In Yemen, an ancient culture whose wealth was stolen from Greece and Rome
Ancient Greece and Rome are well represented in museums around the world, but the contemporary civilizations of Yemen – which includes a mysterious Jewish community – have received less recognition. And it is this oversight of history that a new exhibition presented at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, is now attempting to correct.
Yemen experienced its golden age in the first century BCE to second century CE, thanks to the frankincense that was cultivated in this historic region of the Arabian Peninsula. These lush perfumes traveled great distances in the known world – as far west as Rome, and as far east as India. In Yemen itself, the wealth generated by this trade led to a thriving economy and gave birth to an art of astonishing beauty.
The exhibit “Ancient Yemen: Incense, Art, and Trade” opened this fall and will be on view for at least the next three years. Hosted at the National Museum of Asian Arts, the exhibition allows you to discover a variety of works – alabaster funerary statues, architectural elements, bronzes… A large number of objects displayed in curiosity of visitors reflect the exchanges between East and West ..
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Curator Antonietta Catanzariti tells the Israel time that “people see things and often think they come from the western world. Rome comes to mind most easily. What we’re trying to do is introduce visitors to the diverse material culture of ancient Yemen itself.”
Yemen’s glorious past is a stark contrast to the current reality of a country ravaged by civil war.
“When I think of the exhibition, I also think of all these things that are happening now,” Catanzariti said. “Yemen’s cultural heritage is being destroyed and looted. Through this exhibition, the museum wants to share its collection with visitors so that they can learn more about Yemen, about what the country used to be”.
A set of two decorative bronzes indicates the cosmopolitan nature of this ancient culture. Each of them depicts a little boy riding a lion. If the child evokes the Greek god Dionysos, an ancient South Arabian inscription is engraved on the lion.
Catanzariti says that “the bronze sculptures showing the child with lions are actually the result of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms”.
This is also the case of a canal which is the image of Almaqah, the bull god, a canal placed on top of a building. Almaqah, part of the pantheon of gods worshiped in the polytheistic cultures of the time, was the god of the moon and agriculture.
Referring to its representation in the canal, Catanzariti said that “The Almaqah is not only a symbolic function, but a practical function. When the water flows through the canal, it falls on the ground and irrigates it – which is not only the purpose of the canal but also the role of Almaqah, who is considered the god of water, the moon but also the god of irrigation and agriculture. “.
There is even an Indian figurine of a dancing goddess, highlighting the trade links established between Yemen and South Asia after sailors learned to sail through the difficult rainy season.
On the way to incense
After studying in Italy and the United States, Catanzariti earned a doctorate in ancient Near Eastern art and archeology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has directed excavations in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, especially within the framework of an ongoing project he oversees in the Qara Dagh region, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Among the previous exhibitions he has curated at the Smithsonian, “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt”, in 2017.
For the exhibition dedicated to Yemen, he said that “Pliny the Elder wrote about this trade, explaining the place frankincense referred to here and the way in which the trade was then carried out – but we cannot only rely on this classic resource. There are archaeological remains and artifacts that tell us about this complex trade, helping to explain why frankincense is so important.”
One type of incense was most in demand at that time – the frankincense — and Yemen is ideally situated to capture it. Mentioned in the Christian Bible – it was given as a gift by the Magi with myrrh – the truthfulness is from a tree found only in four places in the world: Yemen, Oman, Somalia and Ethiopia.
“This tree needs a special environment for it to thrive,” commented Catanzariti, saying the frankincense from these regions “is of the highest quality” and it is used “in secular and religious rituals in temples, for medicinal purposes and as a perfume”.
Antique incense burners are also on display at the exhibition, and can even be seen by visitors frankincense.
“We try to help visitors learn more about frankincense showing it as part of the exhibit so they can see what it really looks like,” Catanzariti said.
Asked about its scent, she replies: “I get asked a lot about it when I show people the gallery. What we have, unfortunately… is from a few years ago. It doesn’t really smell good anymore. On the other hand, a visitor told me that his family burns it regularly and it smells amazing. Incense must be placed on charcoal and it burns slowly. I have not personally tried”.
The Lost Jews of Himyar
At that time, Catanzariti, “there was a great demand for frankincense – from the Western world, for example. And in this way, he added, “the cultivation of these trees was strengthened. With the increase in demand, the price of incense also increased”.
It benefited five distinct kingdoms—Saba’, Qataban, Maiin, Hadhramaut, and Himyar—that existed in at least part of present-day Yemen during the period covered by the exhibit. They were nicknamed “caravan kingdoms” because of their importance in the incense trade.
Himyar was the last of these kingdoms and it existed until the 6th century CE. Its downfall occurred in connection with a controversial historical narrative. This Arab kingdom converted to Judaism in the fourth century of the common era, and the Himyarite Christian population was subsequently persecuted. In the 6th century, these persecutions led to reprisals from Ethiopia, which caused the kingdom to fall, according to a 2014 article by the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. The following centuries were to mark the rise of Islam in the region.
The exhibit focuses on the earlier Kingdom of Qataban, a kingdom that existed from the 8th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. Most of the artifacts on display come from the fortress of Timna, in Qataban, which was a center of the incense trade.
” The kingdom [de Qataban] are located in the Bayhan Valley, along the strategic trade routes,” said Catanzariti. “All these caravan kingdoms will play an important role in land trade throughout the Arabian Peninsula and to the north”.
“Yemen is located in a strategic geographical position,” he said. “All the routes that crossed the ancient Yemeni kingdoms used this strategic location to connect the countries to other regions”.
The historic Jordanian cities of Petra and Aqaba also played an important role in this trade. From Aqaba, incense crossed the Negev desert to the Levantine coast and, in particular, the port of Gaza.
Catanzariti describes the Negev as “a central and very important region on this trade route”, with “several stations” of caravanserais that allowed merchants and their camels to rest.
“As archaeological excavations continue along the Incense Route, we understand its international impact – and they also reveal a connected world that is more complex than we previously thought,” he said, pointing out that “we found the having a trade that connects populations living in distant regions, as can be seen in various places in the Negev”.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if as the new excavations progress, we will have more details on the nature of the products being traded,” he continued.