In 2014, researchers from a French-Saudi expedition studying rock inscriptions in southern Saudi Arabia announced they had discovered what could be the oldest texts written in the Arabic alphabet. But they did so very quietly, perhaps because the context of the texts is something of an embarrassment to some.
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The dozen or so engravings had been carved into the soft sandstone of the mountain passes around Bir Hima – a site about 100 kilometers north of the city of Najran, which over millennia has been plastered with thousands of inscriptions by passing travelers and officials. Conveniently, at least two of the early Arabic petroglyphs that were discovered cited dates in an ancient calendar, and expert epigraphists quickly calculated that the oldest one corresponded to the year 469 or 470 CE.
The discovery was sensational: the earliest ancient inscriptions using this pre-Islamic stage of Arabic script had been dated at least half a century later, and had all been found in Syria, which had suggested that the alphabet used to write the Koran had been developed far from the birthplace of Islam and its prophet.
Yet the announcement of the discovery was subdued. A few outlets in the French and Arab media tersely summarized the news, hailing the text as the “missing link” between Arabic and the earlier alphabets used previously in the region, such as Nabatean. Most of the articles were accompanied by stock photos of archaeological sites or other ancient inscriptions: it is almost impossible to find a picture of the inscription online or a reference to the actual content of the text.
Thawban son of Malik, the Christian
Only by delving into the 100-page-long report of that archaeological season published in December by France’s Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres – which supports the study – is it possible to see the find and learn more about it.
According to the report, the Arabic text, scrawled on a large rectangular stone, is simply of a name, “Thawban (son of) Malik,” followed by the date.
Underwhelming? Well, there is the matter of the large, unmistakably Christian cross that decorates the head of this inscription. The same cross systematically appears on the other similar stelae dating more or less to the same period.
Behind the low-key announcement of the find, one can almost sense the mixed feelings of Saudi officials faced with an important discovery for their heritage, which, however, seems to connect the origins of the alphabet used to pen their sacred book to a Christian context, some 150 years before the rise of Islam.
Further consternation may have arisen when realizing that these texts are not only the legacy of a once-numerous Christian community, but are also linked to the story of an ancient Jewish kingdom that once ruled over much of what is today Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Jews vs. Christians in the desert
While the Koran and later Muslim tradition make no bones about the presence of Jewish and Christian communities across the peninsula in Mohammed’s day, the general picture that is painted of pre-Islamic Arabia is one of chaos and anarchy. The region is described as being dominated by jahilliyah – ignorance – lawlessness, illiteracy and barbaric pagan cults.
The decades immediately before the start of the Islamic calendar (marked by Mohammed’s “hijra” – migration – from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE) were marked by a weakening of societies and centralized states in Europe and the Middle East, partly due to a plague pandemic and the incessant warfare between the Byzantine and Persian empires.
The bleak representation of pre-Islamic Arabia was less an accurate description, it seems, than a literary metaphor to emphasize the unifying and enlightening power of Mohammed’s message.
Reexamination of works by Muslim and Christian chroniclers in recent years, as well as finds like the one in Saudi Arabia, are producing a much more elaborate picture, leading scholars to rediscover the rich and complex history of the region before the rise of Islam.
One of the key, but often forgotten, players in Arabia at the time was the kingdom of Himyar.
Established around the 2nd century CE, by the 4th century it had become a regional power. Headquartered in what is today Yemen, Himyar had conquered neighboring states, including the ancient kingdom of Sheba (whose legendary queen features in a biblical meeting with Solomon).
In a recent article titled “What kind of Judaism in Arabia?” Christian Robin, a French epigraphist and historian who also leads the expedition at Bir Hima, says most scholars now agree that, around 380 CE, the elites of the kingdom of Himyar converted to some form of Judaism.
United in Judaism
The Himyarite rulers may have seen in Judaism a potential unifying force for their new, culturally diverse empire, and an identity to rally resistance against creeping encroachment by the Byzantine and Ethiopian Christians, as well as the Zoroastrian empire of Persia.
It is unclear how much of the population converted, but what is sure is that in the Himyarite capital of Zafar (south of Sana’a), references to pagan gods largely disappear from royal inscriptions and texts on public buildings, and are replaced by writings that refer to a single deity.
Using mostly the local Sabean language (and in some rare cases Hebrew), this god is alternatively described as Rahmanan – the Merciful – the “Lord of the Heavens and Earth,” the “God of Israel” and “Lord of the Jews.” Prayers invoke his blessings on the “people of Israel” and those invocations often end with shalom and amen.
