World History 1 160 - 10.3.2 The Kingdom of Himyar

The Kingdom of Himyar flourished in southern Arabia from the first century BCE to the sixth century CE, on the coast of modern-day Yemen (Figure 10.15). The Himyarites originated from the kingdom of the Sabaeans, a Semitic people who had occupied southern Arabia from at least 1000 BCE. The Himyarites, however, were able to form their own kingdom because of the discovery of a prosperous trade route on the Red Sea coast. From the first century BCE to the second century CE, the Himyarites absorbed the Sabean and Qataban kingdoms, as well as several local tribes, and created their own capital in Zafar. This centralization of power unified the entire region of southern Arabia under a single government for the first time.

Once Himyar had become unified, it sought to maintain good relations with its neighbors by focusing on the exchange of goods from abroad. Unlike the Sabaeans, who had earlier dominated trade in the region through overland routes, the Himyarites shifted their focus to maritime trade. They had access to a port on their southern coast that lay along an important sea route from Egypt to Asia, and they traded luxury goods such as ivory and spices, acting as a waypoint between the Roman Empire, East Africa, and India.

The Himyarites had traditionally practiced a polytheistic religion, but in Late Antiquity the kingdom experienced a religious transformation when King Abu Karib As’ad chose to convert to Judaism in the early years of his reign, around 390 CE. The conversion of the people followed, and Judaism spread among the elite Himyarites first, perhaps as a means of appeasing the king and gaining political goodwill. However, some scholars have speculated that Himyar’s focus on Judaism was politically motivated, because it appears that a substantial Jewish population already existed in Arabia. The king may have felt compelled to create a Jewish state when one was no longer possible in Palestine because the Christian Byzantines controlled it. Much like the Byzantine emperors, who were religious reformers, the kings of Himyar publicly displayed their religious devotion. Several inscriptions from this period are dedicated to “the one God of Heaven and Earth.” Kings also constructed synagogues for the burgeoning Jewish community.

Himyar came into increasing contact with Christian missionaries inside its borders, and several churches were built in Himyarite cities in the fourth and fifth centuries. The earliest known Christian missionary was the diplomat Theophilus, sent as an ambassador by the Roman emperor Constantius II around 354. Because of Himyar’s access to lucrative trade routes, the Byzantines sought to influence the local population by converting them to Christianity, much as they had done in Aksum. The Himyarites responded to this outside interference in their kingdom by dealing with the Christians violently. Christian missionaries, Byzantine merchants, and other perceived outsiders were seized and put on trial. Overseen by the king and other religious officials, the trials resulted in the execution of numerous Christians in the late fifth century. Political rather than religious motivations spurred much of this violence, but in the following period that rationale changed, and the violence against Christians escalated.

In 522, King Dhu Nuwas began to conduct a military campaign against any Ethiopians or Christian sympathizers in the kingdom. Priests were killed and churches burned or dismantled and converted into synagogues. At Najran, home to a large Christian population, Dhu Nuwas set up a blockade in an effort to turn the population against the city’s Christians. He ultimately executed hundreds of Christians there and in Zafar. Hoping to form a larger Jewish state, Dhu Nuwas also sought alliances with the Sasanians and Jewish residents in Palestine. As previously discussed, this violence and political maneuvering in Himyar piqued the interest of Aksum, which was the kingdom’s chief rival because of its nearby location across the Red Sea.

The conquest by the Aksumites in the 520s was followed by the rule of Abraha, the Ethiopian who had commanded the Aksumite forces. A staunch Christian, Abraha sought to eradicate Judaism and other faiths in Himyar, attempting to wipe out idolatry and any lingering elements of paganism in the region. His major building projects included a grand church and the reconstruction of the Marib Dam. Abraha’s rule was brief, however, and Sasanian loyalists controlled Himyar until the arrival of Islam in the seventh century.

The Past Meets the Present

South Arabian Geography and Agriculture

The Arabian Peninsula is largely a desert landscape, experiencing hot temperatures and little rain year-round. In the southwest, however, in what is today Yemen, the highlands allow for somewhat cooler temperatures and consistent rainfall. This makes for a fertile and hospitable region. There is much evidence that crops were grown in ancient Arabia, mainly date-palms, olives, grapes, and other fruits. But farmers also cultivated wheat, cotton, and henna. What made this farming possible were feats of engineering that allowed the local population to harness water.

For example, in the city of Marib in central Yemen, a great dam was constructed to provide water for local agriculture. Marib was the capital of the Sabaean kingdom, which used the dam to great purpose for farming in the city by means of an intricate irrigation system. However, the construction of the dam may predate the Sabaeans, perhaps having begun in the eighteenth-century BCE. In the 520s CE, the conquering Himyarites took control of the structure and raised the height of its walls, though it later collapsed in 570.

The ability to harness water was important to sustaining prolonged settlements in Arabia in Late Antiquity. In addition to constructing dams and irrigation systems, the people of this region collected water from flash floods and used terracing in hilly regions.

Of all Yemen’s most famous agricultural products, however, few have had as large an impact on world history as coffee. From the medieval period onward, central Yemen in particular became known for the growing and trade of Coffea Arabica, or Arabica coffee beans. While it is believed that these beans originated in the Horn of Africa before crossing the Red Sea, it was in Ottoman-controlled Yemen during the fifteenth century that the hot beverage known as coffee was first consumed. Even today, more than half of all coffee beans grown and consumed throughout the world are these Arabica beans.

  • What agricultural products come to mind when you think of the Arabian Peninsula?
  • What does the spread of Arabica coffee and its popularity around the world say about the interconnectedness of people throughout history?

Link to Learning

Learn more about the Marib Dam and agriculture in South Arabia.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax