O come –
I am the rose upon the hillside,
that blushes in
the dawn’s unshaken dew;
an exquisite and rare rose of the hillside –
and I wait for you.
I am the flower of the mountain;
I open in
the morning’s heady air.
A flower lying silk-soft on the mountain –
I await you there.
Yes, come –
I am the lily of the valley.
Cool grasses are
my satin and my lace.
A delicate and subtly-fashioned lily –
behold my face.
Girl of the dream,
what beauty gleams
through portals of the night?
What do I see?
Who can this be,
thrust boldly on my sight?
I am that dark-skinned maiden
who journeys from afar,
from fabled Taprobané
and palm-fringed Malabar,
where the warm-kissed winds of green Malay
bring the sandal-scent from far away,
where Tamarind and Tamãla stand,
and silent Jumna parts the land
where Krishna loved me long ago.
I came by Ophir and Dilmun
with apes and peacocks, jewels, gold;
by Sheba with the camel’s bell,
amongst rich merchandise of old.
And I sang with the sea and the sand.
Your eyes are bright
as stars at night
beneath your long dark lashes.
Your flashing smile
of pearl beguiles.
No earthly gemstone matches.
Jet-black your hair
and braided there
fine threads of precious metal;
and in and out
and round about
there peeps the jasmine petal.
I am that brown-skinned dancing-girl
who sways beneath the moon
to lute and flute and tambourine
and the tamtam’s throbbing tune,
and my golden burnished bangles flash
and the shell-strings of my necklets clash,
and the white beads on my breasts beat time
to the silver bells of my anklets’ chime.
And I dance with the panther’s grace.
All up and down
that body brown
your trappings swing and part …
such limbs that flow
perturb me so…
oh, you shall have my heart!
Entwine me in those milk-warm limbs,
and you shall have my heart.
Because my bangles clash and shine
and my breast-beads chatter blithely,
and my teak-dark circled rosebuds show
as the beads dance gaily row by row,
and the sapphires at my forehead laugh
as my ear-rings gleam like the moon’s bright half
and the coin-strings jingle at my thighs,
I offer loving lightly?
You draw – you fire
a youth’s desire
to hold you and love you long.
Let my longing be healed,
and your girdle yield –
for the promise is in your song!
Oh, ingenuous youth,
you are far from the truth.
And you say that you give me your heart!
You are captured by charms,
by sweet moments in arms –
to discover, to love, and to part.
Could I sing of mere pleasure
when love is a treasure –
a gift that is golden and true?
I echo the song of my mothers,
dance the dance that our womenfolk knew.
I would untie my hair and my girdle too –
but for love that is faithful and long.
Slumber, fair youth. Search deep for love’s truth.
And remember the Shulamite’s song.
From ‘Mysteries: Poetic Reflections on Womankind and Love’
NOTE: Properly, the maid is ‘The Shulemite’ (i.e, ‘The Girl from Shulem’), but it is also spelled with an ‘a’ rather than an ‘e’, which I personally find appealing. The maid of the poem is the female protagonist in the Shir ha Shirim, (Sir Hasirim) the ‘Song of Solomon’ / ‘Song of Songs’ / ‘Canticle of Canticles’ which appears in the ‘Old Testament’. (It is alluded to elsewhere in ‘The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion’ in the poem ‘Canticle’ which appears in the August-October 2020 section).
Much has been written about the ‘Song of Songs’, and no doubt it is familiar to many. It has been viewed in many lights. In the Jewish canon, it is represented as God’s love for Israel; in the Christian canon, as the love between God and the Christian Church. Traditionally it has been ascribed to Israel’s King Solomon, and likely the principal reason for its inclusion in the Jewish canon. In more recent times, allegorical and theological interpretations have largely given way to a humanistic view.The immense authority of the two great religions has doubtlessly played a large part in the centuries-long persistence of an allegorical / theological interpretation; obviously, there would have been ‘consequences’ during many hundreds of years for those who might assert a carnal rather than a religiously devotional explanation for the song’s content.
