Yemen’s historySocotra, Azania and the axis of Yemenite colonialism(Part 3 in a series) [Archives:2004/788/Last Page]

November 8 2004

By Prof. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis
For the Yemen Times

Through the text we realize that Socotra belonged to the king of Hadhramawt (Frankincense-bearing Country) who had his capital at Saubatha (Shabwa), and his main harbour – port of call at Kane (Husn al Ghurab, nearby Bir Ali).
Even more explicit reference is made to the fact that Eleazos of the frankincense-bearing country kept a garrison on the island! The author establishes a parallel between the overseas possessions of Eleazos (i.e. Soqotra) and those of Kharibael, king of Sheba and Himyar (i.e. Azania, the Eastern African coast). What are the African colonies at Azania to Kharibael, is Soqotra to Eleazos.
This is the Yemenite concept of colonialism, and it implies 'overseas' possessions. It places Yemen at the side of the grand naval powers of world history, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Athenians.
Yemen, on the basis of this text, is not to (and actually cannot) be classified among the great continental empires, Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Macedonia or Rome. Maritime Colonial Yemen was a complex of two countries that could easily have annexed, the first (Sheba and Himyar), Arabia and, the second (Hadhramawt), Omana.
Acting in cooperation, as peace seems to have prevailed between them, Kharibael and Eleazos, could have controlled all the landmass of the Arabic peninsula, making common border with the Romans and the Persians! But this was not their predestination, this was not their inclination, this was not their nature.
To Kharibael the area of Rhapta (Dar es Salam at Tanzania) was closer than Yathrib (Madina) in Hedjaz! Of course, geographically speaking, this is wrong, but such was the sense, the feeling, and the naval predestination of them.
And Eleazos believed that his borders should necessarily encompass Soqotra (and even sent soldiers there), whereas he did not bother to control the strategic area of Omana near the Ormuz straits!
This reveals that the real inclination, the means and the source of success, and the subconscious depth of the Yemenite soul are to be found in the Sea. This has absolutely nothing to do with inland dwellers and coast inhabitants; and it is irrelevant of any sort of 'division' of Yemen to North and South.
On the contrary, it serves as a proof that there is a very deep, subconscious, National Yemenite psychic amalgamation encompassing all the people living between Najran and Oman, that turns them to the Yemenite Ocean.
It is impressive that these states were not ruled from coastal cities; both capitals, that of Kharibael and that of Eleazos, were located in several days trip distance, deep inside the Yemenite inland, but this does not change at all the common deployment of great interest for overseas activities, not land expansion.
What moves our fascination is the fact that Kharibael and Eleazos, as well as their predecessors, seem to have peacefully divided what was to be divided. Otherwise, we find difficult to believe why Soqotra was left to Eleazos, although it is closer to Kharibael's state!
Truly speaking, Soqotra is closer not to the mainland, the continental part of Sheba and Himyar (the island is closer to Bir Ali than to Aden!), but to the overseas territories, the colonial dominions of Kharibael that start precisely at the Horn of Africa area!
Perhaps Eleazos had to be more convincing, and that is why he kept some soldiers on the island! Certainly there are variations in the justification of the colonial presence. The Sabaeans and the Himyarites were present at Azania according to an old law, which implies inter-marital royal relations, or even an old Yemenite – African treaty.
We can even surmise that since the law was 'old', it may have been agreed upon by Azanian Africans and Qataban Yemenites, and then the rights may have been transferred to the Sabaeans and the Himyarites. But Hadhramawt had just 'purchased' the island.
Questions can be raised regarding the original Soqotra owner from whom Eleazos purchased the island! Was he a merchant and mariner, possibly named Dioskourides (as we already surmised), who had risen to power, or was the island part of the royal property of the King of Himyar and Sheba, and then the purchase was a matter of treaty between the two Yemenite countries? We ignore.
Most probably, it was a deal with the Sheba – Himyar state, and in this case we can suppose that the island trade did not matter much for Kharibael and/or his predecessors.
