Header: Temple guard/warrior of South Arabia. Painted by Ludwig Deutsch.
Top row: (1) Arab painting, 19th century. Abbasid dynasty. (2) Yemenis, Akhdam family - the
original Arabs. Also refered to Yemen’s “untouchables”, the Akhdam, Yemen’s marginalized black
minority, has suffered for centuries from perpetual discrimination and cultural persecution, and
they are seen as being at the bottom of the country’s social hierarchy. Akhdam is a literal
translation of the Arabic word “servants,” but the community prefers to be called the Muhamasheen
– “the marginalized people”. They are estimated to make up around 1.5 million of Yemen’s roughly
26 million residents. (3) Arab, Yemenis couple. (4) Arab children, clearly showing the original
Bottom row: (1) Arab elder cooking. (2) Bust of Black Arab of old Arabia. 9th century C.E. -
during Abbasid period. (3) Yemenis elderly lady. (4) A Yemenis, Akhdam child.
“We know that Arabia was once a portion of the ancient African Kushite empire. Most scholars agree that, in an epoch now forgotten, southern Arabia was originally settled and populated by Blacks who belonged to the Kushite, or Ethiopian, race.”
Historian and writer Wayne B. Chandler
Historically the Arabian Peninsula can be divided into two halves, north and south. South Arabia’s civilisation arose in the regions of Yemen, Oman, and Hadramaut, otherwise known as Arabia Felix or Happy Arabia, according to Greek and Roman literature. Over 8,000 years ago these regions were fertile and initially wholly populated by Black Africans. Arabia Felix or Hadramaut was rich and prosperous, especially in spices and is currently the home of the famous Islamic Mecca and Medina. Today Arabia is known as Saudi Arabia, named in honour of Abdul Aziz Ibn-Saud, in his day (1880 to 1953), he was considered the foremost personality of the Arab world, and was of African descent. In contrast to the south, however, north Arabia was desert, arid, and a barren rocky wasteland, this was the home of the nomadic Semitic Arab. Regarding the racial differences, in the classic book Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire, author, researcher and journalist Drusilla Dunjee Houston categorically states:
“These Cushite (Black) Arabians were given to a settled life and not to the wandering habits of the Semetic Arabians. They were fond of village life, society, the dance, and music. Among the cities the most ancient and populous were in “Happy Yemen.” Like the Cushites of Egypt, here was the marvellous reservoir of Marib constructed by the Himyaritic kings. Their descendants of today are good cultivators of the soil, traders and artisans and averse to pastoral pursuits. All of these traits distinguish them from the Semitic race.
They have much more to do with the African coast than the Asiatic. These Himyaritic Arabians call themselves Ethiopians still in diplomatic and elevated circles.”
Today in the regions Africoid Mahra population are the descendents of these earlier settlers of south Arabia. They form a numerically significant portion of the region and are the earliest Arabs known. Physically they are distinguished by slightly wavy to curly hair, and light to dark brown skin complexion, and are generally classed as veddoids by anthropologists. Generally, however, the Arabian civilisations originated from Kush, now known as Ethiopia. From Kush came the cultural influence that would spread to Arabia prior to 8,000 B.C.E. to the Islamic era. In the region of Arabia Felix “geometric objects of obsidian composition, with East African origins survived well into the first millennium B.C.E.”
In another classic work African Presence in Early Asia, historian and writer Wayne B. Chandler, remarked:
“We know that Arabia was once a portion of the ancient African Kushite empire. Most scholars agree that, in an epoch now forgotten, southern Arabia was originally settled and populated by Blacks who belonged to the Kushite, or Ethiopian, race.
Testimonies in ancient texts fix the geographical origin of this population in the extreme southwest of the Arabian peninsula, from where they migrated in a northeasterly direction to areas now known as Yemen, Oman and Hadramaut. These Ethiopians were the original Arabs, known in the ancient tongue as Adites or Thamudites, descendants of Ham, the Father of the Black race. The name Himyar which means dusky, was given to this Black race. We know the Himyaric language...is African in origin and character. Its grammar is identical with the African-based Abyssinian.”
Bust of Black Arab of old Arabia. 9th century C.E. - during Abbasid period.
Photo by Wayne B. Chandler.
