The Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (Yemen): Its Rise and Fall.
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." Unlike their brethren in the Hejaz, the Jews of Arabia Felix lived without racial or political cohesion, scattered among the Arabs. Many families wandered about as nomads or were engaged in growing spices. Others had settled as merchants in the ports of the area, at the time centers of world trade, from which goods from India and Persia were trans-shipped to Egypt and Byzantium.
The Jews of southern Arabia differed from the native tribes in one respect only -- their religion. They clung unswervingly to it, observing the dietary laws, honoring the Sabbath, and celebrating the holidays of their people. They communicated with the Jews of Palestine and, even after the end of the Patriarchate in 429 CE, willingly subordinated themselves to the sages in Tiberias, whence they received, as well as from the Babylonian academies, religious instruction ind interpretations of the Bible.
Although living among a pagan population, the Jews of Yemen enjoyed great prestige among their Arab neighbors. A somewhat similar situation existed in the Hejaz where Arab tales have preserved the memory of many Jewish heroes and poets. The common Arab phrase, "Faithful as Samuel," for example, is a reference to a Jew, Samuel ibn Adiya, who won proverbial renown for his honesty, high principles, and courage. Some of the principal tribes of the Arabian Peninsula proudly traced to statements in the Bible their origins and kinship to the Jews. The northern tribes of the Hejaz regarded Ishmael, son of Abraham and half-brother to Isaac, as their ancestor; the southern tribes of the peninsula considered themselves the descendants of Joktan, younger son of Eber, and a great grandson of Shem. (Gen. 10:26-29, and Chron. 1:19,20) Living in such congenial surroundings, the Jews enjoyed complete freedom, and, being subjected to no restraints, were thus able to defend their religious opinions without fear and to communicate them with impunity to their pagan neighbors. Under these circumstances, it was scarcely surprising that many sheikhs developed an interest in Judaism and became converts. When a sheikh became a Jew, his whole clan usually followed him.
Especially remarkable in the history of Arab-Jewish relations is the story of the conversion to Judaism of several kings of Himyar. The Himyarites, a powerful tribe, gradually expanded their territory by defeating the inhabitants of neighboring entities (Sabea, Raidan, Hadramut, and Yamnat) to form a viable independent kingdom approximating in its boundaries to present-day Yemen. At the height of its power, the Himyarite kingdom dominated the entire Arabian Peninsula.
About the year 500 CE, the King of Himyar, Abu-Kariba Assad, undertook a military expedition into northern Arabia in an effort to eliminate Byzantine influence. The Byzantine emperors had long eyed the Arabian Peninsula as a region in which to extend their influence, thereby to control the lucrative spice trade and the route to India. Without actually staging a conquest of the region, the Byzantines hoped to establish a protectorate over the pagan Arabs by converting them to Christianity. The cross would then bear commercial advantages as it did in Ethiopia. The Byzantines had made some progress in northern Arabia but had met with little success in Himyar.
Abu-Kariba's forces reached Yathrib and, meeting no resistance and not expecting any treachery from the inhabitants, they passed through the city, leaving a son of the king behind as governor. Scarcely had Abu-Kariba proceeded farther, when he received news that the people of Yathrib had killed his son. Smitten with grief; he turned back in order to wreak bloody vengeance on the perfidious city. After cutting down the palm trees from which the inhabitants derived their main income, Abu-Kariba laid siege to the city. The Jews of Yathrib fought side by side with Arab friends and fellow inhabitants to defend their town and harried the besiegers with sudden sallies. The siege was about to drag on when Abu-Kariba suddenly fell severely ill. Two Jewish scholars in Yathrib, Kaab and Assad by name, hearing of their enemy's misfortune, 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 persuaded Abu-Kariba; he called off his attack and also embraced Judaism along with his entire army. At his insistence, the two Jewish savants accompanied the Himyarite king back to his capital and there converted many of his subjects. The conversions, however, were not total, and there remained as many pagans as Jews in the land.
Abu-Kariba's reign did not last long after his conversion to Judaism. His warlike nature prevented him from maintaining peace and prompted him to engage in bold enterprises. It is uncertain how Abu-Kariba met his death, although some scholars believe that his own soldiers, worn out by constant campaigning, killed him. He left three sons, Hasan, Amru, and Zorah, all of whom were minors at the time.
After Abu-Kariba's demise, a pagan usurper named Dhu-Shenstir seized the throne. He was a depraved creature who lured young men into his palace, abused them, and, according to Sir Richard Burton's The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, had them thrown out of a high tower window. Dhu-Shenstir's successor, (and according to some versions) the slayer of the tyrant, was Yussuf 'As Ar Yath'ar Dhu-Nuwas (517?-525 CE).