It is a beautiful, mystical poem of male-female love and separation, rife with feeling. It is an expression of mutual adoration and fidelity. Yes, there is a good deal of sensuous imagery, and the physical aspects of love are expressed with frankness – but there is no suffusion of eroticism; in the whole poem there are only two places where descriptions we would today call ‘explicit’ occur (at V: 4,5, and 6 [seven lines]; and VII: 3 [two lines] ). I gave away my King James Version and my Standard Revised Version of the Bible some years ago to two people who had more immediate use for them than myself, so cannot make a comparison of the relevant sections as they appear in those easily accessible sources; I have, though, compared two scholarly line-by-line translations (the exhaustive 1977 study by Marvin Pope [which supports the human interpretation] and Irving Stone’s equally exhaustive translation of the Tanakh, the twenty-four books of the Jewish Bible [which favours the allegorical interpretation], and the sole Bible I now possess. For line-by-line translations, both are remarkably unlike! Even literal translations are subject to a little colour here and there, as all translators know.
There are parallels and precedents to the Shir ha Shirim in other literatures. Egyptian love-songs c.1300 BC describe feminine physical beauty in comparable terms; earlier than these, Sumerian and Babylonian accounts parallel it in this and other respects. Comparisons with early Syrian wedding songs are attested in Arabic poetry. Included in various forms in these sources are descriptions of love relationships, marriage rites, and funeral banquets. Indeed, from the earliest times in the Near East, the evidence is that religious practice involved amatory, libertine celebration. All precede, and form a pointed ancestry for the Shir ha Shirim – a substratum in the form of a widespread cultic precedent. The ‘Song’ presents, in human terms, all the appearance of an unabashed exultation of impassioned, sensual love, and in literary terms, an echo of the sacral marriage rites of the fertility regions of the ancient Near East. On quite another level, a much later work than the ‘Song’ is also often cited as a literary parallel; this is the Sanskrit Gita Govinda, the ‘Indian Song of Songs’.
Now I had both the ‘Songs of Songs’ and the ‘Gita Govinda’, in mind, along with related subject matter I had at various times come across, when I wrote this poem, but looking back, what surprised me was how the memory of certain parts of each of these works had vividly captured my imagination and remained planted in my mind. In the opening, for example, the ‘Song of Songs’ has:
I am the crocus of the plain.
the lotus of the valley
and the Shulamite Maid sings:
I am the rose upon the hillside … and
I am the lily of the valley
Inthe ‘GitaGovinda’ thereis:
I know where Krishna tarries in the early days of Spring,
When every wind from warm Malay brings fragrance on its wing
And the Shuamite Maid sings:
where the warm-kissed winds of green Malay
bring the sandal-scent from far away
Inevitable, I suppose, that such crossings should occur when the spirit and the flow of both poems had for long years been carried around in the mind. And the structure of my poem, too, can be equated with both the interstated male-female voices of the “Song of Songs’, and the changes in the metrical pace of the ‘Gita Govinda’.
In the third stanza are a good few words which might need explanation – Taprobané, Malabar, Jumna, Krishna, Ophir, Dilmun, Sheba… Some of which will, of course, be familiar; but I will go ahead and deal with them anyway, as it may be worthwhile. Taprobané, Malabar, Ophir, Dilmun, and Sheba go together (we can leave Jumna and Krishna out for the moment, but there will be lots to say about them further down).
Taprobané (or sometimes Taprobana) is an ancient name for Ceylon / Sri Lanka.
Malabar is a city on the west coast of India.
Ophir was an ancient city or region the location of which is uncertain and still disputed. Main contenders are India / Sri Lanka, or the Somalia region of East Africa (for which there is further clarification below).
Dilmun (pronounced ‘Dilmoon’ (but for some reason my keyboard refuses to place a macron directly above a ‘u’) is an ancient port city which has been firmly identified – it is probably the name of the whole country – with the island of Bahrein in the Persian Gulf.
Sheba (a name familiar to all, I trust, from the visit of its famous Queen to the court of the Biblical King Solomon, and subject to as much discussion as ‘his’ song) is an alternative for ‘Saba’, an ancient and influential state in southern Arabia’s Yemen. She is mentioned also in the Quran, and is named an Arabic Balkis / Bilqis in the Islamic world.
