Posts Tagged ‘‘Kebra Nagast’’

The Language of Ancient Sheba in Yemen

January 14, 2016

Sheba Solomon Islam

Persian painting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from the poems of Farid al-Din Attar, 1472.

Yemen is the location of the ancient kingdom of Sheba, whose Queen is mentioned in both the Bible and the Qu’ran as having visited King Solomon. In the Bible, he tested her with hard questions, which some commenters believe were riddles. In Islam, Solomon wished to know whether she and her people worshipped God – Allah – or the sun. The kingdom of Sheba itself was located at Marib. Archaeologists have excavated a pre-Islamic religious sanctuary, the Mahram Bilqis, which is named after her. Bilqis is the name given to her in Muslim legend, though she is not named in the Qu’ran. The sanctuary, mahram, has been associated with her since the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD.

In addition to the remains of its buildings, and great feats of architectural engineering, such as a magnificent dam intended to provide the country with much needed water, archaeologists have also uncovered a number of inscriptions, and have been able to reconstruct this ancient civilisation’s language. It’s
Semitic, and so is related to Hebrew and Arabic, and was part of a family of languages spoken in the five or so different kingdoms that existed in south Arabia before the rise of Islam. As a South Arabian language, it is one of the ancestors of Ge’ez, the ancient literary and religious language of Ethiopia, which was colonised by settlers from that part of Arabia. In Ethiopian legend, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba married, and the Queen later travelled to Ethiopia, where she became the founder of the Abyssinian monarchy, according to their national epic, the Kebra Nagast, or ‘Glory of Kings’.

The linguistic remains have been so complete, that a dictionary of the Sabaic language, by A.F.L. Beeston, W.W. Muller, M.A. Ghul and J.Ryckmans, was published by the University of Sanaa in Yemen in 1982.

Sabaic Dictionary Front

Sabaic Dictionary Arabic

Here’s a short list of some words from that ancient tongue. As a Semitic language, like ancient Hebrew and Arabic, on the consonants were written, so the actual pronunciation is unclear.

Affair, matter, undertaking, ‘kln
Blood, Dm
Body, person, grbt
Camel, ‘bl
Cattle, Bqr
Cultivated field, Dbr
Famine, ‘wfy-n
Father, ancestor, ‘bw
Folk, people, community, ‘hl
Garden, orchard, gnt
To give, to grant, ‘dw
Goats, ‘nz
God, ‘l
Goddess, ‘lht
Grain crops, corn, meal, ‘kl
Grandchild, Hfd
Health, prosperity, Bry
Land, territory,
country, cultivated Ground, ‘rd
Man, male, ‘ns
Mother, ‘mm
Place, occasion, Brt
Sea, coast, plain, Bhr
Servant, serf, ‘bd
Sheep, D’n
Son, daughter, child,
descendant, family member, Bnw
To take, to seize, to capture, ‘hd
Woman, female, wife, ‘nt
World, ‘lm.

My fear is that the war in Syria will lead to the destruction of Yemen’s ancient monuments and its invaluable archaeological remains, either through ordinary military action, or a deliberate act of destruction by ISIS. Daesh have done their best to destroy the ancient pre-Islamic heritage of the other nations they’ve taken over, in part of Iraq and Syria, as well as the religious shrines, monuments and mosques of Muslims they judge to be of the ‘wrong’ faith, like the Shi’a and ordinary, moderate Muslims. Quite apart from the horrors and death inflicted on the Yemeni people themselves in this conflict. Remember, the civilian casualties in the Saudi drone strikes, aided by America, are 50% +. The Yemeni people have a brilliant, fascinating past, and like its people, it needs to be protected.

ISIS Atrocity in Yemen

March 21, 2015

Yesterday came the news that a suicide bomber had killed forty people at a mosque in Yemen. The country is currently torn in a civil war between its Sunni population and government, and the Houthi tribe, who are Shia. It was first feared that the bomber was a member of the latter. He wasn’t. Nor was he a member al-Qaeda, who were also initially suspected of involvement.

It was ISIS, yet again.

This is extremely disturbing. It’s not just that forty innocents were murdered and a house of worship desecrated for no other reason than that they and it belonged to a different faith, though this is bad enough. It’s because ISIS also attempts to destroy the very culture, including the ancient monuments, of the peoples it conquers and rules. I’ve blogged several times this week, including today, about the cult’s destruction of the Assyrian antiquities in Iraq, their smashing of art treasures in a museum in Mosul, the bulldozing of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrod and their destruction of the mosques and shrines to the Patriarch Seth, revered in Islam as the Prophet Sheth, St. George, also revered in Islam as Jerjis, and the Prophet Jonah, known in the Qu’ran as Yunus. They also attempted to demolish one of the earliest minarets built in Iraq, but were fortunately prevented by the local people.

Yemen is also vulnerable to this destruction. It is, like the rest of the Middle East, a country with ancient and rich history. The city of Marib was the capital of the ancient South Arabian civilisation of Saba, known in the Bible as Sheba, whose queen visited King Solomon to test him with ‘hard questions’. This episode is also mentioned in the Qu’ran, and the Muslim name for the Queen is ‘Bilqis’. According to the chapter in the Qu’ran, the Surat al-Naml, which means ‘The Ants’ in English, Solomon could understand the language of birds. He was brought news of the Queen of Sheba by the hoopoe. the same sura also describes the destruction of the town’s great dam, the remains of which are still extant. The South Arabian languages spoken in the Gulf are also the origin of the modern majority languages of Ethiopia, Amharic, Tigre, and Tigrinya, which are all descended from the medieval language, Ge’ez. And the Ethiopian people themselves in their national epic, the Kebra Nagast, or ‘Glory of Kings’, traced their descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The British Museum has a gallery devoted to the ancient cultures of Yemen, and a little while ago they staged an exhibition of its antiquities and the archaeology of this rich and ancient country. Any attack on these would be yet another blow against adab and the culture, not only of Islam and the Arabs, but of the world.