New Views on Arabian Antiquity:Part I

Reviewed by Joy McCorriston
The Ohio State University

Yemen Update 44 (2002)

Until the recent publication andtranslations of Jean-François Breton's Arabia Felix and Klaus Schippmann's Ancient South Arabia, there have been noappropriate introductory texts setting Yemenís antiquities ina broader historical context. Joseph Chelhod's compiled 3-volumeL'Arabie du Sud: Histoire et Civilisation appeared nearlytwenty years ago and in French. Several well-illustrated exhibitioncatalogues have since provided valuable overviews to Yemen'santiquities and their historical context. Now four new books offereasy access to the erstwhile highly specialized literature of SouthArabian archaeology and epigraphy. Other reviewers will examineRobert G. Hoyland's Arabia and the Arabs (2001, RoutledgePress) and Alessandro de Maigret's Arabia Felix (2001, StaceyInternational Publishers) in coming issues of Yemen Update/Webdate. This issue considers the following two books:

Arabia Felix from the Time of the Queen of Sheba: Eighth Century B.C. to First Century A.D. By Jean-François Breton, translator Albert Lafarge. 2000 [1998]. University of Notre Dame Press. 226 pp. $24.00 cloth, $14.95 paper. ISBN 0-268-02002-7 (cloth), 0-268-02004-3 (paper).

Ancient South Arabia: From the Queen of Sheba to the Advent of Islam. By Klaus Schippmann, translator Allison Brown. 2001 [1998]. Marcus Wiener Publishers. 181 pp.$18.95 paper. ISBN 1-55876-236-1 (cloth), 1-55876-235-3 (paper).

Writing about the struggle to write aboutculture, anthropologist Clifford Geertz once explained the delicatetension between the ethnographer's scholarly authority of "beinghere" and conveying his personal experience of "being there" as beingat once both cartographer and pilgrim. The challenge is no less greatfor an archaeologist writing a comprehensive review of an ancientcivilization and portraying its idiosyncrasies. Of course anarchaeologist can never "be there" as an ethnographer can: thearchaeologist relies on material remains and historical texts toexperience an ancient culture. But if I were to choose one of these two books to be my guide to ancient South Arabia, only Breton's would do. His has the pilgrim's touch.

As a book suitable for lay reader, traveller, and classroom text, in many ways Breton offers the betterguide to ancient South Arabia. Not only does Arabia Felix provide updated summaries of scholarly interpretation, but Breton's skillful integration of archaeological and epigraphic (historical) data offers a balanced general introduction to the civilizations of Southwest Arabia (present-day Yemen). A single author who can accomplish this is rare; Breton's text takes its rightful place beside Nicholas Postgate's wonderful Early Mesopotamia.

And while Breton has chosen to parse his subject into thematic chapters -- "Cities and Villages," "Economy andSociety," "The Gods and their Temples," and so forth -- there nevertheless runs throughout a clear narrative of temporaldevelopment. The earliest literate societies already depended uponsocially-regulated irrigation technology, conscripted labor, and a unifying religious ideology, and these features persist through time.To explain the long-term political history of the caravan kingdoms, Breton emphasizes economic and social factors and their historical development in a dynamic political economy. It is precisely Breton's balanced portrait of both a uniquely Arabian history and its rise and demise in the pattern of many ancient civilizations that make this book such an important contribution.

The reader shares in a privileged view. Breton, who draws little attention to his own role yet has done so much of the basic research and written many of the original sourcereports, offers an intimate reconstruction of a long-vanished society. One cannot but note that ancient habits seem familiar, eventhough transformed and re-shaped by intervening centuries. Anyone who has spent the time that Breton has among Southern Arabia's contemporary tribesmen has little difficulty recognizing ethnographic contributions to Breton's reconstructions of ancient tribal organization, hierarchy, clientage, and landholding. I enjoy his implicit use of contemporary ethnography in suggesting similar situations in the past. For example, motives that underpin the construction of Yemeni tower houses today -- such as expressing wealth, emphasizing community units, and providing security -- may also have been the motives of ancient South Arabian urbanites. Later bedouin camel sacrifice offers an analogy for ancient camel burials. Such ethnographic analogy is one important axis to the sense of "being there" that Breton's interpretive view provides.