These places are named as they were important staging points on the great trade routes, the great spice routes of antiquity between Arabia and India (it was from India that the Shulamite Maid, in the poem, says she came).
The coastlines of the whole Arabian peninsula were in general respects favourable to the development of sailing. What is most notable, though, is that its long southern coast, from Yemen in the west to Oman in the east, was because of its distinctively moister climate and therefore relative fertility substantially different to the arid Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts and to the inland region which lay to its north – the immense, waterless Rub al Khali, ‘The Empty Quarter’ which comprises the southern third of the great Arabian Desert.The Romans described this difference nicely; there was the vast, inland Arabia Deserta, and there was the southern, coastal, Arabia Felix (‘Fortunate’ / ‘Happy’ / ‘Fertile’ Arabia). The latter sat happily astride access to both maritime and overland routes between east and west – and even more happily, it sat in a region which favoured the growth of a priceless natural product insatiably desired in the ancient world – the resins, gums, and spices from which incense was made. The demand for aromatics, to relieve the odours of that world or, supplementarily, to provide a festive sweetness, was in ceaseless demand; it was used daily in countless homes, at wedding celebrations, at religious ceremonies; for fumigating, for creating a pleasurable celebratory atmosphere, in the practice of embalming, in medicine. Incense was imported by the ton by all the kingdoms and empires of the ancient world. We have all heard of frankincense and myrrh.
Frankincense was in demand more than any of the others; frankincense was superlative among all incenses, and regarded as sacred. And it came almost exclusively from sheltered valleys in one small area of the Dhofar region of western Oman, where there grew a certain kind of tree. When the bark of this tree was sliced, its oozings were collected and hardened; that was frankincense.
With such natural wealth in demand and a geographical position which invited trade, it was inevitable that coastal southern Arabia would become an emporium. At some early, as yet undetermined stage, its tribal groups consolidated, in what is a normative process, into larger units which were to become states – a series of them which either warred, or allied, or amalgamated, and rose and fell over a period of thousands of years – Saba, Ma’in, Awsam, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Himyar… One of the most influential was Saba, in the west , best known to most by its other name of ‘Sheba’. Saba‘s sway extended across the very narrow strait of Bab el Mandeb into Ethiopia, with which historically there had always been much intercourse. From the third to the first millennium BC Egyptian records show a succession of trading expeditions sailing the length of the Red Sea to the land of Punt, the location of which is still debated, but which evidence to date places on the Somalia coast down through Eritrea and Ethiopia, with the across-the-strait Sabaean kingdom possibly figuring in the equation. It is evident, then, that Egypt retained a long, early commerce with the African regions associated with Saba, if not with peninsular Saba itself. But the earliest definite evidence we have of direct contact with Saba is found in the Bible’s first book of Kings and second Chronicles, which describes the Queen of Sheba’s famous visit to the court of Israel’s King Solomon, bringing with her as gifts spices, gold, and precious stones: ‘There has never again been such a large quantity of spices as that which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon’ (1 Kings 10:10). In close proximity to the queen’s visit is a description of the Phoenician King Hiram’s and Solomon’s joint expeditions to Ophir, and the rich cargoes they brought back to Solomon’s court. Equally, in the east too, from the third millennium BC, Sumerian and Akkadian records tell of maritime relations between Mesopotamia and Dilmun and Magan (Oman). By the beginning of the first millennium BC, then, the wealth and importance of the kingdoms of southern Arabia were well established.
It is notable that Sheba’s queen travelled on land, by camel caravan. The Red Sea passage was a perilous one for its extensive reefs, islands harboring pirates, and being flanked by hundreds of miles by waterless desert, and because of this a caravan route – that used by the queen – ran along the entire western shore of the peninsula to link up with the powerful countries to the north. It was one of the great arterial routes connected by oases where food and water could be obtained, and by cities where, apart from these provisions, tribute would be exacted for permission to travel onward (Petra, the famous ‘Rose-red City Old as Time’ in Nabataea, was one such place). Another great route ran from Saba eastward to the Dhofar region, where passage would usually continue by sea into the Persian Gulf. It was the control of these roads which was the cause of conflict between the various polities through which they passed. Whatever, these polities prospered greatly from what they were able to offer in trade to the great powers of Egypt in the west, and Mesopotamia in the east.
