Arabia Felix: An Exploration of the Archaeological History of Yemen

Arabia Felix: An Exploration of the Archaeological History of Yemen

by Alessandro de Maigret

Stacey International, London 2002. Pp 384. Maps, Plans, Tables, Charts, B &W illus, Index. Hb. £22. 50. ISBN 1-900988-070.

Travellers in the Yemen who have managed to reach Baraqish will know of Professor de Maigret as the archaeologist who, starting in 1992, excavated the Minaean temple just inside the entrance gate of that splendid ruined city. The more initiated will also know of him as the Director of the Italian Archaeological Mission which, from 1983 onwards, made a series of important discoveries concerning the Yemen’s prehistory and protohistory and the origins of the Early South Arabian culture — the civilisation of the Sabaeans, Minaeans, Qatabanians, and the rest. Any work by a scholar with such a record of achievement demands our attention.

This book, an English translation by Rebecca Thompson of the Italian edition first published in 1996, describes these investigations clearly and precisely. Skilfully choosing the right places from which to start their search, the Mission found traces of the palaeolithic period both on the Yemen plateau south-west of Marib and in western stretches of the Ramlat Sabatayn, together with neolithic sites on the plateau and on the Red Sea Tihama. In the basin of the Wadi Dhana, which feeds the plains of Marib, the team then located a pre-Sabaean Bronze Age site from the 2nd/3rd millennium BC, a period previously unknown to Yemen archaeology. By 1985 it was focussing its attention on Yala, a very early Sabaean settlement southwest of Marib which had been abandoned in the 6th/7th century BC and had never been re-occupied. Carefully calibrated radio carbon tests from here have produced dates from the lowest levels of between 1395 and 795 BC, a finding which not only conformed with the American dating at Hajar bin Humayd, in Bayhan but also firmly disposed of any remaining arguments for Dr Pirenne’s ‘short’ chronology for the origin of South Arabian writing, which she believed derived from classical Greece. A Sabaean boustrophedon inscription found at Yala (illustrated on page 182) and attributed to the 7th century BC is written in a remarkably elegant and mature style for its date. De Maigret sees the Early South Arabian culture as stretching back to the 14th century BC or even earlier, but with a gap between then and the recognisably very different culture of the Bronze Age which preceded it; the inference is that the South Arabians may perhaps have originally been nomads from the north who intruded on the Bronze Age inhabitants.

The importance of the findings of de Maigret and his team to those studying the Yemen’s early history goes without saying, but the book encompasses a much wider field, as its sub-title reveals. Most of the first hundred pages summarise the story of the archaeological and epigraphical explorations in the country up to the American expedition under Wendell Phillips (who visited Bayhan on his first reconnaissance in 1949, not 1947 as stated). These are described in some detail and sources are quoted meticulously, making this part a valuable point of reference. A major section on ‘The Kingdoms of Arabia Felix’ then discusses the early historical period and contains useful elucidations of issues which had for long proved perplexing — the difference between kings and mukarribs, the arguments about ‘long’, ‘middle’ and ‘short’ chronologies, and the significance of ‘dhu-Raydan’ in the royal titles, for example. Chapters on ‘Religion’, ‘The City’, ‘The Temples’ (which includes a description of de Maigret’s excavations in Baraqish) and ‘The Tombs’ lead to an interesting review of the figurative arts, although here he is a purist with little time for the local art of the later period, which reflected the fashions of ancient Greece and Rome and which he regards in consequence as decadent. Each chapter is fully supported with footnotes detailing sources, but the book has no bibliography.

It will be apparent that Arabia Felix is not a comprehensive guide to the Yemen’s archaeological sites such as, in respect of South Yemen, was Brian Doe’s Southern Arabia when published in 1971. Both books were written in the days before Yemeni unification, and just as Doe could not enter North Yemen (although his Monuments of South Arabia (1983) did reproduce some published information about some of the major North Yemeni sites) neither could de Maigret in his time enter the South. ‘Crossing [the northern reaches of] Wadi Harib’, de Maigret writes, ‘I couldn’t help thinking that only a few kilometres to the south in the inaccessible (for us) PDR Y lay the heart of Qataban, the glorious capital of Timna’. I could empathise with that sense of frustration utterly, having on many occasions in much earlier years, with free access to Timna, stood in the southern parts of Wadi Harib and thought how tantalisingly close but equally inaccessible lay the heart of Saba, the glorious but still mysterious capital of Marib!

Accordingly, de Maigret sticks to the places he knows personally, which are all in the former North Yemen. He acknowledges the contemporaneous work of other archaeologists but, although drawing on their discoveries to reach his conclusions, he does not describe it in any detail. Unfortunately this approach leads to a sense of imbalance in the book as a whole; for instance, in the first section, two pages on what Philby saw at Shabwa during his short visit there in 1936 whet the appetite, but there is almost nothing at all in the later pages about what the French discovered there during several seasons of excavation starting in 1976. Nor for that matter are there more than brief references, if any, to the American excavations in Wadi Jubah, Russian work in Hadramawt and Qana, German investigations in Marib, or the various British, German and Canadian operations in the western and southern Tihamas. Markha, the homeland of the ancient kingdom of Awsan, is mentioned only obliquely, although the French had examined its considerable archaeological traces long before de Maigret reached the Yemen. Some of these omissions arise from the fact that Arabia Felix was first published in 1996. A very short Publisher’s Note has been added to cover the missing period, but some of de Maigret’s comments on the chronology demonstrate that they were written before much of Robin’s work was concluded and before Kitchen’s king-lists had seen the light of day. His book nevertheless provides an authoritative and scholarly overview of the South Arabian civilisation as a whole.

The book has been nicely produced and is lavishly illustrated with maps, drawings, plans, tables and photographs, although the referencing of the photographs by plate numbers without stating on what pages they appear is irritating, as one often has to trawl extensively to find a picture mentioned in the text. There are a few editorial failures too, most noticeably the loss of the plan of Qarnaw, which should be on page 77 but has somehow been replaced there by a stratigraphic drawing of Yala already reproduced two pages earlier. But this is still a very readable and informative book, which fills a long-standing gap for both students and travellers, and everyone with any interest in South Arabia’s ancient past will certainly want a copy of it on his or her bookshelves.

Oh yes! What about the Queen of Sheba? Professor de Maigret offers an ingenious new solution, but I will not queer his pitch by relating it here.

Nigel Groom

Author: 
Alessandro de Maigret