There is considerable disagreement among scholars as to Dhu-Nuwas's relationship to Abu-Kariba. The eminent 19th-century historian, Heinrich Graetz, believed that he was Zorah, the youngest son of Abu-Kariba. However, the majority of scholars today are convinced that Dhu-Nuwas was either the grandson, or a close relative of Abu-Kariba. It is also believed that he was formally converted to .Judaism by rabbinical emissaries from Tiberias before he acceded to the throne. He is known in Arabic literature by the descriptive nickname Dhu-Nuwas (Lord Sidelocks) be-cause of the long curly locks he wore in accordance with Biblical law, which forbids removal of hair from the corners of the head. The Yemenites who arrived in the modern state of Israel were still wearing their hair ("peot," or "sideburns") in this style. Following his conversion to Judaism, Dhu-Nuwas assumed an additional Hebrew name -- Yussuf (Joseph), but Christian sources, notably the Syrian Boor of the Himyarites and The History of the Nestorians, give his name as Masrug.
It seems the conversion of Dhu-Nuwas did not go uncontested. Hints of this resistance can be found in a fantastic story related by the ninth-century Muslim historian al-Tabari. He writes that when the Himyarite king returned to his capital after becoming a Jew, some of the townspeople shut the gates, would not let him in, and prepared to rebel against him for having abandoned the faith of his ancestors. However; Dhu-Nuwas was able to prove to them that the religion of the Jews was the true faith.
It appears that in the capital, there was a cave in which a person who did not speak the truth would die immediately upon entering. His body would burst into flames and be totally consumed. According to al-Tabari, idols and their priests, as well as Jewish sages with scrolls of the Torah were then brought into the cave; the fire destroyed the idols and the priests, but did not touch the Jews at all.
With its elements of magic removed, al-Tabari's tale touched on a real incident. In 517, the enthronement of a Jewish king led Christians to seize a major town of the Himyarite kingdom. After mustering an army, Dhu-Nuwas inflicted a costly defeat on the rebels, taking many prisoners, and destroying their church.
As a zealous advocate of Judaism, Dhu-Nuwas carried out some rash acts that eventually involved him in difficulties and brought misfortune to him, his kingdom, and the Jews of Himyar.
Thus, on learning of the sad plight of Jewish communities in the Byzantine Empire, he resolved to force the Christian emperor to stop persecuting his Jewish subjects and to treat them justly. To accomplish this objective, Dhu-Nuwas ordered several Christian merchants who had come to his capital on business to be seized and executed. News of this high-handed deed soon reached Byzantium. A challenge of this sort could not go unpunished, but the Byzantine emperor, Justin I, was embroiled in a war with the Persians and a Samaritan revolt in Palestine. He decided, therefore, to write to the Christian king of Ethiopia, who was a good deal closer to Himyar, to act as Christendom's avenger. The Ethiopian king was more than anxious to oblige the emperor's request.
In 518, when Ethiopian troops landed in Himyar, Dhu-Nuwas's forces soundly defeated the invaders. Flushed with success, he now saw himself as the champion of Arabian Jewry. It has been suggested by some scholars that Dhu-Nuwas's ultimate objective was the creation of a Jewish empire stretching from Eretz Israel to Himyar.
Indeed, these historians connect the Himyar king's ambitions with the immigration of Mar Zutra III from Babylonia to Tiberias (his father, the Exilarch of the Babylonian Jewish community, had been executed after rebelling against the Persian authorities). Mar Zutra III's appointment as head of the Tiberias Academy put him in the seat of authority for Jews of other countries. His appointment -- these same scholars believe -- was closely related to the activity of the Jewish sages in Himyar, and their conversion of Dhu-Nuwas. They also feel it might point to a political alliance devised by Mar Zutra, and the Jewish population of Palestine, in conjunction with the kingdom of Himyar, with its numerous Jews and proselytes led by a Jewish king, to restore a Jewish state in Eretz Israel.
However, Dhu-Nuwas soon recovered from this humiliating defeat and rebuilt his forces. In the meantime, a revolt in the northern Himyarite center of Najran (c. 523), which was inhabited chiefly by Christians, led to many Jewish casualties. The town's governor, a Christian named Harith (Aretas) ibn-Kaleb, although a feudatory of Dhu-Nuwas, resented his status as a vassal to the Jewish king (he may also have not performed his feudal duties in the war against Aidug). In any case, the governor's feelings were paralleled by the town's Christian population, which also refused to obey the king's orders.
When the Najran rebels spurned Dhu-Nuwas's peace terms, he besieged the town and reduced its inhabitants to such straits as they were forced to capitulate. Harith and several hundred of the rebels were executed. A heavy tribute was also levied on the remaining Christians in the kingdom in reprisal for the persecution of Jews in Christian countries.