Furthermore, the Encyclopedia Britannica provides a description of the physical attributes of the original Arabs, as well as a deeper insight into the cultural foundation of the empire:
“The inhabitants of Yemen, Hadramaut, Omat and the adjoining districts, in the shape of the heat, color, length and slenderness of limbs and scantiness of hair, point to an African origin... The first dawning gleams that deserve to be called history find Arabia under the rule of a southern race. They claimed descent from Khatan. They were divided anciently into several aristocratic monarchies. These Yemenite kings, descendants of Khatan and Himyar 'the dusky,' a name denoting African origin, whose rulers were called 'Tobba,' of Hamitic etymology, reigned with a few dynastic interruptions for about 2,500 years. They demanded the obedience of the entire southern half of the peninsula and the northern by tribute collectors. The general characteristics of the institutions of Yemen bore considerable resemblance to the neighbouring ones of the Nile Valley.”
It was the Black Arabians in the south of the peninsula which we can attribute to what constitutes as the pinnacle of Arabian civilisation and culture. However, although the Arabian chronology began over 8,000 years ago by successive African dynasties, little is known about this earlier epoch.
Historical accounts begin with a civilisation known as the Minaean, c.1500 B.C.E. Evidence reveals that “the Minaeans had trading outlets in Hejaz and Syria for the exportation of incense. Evidence also points to transit trade between the Minaeans and the Blacks of India, Indonesia and East Africa.” Prior to 1500 B.C.E., however, we only have legendary tales to rely on to discover the great empires and exploits of these early Black Arabians.
One such empire is known as Ad, and the only proof we have of this empires existence is the region in south Arabia called Aden, which no-doubt took its name from the Adites. Regarding early Arabia, Houston explained:
“The Cushite [Black African] race belonged to the oldest and purest Arabian blood. They were the original Arabians and the creators of the ancient civilisation, evidence of which may be seen in the stupendous ruins to be found in every part of the country. At the time that Ethiopians began to show power as monarchs of Egypt about 3000 to 3500 B.C. the western part of Arabia was divided into two powerful kingdoms. In those days the princes of Arabia belonged wholly to the descendants of the Cushites, who ruled Yemen for thousands of years. Zohak, celebrated in Iranian history was one of these famous rulers. These Arabians hid the sources of their commerce and the Greeks had of them only cunning stories that the Arabians put in circulation about their country. Much of the rich commerce of India, the treasures of Africa, crossed between Yeman and Syria avoiding the tedious navigation of the Red Sea.
Strabo, Pliny, Diodorus and Ptolemy tell us that in very early ages, Yeman reached a high state of civilisation. Arts and commerce flourished and wealth was accumulated, literature was cultivated and talent held in high esteem.”
“One of its monarchs subdued the whole of central Asia, reaching even the boundaries of China. Another made conquests in Africa. Their chroniclers appropriated the glories and some of the exploits of the early kings of Ethiopia, because Arabia, Egypt, Chaldea, and India were colonies of the Cushite empire. Ethiopia was mother of them all and her rulers under various titles were their rulers. Modern histories speak of the Semitic (Arab) conquest of Babylon as early as 4500 B.C. which is erroneous unless they explain that these Arabians were Cushite Arabians, another division of the race of the black Sumerians. The line of Sargon 3800 B.C. was of the same race. Each one of these early Arabian conquests was of African Arabs.”
The Minaen civilisation would eventually be conquered and absorbed by another Black race of people, the Sabaeans in 700 B.C.E. It is actually the Sabaeans that have provided the most distinct and clear evidence of a high civilisation dating back to pre-Islamic Arabia. The Sabaean people came about as the resulting mixture, both racially and culturally, of peoples from the northern and central sections of the Arabian Peninsula.
This culture was an extension of Ethiopia and was ruled by a line of queens or “kentakes”, called candeces by the Greeks. For thousands of years prior to the arrival of Islam in the seventh century A.C.E., Arabia had been matriarchal in character. “The Annals of Ashurbanipal said Arabia was governed by queens for as long as anyone could remember. The land's original Allah was Al-Lat, part of the female trinity along with Kore, or Q're, the Virgin, and Al-Uzza, the Powerful One, the triad known as Manat....Marriages were matrilocal, inheritance matrilineal. Polyandry- several husbands to one wife-was common.
