Jewish Tombstones in Aden (Part 1) [Archives:2006/978/Culture]

August 4 2006
Epitaph of Ahron, son of Yesu a, from the year 32 of the Contracts calendar (courtesy David Birnbaum, director of the S. Birnbaum ZL archive).
Epitaph of Ahron, son of Yesu a, from the year 32 of the Contracts calendar (courtesy David Birnbaum, director of the S. Birnbaum ZL archive).
Epitaph of H asya, daughter of S emarya , from the year 5472 (1712CE) of the Creations calendar (courtesy D. Birnbaum).
Epitaph of H asya, daughter of S emarya , from the year 5472 (1712CE) of the Creations calendar (courtesy D. Birnbaum).
British Colony Boundary Plan of Aden, 1965.
British Colony Boundary Plan of Aden, 1965.
By: A. Klein-Franke
Inscriptions on tombstones provide us with information about the family and society of the deceased. Through a reading of these inscriptions the individual is no longer anonymous. In addition to names, grave inscriptions often contain information on an individual's status and profession, offering us insights into the life of a community, which include different classes and professions. The information emphasized in grave inscriptions reveals the values of a society and its traditions. This study investigates the corpus of Hebrew inscriptions on tombstones in Aden.

Graveyards and tombstones provide us with an insight into the life of people who are no longer alive. Tombstones tell us the name and age of the deceased person, and about when and where the deceased person lived. Sometimes the name of the deceased person gives an indication of family origins. The style of the characters, the order of the words, and sentences in the inscription tell us of the funeral traditions and the culture of this specific community. The size of the tombstone, its shape, and the style of its decoration reflect the social status of the person it was made for. The shape of the stone and the way it was cut tell us about the manual skills of the masons.

Jewish cemeteries in Aden

Four Jewish cemeteries are known to have existed in the Aden area. Two of them were ancient and were closed to funerals before the nineteenth century. The third one was in the center of the city in the 'Crater' area, so-called by the British. This cemetery was still in use at the time of British occupation. The Ma'ala cemetery is the new cemetery. In addition to these cemeteries there is a memorial tomb in the Holkat-Bay area. The common Hebrew words for cemetery are:

Bet-qebarot, the house of the burials, bet-'almın or bet-'olam, the everlasting house and bet-ha-h ayyım, the house of the living. Among the Jews of Aden and in Yemen the word for cemetery is me'ara (pl. me'arot), which means cave. In Aden the ancient cemetery was called me'ara yesana, old cave. The ancient cemeteries were situated on the cliffs surrounding the Crater. The cemeteries had been abandoned for many generations by the time the British arrived. The cemetery in the Crater was situated near the Jewish quarter and was in use for many generations. There were many tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions scattered all over the area. Despite their relocation to a new quarter the Jews continued to use the Crater cemetery until approximately 1860. After the Crater cemetery was closed to burials, the British Administration granted the family of Menahem Messa, then head of the Aden Jewish community, special permission to continue to use the cemetery in the Crater for their family members until the middle of the twentieth century.

The cemetery at Ma'ala was used by the Jewish community of Aden from 1860 until 1967, when the Jewish community was dissolved. Today there are hundreds of graves with tombstones of different shapes and sizes at this cemetery. The earliest date of burial found in the Ma'ala cemetery was from the year 1863 CE (tav, res, lamed, gimel). The latest date was from 1967 CE (tav, sin, kap, zayin).

An overview of the discoveries of epitaphs under British rule

During building works under the British Administration, hundreds of Hebrew epitaphs were discovered and collected, but not all of them were documented. The discovered tablets were often taken and kept by private individuals, and many of those slabs were consequently lost. Seven tablets were transferred to the British Museum. Slabs were also discovered in the Crater outside the border of the Jewish cemetery. The slabs discovered outside the cemetery were similar to the tombstones in the cemetery, suggesting that the cemetery had originally been larger and that this area had probably once belonged to the cemetery.

A fire, which broke out in the Crater in 1852, resulted in significant renovation work in the city. The reconstruction work was carried out under the supervision of Brigadier Playfair. Houses of mud and stone replaced the straw huts destroyed by the fire. During the digging further discoveries of Hebrew epitaphs were made. Many of the stones discovered were badly damaged, and some of the inscriptions were so corroded that their texts were illegible. Hebrew epitaphs were also discovered during reconstruction work at the water reservoir which was located on the hill, in the area called the 'Tanks'. The discovery of Hebrew epitaphs in the Tanks area suggests that there had been a cemetery earlier which, in turn, implies that there must have been a Jewish settlement nearby. Hebrew epitaphs were also discovered during the reconstruction works in the 'Aden Pass'. They were set deeply into the walls and secured with mortar. Slabs were also found in the caves in this area.

The calendars used by the Jews of southern Arabia

Until the middle of the twentieth century the Jews of southern Arabia used four different calendars. Whereas three of the calendars were common, the fourth was rarely used. All four dating systems are present in the inscriptions. The Seleucid calendar is related to the rule of the Seleucid dynasty and is called setarot in Hebrew, the Calendar of the Contracts or the Era of the Documents. The calendar begins with the first day of the month of tisre of the year 312 (or 311) BC. La-yes ıra is the Calendar Beginning with the Biblical Creation of the World.

The CE calendar was often used after the British occupation began. In two epitaphs the dates are stated in relation to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Among the Jews of southern Arabia, the Calendar Beginning with the Dates of the Destruction of the Temples was rarely used to give an indication of time.

