Prophets, priests, Jewish kings: Ancient Yemen made vivid in Jerusalem exhibit
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Prophets, priests, Jewish kings: Ancient Yemen made vivid in Jerusalem exhibit

Bible Lands Museum tells the story of Jews in south Arabia, where they once ruled, made war, traded spice with Rome and longed for the Holy Land

  • A visitor at the Bible Lands Museum in front of a photo by Naftali Hilger depicting a Yemenite elder reading a book upside down. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A visitor at the Bible Lands Museum in front of a photo by Naftali Hilger depicting a Yemenite elder reading a book upside down. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • An ancient Yemenite Torah scroll and book at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    An ancient Yemenite Torah scroll and book at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Pottery with dedication to Nabatean deities dating to the 1st-3rd centuries BCE on display at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Pottery with dedication to Nabatean deities dating to the 1st-3rd centuries BCE on display at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Ancient Yemenite statuettes on display at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Ancient Yemenite statuettes on display at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A statue of a bull with an inscription in the South Arabian language dating to the 1st-5th centuries BCE. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A statue of a bull with an inscription in the South Arabian language dating to the 1st-5th centuries BCE. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Visitors smell myrrh, frankincense and balsam on display at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Visitors smell myrrh, frankincense and balsam on display at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Incense burners found in ancient Israel and south Arabia dating to the 8th century BCE at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Incense burners found in ancient Israel and south Arabia dating to the 8th century BCE at the Bible Lands Museum. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A funerary stele dating to the 2nd or 3rd century BCE in Yemen depicts the deceased. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A funerary stele dating to the 2nd or 3rd century BCE in Yemen depicts the deceased. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The interior of a bowl from the 1st century CE depicts a lion hunt, an event favored by royals of the time. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The interior of a bowl from the 1st century CE depicts a lion hunt, an event favored by royals of the time. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A 2,000 year old jug, found near the Dead Sea, with resin believed to be from a balsam tree on display at the Bible Lands Museum. Balsam was a heavily traded commodity in the ancient Middle East. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A 2,000 year old jug, found near the Dead Sea, with resin believed to be from a balsam tree on display at the Bible Lands Museum. Balsam was a heavily traded commodity in the ancient Middle East. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A map of ancient Yemen on display at the Bible Lands Museum includes the famed city of Sheba. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A map of ancient Yemen on display at the Bible Lands Museum includes the famed city of Sheba. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A map on display at the Bible Lands Museum depicts the ancient spice trade between the Arabian peninsula and the Mediterranean coast. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A map on display at the Bible Lands Museum depicts the ancient spice trade between the Arabian peninsula and the Mediterranean coast. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A funerary stele of a Yemenite Jew found buried near the Dead Sea from 469 CE. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A funerary stele of a Yemenite Jew found buried near the Dead Sea from 469 CE. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • An inscription in the South Arabian language from 700 BCE. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    An inscription in the South Arabian language from 700 BCE. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Before the Babylonians destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE, the prophet Jeremiah predicted its doom. Some Yemenite Jews believe that tens of thousands of their ancestors heeded his words, and fled to South Arabia (now Yemen) before the catastrophe took place. Most of the remaining Jews were exiled to Babylon.

No one can say for certain exactly when Jews began to settle in Yemen, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that there have been Jews in Yemen for the past 2,000 years. And during all that time, they have always felt a strong connection to the land of Israel.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1881 that Jews began returning to the Holy Land in large numbers, only to find that they were less than welcome. Indeed, the trials and tribulations that awaited those who survived the long, arduous and dangerous trip are well-documented. Yet we know very little about their lives in Yemen — or about the Yemenite heritage that contributed to the marvelous culture that they brought with them.

Batya Borowski’s father Zacharia Jamil was a Yemenite jeweler who left home in 1907 and spent two years walking to the land of Israel. His daughter married the late Elie Borowski, a Polish-born genius obsessed with the idea of bringing the Bible to life and helping people to relate to their heritage. Together the two founded Jerusalem’s unique Bible Lands Museum in 1992.

An exhibit titled “Yemen – from Sheba to Jerusalem” at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Recently, Borowski initiated an exhibit called “Yemen — from Sheba to Jerusalem,” inaugurated in January as a means of getting Yemen’s story out to the public. Filled with beautiful maps, exciting artifacts and superb explanatory signs, the exhibit begins, of course, with a biblical story.

We all know the passage in Book of Kings, where Solomon and the Queen of Sheba get along like a house afire. Indeed, the Bible tells us that before the queen left she was granted “all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty.” According to legend, the beautiful queen was from Ethiopia, and one of the extras was the couple’s baby boy. Called Menelik (king’s son), the prince became the forefather of an illustrious Ethiopian dynasty.

Yet when you gaze at the exhibit’s detailed maps of South Arabia in ancient times, you find the kingdom of Sheba staring you in the face. Turns out, Sheba was actually located in Yemen.

Funerary statuettes from ancient Yemen depict the dead’s personal deities at a banquet in the afterlife. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

South Arabia was one of the most remote lands mentioned in the Bible, for it is 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the land of Israel. That’s why it isn’t surprising that while Aramean, Akkadian, and Old Hebrew were spoken throughout the Middle East in ancient times, South Arabia had its own special language.