The first queen of the Sabaeans to be acknowledged historically was identified as Bilqis in the Quran, as Makeda in Ethiopia's Kebra Negast (Glory of Kings) and as the Queen of Sheba in the Christian Bible.
The Sabaean civilization flourished under Queen Makeda's reign, setting a standard by which other West Asian empires were measured. One thousand years later Queen Makeda would be deified in the Shrine of the Black Stone, or Kaaba, worshipped by the Black Arabs. Shrine of the sacred black anionic stone in Mecca, worshipped as the Goddess Shaybah or Sheba.
'The Old Woman' and formally dedicated to the pre-Islamic Triple Goddess Manat, worshipped by Mohammed's tribesmen, the Koreshites or 'Children of Kore,' the hereditary guardians of the Kaaba. The Black Stone enshrined in the Kaaba at Mecca...was a feminine symbol, no one seems to know exactly what it is supposed to represent today.”
On the Sabaeans, historian and author Runoko Rashidi remarked:
“We first hear of the Sabeans in the tenth centrury B.C. through the fabled exploits of its semi-legendary queen known as Bilqis in the Koran, Makeda in Ethiopia’s Kebra Negast (Glory of Kings), and the Biblical Queen of Sheba. Each prosperous state marked by the pronounced general status of women. Bilqis/Makeda was not an isolated phenomenon. Several times, in fact, do we hear of prominent women in Arabian history; the documents they are mentioned in making no commentary on husbands, consorts or male relatives. Either their deeds, inheritance, or both, enabled them to stand out quite singularly.”
During the period of Makeda’s reign, at the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E., there were a number of large urban centres with highly developed irrigation systems. From the earliest historical periods the southern Arabians domesticated the camel and traded in frankincense and myrrh. These products were in constant demand from the eastern to the western extremities of the world’s major civilisations. Indeed, it was southern Arabia and Somalia, which was just across the Red Sea, that provided the best and most abundant of these products. “Both frankincense and myrrh played a tremendously important role in the life of the great Nile Valley civilisations. Frankincense, for example, while extensively utilized for its perfume-like fragrance in religious observances, was equally valued for its medicinal properties. It was used both in the stoppage of bleeding, and as an antidote to poisons. Myrrh was employed for cosmetic purposes and formed an essential element in the all important mummification process.”
Southern Arabia’s location, specifically Saba, that was the first and most important region, was ideal as an exchange point for the numerous ships trading in luxury items from east to west. This allowed the region to capitalise on the lucrative trade in silk, produce, spices, ebony, ivory, jewels and precious metals, and consequentially harness the great profit to be had. It was this fortunate position of intermediary between regions, and carefully guarded secrets about certain trade, which gave the impression that it was south Arabia that was the actual source of these riches, but, of course, other than frankincense and myrrh it was not.
The Sabaean rulers at this time, who were known as mukarribs or priest kings were mentioned by the Assyrians in a series of inscriptions detailing Assyrian military successes. This was during the reign of the powerful Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 BCE). It specifically mentions king Piru of Musru, and Samsi, the queen of Arabia:
“It’amra, the Sabean. The(se) are the kings of the seashore and from the desert. I received as their presents gold in the form of dust, precious stones, ivory, ebony-seeds, all kinds of aromatic substances, horses (and) camels.”
It's also during this epoch that the earliest known Sabaean construction projects were produced. Including the Awwam temple, a construction often compared to the stone monuments of Zimbabwe. These constructions mainly consisted of basalt, granite and limestone. Rashidi provides an intriguing and detailed description of the Awwam temple:
“The temple consisted of an oval wall enclosing an area approximately 300’ east-west and 225’ north-south. It was entered from the north through a large peristyle hall, containing a paved court surrounded by a series of rooms on all sides except the south. Beyond the court stood a line of eight monolithic pillars.”
The greatest known Sabaean technical achievement, however, was the Marib Dam, initially constructed by two mukarribs (priest kings) Sumuhu’alay Yanaf and Yithi’ Amara Bayyim. The mukarribs “cut deep watercourses through the solid rock at the south end of the site. The Marib Dam, traditionally believed to have been conceived by Lokman, the great sage of Arabia...served its builders and their descendents for more than a thousand years. In effect, the dam was an earthen ridge stretching slightly more than 1700’ across a prominent wadi.
