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Introduction to South Arabian Civilization

A culture that was to prove long-lasting began to develop in South Arabia (today’s Yemen) in the early first millennium BC and it continued until the sixth Century AD. Classical authors adopted the evocative epithet of Arabia Felix when referring to the kingdoms of South Arabia. One of the reasons for this positive connotation was because it was the origin of rare and precious substances.

The area of South West Arabia has a high upland plateau that rises up steeply from the coast. It runs parallel to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean at an altitude of over 3000 metres in places. The Yemeni high plateau is furrowed by broad valleys (the wadis) towards the sea or inland towards the desert. Fertile oases could develop thanks to large stone dams built with a sophisticated technique, that oriented the floodwater coming with the abundant monsoon rains, and channelled it straight to the fields of the wadis bordering the desert.

In the early stages of their history, the main kingdoms, Saba, Main, Qataban and Hadramawt, were all located along the wadis bordering the desert. The situation of the kingdoms of South Arabia underwent considerable change in the first Century BC, when the kingdom of the Himyar arose with its capital Zafar. After a series of lengthy wars that lasted until the end of the third Century AD, Himyar overran the South Arabian peninsula ruling it until the mid sixth century AD. After the invasion by Abyssinia, the Persians took control of the country until 632 when the leading Yemenite tribes forged an alliance with the Islamic state shortly before the death of the prophet.

The written sources of South Arabia are made up of an extremely rich epigraphic corpus containing more than ten thousand inscriptions. South Arabian culture developed great skill in producing splendid texts carved in stone, engraved on city walls or on mountainsides and cast in bronze. The regular geometric monumental alphabetic writing became in itself an element of decoration. There was also a minuscule writing on sticks attested from the early first millennium BC for the recording of letters and private contracts.

References to religion are predominant in the inscriptions. The cult of a main god was at the base of the identity of the inhabitants of the kingdoms of South Arabia and complex pantheons with many divinities are attested in each kingdom. However, the lack of mythological sources prevents an overall reconstruction of the religious world. Paganism dominated until the mid-fourth Century AD when a Himyarite king and his son converted to a monotheistic religion, whose single deity is known by the generic title of “the lord of heaven” or “the lord of heaven and earth”.

Monumentality is the most striking feature of the south Arabian architecture. Cities were surrounded by impressive walls, houses and temples were built on high basements with courts, huge entrances, monolithic pillars and columns. The artistic style of south Arabia had its own, original codification from the beginning of its history, although some foreign influence was also felt. From the first century AD south Arabian art was influenced by imports from the Greek-Roman world.


south-arabian-alphabetSOUTH ARABIAN ALPHABET
It is usually written from right to left but can also be written from left to right (the characters are flipped horizontally). The spacing or separation between words is done with a vertical bar mark (|). Letters in words are not connected together. It does not implement any diacritical marks (dots, etc.), differing in this respect from the modern Arabic alphabet.