Posts Tagged ‘Solomon’

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.

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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.

Love, Sex and the Song of Solomon

May 2, 2013

The Old Testament Reading at the beginning of March this year (2013) was from The Song of Songs/ Song of Solomon

This is hot stuff. When I was at College studying the Old Testament, we were told by the lecturer that because of its sexual nature, the rabbis would only let people over 30 read it. It was accepted into the Christian canon of scripture – the Bible – because it was seen as an allegory of Christ’s love for His bridge, the church. The 3rd century theologian Origen in his Homily on the Song of Songs states that it was one of four Biblical texts that the Jews would only allow people to read after they had completed their religious education. These other reserved texts included the Creation story from Genesis and the visions of the strange creatures in Ezekiel. These were kept back for advanced religious students because they could be the subject of heretical and bizarre mystical speculation.

Plot of the Song of Songs

Origen himself believed that the Song of Songs was a play written by Solomon in the form of an epithalamium, a wedding poem. Contemporary scholars also believe that it contains love songs sung at weddings. The passage from chapter 4:1 to 5:1 has been described as a wasf, a type of song still sung at Syrian weddings today. This chapter is a love song by Solomon praising the book’s heroine, the Shulammite. The book is about how she has been abducted from her home in the village to become part of Solomon’s harem. She resists his attempts to seduce her, and remains faithful to her true lover, a shepherd. Eventually Solomon realises that he can never have her, and releases her. The Song ends with the Shulammite reunited with her beloved shepherd.

God’s Love for Humanity, The Song of Songs and Monogamous Relationships

Modern commentators on it have stated that it needs to be read more as God’s instruction on the proper nature of sexual love between man and woman rather than as the tradition allegory about Christ and the Church. Nevertheless, there are sections, which may be read as God’s declaration of His steadfast love for sinning humanity. The physical description of the two lovers’ and their respective beauty – the Shulammite’s in 4:1-7 and the Shepherd 5:9 – 16, also show that God is also the God of beauty, who works are to be admired. The beauty of the human body is not something of which to be ashamed. Christians are frequently accused of being against sex and despising the human body. The Church since the earliest times placed a very high value on celibacy and sexual continence. Modern theologians since the sexual revolution of the ’60s are keen to show that Christianity is not against sex, but against its abuse and exploitation outside of an exclusive, monogamous relationship. The Shulammite in 4:12 describes her love as a locked garden. This shows that love most be monogamous in the heart as well as under law. Her rejection of Solomon’s blandishments also show that true love is not to be produced artificially, but only awakens when it pleases. The commentary I read for this talk states that the book is a censure on lust, polygamy, and infidelity, but endorses physical love within a legitimate, monogamous relationship.

Verse 8:7 where the shepherd and his friends ask the Shulammite to speak because they long to hear her voice also shows us the strength of Christ’s love, and how He delights to hear the prayers of His church, as well as the church’s own yearning for His presence.

Biblical God of Love against Graeco-Roman Values and those of Philosopher Nietzsche

Origen in his Homily also shows how the Song of Songs and other passages in the Bible show that God is a God of love, love for whom is shown is acts of kindness like the Good Samaritan in Christ’s parable. Although this is very much a cliché now, in the ancient world it was massively contrary to Graeco-Roman values. The Roman morals accepted and praised clemency, but found the Christian values of mercy incomprehensible and alien. Some Stoic philosophers, such as Seneca, rejected compassion. This attitude was taken up again the 19th century by the anti-Christian atheist German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was an admirer of what he saw as the heroic, tragic values of pagan Greece. He despised and attacked Christianity’s doctrine of compassion as ‘slave morality’.

Song of Song’s Message on Love Needed for Today’s Youth exposed to Pornography

Commentators on the Song of Songs have also stressed that a proper Christian emphasis on the true meaning of marriage and sexual love is needed more than ever. Since the 1960s western society has been faced with the increasing problems of divorce and breakdown in relationships, and the sexualisation of the young. The Independent newspaper a month or so ago reported a debate between two women writers at the Bath Festival of Literature. While keen not to be seen as anti-sex, they were concerned about the immense pressure now placed on teenage girls to perform degrading and perverted sexual acts due to the influence of increasingly extreme porn on teenage boys. A return to the morality expressed in the Song of Songs – of pure, ennobling love – is surely needed.

The Shulammite’s beloved shepherd, in 6:4 tells her that she is as beautfiul as Tirzah and as lovely as Jerusalem. Tirzah was the capital of the Northern Kingdom from the time of Jeroboam, so this is also a celebration of one of Israel’s greatest cities at its height. Archaeologists have discovered and mapped the location of some of the houses around its north wall from this time.

The Song of Songs is thus a celebration of both God’s love for humanity and His church, and earthly sexual love. It directly attacks both the aristocratic values of Roman paganism, and the modern degrading attitudes towards sex and relationships.