Another axis of "being there" is Breton's familiarity with both epigraphic and archaeological sources; in both he recognizes inherent strengths and weaknesses. Because his archaeological research has often entailed close collaboration withleading epigraphers (especially Christian Robin), Breton well understands the historical source materials, their contexts, andtheir limitations. Archaeological data can be used to test historicaldata, as in the Middle East's most famous example of matching destruction levels of Canaanite cities to a Biblical account of Joshua's (mythical) violent conquest. (At none of the named Biblical cities is there a match!) Breton tries a similar approach with the correlation of archaeological destruction evidence from the site of Sabr with the southeast campaign of Karibíil Watar, sovereignof the Saba confederacy (p. 36). Archaeological data sometimes confirm historical expectations; for example, square incense altars appear in archaeological contexts during the 7th century BCE, concurrent with the historical accounts documenting that incense replaced animal fats in sacrifice (p. 57). Yet the most valuable contribution of archaeology is in providing a cultural framework for limited historical information. Breton's synthesis does the latter exceptionally well. Without the archaeological records of Southern Arabia's cities, temples, and necropoli, South Arabian civilization would still be lost to contemporary scholars: without inscriptions and historical accounts, ancient South Arabians would be as mysterious as the lost founders of Great Zimbabwe. Breton's "being there" offers a highly informed perspective of literate South Arabianurban dwellers through the rise and fall of the Sabakingdom.

Arabia Felix opens with an introduction to physical and economic geographies of the Arabiancity-states. The reader immediately understands that floodwater farming was the foundation of civilization, and there follows(Chapter 1) particularly clear explanation of the dynamics, social requirements, and technical exigencies such farming entailed. Only thereafter does Breton turn to the historical events recorded ininscriptions and the chronicles of neighboring civilizations (Chapter2). Chapter 3 offers an interesting discussion of aromatic resins, again from the perspective of literate urban dwellers more interestedin trade than in the social and technological aspects of frankincense and myrrh production in remote hinterlands. Next, the readerencounters ancient South Arabian cities and villages, both asarchaeological remains (Chapter 4) and a socio-economic reconstruction of the diverse lives of their inhabitants (Chapter 5). Changing and complex ideologies appear in later chapters. Aparticularly successful and insightful marriage of archaeology andepigraphy offers an exceptionally authoritative and yet intimate view of "the gods and their temples" (Chapter 6) and "the world of thedead" (Chapter 7). Final chapters situate Arabia Felix in the widerworld of classical commerce, imperialism, and cultural exchange and yet anchor unique Sabaean traditions in Arabian history.

I lament the lack of detailed maps and linedrawings in Arabia Felix, for with greater care to illustration this would be a superb contribution indeed. If only there were maps of the separate kingdoms, of city layout (Marib, Shabwa), of frankincense routes, genealogical charts of the mukarribs, distribution maps and illustrations of aromatic plants, plans of buildings and temple architecture, diagrams of costume, illustration of artworks, all described in tantalizing detail in the text! Breton's American publishers have done little service to this book by failing to pressfor these illustrations and by clumping the scant photographs that do appear into a cheap core section without figure numbers orcross-reference to relevant chapters. No doubt it is also cheaper to do chapter notes at the end of the book than footnotes, but the latter better serve this book's audience. There are odd translation glitches such as the term "raclette knife" (p. 59), which few North American readers will recognize, "Corbeau" to describe the Fortress of the Crow at Qana (p. 173), and the awkward definition of Linnean species (p. 55). What a shame that the press spent so little effort producing Breton's important text -- it could attract a much wider audience in re-publication with appropriate figures.

Schippmann's Ancient South Arabiaoffers an altogether different perspective from Breton's. To return to Geertz's discursive dichotomy, I recognize in Schippmann's work only the authoritative scholarship of "being here" and none of the persuasion of "being there". Despite his somewhat painful presentation of credentials ("I taught Middle Eastern archaeology inthe Michaelis House, named after [a German scholar interested inArabia] for twenty-five years" p. 23), I wonder whether Schippmann has ever even visited South Arabia. For all the researchand synthetic scholarship he brings to his subject, Schippmann's book lacks both the narrative cohesion and evocative detail of Breton's.The difference is not merely one of length but one of substance and judgment.

