Himyarite Kingdom

Himyarite Kingdom

110 BCE–525 CE
Sana'a (from the beginning of the 4th century)[1]
Common languagesḤimyarite
Judaism after 390 CE
• 275–300 CE
Shammar Yahri'sh
• 390–420 CE
Abu Karib As'ad
• 510s–525 CE
Yusuf Ash'ar Dhu Nuwas
Historical eraAntiquity
• Established
110 BCE
• Disestablished
525 CE
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Aksum

The Ḥimyarite Kingdom (Arabic: مملكة حِمْيَر‎, Mamlakat Ḥimyar, Himyaritic: 𐩢𐩣𐩺𐩧𐩣, Hebrew: ממלכת חִמְיָר) (fl. 110 BCE–520s CE), historically referred to as the Homerite Kingdom by the Greeks and the Romans, was a kingdom in ancient Yemen. Established in 110 BCE, it took as its capital the ancient city of Zafar, to be followed at the beginning of the 4th century by what is the modern-day city of Sana'a.[1] The kingdom conquered neighbouring Saba' in c. 25 BCE (for the first time), Qataban in c. 200 CE, and Haḍramaut c. 300 CE. Its political fortunes relative to Saba' changed frequently until it finally conquered the Sabaean Kingdom around 280.[2] Himyar then endured until it finally fell to invaders from the Kingdom of Aksum in 525 CE.[3]


The Ḥimyarite Kingdom maintained nominal control in Arabia until 525. Its economy was based on agriculture, and foreign trade centered on the export of frankincense and myrrh. For many years, the kingdom was also the major intermediary linking East Africa and the Mediterranean world. This trade largely consisted of exporting ivory from Africa to be sold in the Roman Empire. Ships from Ḥimyar regularly travelled the East African coast, and the state also exerted a large amount of Influence both cultural, religious and political over the trading cities of East Africa whilst the cities of East Africa remained independent. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea describes the trading empire of Himyar and its ruler "Charibael" (probably Karab'il Watar Yuhan'em II), who is said to have been on friendly terms with Rome:

23. And after nine days more there is Saphar, the metropolis, in which lives Charibael, lawful king of two tribes, the Homerites and those living next to them, called the Sabaites; through continual embassies and gifts, he is a friend of the Emperors.

Early period (115 BC until 300 AD)

The "Homerite Kingdom" is described in the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula in the 1st century Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

During this period, the Kingdom of Ḥimyar conquered the kingdoms of Saba' and Qataban and took Raydan/Zafar for its capital instead of Ma'rib; therefore, they have been called Dhu Raydan (Ar: ذو ريدان). In the early 2nd century AD Saba' and Qataban split from the Kingdom of Ḥimyar; yet in a few decades Qataban was conquered by Hadhramaut (conquered in its turn by Ḥimyar in the 4th century), whereas Saba' was finally conquered by Ḥimyar in the late 3rd century.[5]

Ẓafār's ruins cover scattered over 120 hectare on Mudawwar Mountain 10 km north-north-west of the town of Yarim.[6] Early, Empire and Late/Post art periods have been identified.[7]

Ẓafār was first agriculturally self-sufficient. The 6th century reveals a drastic loss of towns and population. Until the early 3rd century, trade flourished. Later it failed perhaps because of the Nabataean domain over the north of Ḥijāz and because of intertribal warfare. Families of Qaḥṭān were disunited and scattered over Arabia, particularly to the east.

Bronze statue of Dhamarʿalīy Yuhbabirr "King of Saba, Dhu Raydan, Hadhramawt and Yamnat" (Himyarite Kingdom) 170-180 AD.

Jewish monarchy

The Himyarite kings appear to have abandoned polytheism and converted to Judaism around the year 380, several decades after the conversion of the Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum to Christianity (328). No changes occurred in the people's script, calendar, or language (unlike at Aksum after its conversion).[8] This date marks the end of an era in which numerous inscriptions record the names and deeds of kings, and dedicate buildings to local (e.g. Wagal and Simyada) and major (e.g. Almaqah) gods. From the 380s, temples were abandoned and dedications to the old gods ceased, replaced by references to Rahmanan, "the Lord of Heaven" or "Lord of Heaven and Earth".[9] The political context for this conversion may have been Arabia's interest in maintaining neutrality and good trade relations with the competing empires of Byzantium, which first adopted Christianity under Constantine the Great and the Sasanian Empire, which alternated between Zurvanism and Manichaeism.[10]

One of the first Jewish kings, Tub'a Abu Kariba As'ad (r. 390–420), is believed to have converted following a military expedition into northern Arabia in an effort to eliminate Byzantine influence. The Byzantine emperors had long eyed the Arabian Peninsula and sought to control the lucrative spice trade and route to India. The Byzantines hoped to establish a protectorate by converting the inhabitants to Christianity. Some progress had been made in northern Arabia but they had little success in Ḥimyar.[10]

Abu-Kariba's forces reached Yathrib and, meeting no resistance, they passed through the city, leaving the king's son behind as governor. Abu-Kariba soon received news that the people of Yathrib had killed his son. He turned back in order to wreak vengeance on the city. After cutting down the palm trees from which the inhabitants derived their main income, he laid siege to the city. The Jews of Yathrib fought side by side with their pagan neighbors.

