Land of the Two Paradises, Ardh al-Jannatayn, is how the ancients described the capital of the Kingdom of Sheba in southwest the Arabian peninsula. The inhabitants built irrigation structures here as early as the 3rd millennium BC, but the great Marib dam, large sections of which are still visible today, was by far the largest and most impressive.
Stretching 650 meters long and 18 meters high, archeologists’ best guess is that the dam was constructed in the late 6th century BC. The rainwater collected behind the massive structure rose to where it could run off in channels to irrigate over 35 square miles of land on the left and right banks of the Wadi Adhana river bed – thus the name “The Two Paradises.” The inhabitants grew wheat, millet, barley, sorghum, grapes, date palms, vegetables, pulses, and fruits, the abundance of water allowing two crops per year.
The nearby walled town that served as the kingdom’s capital, known today as Marib, contained several thousand people, for the most part believed to be aristocratic families. The population of the entire oasis that lived off the fruits of the dam could have reached as high as 50,000 at its climax, unrivalled in size throughout the region. But sometime in the political and economic chaos of the late 6th century AD, the dam ruptured, never to be repaired. Marib’s once prosperous inhabitants disappeared, abandoning the land to nomads in search of pasture for their livestock.
Arab legend has it that the collapse of the Marib dam sparked a massive emigration from the area, what is today part of Yemen. These emigrants allegedly settled in great numbers in the north , eventually drifting with the Islamic conquest as far as northern Spain and China. But how much historical evidence exists of this mass exodus that has played such a vivid role in the collective imagination of the Arabs and plagued the politics of Islam’s early years.
Archeology in Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula is still in its infancy, based to a large extent on stone inscriptions found in various languages. Some 10,000 such inscriptions have helped piece together the history of the great incense kingdoms, the first and greatest of which, Saba (or Sheba in Hebrew), is believed to have originated by the early first millennium BC. This date is attested to by the Biblical and Quranic stories of the Queen of Saba’s visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem in the 10th century BC, though scholars continue to search for archeological evidence that such a visit ever took place.
The area held a near monopoly over the production of incense such as frankincense and myrrh, much in demand for ritualistic and traditional uses in the Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent regions far to the north. Enormous caravans made up of hundreds of camels plied the desert carrying this precious commodity, along with other goods brought to the ports of the South from India and Africa. The gold the caravans carried home with them made South very wealthy. Rival kingdoms rose up in the area to challenge Saba, but the trade continued profitably for South until well into the Christian era.
The Sabaean language and similar languages used in some of the rival kingdoms were, like Arabic, Semitic languages. But they were not Arabs, differing in distinctive ways, according to Christian Robin, Director of Ancient Semitic Studies at France’s National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. Though the Sabaeans and others in the region are referred to today as South Arabians in the geographical sense, Robin says they cannot be considered, nor did they consider themselves to be, Arabs, as this implies that they spoke Arabic, which they did not.
The true speakers of Arabic (or of its direct ancestor, proto-Arabic), notes Robert Hoyland, a former post-doctoral research fellow at the British Academy and author of Arabia and the Arabs, stretched from the southern fringe of the Fertile Crescent countries through the western coastal plain and central deserts of today’s Saudi Arabia. Their first mention in the historical record comes from an inscription by the Assyrian King Salmanassar III in 853 BC, following his victory over a coalition army of which a contingent of 1000 camels was commanded by one “Gindibu the Arab.” Nearly all early references to the Arabs spoke of desert nomads who “knew neither overseers nor officials and had not brought their tribute to any king.” But that did not stop the author of the above inscription, Assyrian King Sargon (721-705 BC) from contracting the Arab tribes to watch over his borderlands.
A similar process emerged to the south, but slightly later. The increasing use of Arabic words in inscriptions and the adoption of Arab gods indicate that Arabic-speaking nomadic tribes from central Arabia began arriving in South in small but steady numbers beginning around the 2nd century BC, picking up the pace in the 1st and 2nd century AD, according to Christian Robin. Masters at handling camels, the new arrivals were soon integrated into the armies of the Sabaeans and rival kingdoms who, as settled peoples, were less adroit with dromedaries.
Soon after the beginning of the Christian era, the incense trade suffered a series of ultimately fatal blows. Converts to the new religion still burned incense, but not in the great quantities used in earlier pagan rituals. Furthermore the Sabaeans’ trading partners to the north soon learned to navigate the hazardous Red Sea, and then learned to use the monsoon winds to sail directly to India, bypassing South entirely. The incense kingdoms in the South deteriorated and a new political power replaced them, that of Himyar, based in the cool, fertile highlands to the west.
The sway of the Himyarite kings stretched over most of South (to modern Oman) and northeast beyond Riyadh in central Arabia. This territory encompassed large numbers of Arab tribes, most of which were left in semi-autonomy to act as deputies of the Himyarites. Like their predecessors, the Himyarites used the nomadic Arabs as auxiliaries in their armies, Robin adds, particularly from the 3rd century AD onwards.
Despite the increasing presence of Arabs in the region, the remnants of the incense kingdoms in South were still not Arabs per se in that they still did not speak the Arabic language. But that was slowly changing. “Himyarite inscriptions were initially in the language of Qataban, a rival kingdom to Saba,” Robin points out. “In the first century AD, the writings turned to Sabaean, a very similar language. But in the early 4th century, the writings became very close to Arabic. This could be explained by an influx of Arab tribes into the region. Or it could simply indicate that spoken Himyari was already close to Arabic, and that the written word was converging with the spoken through the centuries.”