For the next century and a half, the Himyarite kingdom expanded its influence into central Arabia, the Persian Gulf area and the Hijaz (the region of Mecca and Medina), as attested by royal inscriptions of its kings that have been found not only at Bir Hima, just north of Yemen, but also near what is today the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Thawban the martyr
Returning to the early Arabic texts discovered at Bir Hima, the French-Saudi team notes that the name of Thawban son of Malik appears on eight inscriptions, along with the names of other Christians in what was probably a form of commemoration.
According to Christian chroniclers, around 470 (the date of the Thawban inscription), the Christians of the nearby city of Najran suffered a wave of persecution by the Himyarites. The French experts suspect that Thawban and his fellow Christians may have been martyred. The choice of the early Arabic script to commemorate them would have been, in itself, a powerful symbol of defiance.
This pre-Islamic alphabet is also called Nabatean Arabic, because it evolved from the script used by the Nabateans, the once-powerful nation that built Petra and dominated the trade routes in the southern Levant and northern Arabia before being annexed by the Romans in the early 2nd century. Used at the gates of Yemen, this northern alphabet would have stood in sharp contrast to the inscriptions left by Himyarite rulers in their native Sabaean.
“The adoption of a new writing signaled a distancing from Himyar and a reconciliation with the rest of the Arabs,” the French researchers write in their report. “The inscriptions of Hima reveal a strong movement of cultural unification of the Arabs, from the Euphrates to Najran, which manifested itself by the use of the same writing.”
Joseph the rebel
The growing outside pressures ultimately took their toll on Himyar. Sometime around the year 500, it fell to Christian invaders from the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum.
In a last bid for independence, in 522, a Jewish Himyarite leader, Yusuf As'ar Yath'ar, rebelled against the puppet ruler enthroned by the negus and put the Aksumite garrison to the sword. He then besieged Najran, which had refused to provide him with troops, and massacred part of its Christian population – a martyrdom that sparked outrage amongst Yusuf’s enemies and hastened retribution from Ethiopia.
In 2014, the French-Saudi expedition at Bir Hima discovered an inscription recording Yusuf’s passage there after the Najran massacre as he marched north with 12,000 men into the Arabian desert to reclaim the rest of his kingdom. After that, we lose track of him, but Christian chroniclers recorded that around 525 the Ethiopians caught up with the rebel leader and defeated him.
According to different traditions, the last Jewish king of Arabia was either killed in battle, or committed suicide by riding with his horse into the Red Sea.
For the next century, Himyar was a Christian kingdom that continued to dominate Arabia. In the middle of the sixth century, one of its rulers, Abraha, marched through Bir Hima, leaving on the stones a depiction of the African elephant that led his mighty army. A later inscription, dated 552 and found in central Arabia, records the many locations he conquered, including Yathrib, the desert oasis that just 70 years later would become known as Madinat al-Nabi (the City of the Prophet) – or, more simply, Medina.
Were they ‘real’ Jews?
One big question that remains about the Jews of Himyar is what kind of Judaism they practiced. Did they observe the Sabbath? Or the rules of kashrut?
Some scholars, like the 19th century Jewish-French orientalist Joseph Halevy, refused to believe that a Jewish king could persecute and massacre his Christian subjects, and dismissed the Himyarites as belonging to one of the many sects in which Christianity was divided in its early days.
Robin, the French epigraphist, writes in his article that the official religion of Himyar may be described as “Judeo-monotheism” – “a minimalist variety of Judaism” that followed some of the religion’s basic principles.
The fact is that the few inscriptions found so far, along with the writings of later chroniclers, who may have been biased against the Himyarites, do not allow scholars to form a clear picture of the kingdom’s spirituality.
But there is another way to look at the question.
Through Christian and Muslim rule, Jews continued to be a strong presence in the Arabian Peninsula. This is clear not only from Mohammed’s (often conflictual) dealings with them, but also from the influence that Judaism had on the new religion’s rituals and prohibitions (daily prayers, circumcision, ritual purity, pilgrimage, charity, ban on images and eating pork).
In Yemen, the heartland of the Himyarites, the Jewish community endured through centuries of persecution, until 1949-1950, when almost all its remaining members – around 50,000 – were airlifted to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet. And while they maintain some unique rituals and traditions, which set them apart from Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, no one would doubt that they are indeed, the last, very much Jewish descendants of the lost kingdom of Himyar.