Both sides sloped sharply upward, with the upstream side fortified by small pebbles established in mortar. The dam was rebuilt several times by piling more earth and stone onto the existing structure, with the last recorded height over 45’. Although the Marib Dam has now practically disappeared, the huge sluice gates built into the rocky walls of the wadi are very well preserved and stand as silent witnesses to the creative genius of the South Arabian people.”
After this early period, it would seem the Sabaean civilisation gradually declined along with her history. Historical records of this once powerful kingdom over the successive centuries becomes vague.
The south Arabian settlement in Ethiopia’s Tigre province, and the co-mingling of Ethiopian and south Arabian cultures, during or before this period, was to later produce the powerful African kingdom of Axum.
Regarding this mixture of strong cultures and highlighting the intricate Ethiopian and Arabian historical mosaic, Rashidi remarked: “The earliest Ethiopian alphabet is of a South Arabian type, and the Axumite script is apparently a derivative of Sabean. The name Abyssinia itself is taken from the Habashan, a powerful southwestern Arabian family which ultimately sojourned and settled in Ethiopia. From this period Ethiopia, which itself is a Greek term, is known in Arabic scripts as Habashat and its citizens Habshi. This early Ethiopian-Sabean epoch lasted about a hundred years, beginning around the first part of the fifth century B.C., the remains of actual South Arabian settlements having been found principally at Yeha, Matara, and Haoulti, all in Tigre province... Following the rise of Axum, Africans assumed a highly aggressive role in Ethiopian-South Arabian relations. Between 183 and 213, for example the Ethiopian king Gadara, followed by his son, appear to have been the dominant figures in South Arabia. Less than a century later, the Ethiopian king Azbah sent military contingents to South Arabia and apparently settled Ethiopian troops there as well.”
After the decline of Saba and her early rival Ma’in, there was much toing and froing of south Arabian kingdoms. “Qataban, another regional state, emerged as the area’s foremost power. Timna, one of the more archaeologically explored sites in South Arabia, was Qataban’s capital and major urban center. Qataban reached its zenith about 60 B.C. during the reign of King Shahr Yagil Yuhargib, but afterwards went into a period of rapid eclipse.
The power in South Arabia then shifted back to Saba in the west, albeit in a lessened form, and Hadramaut in the east, which occupied and destroyed Timna. Ausan, a lesser known state, also became distinct at this time. Ausan had such commercial ties with Africa, that in the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, c.60 A.D., the entire East Africa seaboard is known as the “Ausanitic Coast.”
In 75 B.C.E. another powerful Black dynasty called the Himyarites became the Sabaean's successors. Chandler shreds light on this formidable empire:
“The Himyarites, like the two dynasties that preceded them, established their empire in Yemen, the southern cradle of Arabia. Al-Harith, the first Himyarite monarch, built powerful trade alliances and a military gauntlet which fortified his position and allowed the Himyarites to reign supreme for six-hundred years. During this time, Himyaritic kings in Yemen extended their dominance over all of Central Arabia, or Nejed, and into Persia.
In the year 24 B.C.E., Rome became politically exacerbated by the power of the Himyarites and launched a substantial campaign under the command of Aelius Callus to conquer Yemen. However, they had not taken into consideration distance, climate nor terrain. By the time the Roman legion reached Yemen, the soldiers were dying of thirst, exhaustion, hunger and overexposure to the sun and heat. The Roman campaign was a fiasco and most of the soldiers were slaughtered. The remaining survivors were sent back as a warning to Rome.
A catastrophic event, in the year 120 C.E., transformed the entire cultural pulse of Yemen.
Life in Yemen had been sustained by an elaborate agricultural irrigation system that was maintained by an ingeniously constructed dam built during Sabaean rule. In 120 C.E., this dam, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, collapsed and caused a tremendous flood-The Flood of Arem- which forced many prominent Yemen families, including the Beni Ghassan and the Lakm, or Lakhmids, to uproot and relocate to the north. Thus, the Himyarite king Asad abu Qarib (200-236 C.E.) extended his reign to include all of Arabia up to the Euphrates. These dynasties ruled for three-hundred years.