The news of the suppression of the Christians of Najran spread like wildfire and became more exaggerated with each telling. The number of victims was inflated in Christian sources and influenced Arabic accounts. The first number for those executed was 200; then 400; 1,706; 4,252; 10,200; 12,100; 20,000; and finally, 70,000. In another version even more horrendous -- and completely unsubstantiated in fact -- was a story that Dhu-Nuwas had offered peace terms to the defeated rebels and then invited them to a great banquet to celebrate the occasion. The Christian guests had just settled in to feast when the ground gave way, and they collapsed into a huge trench, which had been dug beforehand and filled with soaked flammables by the king's men. Torches were then thrown into the trench, and the victims perished in smoke and flames.
Incredibly, echoes of these supposed atrocities at Najran found their way into the literature of Eastern Christianity; some scholars believe that there is even an allusion to a "burning" of Christians in the Koran. (Sura 85:4-5)The distinguished historian Salo W. Baron has pointed out that these atrocity stories should not be taken literally, and that in reality they served as an excuse for Christian intervention in Himyar. Preparations for such an enterprise had been observed in the Ethiopian capital at the beginning of the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (the son and successor of Justin I). The horror tales may also have helped to cover up treaty-breaking by the Ethiopians, still smarting from their earlier defeat, as well as to serve the Christians on a par with other martyrologies. Baron also notes that much of the martyrology of the Eastern churches dealing with the Najran affair are written in a traditional and almost stereotypic vein, as when a 9-year-old Christian girl is reputed to have spat in Dhu-Nuwas's face, exclaiming, "May thy mouth be closed, Jew -- killer of the Lord."
A Christian campaign against the Jewish king was initially instigated by a Syrian bishop named Simeon. He traveled through northern Arabia trying to stir up the pagan tribes against Dhu-Nuwas. The pagan tribesmen wanted no part of a campaign against the Himyarites. Simeon then turned to the Byzantines to wage war against Dhu-Nuwas, and urged the emperor to imprison the teachers of Judaism in Tiberias and compel them to appeal to Dhu-Nuwas to stop his persecution of Christians. The Byzantine emperor, although anxious to eliminate the Jewish king, was still engaged in a conflict with Persia and preferred that his Ethiopian ally undertake the task. The Ethiopian Negus (ruler), Kaled Ella Asbaha, required little persuasion to go to war, for the Jewish kingdom had long been a thorn in his side. Asbaha, however, was shrewd as well as being a fanatic Christian. He was aware that the importance of the Arabian Peninsula had increased along with Byzantine-Persian tensions. During periods of peace, the Byzantines tended to use caravan routes through Persia to trade with India. With embittered relations between the powers, the Byzantines sought trade routes that bypassed Persia. The only viable alternative was the sea route contested by the two Red Sea rivals, Ethiopia and Himyar. Asbaha hoped to monopolize this trade route by wresting the strategic Straits of Bab-al-Mandeb from Himyarite control.
While his enemies were preparing to invade his territory, Dhu-Nuwas did not remain idle. He endeavored unsuccessfully to secure allies from among the pagan Arab tribes, and from the Sassanid king of Persia. By the year 525 CE, the Ethiopians and the Byzantines were ready to strike. The Negus of Ethiopia had put together and equipped a powerful army, and the Byzantine emperor had provided his ally with the necessary fleet to transport the troops to Himyar. Dhu-Nuwas took measures to prevent the landing of the Ethiopian army by barring the most likely invasion points with chains. His efforts, however, proved fruitless, and the Ethiopian troops were able to disembark near Tafara on the Red Sea coast. Asbaha had taken steps to inform the Christian Arabs of the region of his plans, and they attacked the Himyarites as Dhu-Nuwas deployed his army to meet the invasion force of the Ethiopians. In the ensuing battle, the Jewish king fell back on his faithful, courageous cavalry to repel the invaders, but they were overwhelmed by the larger army of the enemy. The capital of Dhu-Nuwas fell into the hands of the enemy, along with his wife, and all the treasures of his kingdom. Realizing that all was lost, and unwilling to be taken 'alive, the impetuous king charged his steed over a great rock jutting over the sea. The waves swept his body out to sea. So died the last Jewish king of Himyar.
The victorious Ethiopians overran Himyar. With fire and sword they raged through the land, plundering and massacring its inhabitants. They especially singled out the Jews for their killing spree; they considered it an atoning sacrifice for the Christian martyrs of Najran.
The Ethiopian occupation stimulated new resistance, as the Jews fought on from the mountains of eastern Himyar. Although the invaders were able to hold on to Tafara and the coastal area along the Red Sea, Hadramut, and the ports along the Arabia Sea held out and remained in Jewish hands. With the help of the Persians, the Jews gradually drove out the Ethiopians from everywhere except their Red Sea base. In the decades preceding the rise of Islam, the struggle for control of southern Arabia seesawed between Persia, the Byzantine Empire, and Ethiopia.
In 717, Yemen came under Muslim rule.
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JOSEPH ADLER, an historian, is a longtime contributor to Midstream. His latest book is Restoring the Jews to Their Homeland: Nineteen Centuries in the Quest for Zion (Jason Aronson, 1997).