Before the geographical advantage of a position which fostered trade and the natural advantage of a moister climate which fostered its unique products could be utilized to the full, however, there were difficulties to be overcome. Seagoing ships could not be had for the region’s lack of timber to build them. This had to be procured via the contacts established with the aforementioned powerful kingdoms – and eventually with India. When a direct sailing route across the Indian Ocean was opened is unknown; an early northern, coastal route, part of the Dilmun-Oman trade link already mentioned, had extended to India; as part of Alexander’s expansion his admiral Nearchus had coasted Persia as far as the Indus and returned, and following this, commerce along this northern coastal route took place as far as the River Nerbudda in north-west India. When the south Arabian states had acquired ships strong enough, however, they were able to brave the strength of the monsoon winds which they knew blew east toward India in the summer months and west toward Africa in the winter. And this knowledge, upon which they built up a great monopoly of trade between east and west they kept as a closely guarded secret, adding all the rich cargoes brought back from the Orient to their incense trade with the western world; for a thousand years and more they prospered enormously. It was a secret which could not be kept, of course, try as they might to keep suppliers and consumers of this coveted market apart – in Saba’s case by attempting to restrict other shipping from passing through the narrow Bab el Mandeb strait. And indeed, from c.120 / 110 BC and thereafter are recorded regular voyages from Egypt to India under the direction of the Ptolemies, the Greek rulers of Egypt, and it is likely that about this time harnessing the monsoon wind for the outward, summer, journey was discovered by a Greek (Hippalus) allowing a straight course to be set from the mouth of the Red Sea to Malabar. Finally, during the first half of the first century of the Christian era we hear of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,(‘Navigational Aid to the Indian Ocean’) a detailed handbook of the coasts, ports, products, sailing conditions, etc., for both sides of the Indian Ocean compiled by a Greek of (now Roman) Egypt for the use of pilots and merchants who wished to trade there. The direct way to the luxuries of the Orient, then, was no longer a trade secret of the south Arabian states, and thereafter they fell into a centuries’ long decline.
Leaving the Shulamite’s literary origins and our sketch of the spice routes with which the poem connects her, we move on to ‘The Indian Song of Songs’ and the two terms in the third stanza so far not discussed – ‘Krishna’ and ‘Jumna’. ‘Krishna’ will be a familiar name, but perhaps not a great deal else about him will be familiar. He is the incarnation of Vishnu, one of the three principal deities in the Hindu pantheon, and a god in his own right, presiding over compassion and love. He is an important character in Sanskrit literature, and is shown there in diverse roles, with the advantage of being both human and divine. In the Gita Govinda ‘The Song of Govind’, a delightful pastoral idyll composed c.1150 AD by the poet Jayadeva and set along the banks of the Jumna – the great river which winds through the forests of northern India – an earthly Krishna makes his entrance obsessed with sensuous pleasures. He has a predilection for the gopis, female cowherds or milkmaids, and wastes all his affections upon them. (The tenth chapter of the Bhagavita Purana, upon which Jayadeva based his poem, is replete with the ultra-amorous antics of these gopis). But there is a counterbalance, for he finds a strangely favoured one among them in Rãdhã, and it is she, as the essence of moral beauty as well as physical loveliness, who liberates him from his distractions. The two are to experience an unhappy separation, but eventually find each other again to be united in spiritual happiness. Here, from the first Sarga (Canto) of the poem, is how Krishna was wont to while away the days:
Krishna, made for heavenly things,
‘Mid those woodland singers sings;
With those dancers dances featly,
Gives back soft embraces sweetly;
Smiles on that one, toys with this,
Glance for glance and kiss for kiss;
Meets the merry damsels fairly,
Plays the round of folly rarely,
Lapped with milk-warm spring-time weather,
He and those brown girls together.
And this is how, later, as the milkmaids line up one by one to embrace and kiss Krishna, Rãdhã influences him:
And all among those damsels free and bold
Touched Krishna with a soft mouth, kind and cold;
And like the others, leaning on his breast,
Unlike the others, left there Love’s unrest;
And like the others, joining in his song,
Unlike the others, made him silent long.