The Beni Ghassan erected a powerful dynasty in eastern Syria while the Lakhmids established themselves on the Euphrates in Persia, with Hira as their capital city. These Black dynasties were formidable political and military forces in the north and, indeed, often engaged each other in battle. But both of these dynasties, which had reigned over their respective regions for more than three-hundred years, crumbled in 636 C.E., under the onslaught of the Moslems.”
During 335 to 370 C.E. Saba was again occupied by Ethiopia. This occupation was to firmly implant “Christianity on the south Arabian soil, with the Sabaean rulers themselves adopting the faith.” Christianity was brutally imposed on the south Arabian people. “Initially...the church suppressed the age-old burning of incense in religious rituals by deeming that it was a pagan tradition, and consequently an impediment to Christianity itself.
When combined with the establishment of direct sea routes linking Asia with the west, South Arabian fortunes sharply diminished.”
Sabaean fortunes enjoyed a brief resurgence under the leadership of Malikkarib Yuhad’in. However, during this period there was a growing unease between the Christian population and a large number of Jews that became attracted to the region. This antagonistic atmosphere resulted in violent attacks on both sides and “provoked an immediate response in Ethiopia, then headed by King Asbeha, known as a formidable advocate of Christian enlightenment. It is said, in fact, that a total of seven different saints lived under Ella Asbeha’s patronage.
In 524 a powerful coalition composed of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine)*, South Arabian Christian refugees, and the Kingdom of Axum, was organised for the specific purposes of invading South Arabia and dethroning its ruling class. Byzantine supplied the ships, the South Arabians the advance guard, and the Ethiopians the bulk of the fighting forces.”
Chandler provides a compelling breakdown of the events leading up to this great war:
“The sixth century began with Dhu Nuwas on the throne in Yemen. Passionately anti-Christian, he was infuriated that a monk had introduced Christianity to Najran, an area just north of Yemen.
Acting on his rage, he ordered an enormous trench dug and filled with branches and other flammable materials, in which the Christians of Najran were thrown and burned alive. Some Christians managed to flee to Constantinople where they appealed to the Byzantine Emperor Justin I. Unwilling to commit his own troops to what would surely be a devastating military defeat, Justin urged the Christian Emperor of Abyssinia to avenge the death of these Christian martyrs. Thus arose the next Black dynasty in Yemen, the Abyssinians. The Abyssinians marched on Yemen in the year 525 C.E., and with the death of Dhu Nuwas, brought to a close the Himyarite chapter of Arabian history.”
We can read of this great battle on the Arabian seashore between the Ethiopians and South Arabians in the Book of Himyarites and the Martyrdom of Arethiuss. The great coalition's objective to invade south Arabia and dethrone its ruling class succeeded with great effect; in the book we read that the Ethiopians were triumphant and the south Arabian king literally lost his head, thus Ethiopia once again became the rulers of South Arabia.
In 537, after Ella Asbeha, the Christian Emperor of Abyssinia, returned to Africa, a junior Ethiopian military officer by the name of Abraha seized the south Arabian throne by way of revolt.
“The 3000 man Ethiopian army sent to suppress the revolt quickly defected to Abraha. A second expeditionary force Abraha rapidly and soundly smashed. Abraha’s stunning success apparently was facilitated by the deep class contradictions within Ethiopian society, including the military, creating a base from which a former junior officer could rise to become one of the great personalities in Arabian history.”
Yemen remained under Christian Abyssinian rule for more than fifty years, mostly under the direction of Abraha, who governed from 537 to 570 C.E. The following passage is testimony to his legacy:
“We possessed the lands from Ethiopia to Mecca, and our rule extended over all that was there. We put Dhu Nuwas to flight, and we killed the chiefs of Humayr, yet you have never possessed our lands....From your ignorance you considered us as belonging to you as you considered your women in the Period of Ignorance. When the justice of Islam came, you saw this was an evil attitude; yet we have no desire to desert you. We have filled the country amply through marriage, chieftainship and lordship....You have made examples of us and have exalted the rule of our kings, preferring them in many cases over your own kings. If you had not seen us as preferential over you, you would not have done this.”
