Women in Ancient Yemen

by David A. Warburton

Yemen Update 36 (1995):23,33

[This is the final installment of a series, published in the Yemen Times, on objects stolen from the museums of the Southern and Eastern governorates during the summer 1994 conflict. I would like to express my thanks to the readers of the Yemen Times for their interest, and to the staff and leadership of the General Organization for Antiquities, Manuscripts, and Museums who made it possible to establish which objects were missing and enabled us to publish photographs of the missing artifacts.]

According to the Bible (1 Kings 10; 2 Chronicles 9), the Queen of Sheba herself came to Solomon to press him with questions, and found him to be a wise and wealthy king. The Quran (Sura 27) and the Ethiopian legends add more spice to the story, but it still remains the story of Bilqis or of Makeda, against a background of masculine powers. Legends of Arabian queens are not however restricted to Yemen and hazy days of glory on the edge of history, as the real live Arab Queen Zenobia of Palmyra came quite close to wresting Egypt from Rome, and thus almost became the most powerful ruler on the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea and a serious menace to Rome during the third century C.E. Long before her, during the eighth century B.C.E., the Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser and Sargon II encountered quite a number of bloodthirsty women cavalry leaders. They mentioned these queens because they defeated them, but as Sargon's body was ultimately destined to be left lying on a foreign battlefield, we may assume that other Assyrian kings fought undecided or unsuccessful actions against Arabian cavalry, which they chose to forget. At the time, the Arab cavalry was riding horses and camels and shooting arrows at the poor Assyrian infantry, accompanied by some charioteers, who rarely dared to loosen the reins to take the time to shoot, and it would not be surprising if the Arabian cavalry were not a bit much for the conservative Assyrians.

That women appear as legendary rulers is perhaps not surprising, but their failure to appear on the coins suggests that they did not in fact actually rule, as the coins quickly changed from depicting the Athenian goddess Athena to depicting male rulers and male gods. Viewed from the coins alone, one would rapidly draw the conclusion that women's roles in public life were purely legendary and that their participation was limited to the conventional assumptions. The same conclusion could be drawn from the Assyrian texts a decade or two later, as by the end of the eighth century B.C.E, Assyrian sources mention kings and not queens in association with Saba. The first coins date to a period many centuries later than this. Should we then draw the conclusion that early Yemeni society was ruled by women, and that it was then transformed into a masculine society? Or should we simply assume that the legendary women were part of the exotic tales of far-off Yemen?

The answer may be that seeking real ancient Yemeni heroines one should include others aside from the queens. It is one thing to have the Queen of Sheba hovering on the historical horizon, but it is quite another to debate whether the female figures depicted on stelae from Qataban are priestesses or goddesses; this is in fact an on-going debate. The French-speaking world tends toward the latter interpretation, while German-speakers prefer the former. Given the evidence of the jewelry which has been actually found, and the execution of the stelae, it would potentially be justifiable to suggest that these are not real women, but ideal images of what men want women to be: chaste and discrete, silent and obedient. The women depicted on the walls of temples in the Jawf are set on pedestals, but seem to be considerably more lively, but we have no idea of who they were. We know however from the jewelry that at least some ancient Yemeni women enjoyed a considerable degree of discreet ornamentation , so the conclusion that the stelae depict goddesses would appear to be sound on the surface, but what about the dancers of the temples in the Jawf? And what do we know of real ancient Yemeni women?

In 1950, the American excavations at Timna (the capital of Qataban) brought to light an inscribed block of stone, relating that a certain living woman named Barat spent her own private funds to consecrate a golden statue to the god Ashtar, charging the god to protect her and hers. She was apparently obliged to provide for a rain sacrifice by the king, and this statue was part of her duty. The golden statue is -- of course -- long gone, but a number of other preserved alabaster statues depict women, accompanied by one line inscriptions naming women. As similar depictions of men are assumed to depict men, then it should not be inappropriate to suggest that these statues are of living women, and that they paid for them out of their own means, for public display, either in the city or in the cemetery at Timna, Hayd bin Aqil.

Another inscription from Ma'rib records the dedication of a statue of a woman - by a group of women - as an expression of thanks for the god's having delivered a daughter from the perils of disease. One inscription records thanks rendered to the god Ashtar for having granted the happy parents a daughter. Yet another inscription notes that a man's wife also dedicated a statue of thanks for being saved, just as her husband did. One of the most curious inscriptions records that a woman named Lutef dedicated a statue to the god in thanks for having assured her that her husband return safely from a foreign excursion undertaken at the orders of their lords, but this appears to be quite parenthetical as the text relates that the women herself is actually even more grateful for having been rescued from near death when bearing a stillborn son, without a word of sorrow at the loss: quite an interesting attitude for a public document, especially as she goes on to give thanks for the welfare of her daughters.

These women were carrying out public responsibilities, and thus the suggestion that the female figures on other Qatabanian stelae should be regarded as women or priestesses rather than goddesses is permissible. Given the role that religion played in the ancient world, and quite specifically in South Arabia, these women will have had considerable authority and power, aside from financial means. Although the statues of priestesses seem to be associated with the finds of Qataban, fragments and other types of stelae associated with other ancient Yemeni kingdoms likewise depict women, suggesting that they played equally important roles there. One of the finest is the conical necked statue of a woman from Dahla dedicated to a god, but there are also extremely elegant funerary heads of women. Virtually all of the statues and stelae depict women wearing dresses with high necklines, and simple symbolic jewelry, suitable for important public representative purposes, and statues and inscriptions and stelae of women were found in virtually all of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms.

All of this would suggest that ancient Yemeni women functioned as important officials, as priestesses, and as commercially active members of society, even as professional women with traveling husbands. On the other hand, the fine jewels from daily life show that they also appreciated and enjoyed other pleasures as well. It is not quite the substantiation of the myth of the Queen of Sheba, but the evidence attests to the depth of women's involvement in public life and in ancient Yemen, and as happened in Palmyra, the occasional ancient Yemeni queen may have exercised power in a grand manner, and charmed the world. The discrete ornamentation displayed by the jewelry - as compared to the contemporary mode among Arab women in Palmyra for example - shows that they bore their responsibilities with grace, dignity and pleasure. The fabled wealth of ancient Yemen suggests that society benefitted from their participation.

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