And thus she leaves him in the first inexplicable and mysterious shock of a love that is true.
Jayadeva’s versification is melodious – indeed, the poem was composed as a play to be put to music. There is much variety in its measure, and the variation of metre in the two translated stanzas above reflect this nicely. This metric variation I have also made use of in my poem, and in this respect it is more akin to the stride of the ‘Gita’ than to the Biblical ‘Song’. What I have done, perhaps a little unwittingly, for I cannot remember the distance in time between reading the ‘Gita’ and the ‘Song’ and my composition of the poem, is to strongly compare the fascinating grace of Rãdhã with that of the Shulamite, and to bring her from her vast luxuriant forests, by way of sea and sand and the camel’s bell, to a new and faraway home. There is no doubt that the two are kindred spirits. Both are alluringly lovely; both are chaste.
There have been some recent translations of the ‘Gita’ I understand. How truly poetic they may be I don’t know, as the tendency in the translation of such classical works has for some time been to simplify, and modernise, and to adopt free verse. The one I have used and quoted from is Edwin Arnold’s fine metrical translation of 1875. I have it in a lovely little 1880 1st American edition of his collected poems. Inside the cover is the bookseller’s slip which says ‘Original terra cotta cloth, gilt. Fine copy’. And a fine, tight copy it was when I received it, but alas! No more! When I took it down from the bookshelf to make the above quotes, after it had stood there for a couple of years without being used, I discovered that my great but tiny enemies, the book-devouring insects, had been at work upon the inside of the spine, part of which, along with a section of some dozen pages, have loosened from the rest. I hate that. Taiwan’s climate, with its high humidity and what goes with it, is not kind to books. Equally sadly, Edwin does not provide us with that revealing tenth Sarga; omitted, he apologises in his Preface, ‘in order to comply with the canons of Western propriety’.
Sadder still, the Jumna, or Jamuna as it is now known, is today one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Emerging crystal clear from a Himalayan glacier, its course has been ravaged by the results of upstream deforestation and downstream industrial and household pollution. Almost 60% of New Delhi’s municipal and household refuse is dumped into it daily.
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedar wood, and sweet white wine.
Who remembers these words, from John Masefield’s poem ‘Cargoes’? They’re still in my mind, and Masefield’s poem was standard reading when I attended Primary school. These days, they’re probably not so well-known. Masefield was a bit mixed up regarding history and geography – but there, it wasn’t his intention to be historically and geographically correct, but to give a rich poetic picture of trade with the Orient. (The quinquireme was one of the very largest of Greek warships, not a cargo vessel, and although the arms of the Tigris-Euphrates acted as a convenient extension of the Persian Gulf trade route, one would not have been found at Nineveh on the Tigris; then there’s sailing home to ‘Palestine’). But for a nine-year-old schoolboy, Masefield’s was a captivating, influential picture. The still important elements in his poem are Ophir, ivory, apes and peacocks, and sandalwood (we can leave out the cedar wood and the wine, both of which were plentiful in the eastern Mediterranean).
Masefield got the contents of his cargoes directly from the accounts in the Biblical book of Kings already mentioned, and this is worth a closer look, as the words ‘apes and peacocks’, the mention of ‘sandalwood’ and the location of ‘Ophir’ have all been the subject of some scholarly dispute.