This passage is telling, it demonstrates the close and mutely agreeable relationship at the time between Islam and Christianity, and that there was no contradiction between the two religions. This is a passage from the “Christian” Abyssinians advocating the “justice of Islam”. In addition, it also highlights that the local south Arabians obviously rejected the two religions as both being “foreign” and “evil”, preferring instead to continue their traditional form of worship. Thus, the passage reads more like a plea for the population’s acceptance, rather than a confident statement of governmental authority with the populations unanimous and resolute backing.
Nevertheless, Abraha's historical significants cannnot be denied, as Rashidi explains:
“Although officially acknowledging Ethiopia’s overall supremacy, Abraha worked unending to strengthen South Arabia’s autonomy, extending her influence into the northern and central portions of the peninsula. Domestically, Abraha is known to have inaugurated major repairs on the Marib Dam. After his death in 558, Abraha’s exploits were recorded and embellished in Arabic, Byzantine and Ethiopian literature, and no history of pre-Islamic Arabia is complete without him. It was during this long series of wars involving Ethiopia, and later Persia, and the Islamic jihads themselves, that many of the major monuments in South Arabia were either damaged or destroyed.
Such was the case with the fortress of Ghumdan, a truly superb construction, described most vividly in the tenth century by Al-Hamdani. Standing twenty stories high, the upper levels were composed of polished marble. The roof was made of stone so transparent that a crow could be seen flying overhead from underneath the building. On top of the fortress stood four bronze lions which roared when the winds blew.”
South Arabia is the home of Mecca which houses the sacred Kaaba sanctuary, and the famous Black stone. Although extremely questionable, according to some historians, Mecca and its Kaaba sanctuary existed well before the arrival of Islam, and flourished during the largely Christian and Jewish occupation.
Rashidi explains this curious edifice: “The Kaaba was a holy place and the destination of pilgrims long before Mohammad. At the same time Allat, the Arabian goddess supreme, was worshipped at Ta’if, in Mecca’s immediate proximity. Allat, quite simply was the ultimate reality in female form, and was worshipped in the medium of an immense uncut block of white granite, as firm as the earth she represented. The most solemn oaths were sworn to Allat beginning with the words, “by the salt, by the fire, and by the Allat who is the greatest of all.”
Here we can see the seeds of what was to become one of the most influential and popular faiths in recent history, Islam. It was, according to some Afrocentric historians, a Black man by the name of Bilal, so exalted he was identified as “the third of the faith”, that was to be a pivotal figure in the religion’s development.
Islam from its earliest conception acquired a large amount of African converts to the faith. Many of these Africans, having suffered initial hostility, fled to Ethiopia for refuge. In fact, according to the historian Uthman Amr Ibn Bahr Al-Jahiz, the prophet Muhammad himself was of African lineage.
Runoko Rashidi, Ivan Van Sertima, African Presence in Early Asia, Transaction Publishers, USA, Seventh printing 2009.
Drusilla Dunjee Houston, Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire, Classic Books International, New York, USA, 2010.
Ivan Van Sertima, Golden Age of the Moor, Transaction Publishing, New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London (UK), 2009.
The Byzantine (or Byzantium) Empire was the predominantly Greek-speaking eastern part of the Roman Empire throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire was called simply Roman Empire (Greek: Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, Basileia Rhōmaiōn) or Romania (Ῥωμανία, Rhōmanía) by its inhabitants and neighbours. Centered on the capital of Constantinople, it was ruled by emperors in direct succession to the ancient Roman emperors after the collapse of Western Roman Empire.
As the distinction between "Roman Empire" and "Byzantine Empire" is largely a modern convention, it is not possible to assign a date of separation, but an important point is Emperor Constantine I's transfer in 324 of the capital from Nicomedia (in Anatolia) to Byzantium on the Bosphorus, which became Constantinople, "City of Constantine" (alternatively "New Rome").
The Byzantine Empire existed for more than a thousand years (from approximately 306 AD to 1453 AD).
Above image: (1) Arab child. (2) Arab, Yemen "untouchable" or Akhdam. (3) A few of the many of
Arabia's displaced children. (4) Yemen, Akhdam, mother and child.
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