It was only with the domestication of the camel in around 1,000 BCE that the journey between Israel and South Arabia became possible. Around that time, a Spice Route began operating that began in Yemen, moved through the Negev desert, and ended at ports along the Mediterranean Sea. The region began to prosper, for the trees needed to produce valuable spices like frankincense, and myrrh — fantastically popular in Europe — flourished in Yemen.

A third tree with special attributes grew there as well — the balsam tree. Indeed, according to first century historian Josephus Flavius, a balsam tree was one of a myriad of rich gifts that the Queen of Sheba presented to King Solomon.

An ancient book of Yemenite poetry. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Over time, Jews living at Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea learned to produce rare cosmetics from the balsam tree that were coveted by wealthy Europeans. A small jug whose resin is thought to be from the balsam tree, dating back nearly 2,000 years and discovered near the Dead Sea, is on display at the exhibit. Museum visitors are invited to get a whiff for themselves of balsam, frankincense and myrrh.

Potsherds from the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, engraved with South Arabic writing, were discovered at several sites in Judah, evidence of commercial connections between the two countries. One shard on display is even inscribed with the word KHN which could possibly relate to the word Kohen — or priest, in Hebrew.

Other artifacts at the exhibit include several Yemenite funerary steles, stone monuments to mark a grave. Engraved on the face of one that dates back to the fifth century BCE is the word Abd, the name of the deceased.

A funerary stele of an ancient Yemenite Jew is inscribed with his name, Abd. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

An alabaster funerary stele depicts a woman whose right hand is raised in a gesture of prayer, and whose left holds a sheaf of wheat. A third, made of limestone, is a statuette of a woman’s head, with an inscription mentioning both her name and that of her father.

The exhibit’s statuette of twin alabaster camels dates back to the first century BCE. According to Yehuda Kaplan, our guide and one of the curators of the exhibit, the fact that they were given names points to the standing of camels as integral to the Spice Trail.

Augustus (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Till Niermann, Wikimedia Commons)
Augustus (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Till Niermann, Wikimedia Commons)

Resin from the spices was so highly valued that in 26 BCE, Roman emperor Augustus tried to capture South Arabia and wrest control of the spices from its rulers. To that end, he sent an army of 10,000 soldiers, 500 Jews drafted by King Herod, and a thousand Nabateans — locals who served as middlemen in the spice trade — to help in the conquest. The Nabateans led the Roman army in circles until they ran out of food and water, and were forced to give up the attempt.

The fact that Judean soldiers accompanied the Roman army into South Arabia is the first indication we have of Jews in Yemen. Whether they remained or not is uncertain. But we do know that during the first centuries of the common era, when the Kingdom of Himyar controlled the land, Yemenite Jews did well for themselves. They even had a strong influence on the country’s rulers, for around the year 375 the royal family adopted Judaism, and so did many of their subjects. The called their god the Merciful, and sometimes, the Lord of the Jews.

Yemenite Jews often expressed a longing for their homeland — and quite a few asked to be buried in the land of Israel. One burial cave in Beit Shearim in the Lower Galilee, dating back to around 250 BCE refers to “the Jews of Himyar,” and a funerary stele found southeast of the Dead Sea (today part of Jordan) notes that the deceased died in the land of the Himyarites.

Three Jews read the Torah at a Jewish refugee camp at Hashid in the then British Colony of Aden, Yemen, March 1949. (AP/Gerald Malmed)

Photographer Naftali Hilger visited Yemen half a dozen times between 1987 and 2008. His beautiful photos, which document modern Yemen, and Jewish life there until recently, fill the walls of the exhibit. One depicts the ruins of a famous dam constructed in the eighth century BCE in Marib, the capital of Sheba. An engineering wonder that could only have been created by a highly organized society with advanced technology, it caught the monsoon rains and watered vast areas of land.

Other Hilger photographs show us Yemen’s bright green fields, brown deserts, ruins of ancient temples, pictures of Jews in their native dress, and youngsters studying in a circle with the one Torah that was available to them. Our favorite is a photo of an elder holding a book upside down, for he learned to read in a circle as a child.

A visitor at the Bible Lands Museum in front of a photo by Naftali Hilger depicting a Yemenite elder reading a book upside down. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

An amazing collection of ancient holy books and documents are on display in the exhibit, including an 18th century messianic poem by the great Rabbi Shalom Shabbazi, and a medieval copy of a document in which Mohammed granted special status to the Jews of Yemen after they fought for him on Shabbat. Jewelry of the kind created by Borowski’s father is also on display, along with some of the garments worn by Jews in Yemen.

Since the onset of a bloody civil war in 2015, it has been almost impossible to leave the country. Fortunately, in an operation carried out by the Jewish Agency in 2016, 17 Jews were able to make it back to their ancient homeland. Several dozen still remain in Yemen.

Bible Lands Museum Hours: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Wednesday 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

Daily guided tours in English include the Yemen exhibit:
Sunday-Friday 10:30 a.m.; additional tour on Wednesdays: 5:30 p.m.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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