Overall the book is abrupt and lacks real engagement with the subject. Chapters are choppy and lurch from one to the next with neither transition nor narrative thread. Ancient South Arabia describes and lists various facets of ancient cultural tradition, but it offers no explanatory framework. Schippmann has relied too heavily on German sources, and sometimes these sources have long since been superceded by more recent scholarship in other languages. This is definitely not an accessible guide for tourists, nor does it hold much promise for classroom use. It does serve as a brief catalogue for important issues in Arabia'shistory and archaeology.

After a brief introduction to Arabia's physical geography (Chapter 1), Schippmann offers a similarly categorical view of Arabia's people (Chapter 2). The reader can find population statistics (mostly outdated) but gets little sense of who Arabia's people are and their own perceptions of cultural and social identities. Chapter 3 ("Languages and Writing") lacks some important sources: I find no reference to the recent epigraphic and historic work of Russian scholarship in Hadramawt or on the implications of early lettering on ceramic jars. Further, there is lengthy treatment of a scholarly controversy over origins and antiquity of Ugaritic and South Arabic alphabets, yet the reader gets no sense of why this should be an important issue in such a short treatment of ancient South Arabia. Also, do not look for the excitement of a travelogue in "Exploration History" (Chapter 4). Content to list explorations, Schippmann's text utterly lacks intimacy and persuasiveness. Similarly Chapter 5 ("The History of South Arabia"), arguably thecore of this book, lists sites and archaeological expeditions without meaningful synthesis of archaeological and epigraphic discoveries.The chronological arguments are much too detailed for a book of such limited scope and perhaps reflect the author's own struggle to masterhis subject, a struggle also suggested by more frequent insertion ofthe author's opinions than elsewhere in the text. "History" heremeans dates, rulers, and military campaigns: the reader finds none ofthe social and economic dynamics that offer context and explanation for change. Chapter 6 ("Social Structures in Ancient Arabia") ignores all the recent American work in Dhamâr, all Yemeni research in the highlands, all Canadian work along the Tihâma, and virtually all work in southern Yemen, including recent multi-nationalstudies in Wadi Markha. As a result, Schippmann's lack of geographicand temporal nuance offers a highly static impression of Arabiansociety. "The Economy" (Chapter 7) includes mistakes both ofsubstance and emphasis: there is no accepted evidence of early introduction of millet, and almost no treatment of irrigation, arguably one of the most extraordinary and complex features of southern Arabian society. And why should the reader be interested in warfare (Chapter 8)? To what social or economic dynamics is the topic germane? In Chapter 9 ("Religion"), one must ask for greater examination of how South Arabia's temples were like the temples of Mesopotamia. Were Arabia's temples also functioning as idiomatic expressions of household economies? If so, which of Arabia's temples and during which periods in its history? How has Schippmann arrived at this interesting comparison? And last, if most peculiarly,Schippmann's book discusses "Art" (including here the Marib dam), severing the reader after a cursory treatment of coins and pottery.There is no summary or conclusion. One wonders if the author overran page limits, a deadline, or perhaps his own interest in Ancient South Arabia.

Schippman's book brings the advantage ofbrevity and a fine translation. Alas, like Breton's, the book lacks decent illustration. Black and white photographs are printed on ragrather than glossy plate paper and offer murky, grainy, low-contrastviews of their subjects, which are mostly stone ruins and landscapes lacking animate subjects or scales. There are no line drawings.

Inevitably, a comparison of two works sosimilar in theme and construction and so different in balance and style will favor one. My preference aside, both books offer unprecedented access to ancient Arabia because they cover a broadscope and provide a much-needed overview like so many books on ancient Egypt or Greece or Rome. Both books fill an important niche and should enjoy long shelf-lives.

References Cited:

Clifford Geertz (1988) Works and Lives:The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford, CA: Stanford UniversityPress. p. 10.

J.N. Postgate (1992) Early Mesopotamia:Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: RoutledgePress.

Search Site

Search Library Collection