The Arabs and the Jews Part I: The Pre-Islamic Period

Fact Paper 43-I

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

Portions of a 5000 year old epic, the story of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk in Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh visited Dilmun (now Bahrein) a lush island in the Persian Gulf, and termed it “the land of immortality.” It is among the earliest records of contact between the progenitors of the Jews, the Akkadians, and the Arabs. Two millennia later, Babylonian/Jewish traders established colonies along overland trade routes through Arabia to Himyara (now Yemen), and on Dilmun and on another island in the Gulf of Aqaba, Yotabe (now Jijban) as staging posts on the way to India and Northwest Africa. The Jews and the Arabs maintained a close and benign relationship throughout the thousand-year pre-Islamic period. Photo courtesy of Aramco World, no.27, May/June 1996

What if?

Jewish colonies flourished in the Arabian peninsula long before Mohammed strode onto the proscenium of history.

The Arabian peninsula consists largely of vast expanses of arid wastelands. Here and there water wells up through the hot sands, forming oases that make bedouin life possible. These fertile havens served as trading posts for foreign traders to exchange goods with the Bedouins. The watering holes provided respite for the traders and for their heavily-laden beasts of burden on their way to other sites.

Jewish traders traversed the trying trails from oasis to oasis well before the Common Era. They established bustling communities at those which had enough water to sustain agriculture. They were headed from Babylonia and from Judah for Himyara, a country on the southwestern rim of the peninsula where strips of arable areas had fostered a viable civilization. Himyara, referred to in the Bible as Ophir, was the source of exotic aromatic substances that were in demand in the western civilizations. The remote corner of the Arabian peninsula also provided access to the spices from the Far East, for it was strategically situated on the seacoast at the junction of important sea-lanes. The peoples at its ports enjoyed a lucrative overseas commerce that flowed into it from all directions. The ancient Mesopotamian civilizations lay to the north. Judah lay to the northwest and to the southwest across the Red Sea lay the Abyssinian corner of Africa, home to an ancient Ethiopian civilization. Across the sea to the east lay the vast subcontinent of India, a land where many ancient peoples had achieved high levels of civilization.


The Himyarites occupied the area encompassing present-day Yemen. Two factors made civilization possible in that remote region. Arable areas nested among its mountain ranges and along its coast. Its ports provided access to the sea routes to Africa and India. Some of the associated tribes occupying the coastal regions adjoining Himyara, and other tribes who dwelled in the desert immediately surrounding Himyara are also encompassed within the general term "Himyarites,"

The resources of Himyara, especially the aromatic substances for which the region was anciently famous, spurred the Jews of Babylonia and Judah to venture across the desolate desert and to establish friendly relationships with its nomadic Arab tribes. Contact with the Bedouins was essentially benign, and a mutually beneficial relationship evolved between them over the course of many centuries.

The Jews formed colonies at the oases, and introduced irrigation and agriculture. They stocked their farms with new plants, among which the date-palm became

a staple for the desert peoples. The artisans and smiths among the Jews provided tools and implements to ease nomadic life. They introduced new fabrics and goods that enhanced the Bedouins living conditions.

"In the northwest of the peninsula the Jews occupied the oases on the line of the caravan route running from north to south. Taima, Fadak, Khaibar, Wadi-l-Kura (Vale of Villages) were in their hands and Yathrib (later Medina) was in all probability founded by them... [In] Yemen, their industry and enterprising spirit helped to revive the prosperity of the country."1

Judaic anti-establishment philosophy was attractive to the profoundly independent desert tribes, and Judaic religious precepts won a wide sympathetic audience among the Bedouins, and equally as well as among the urbanized Himyarites. The Jews were not averse to proselytization, and the influence of Judaism spread throughout the peninsula.

"Their belief in the unity of God, their higher personal morality, their dignified observance of Jewish feast and fast days, their rest from work on the Sabbath and their refusal to permit a fellow Jew, even of another tribe, to remain in slavery, left a deep impression on their neighbors."2

The rises of Greece, Rome and Byzantia created new western markets for aromatics, spices, and other eastern products. These powers became interested in capturing control of the overland and overseas trade routes that led to the sources of these products. They embarked upon aggressive military campaigns to establish hegemony over the peoples along the routes. When Christianity arrived upon the scene behind the Roman and Byzantine forces, Judaism had already won a considerable Arab following. The indigenous Arabic tribes generally sided with the Jews against the forces that were regarded as conquerors rather than as commercial partners.