This looks very logical, if we take into consideration the riches of the entire Eastern African coast, Azania, that was a Sabaean – Himyarite colony already for long. It is also possible that the Sabaean / Hadhramawti deal happened after the Roman naval attack and destruction of Arabia Felix / Aden by Aelius Gallus; that would be a moment in which the king of Sheba and Himyar may have been in need of money for reparations and restructuring.
However, at this point we have to reject the idea of Roman rule over Soqotra that was recently advanced by rather amateurish writers. It is an aberration to establish a theory based on the temporary military presence at the Straits of the Red Sea that was due to the Roman attack against Arabia Felix, especially because the attack brought the financial result (lower customs) the Romans were targeting.
Furthermore, there is no documentation at all of any Roman garrison reaching the island. The only channel through which the Romans had learnt, and continued learning, about Dioskouridou island was the Alexandria environment and melting pot, the harbour and the Library. That is all that exists between Rome and Soqotra!
There is one more reason to believe the interstate affair concerning Soqotra; the text reference to the fact that the Soqotra products were transported on Mouza ships tells us that Hadhramawt, the 'Frankincense-bearing country', was not versed in naval exploits and maritime affairs as much as Himyar – Sheba may have been.
This is logical; the involvement in the trade and the navigation from Egypt to Tanzania, the great colony of Azania (certainly something like 3000 km coastal zone!), the discovery and use of the monsoons, the navigation to the Indian coast in the open sea, all these great moments for the History of the Mankind are the affair of Qataban, Sheba and Himyar.
Not Hadhramawt! The Frankincense-bearing country was just following the developments. Even at the moment we examine the overseas involvement of the two Yemenite states, although Eleazos had bought Soqotra, he accepted that local merchandise be transported on Mouza boats, at at times Indian boats from Limyrike and Barygaza! The simplest question that comes to our mind is:
– Well, he paid to buy the island, and he could not pay a little bit more to buy some ships?
But, of course, this approach would take us far from the real picture of that period; probably Eleazos did not need to buy some boats because he did not have the very experienced mariners who could man these boats, and the captains who would take the responsibility for the lives of the merchants and the mariners, for the boats, and for the merchandises.
If the author of the Periplus of the Red Sea had traveled to Soqotra today, he probably would not have seen many changes. Quite characteristically, the fauna and the flora did not change much; the cinnabar is still collected from the Dragon's Blood trees that remain the symbol of the island!
Perhaps the only difference is that there are no more crocodiles in the island, whereas cows have been introduced by the Portuguese! In addition, female slavery has been abolished, and the inhabitants do not need to purchase 'female slaves'!
Completing the review of the Periplus' references to the island of Soqotra, we are met with a strange phenomenon of colonial expansion, namely the different axes of the Sheba – Himyar and the Hadhramwt expansion.
As a plausible continuation to the Qatabani colonialism, Sabaean and Himyarite expansion was directed to the South-east of the metropolitan landmass; from Mouza and from Aden, the Yemenite sailors and merchants had to sail first to the East and then to the South. On the other hand, the Hadhramawti colonial expansion follows an opposite direction, from North-east (the land mass of the continental Hadhramawti state) to South-west (Soqotra)!
A quick consultation of the area's map leaves us with the question why the Yemenite expansionism took these directions. We know that the kingdom of Axumite Abyssinia ended at the area of the Straits of the Red Sea, and it is obvious that beyond the limits of Avalites (today's Assab at Eritrea) there was no central political authority in the entire area of the Northern Somalia, from Djibouti and Berbera – through Bossasso – until the 'Cape of the Perfumes' (the Horn of Africa), that the author of the Periplus calls 'the Other Berberia' (in juxtaposition to 'Berberia' itself that was the coastal land in the south of Egypt's last harbour Berenice, and in the north of Axumite Abyssinia's first harbour Adulis, which corresponds to the present day Sudanese coast around Ptolemais Theron – Suakin).
Then the question arises why Sheba and Himyar did not control the 'Other Berberia' as well, why they did not expand colonially over there, since the entire area was already closer to them, and in addition very rich in all sorts of merchandises. Quite unfortunately, at the present state of historical documentation we cannot find a convincing, plausible answer in this regard.