Firstly, ’apes and peacocks’. The joint expeditions of the Phoenician King Hiram and Solomon have already been mentioned, and it is from these that we get apes and peacocks figuring in the cargoes. In 1 Kings 10:22 we are told ‘For the king had a Tarshish fleet [a ‘Tarshish ship’ was a large seafaring vessel of Phoenician design named for the Phoenician colony of Tarshish in the Western Mediterranean] in the sea with Hiram’s fleet; once in three years the Tarshish fleet would arrive, carrying gold, silver, ivory, and monkeys and peacocks’ (this is from the Tanakh; doubtless the King James and some other versions of the Bible would have ‘apes and peacocks’). In another version (I don’t recall which) I have seen ‘apes and baboons’, and this latter description probably follows what W. F. Allbright pointed out in the mid-1920s, that the terms for ‘apes and peacocks’ taken from Ophir are the same Egyptian words for two types of monkeys taken from ‘the Land of Punt’, and that the rendering ‘peacock’ derives from an inaccuracy based on the disputed location of Ophir. (Allbright, a capable scholar, was Chief Archaeologist in ‘Indiana’ Phillips’ celebrated expedition to South Arabia, and there will be more to follow on this in a future – hopefully the next – post). The mention of Ophir and Punt, too, bring us to the dispute over the location of Ophir. As stated near the beginning, the main contenders for Ophir are India, Sri Lanka, and the long Somali coast of East Africa. The very early Egyptian expeditions to Punt have been noted, and if Ophir is to be located in East Africa it is likely that Hiram’s interest in the same region was to circumvent an Egyptian monopoly. Further, Ophir has been equated with Punt – Ophir said to be the Hebrew name for Somalia and the neighboring coasts and Punt being the Egyptian name for the same region.
A complication in the Ophir-Somalia theory is presented in 1 Kings 10:11, where we read: ‘In addition, Hiram’s fleet, which had carried gold from Ophir, also brought a large amount of ‘almog-trees’ and precious stones from Ophir, and this brings us to the third point of discussion in Masefield’s Biblically-extracted description of the cargoes brought from Ophir – sandalwood. What were ‘almog-trees’? Almug or Algum wood is said by some authorities to be red sandalwood – ‘fine, close-grained, prized for its colour, fragrance, durability, and texture’ and native to the mountains of Malabar; and Malabar, as we know, is undisputedly in India. Irving Stone, in his monumental translation of the Tanakh, defines almog-wood as a ‘branching, tree-like coral’. So … what is what? Is almog/algum wood red sandalwood, or a type of spreading coral? And is Ophir on India’s Malabar coast, or on East Africa’s Somalia coast? Can anything be gleaned from the use Solomon made of the wood? 1 Kings 10:12 says: ‘The king made the almog-trees into a walkway for the Temple of Hashem’; and 2 Chronicles 9:11 that ‘The king made the almog-wood into pathways for the Temple of Hashem and the palace of the king, and into harps and lyres for the singers’. Not a great deal to go on. Sandalwood would make a good stairway; a tree-coral would make a decorative inlay for whatever wood was used. A possible clue on Ophir’s location might lie in the 1 Kings 10:22 statement that ‘once in three years the Tarshish fleet would arrive’. Some point out that the three years indicate the duration of the trip out to and return from Ophir, and that such a length of time must indicate that it lies in far-off India. On the other hand it could refer to the frequency of the voyages, and that they took place on a scheduled three-year interval; it might take a month or so to reach and do business down the coast of East Africa, and as long to make the return voyage, and to embark on the enterprise at three-year intervals would probably be sufficient.
‘Arabia’ is used above in very much a geographical sense in that it refers specifically to the great land mass of the Arabian Peninsula. ‘South Arabia’ with reference to its ancient kingdoms and polities does not imply an ‘Arab’ ethnicity, simply because that would be anachronistic and misleading. In the time-spectrum dealt with – from c.3000BCE to c.150CE – there was no well-defined, dominant Arabian ethnicity. The Peninsula housed a diverse conglomeration of peoples, languages, and religions, and if distinctions are to be made then a primary one would be between the sedentary and the nomadic. On the coasts of the Peninsula were the cities and oasis towns, which flourished on trade; in the vast, inhospitable interior were the nomadic tribes and clans, neither unified nor homogenous, which traded with them and which relied on the raising of livestock supplemented by raiding expeditions. It was these nomads who inhabited the north and centre of the Peninsula who would eventually form the nucleus of Arab ethnicity. The nomadic peoples had arrived from the north, where they still occupied the wilderness of the Syrian Desert which thrust, with undemarcated boundaries, between the great civilizations of that ancient world. To what extent their eastern and western more settled coastal neighbours were ethnically related has not been thoroughly determined. Research for the east suggests a very early population-flow from West Eurasian and South Asian sources. In the west, apart from the ancient and long-resident Thamudaei people of the Tihamah, the Red Sea coastal plain along which the Queen of Sheba travelled to visit Solomon and which later became the Hejaz, the pilgrim route through Mecca and Medina, there is scant information; but an ‘Arab’ affiliation for both eastern and western coastal regions over a long period of time appears to be generally accepted. On this Red Sea side, communication was with Egypt and the Levant; on the Persian Gulf side, with Persia and Mesopotamia; but between, two trade-routes emanating from Mecca (always an important staging post) crossed the vast expanse of desert to the Persian and Mesopotamian regions and must have served, by way of its interactions, toward an eventually coalescent ‘Arab’ identity. The South, though busily connected with the ancient civilizations, was by virtue of its outlying position, and its enterprises in other, wider directions, more self-contained. Certainly it was to be for long scarcely influenced by the Arabian heartland to the north.