The vastness of the Himyarite empire could not hide the fact that South fortunes continued to wane. A steady decline in the surface area planted in date palms indicates an increasingly arid climate in South Arabia during the first centuries AD, a process that has continued until today. The drying up of the incense trade was another decisive factor. With the focus of power then on the highlands to the west, the irrigation systems of the former Sabaeans fell into disrepair. South Arabian inscriptions attest to a major rupture in the Marib dam in the mid 4th century AD, followed by another a century later. In 525 AD, Christian Abyssinia (Ethiopia) invaded from across the Red Sea and ended the Himyarite reign. A team led by Burkhard Vogt from the German Archeological Institute in Berlin recently uncovered an inscription at the dam site itself by King Abraha, the Abyssinian appointed regent over southwest.
“The stone inscription recorded significant repairs undertaken on the dam in 548 AD,” says Norbert Nebes, professor of Semitic Studies at the University of Jena in Germany. “But sometime during the next 60 years or so, it appears the dam ruptured a final time, never to be repaired.” The Quran tells us, less than a century after the event: But they [the people of Saba] turned away (from God) and we sent against them the flood (released) from the Dams, and we converted their two garden (rows) into “gardens” producing bitter fruit, and tamarisks, and some few (stunted) lote-trees. After centuries of relative stability, the inhabitants of the Marib oasis deserted their homes for greener pastures elsewhere.
The Quran continues: … At length we made them [the people of Saba] as a tale (that is told) and we dispersed them all in scattered fragments… But where did they go? Some undoubtedly took to the cooler, more hospitable highlands to the west. Did others set out north and east in large numbers to flood the rest of the Arabian Peninsula with their descendants? Archeologists agree that the evidence of a massive exodus from South Arabia, at least from the area around the dam alone, is unlikely on the scale now popularly imagined. “The dam complex in Marib irrigated about 25,000 acres of land at its greatest extent, and could have supported several tens of thousands of people,” Christian Robin explains. “But by the time the area was abandoned in the late 6th century, silting up around the dam and a drier climate had greatly diminished the area of irrigated land, with a consequent drop in the population. When the Abyssinian Abraha repaired the dam for the last time, he used stones from houses in Marib, a sure sign that they had already been abandoned, and that the oasis was in decline.” Even if all of the remaining inhabitants of Marib packed up and left in a day to settle the rest of Arabia, Robin maintains that “such small numbers were not sufficient to have much impact over a large area.”
Within a few decades, beginning around 630 AD, Islam exploded onto the scene as the predominant religion in the area. The migration of several thousand Sabaean Hymiarites (called Yemenis by then) to join the Muslim armies’ in their lightning victories is well documented by Muslim historians. After fighting in Syria and Iraq, many of these Yemenis and their families settled down in the newly conquered lands, lending their tribal names to more than one new town. “The Yemenis rallying to the Muslim armies may be a delayed reaction to the same economic and political forces that likely resulted in the collapse of the Marib dam a few decades before,” Norbert Nebes suggests. “In that sense they could *loosely* be said to represent the exodus cited by so many Arabs today.”
Rivalries soon emerged in the nascent and quickly expanding Islamic state, between the newly arrived Yemenis on the one hand, and the more northern Arabs with whom they came into contact on the other. Within a century, Islamic scholars formulated a more detailed genealogy of the Arabs, in which those tribes originating from Yemen and much of the Western coastal plain of Arabia were said to descend from Qahtan, while those further north were said to descend from Adnan.
The distinction between Northern and Southern Arabs was not wholly arbitrary, however. According to Robert Hoyland, in the two or three centuries leading up to Islamic times, those Arab tribes under Himyarite tutelage were called Southern Arabs, while those within the sphere of influence of the great Persian and Roman/Byzantine empires to the north were referred to as Northern Arabs. Yet the detail of Islamic scholars’ genealogy was unprecedented. Adnan descended from Ismail, they said, the father of all the Arabs, and the son of Abraham. Adnan sired Maad, who had a son called Nizar, both of whose names have been found in the archeological record as large tribes of central Arabia.
Qahtan, however, was a rather obscure Arab tribe known to archeologists for having made its capital for a time in the 1st century AD in the south central Arabian oasis of Qaryat al-Faw. Qahtan is believed to be a reference to the Biblical Joktan, great great grandson of Shem, the son of Noah.
The genealogy fits well because the Book of Genesis adds that Sheba (Saba) was descended from Joktan (Qahtan). Though the people of Saba, and later Himyar, did not speak Arabic and thus could not be called Arabs, they slowly welcomed Arab tribes into their midst, eventually adopting their language. It is this amalgam of Semitic but non Arabic speaking Sabaeans with Arab immigrants from nearby central Arabia that came to be referred to later as Southern Arabs, or Qahtanis. The genealogists themselves recognized that South Arabians and the surrounding Arabs had distinct origins, Hoyland notes. But by the coming of Islam the two had integrated to the point that they were seen as constituting a single social and cultural entity.
A similar process of integration has continued into more recent times between the Southern and Northern Arabs, to such an extent that many Arabs today are only vaguely aware of the distinction or its historical implications. This has been reinforced by the rise of Arab nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries in reaction to colonialism, which has tended to downplay or deny differences between various Arab communities in the Middle East.
So while the story of the collapse of the Marib dam and the subsequent exodus throughout Arabia must be taken with a grain of salt from an archeological point of view, there is nevertheless substantial evidence that something along these lines did occur, though over a longer time period and involving many fewer people than popularly believed. But then that is the stuff of which legends are made of.