by ancient narrators, the first historical mention of the kingdom of Sabaa goes back to the middle of the 8th century BCE. It is a reference to tribute and gifts presented to the Assyrian emperor Tiglat-Pileser (Tukulti – apil – Esharra) III (745 – 727) by Sabaa, as well as by Arabs of the Hedjaz, and other countries. Despite the Assyrian and the Babylonian expansion in the East and the North of the peninsula (Yathribu was the summer residence of the Babylonian Nabonid Kings in the 6th century BCE), Sabaa was too far for the Sargonid Assyrian empire and the Nabonid Babylonian royal pretensions.
Assurbanipal (669 – 625) ruled from Central Iran to Upper Egypt, and from the eastern coast of the Persian Gulf to the western coast of Turkey, but Yemen escaped his dominion by simply paying tribute. Cambyses, the Achaemenid Shah of Iran, in the second half of the 6th century, was ruling from Napata of Kush (today's Karima in Sudan) to Central Asia, but again Yemen was spared! Alexander the Great, at the end of the 4th century, invaded all the lands between Macedonia and India, but Pentapotamia (Pundjab), not Yemen, seemed closer to either Pella (his first capital) or Babylon (his ultimately chosen capital)!
During all these long centuries, the peoples and the tribes of ancient Yemen could not be kept united under the scepter of a descendant of the famous Queen Balqis. Yet, writing was introduced as early as the 6th century BCE, or to put it better, it was invented! It would be essential at this point to stress the originality of the event! At a moment the Assyrian – Babylonian cuneiform ('al kitabeh al mesmariyeh' in Arabic), syllabogrammatic Writing (the term means that the cuneiform characters were of syllabic phonetic value) was diffused in Iran (introduction of the old Persian Achaemenid cuneiform writing system that was in use for about 300 to 400 years), and the Phoenician and the Aramaic alphabetic writings were diffused throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East (more precisely among Greeks, Israelites, Romans, and Persians), the different peoples of Ancient Yemen, instead of adopting a foreign writing system, developed their own syllabogrammatic writing, no less than 1200 years before the arrival of Islam!
Through a historical overview of almost 1400 years of Yemenite pre-Islamic history (based on Assyrian – Babylonian, Yemenite, Persian, Ancient Greek, Latin and Aramaic sources), we can get a clear diagram of several basic cultural characteristics. The geographical divisions of the land of Yemen, many mountains and plains, various coastal strips, all oriented differently to the outer world, were probably the reason of the political disunion that mostly characterized Yemen. Of course, this was repeated throughout Islamic times, but it would be wrong for us to perceive disunion in terms of enmity, fratricide or civil wars. We should rather see the various ancient Yemenite states in terms of specific task assignments. The war of Sabaa and Himyar against Qataban (around 115 BCE) is rather due to Sabaean and Himyarite reactions to the Qatabanic performance in respect of preserving the Yemenite thalassocracy and the complete navigation control throughout the Red Sea at a moment of rise of Ptolemaic Egyptian seafaring and sea trade in which Aramaeans seem definitely involved. The different Yemenite states, Sabaa, Awsan, Hadramawt, Main, Timna, Qataban, Raydhan and Himyar, were often in agreement with regard to the role each one had to play in its own domain with regard to a generally conceived Yemenite interest. However, reunification considerations we attest only as late as the end of the 2nd century CE, and it is the Himyarites, who seem to be more conscious in this regard.

Yemenite expansion in Africa, in terms of population, language and scripture.
Despite the lack of unity, or perhaps due to this phenomenon, many waves of Yemenites have reportedly crossed the Bab el Mandeb straits, and settled either in the African Red Sea shore opposite the Yemenite coast, or further in the African inland.
What the famous Abyssinian legend and the great epic text Kebra Negast (the Glory of the Kings) narrate is rather an extension to the Biblical and the Quranic texts' references to the legendary Queen of Sheba – Balqis – Makeda, and to her contacts with Solomon, the King of Israel. But it reflects perfectly well the reality of the millennium-long, repeated Yemenite waves of Asiatic immigrants to the Horn of Africa area. Menelik, as son to Solomon and Balqis – Makeda, is an abstraction made for poetic reasons within the text, and it concerns all the numerous Yemenites, who repeatedly and in successive waves expressed their predilection for Africa.
It is not only literary sources and archaeological evidence that testify to this event; full epigraphic and linguistic support is offered for this assertion, since the ancient Abyssinian language and scripture (dating back to the early Christian era) have derived from the earlier attested ancient Yemenite semitic dialect and syllabogrammatic writing. Gueze, as is called the ancient Abyssinian language, is very important to Christianity, as one of the languages and the scriptures of the Evangiles and the New Testament – along with Aramaic – Syriac, Greek, Coptic, Latin, Armenian and Georgian. Gueze is the ancestral linguistic form of modern Abyssinian languages like Tigrinia, Tigre and Amharic (Amarinia) that are widely spoken in Eritrea and Abyssinia.
The name itself of Abyssinia ('-b-sh-t, Abashat) is mentioned in Ancient Yemenite texts and epigraphic documentation as the name of a Yemenite tribe! This tribe, or at least a sizeable part of it, migrated to Africa and transferred there its name that lasts until now, as ultimate proof of the Yemenite origin of a large part of the populations of Abyssinia and Eritrea.
'Returning' the compliment, Gueze – that was never lost, since it still is the religious language and scripture of the Christians of Ethiopia and Eritrea – helped a lot in the deciphering of the ancient Yemenite epigraphic monuments. It was as useful as Coptic to Champollion deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. Without Coptic, Champollion would have failed; without Gueze the likes of Conti Rossini and Rhodokanakes would have failed too.
Part 2 next issue