Today, the terms ‘Arab’, ‘Arabic’, and ‘Arabian’ have a totally different meaning; we talk of ‘The Arab World’, and by this we mean at the centre Islamic Saudi Arabia and surrounding it over a great expanse east and west all the ‘Arab’ countries of the Middle East, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, and many more which could be added to the list. These, of course, are the legacy of the great Arab Islamic conquests which began in the early 7th century CE. – outside the scope of this account – which totally transformed those countries. But in our earlier time-frame, there is no possibility of describing the complex ethnic quilt of the Levant and the Middle East nor the populations of south-west Asia, nor the Nubians of the Sudan, nor the Cushite Somalis, nor the Berbers of North Africa, as Arabs. This great, forceful, missionary movement of conquest had from its inception several decades before also radically transformed its very hub, unifying, as it did, the diverse populations of the Peninsula itself.
The evidence is that the gene-flow for South Arabia came from East Africa. A combination of linguistic, artistic and archaeological evidence informs us that Neolithic settlement in both Yemen and Oman originated there; the ceramics found at the sites in both regions have a generic resemblance to contemporary wares in North-East Africa, and strongly indicate an early cultural network which spanned the Bab el Mandeb strait (a distance of less than twenty miles). It was during the localized Bronze Age, though, during the centuries on each side of 1000 BCE, after the Neolithic groups had gradually settled into larger communities, that the various states of the long southern coast properly emerged.. Agriculture appeared toward the end of the Neolithic, and during the Bronze, from c.800 BCE, written inscriptions (related to Canaanite) appeared in this South Arabian civilization. The states / polities / kingdoms, as has been said, rose and fell – Saba, Ma’in, Awsam, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Himyar. Saba was for a long time a foremost power, but became embroiled in difficult relations with an aspiring and ascendant Himyar, upheavals which lasted for several hundreds of years until Himyar emerged on top, uniting all of the south-west and controlling in addition much of the Red Sea coast from its base in the western mountains. Saba’s decline was accelerated, too, by the growing Nabataean control of the trade route to its north, and the robust Roman presence in the Red Sea following Rome’s conquest of Syria and Egypt. It was during the Himyaritic ascendancy that the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea made its appearance, a factor which has already been noted as an episode in the loosening of South Arabia’s hold on the great trade routes.
To bring the story to its conclusion, and stepping momentarily outside our time-frame, Himyar, which had converted to Judaism c.380CE, was with Byzantine aid (we are now at the stage of Justinian’s nicely-executed but fairly short-lived reconquista) successfully invaded by the Christian Axumite Kingdom in Ethiopia in the early 520s CE. Axum ruled Yemen until the mid-570s CE when it was ousted by a Sassanid (Persian) army (the eastern regions had been allied to the Sassanid Empire for some time). So at that date the whole of South Arabia became a dominion, and later (in 597) a Province, of Persia.This lasted until the late 620s or early 630s CE when this Persian government of South Arabia, or rather its remnant abandoned and isolated through the collapse of the mother country, was forced to cast in its lot with a formidable Islamic presence which had during the preceding years assumed control from the Meccan front. South Arabia now found itself at the threshold of the Greater Arab World: Yemen and Oman, the western and eastern portions of long-lived ‘Fortunate Arabia’ had become culturally and linguistically absorbed within it.
O come –