The Yemen of Old

 

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THE YEMEN OF OLD

I am fascinated by Yemen.

Frankincense and myrrh, spectacular Aden of the spice trade, ancient Saana, the Marib dam, the Port of Mocha, and the lands opposite on the Horn of Africa.

But not by its tragic, almost unceasing civil wars. Nor do I seek to wallow in the world of exploitation by countries that surround it, invade it, or fight surrogate wars there of trade, militancy, or religion.

 

COFFEE AND FRANKINCENSE

I am interested in the earlier times. When Yemen was populated by ancient empires facilitating the fabled spice trade up the Arabian Peninsula. Or the later movement of trade along coastal sea lanes up the Red Sea to those exotic lands to the west. Mocha was a Yemen port city, a center for the export of coffee from Ethiopia. You still drink Mocha coffee, but only legend now relates your palate to Yemen.

And Frankincense. Not the monster, but the resin! That was Yemen’s most profitable export. And one that grew in the arid landscape of the mountainous deserts that repulsed the Indian Ocean waters attacking the solace of the Red Sea.

Frankincense, the aromatic scent used by religious celebrants far in the past, and some Christian religions to this day. Isn’t that what the three Wise Men brought as a gift for Christ in his manger? Along with gold and myrrh. Ah, myrrh, another resin from Yemen’s desert trees. Frankincense was recently set to solemnly smoke and its brass cup clank against a chain swung over the coffin of a man I admired in Kentucky. And as early as when my children were young, I have placed dried clumps of Frankincense on my wood stove, there to send wafting waves of ancient imaginings into the minds of my family and friends.

 

BILQIS – THE QUEEN OF SHEBA

The Queen of Sheba⎯Bilqis in the original translations. “And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bore spices and gold very much, and precious stonne.” Her kingdom was real, I think. And located in Yemen, if I am right. Hers was a powerful land when she caravanned up to the Jewish people for an ancient version of trade talks with Solomon. Hers was most likely the Sabaean Kingdom in Yemen.

THE MARIB DAM

That Kingdom existed for as long as 1,400 years, beginning around 1,200 B.C. It was centered in Marib at the desert edge of mountains along the spice trade route to the north. In the 8th Century B.C., the Sabaean People built a dam, trapping the seasonal mountain flow in Wadi Abhanah. The dam lasted more than 1,000 years, irrigation for the desert fields. It finally collapsed in an A.D. 570 flood. That was also the year of the birth of the prophet of Islam, Mohammed.

Earlier, around the second century B.C., the reversing direction of the monsoon winds were harnessed to provide direct sailing from Egyptian ports down the Red Sea across the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Sabaean ports. The Himyarite peoples with Yemeni ports on the Red Sea soon supplanted the Sabaean Kingdom and overran the Sabaean Cities. Even the Roman masters of Egypt, in 25 B.C., sent expeditions south into Yemen to disrupt Sabaean trade competition with Egypt and Ethiopia.

THE TEMPLE OF THE MOON

But let us focus on the five-pillared ruins of the Sabaean Temple of the Moon at Marib. They are dedicated to the moon god, Almaqah. The crescent moon has long been a symbol of the ancient peoples of those lands. Is that why a crescent moon is so often associated with Islam?

The Islamic calendar is partly based on lunar months. And don’t the Jewish people also base their calendar on the phases of the moon? Isn’t the holy fasting of Moslem Ramadan based on the first appearance of the crescent moon in the ninth month? And are the curved daggers of the Arab residents also representations of the crescent moon? Marib is a mysterious place.

And there was a written language there, too. Look at the funerary slab. Can you interpret it? Not pictures. Not cuneiform. Is it an alphabetic language like ours? But with no vowels? Ancient Hebrew is like that. It is an incantation to the moon god. With carvings of bullheads. Aren’t the horns of these ancient animals also curved like the crescent moon?

Well, there is more to learn from these regions, I suspect. But we won’t be doing that anytime soon. War is raging there again as different factions and surrogate armies seek to carve out their own modern empires.

The consequences of this long and complicated Civil War are tragic. This essay is about those earlier periods, written in the hopes that times of prosperity will again return to the ancient lands of Yemen.

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