In the calendars of la-setarot and la-yesıra the date is expressed by Hebrew letters. The numerical value of the letter is implied: 'alep = 1, bet = 2, yod = 10, qop = 100, taw = 400, taw + taw + res = 1000. In the Hebrew epitaphs from Aden the Hebrew letters are also used to indicate the day of the week or the day of the month. In some inscriptions the letters expressing the date are integrated into words which form the sentences of the text. In those cases these letters perform dual functions. The letters that are related to the date are marked above the words by a bold font, by a dot or by special symbols to differentiate them from the other letters. The CE date is expressed numerically.

To convert dates into the CE calendar it is necessary to subtract 312 years from the Contracts Calendar, and 3761 years from the Creation Calendar.

Discoveries of Hebrew epitaphs by travelers

Jacob Saphir was the first to copy Hebrew inscriptions in Aden's ancient cemeteries and to publish ten of them. Looking for physical evidence supporting the legends of the Jews' arrival in southern Arabia in biblical times, Saphir felt that he had made an important discovery. In his opinion the ages of the inscriptions which he had copied corresponded to the time referred to in the legends. The earlier dates among the inscriptions copied by Saphir fell between the first and the sixty-first year of the Contracts Calendar. Saphir believed that these dates related to the third century BC. He also documented other epitaphs from the end of the first millennium CE and from the beginning of the second millennium CE. He noted that there were inscriptions written in different styles, despite the fact that those inscriptions gave closed dates and the epitaphs were found side by side in the same area. Saphir discovered a group of epitaphs from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE, which belonged to one family clan of H alfon, Bundar and Madmu n. According to Ben-Zvi and Goitein, Madmun in Hebrew means S emarya.

Saphir's discoveries indicated that the cemetery was used by the community for many generations throughout the centuries and that individuals could own part of the cemetery for use by their families.

As a member of an Austrian scientific delegation, Heinrich David Muuller travelled to southern Arabia at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1889 Muuller brought to Vienna approximately 100 squeezes of Hebrew inscriptions. Among these was a group of inscriptions from Aden's Jewish cemeteries. Most of them date to the years between 20 and 54 in the Calendar of the Contracts. Izhak Ben-Zvi travelled to Aden in January, 1950. He visited the ancient cemeteries, the local state archaeological museum and a private museum, belonging to Mr. Kaiky Muncherjee, an Indian merchant residing in Aden. Ben-Zvi claimed that there were hundreds of sepulchral slabs in the ancient cemeteries. The deeper he entered into the ancient cemetery the earlier were the dates on the epitaphs. He mentioned that many people had epitaphs in their homes and added that it would be difficult to estimate how many slabs with Hebrew inscriptions there were in total. All the inscriptions he examined were dated in relation to the Seleucid Era. For the first time, photographs of four of them were published.

In 1951 Father A. Jamme rediscovered thirteen tombstones bearing Hebrew inscriptions in the courtyard of the Archaeological Museum of Aden.

Jamme heard from J. J. Gunn, then director of the museum, that the tombstones had been found one hundred years earlier in the Crater. Jamme made latex squeezes of the inscriptions and passed them on to Eli Subar for publication.

Problems estimating the ages of the Hebrew epitaphs

Saphir's publication of the first inscriptions provoked intense discussion among scholars. The contents of the inscriptions and their possible ages sparked controversy about their age and the subject of the first arrival of the Jews in southern Arabia. Saphir's opponents thought that he had misinterpreted the dates; they believed that the dates given in inscriptions must have been incomplete, as masons might have contracted the dates)called p''q (perat qatan))and engraved only the decade and the current year of the date.

According to Joseph Hale'vy, who visited Aden and Yemen in 1869-70, the earliest inscription was related to 1816 of the Contracts Calendar, which is 1504 CE. Hale'vy's opinion was not only based on the analysis of his records from Aden, but also on his examination of the four slabs at the British Museum. The dispute between Saphir and Hale'vy ended when it turned out they were each referring to different slabs from different cemeteries. Saphir had felt offended and hurt because he was accused of falsifying the inscriptions and dismissed the accusation by saying: 'Who would invent so many names, dates and other details to falsify hundreds of inscriptions, and from where would one get so many old stones for this?' Saphir's opponents also claimed that some expressions, forms of eulogy and abbreviations in the text of the epitaphs were modern and were not attested in Europe before the tenth and thirteenth centuries CE: examples such as (tav, mem, kap), tehı menuh atah or tehe menuh ato kabod (Isaiah 11:10 and 58:8), may her or his rest be in honour; and (res, yod, taw), ruah ha-Sem tanihennu (Isaiah 63, 14), may the Spirit of the Lord lead him. Saphir provided many examples of the use of such abbreviations in biblical times and in the Talmudic Era. Harkavy also mentioned that the expression TMK (tav, mem, kap) was in use in the Crimea in the first and the second centuries CE. On tombstones from the third century discovered at Beit Se'arim the expression (zayin, sade, lamed), zeker saddıq li-beraka (Proverbs 10:7), blessed be in memory the righteous, was used. Furthermore Saphir pointed out that the use of the name of the month instead of its number was a tradition among the ancient Babylonian Jewish Diaspora. He emphasized that in the inscriptions from the first century of the Seleucid Era, which his opponents considered to belong to a considerably later time, there were no rabbinical expressions, such as morenu, our teacher, rabbi or ge'onenu. Saphir was unexpectedly supported by Dr. Rabbi Eli'ezer Mordechei Halevi from London who examined the Hebrew epitaphs in the British Museum. Dr. Halevi wrote a letter to Yehi'el Brill, the editor of the newspaper ha-Libanon which was published with the title: 'Let us admit that Jacob (Saphir) is saying the truth'. His opinion was that the dates given on the epitaphs were not contracted and should be read as written and as interpreted by Saphir.

Professor Aviva Klein-Franke teaches at the Martin-Buber Institute for Jewish Studies at the University of Cologne, Germany. ([email protected])

This research was published in the Arabian Archeology and epigraphy journal, Blackwell Publishing ltd.