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The Collapse of the Marib Dam and the Origin of the Arabs

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Land of the Two Paradises, Ardh al-Jannatayn, is how the ancients described the capital of the Kingdom of Sheba in southwest Arabia. 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, to all corners of the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. These emigrants later came to be known as Southern Arabs, and they allegedly settled in great numbers among the Northern Arabs into whose lands they passed, 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 what is the basis for dividing Arabs into Northerners and Southerners, a division that 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 of South Arabia, 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. South Arabia 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 South Arabia from India and Africa. The gold the caravans carried home with them made South Arabia very wealthy. Rival kingdoms rose up in the area to challenge Saba, but the trade continued profitably for South Arabia 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 Arabic, 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 of modernday Iraq, Syria, and Jordan in the north, 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. Nomadic Arab peoples penetrated deep into the Fertile Crescent from Arabia in the 5th century BC, mixing with the settled population along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and even into northern Iraq. They fought Alexander the Great in Lebanon in 333 BC, and later many Arabs joined the Roman army, through which they spread their Arabian gods as far abroad as Dacia (Romania) and Pannonia (Austria/Hungary and the northern Balkans). But in general these Arab emigrants were swallowed up by the surrounding Greek and Aramaean cultures, according to work done by Fran?oise Briquel-Chatonnet, a researcher at France?s National Center for Scientific Research. With the incense trade in full swing, a community of Arabs settled down from their desert wanderings in the 4th century BC to found the Nabataean kingdom in Petra (modern Jordan), living off the proceeds of the incense trade that passed through their land. Other Arabs profited from the trade as well, guiding and protecting the caravans from Arab bandits on the treacherous journey between South Arabia and the north. 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 Arabicspeaking nomadic tribes from central Arabia began arriving in South Arabia 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 Arabia entirely. The incense kingdoms in the South Arabian desert 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 Arabia (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 Arabia 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 Arabia?s 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 Abyssinianappointed regent over southwest Arabia. ?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

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