The Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (Yemen): Its Rise and Fall

By Adler, Joseph | Midstream, May-June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (Yemen): Its Rise and Fall


Adler, Joseph, Midstream


The mists of legend and folklore veil the time when Jews first set foot on the Arabian Peninsula. According to rabbinic sources, the first links to Arabia go back to the time of Joshua, when a contingent of Israelites were sent to battle the treacherous Amalekites and ended up settling in Yathrib (Medina). Subsequently, a group of King Saul's warriors, repudiated for their disobedience in sparing the young son of the Amalekite king, settled in northern Arabia in the vicinity of Yathrib. A more formal Israelite colony is said to have settled in the same region during the reign of King David. Similarly, the legendary encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon attests to the antiquity of the stories relating to Israelite-Arabian contacts. Indeed, the queen's visit to Jerusalem is supposed to have culminated in the conversion to Judaism of many of her Sabean subjects. In addition, it is believed that tinder King Solomon, seafaring Israelites who navigated the Red Sea on their way to the "land of gold" (Ophir) established trading stations along the coast, and in the more important towns of southern Arabia. In time, these trading stations became colonies.

During the prophet Jeremiah's time (6th century BCE), a large migration of Jews is said to have gone to southern Arabia, and tradition has it that when, years later; the Hebrew priest and scribe Ezra (5th century BCE) commanded the descendants to return to Jerusalem, they refused; whereupon, Ezra pronounced an everlasting ban upon them. As a result of this legend, which is devoid of historicity, no Jew of Yemen gives the name of Ezra to a child.

The destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (586 BCE) led many Judeans, it is believed, to seek safety in the Arabian Peninsula. The Jews of San'a in Yemen have a legend that their forefathers settled there 42 years before the destruction of the First Temple. A far more extensive migration of Jews to Arabia, and one that takes us out of the realm of legend and into history, followed the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) by the Roman legions of Titus.

After the Romans had laid waste to Jerusalem, a number of Jews managed to escape the city and fled in part to Egypt and northern Arabia. That Jews were present during this period in northern Arabia is proved by the existence of tombstones on ancient sites halfway between Medina and Eretz Israel. These grave markers date to years before and after the destruction of the Second Temple. From these fugitives from Roman persecution sprang three important tribes: the Banu Karnuka; the Banu Nadir; and the Banu Kuraisa. These tribes had their center in Yathrib. To the north of Yathrib was situated the oasis and district of Khaibar, which was inhabited by a large Jewish colony.

Legend has it that the Jews of Khaibar were descendants of the Biblical Rechabites, who, according to the command of their progenitor, the redoubtable Jonadab, abstained from drinking wine and, opposed to the materialism of city life, dwelt only in tents. Their asceticism was supposedly commended by the prophet Jeremiah. Barely a day's journey from Khaibar, many smaller Jewish communities stretched in a long line by the side of a fruitful wadi -- the so-called Valley of Villages. To protect themselves against marauding Bedouins, the Jews built a line of fortresses (castles) on sites overlooking their communities. Although the region they inhabited was not so culturally felicitous as the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, the Jews nevertheless flourished. Quite a flew led a nomadic life; others occupied themselves with agriculture (date-growing), cattle breeding, caravan commerce, arms traffic, and the crafts.

The Jews became especially numerous and powerful in the southern part of Arabia (notably in Yemen), a rich and fertile land of incense and spices and a way station on the routes to Africa, India, and the Orient. This was the Arabia Felix ("happy land") of the classical geographers, a region, its inhabitants boasted, "the very dust of which was gold, and whose men were the healthiest, and whose women gave birth without pain. …

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