During the siege Abu-Kariba fell severely ill. Two Jewish scholars in Yathrib, Ka'ab and Asad by name, called on the king in his camp and used their knowledge of medicine to restore him to health. While attending the king, they pleaded with him to lift the siege and make peace. The sages' appeal is said to have persuaded Abu-Kariba; he called off his attack and also embraced Judaism along with his entire army. At his insistence, the two Jewish scholars accompanied the Ḥimyarite king back to his capital, where he demanded that all his people convert to Judaism. Initially, there was great resistance. After an ordeal had justified the king's demand and confirmed the truth of the Jewish faith, many Himyarites supported Judaism. Some historians argue that the people were not motivated by politics, but that Judaism, by its philosophical, simplistic, and austere nature, was attractive to the nature of the Semitic people.[11]

Abu-Kariba continued to engage in military campaigns and met his death under unclear circumstances. Some scholars believe that his own soldiers killed him. He left three sons, Ḥasan, 'Amru, and Zorah, all of whom were minors at the time. After Abu-Kariba's demise, a pagan named Dhū-Shanatir seized the throne.[10] In the reign of Subahbi'il Yakkaf, Azqir, the son of Abu Karib Assad and serving as a Christian missionary from Najrān, was put to death after he had erected a chapel with a cross. Christian sources interpret the event as a martyrdom at Jewish hands: the site for his execution, Najrān, was said to have been chosen on the advice of a rabbi,[12] but indigenous sources do not mention persecutions on the grounds of faith. His death may have been intended to deter the extension of Byzantine influence.[13]

The first Aksumite invasion took place sometime in the 5th century and was triggered by the persecution of Christians. Two Christian sources, including the Zuqnin Chronicle once attributed to Dionysius I Telmaharoyo, which was written more than three centuries later, say that the Himyarite king prompted the killings by stating, "This is because in the countries of the Romans the Christians wickedly harass the Jews who live in their countries and kill many of them. Therefore I am putting these men to death."[14] In retaliation the Aksumites invaded the land and thereafter established a bishopric and built Christian churches in Zafar.

The Jewish monarchy in Ḥimyar ended with the reign of Yṳsuf, known as Dhū Nuwās, who in 523 attacked the Christian population of Najrān. [15] By the year 500, on the eve of the regency of Marthad'īlān Yanūf (c. 500-515) the kingdom of Himyar exercised control over much of the Arabian peninsula.[16] It was during his reign that the Himyarite kingdom began to become a tributary state of Aksum, the process concluding by the time of the reign of Ma'dīkarib Yafur (519–522), a Christian appointed by the Aksumites.

A coup d'état ensued, with Dhu Nuwas, who had attempted to overthrow the dynasty several years earlier, assuming authority after killing the Aksumite garrison in Zafār. He proceeded to engage the Ethiopian guards, and their Christian allies in the Tihāma coastal lowlands facing Abyssinia. After taking the port of Mukhawān, where he burnt down the local church, he advanced south as far as the fortress of Maddabān overlooking the Bab-el-Mandeb, where he expected Kaleb Ella Aṣbeḥa to land his fleet.[9] The campaign eventually killed between 11,500 and 14,000, and took a similar number of prisoners.[16] Mukhawān became his base, while he dispatched one of his generals, a Jewish prince named Sharaḥ'īl Yaqbul dhu Yaz'an, against Najrān, a predominantly Christian oasis, with a good number of Jews, who had supported with troops his earlier rebellion, but refused to recognize his authority after the massacre of the Aksumite garrison. The general blocked the caravan route connecting Najrān with Eastern Arabia.[9]

Religious culture

During this period, references to pagan gods disappeared from royal inscriptions and texts on public buildings, and were replaced by references to a single deity. Inscriptions in the Sabean language, and sometimes Hebrew, called this deity Rahman (the Merciful), “Lord of the Heavens and Earth,” the “God of Israel” and “Lord of the Jews.” Prayers invoking Rahman's blessings on the “people of Israel” often ended with the Hebrew words shalom and amen. [17]

There is evidence that the solar goddess Shams was especially favoured in Himyar, being the national goddess and possibly an ancestral deity.[18][19][20][21]