Ancient Greece and Rome are well represented in museums across the world, but the contemporaneous civilizations of Yemen — including a mysterious Jewish community — have received far less recognition. A new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, seeks to correct this historical prejudice.
The first century BCE to the second century CE was a golden age for Yemen, thanks to the incense cultivated in this historic region of the Arabian Peninsula. Through land and maritime trade routes, the luxurious scents reached distant sections of the known world — including Rome to the west and India to the east. In Yemen itself, riches from the trade sparked a booming economy and stunning art.
“Ancient Yemen: Incense, Art, and Trade” opened this autumn at the Smithsonian and will be on display for at least the next three years. Located in the National Museum of Asian Art, the exhibition contains such works as funerary alabaster statues, architectural elements and bronzes. Many objects reflect the interchange between East and West.
Curator Antonietta Catanzariti told The Times of Israel that “people see the objects and often think they’re products of the Western world. Rome comes to mind. The Greeks come to mind. What we attempt to do is introduce visitors to the diverse material culture of ancient Yemen itself.”
Yemen’s glorious past stands in poignant contrast to the present situation of a devastating civil war.
“When I think about the exhibition, I’m also driven by the fact there’s a lot going on presently,” Catanzariti said, “the cultural heritage of Yemen is being destroyed and looted. With this exhibition, the museum wants to share the collection with the visitors and learn about ancient Yemen.”
A set of two decorative bronzes indicates the cosmopolitanism of the ancient culture. Each one depicts a boy riding a lion. Although the boy evokes the Greek god Dionysus, the lion is inscribed with a South Arabian script.
Catanzariti noted, “The bronze sculptures with the boy riding the lions are very much the product of ancient Yemenite kingdoms.”
So is a gutter bearing the image of the bull-god Almaqah, which was placed atop a building. Part of a pantheon worshiped by the polytheistic cultures of the day, Almaqah was the deity of both the moon and agriculture.
Incorporated into the gutter, Catanzariti said, “Almaqah not only has a symbolic function but also a practical one. When the water runs down the gutter, it falls to the ground and irrigates it, as this is the function of the gutter and of Almaqah, who was believed to be not only the moon god but also the one responsible [for] irrigation and agriculture.”
There’s even an Indian figurine of a dancing goddess, attesting to trade connections between Yemen and South Asia once mariners learned to navigate monsoons.
On the trail of frankincense
Educated in Italy and the United States, Catanzariti holds a PhD in the art and archaeology of the ancient Near East from the University of California, Berkeley. She has conducted excavations in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, including an ongoing project she is directing in the Qara Dagh region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Her previous curated exhibitions at the Smithsonian include “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt,” in 2017.
For the Yemen exhibition, she said, “Pliny the Elder writes about the trade and describes how incense was very important in the trade and how it functioned, but we shouldn’t just rely on this classical source. There are archaeological remains and artifacts that tell us about this complex trade, helping [explain] why incense was important.”
One type of incense was especially in-demand back then — frankincense — and Yemen was ideally situated to provide it. Mentioned in the Christian Bible as one of the gifts of the Magi along with myrrh, frankincense comes from the Boswellia sacra tree, which is native to only four places on the globe: Yemen, Oman, Somalia and Ethiopia.
“It needs a special environment that allows it to grow,” Catanzariti said, calling the frankincense from these regions “highest-quality,” used “for secular or religious rituals in temples, for medicinal purposes and as perfume.”
Ancient incense burners are part of the exhibition, and visitors can even view some actual frankincense.
“We try to help visitors learn about frankincense by adding in the exhibition modern-day frankincense, so that the public can see how it looks,” Catanzariti said.
Asked about its scent, she replied, “I do get a lot of questions about this when giving gallery tours. The one we have, unfortunately… is maybe several years old. It does not have much of a smell. I was told by a visitor that her family uses it regularly and it has a very nice smell. You need to place the incense on charcoal, and it burns slowly. I have not tried it personally.”
The lost Jews of Himyar
In ancient times, Catanzariti said, “there was quite a demand for incense — for instance, from the Western world.” As a result, she said, “Cultivation of the trees increased. As demand increased, so did its value.”
This benefited the five separate kingdoms — Saba’, Qataban, Ma’in, Hadhramaut and Himyar — that ruled at least part of present-day Yemen during the period covered in the exhibition. They were collectively nicknamed the “caravan kingdoms” due to their prominence in the incense trade.
Himyar was the last such kingdom, ruling into the sixth century CE. Its end was related to a controversial historical narrative. This Arabic kingdom had converted to Judaism in the fourth century CE, after which the Himyarite Christian population suffered persecution. In the sixth century, this persecution drew a backlash from Ethiopia, leading to the fall of the kingdom, according to a 2011 article from the Institute for Advanced Study located in Princeton, New Jersey. Later centuries would see the rise of Islam in the region.
The exhibition focuses on the much earlier caravan kingdom of Qataban, which existed from the eighth century BCE to the second century CE. Most of the artifacts come from the Qataban stronghold of Timna, a hub of the incense trade.
“The [Qataban] kingdom was located in the Bayhan valley, along strategic trade routes,” Catanzariti said. “All the caravan kingdoms played important roles in the trade going inland through the Arabian Peninsula up to the north.”
“Yemen is located in a strategic geographic position,” she noted. “All the routes through the ancient [Yemenite] kingdoms used this very strategic location to connect countries and other regions.”
The historic Jordanian cities of Petra and Aqaba played significant roles in the trade. From Aqaba, incense traversed the Negev Desert en route to the Levantine coast, namely the port of Gaza.
Catanzariti called the Negev “a central and very important region along the trade route,” with “several stations” of caravanserais that allowed both traders and their camels to rest.
“As archaeological investigations continue along the incense route, we are understanding the international impact of incense, revealing a connected world that is more complex than we thought,” she said, “illuminating us on a trade that was connecting people from distant regions, as reflected from the different sites in the Negev.”
“I would not be surprised by the fact that the more and more we continue to excavate, the more details [there will be] of the goods traded.”
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