The Arabic tribes may well have gone on to a wide acceptance of Judaism. It is impossible to fathom the future that such an eventuality would have fostered. There is the intriguing thought that perhaps the massive pool of black riches hidden under the drifting sand would eventually have welled up in towering Jewish derricks.

History, however, took a new and unexpected turn with the intervention of a poor and illiterate camel- driver who had a vision.

Early Jewish Arabian History

The figure holding a lion cub is from the palace of Sargon in Khorsabad, and is presumed to represent Gilgamesh, fabled king of Uruk, the king who visited the Arabian island of Dilmun Illlustration Courtesy of Aramco World,6/7/96

Mesopotamian traders encountered the peoples in Arabia as far back as the third millennium B.C.E. when they plied Persian gulf waters on the way to India. The revered pioneer archaeologist and excavator of ancient Ur, Sir Leonard Wooley, reported that: "In early Dynasty III graves we had found beads of carnelian, with etched geometrical patterns exactly corresponding to examples from the great Indus Valley site of Mohenjo-Daro in modern Pakistan.... By the time of the Akkadian Dynasty, if not before, trade between Sumer and the Indus valley had attained such proportions that there may have been agents from the distant region resident in Mesopotamia."3

A luxuriant and beautiful island was strategically located in the Persian gulf just beyond the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It provided an important stage of the trade between India and Mesopotamia. The island was then named Dilmun, and is the present Bahrein. Dilmun was described in the classic five-thousand-year-old epic of Gilgamesh, who termed it "the land of immortality" when he visited it in his quest for immortal life. Gilgamesh's impressions were well founded. "With its lush vegetation and abundant fresh water springs, not to speak of its ideal location between Mesopotamia and the Indian subcontinent, Dilmun became a popular haven on the sea trade route.... Recent digs have proved the existence of a very organized life style with well ordered roads, proper houses, workshops and a central marketplace. Equally significant is the discovery of thousands of burial mounds."4

The Indus Valley civilization suffered devastating invasions between 1800 and 1600 B.C.E. Mesopotamia likewise suffered reverses during this and the immediately following period. Trade of consequence between Mesopotamia with distant India appears to have been virtually suspended for many centuries.

A 5000 year old story similar to that of the biblical Garden of Eden, in which the God Enki nibbles forbidden plants on the idyllic island of Dilmun (now Bahrein). Illustration Courtesy of Aramco World,3/4/00

At this time Himyara (Ophir) had independently grown to prominence and important for East-West trade. Against this historical background credence can be given to the Bible account of Judahite contact with Himyara. Such ongoing intercourse was specifically referred to in the legendary relationship of King Solomon with the Queen of Sheba (present-day Saba' in Yemen). "The existence of a 'Queen of Sheba' is fairly well documented" wrote Wendell Phillips, but added "The real problem is [the existence of] David and Solomon."5 A documentary reference to a "House of David" has been recovered since Phillips and other skeptics made such an observation. The existence of David's son, Solomon, can readily be deduced from it.6

An ongoing contact, commercial and otherwise, between these peoples can be interpolated from the biblical accounts. "Most scholars [accept] the likelihood of an Israelite presence In Southern Arabia from Solomonic times."7

An Assyrian king provided solid confirmation of the close relationship between the Jews and the Arabs that was already in existence shortly after the date of the biblical account. It is the earliest direct documentary record of a fraternal association between the two peoples. It comes down to us not through the Bible, but through an inscription by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser about his defeat of the forces ranged against him by the Judahite King Ahab.. Albeit there are some questions about the chronology of the event, the details serve to confirm an alliance between the Judahites and the Arabs at the time.

"The very first Arab known to us by name and date, Gindibu (which means locust), is mentioned as a member of an alliance against an Assyrian invader, in which King Ahab of Israel figures at the head of 10,000 foot-soldiers and 2000 war chariots, while the Arab sheik heads 1000 camel riders. This - the battle of Karkar in Syria - which took place in the year 853 B.C. is not mentioned in the Bible and not, of course, in Arabic sources."8

A number of crises arising through the following centuries in both Mesopotamia and India sparked rises and falls of the Persian Gulf trade. A spurt of activity took place following the rise of an Assyrian empire under Ashurbanipal (referred to in Ezra 4:10 as the "great and honorable Ashurbanipal"). Ashurbanipal's demise, however, brought about another decline in relations with Dilmun and the East until Babylonian occupation brought the strategically-placed island again into prominence.

Following the freeing of the Jews by Cyrus in Babylonia in 538 B.C.E., a substantial Judaic presence on Dilmun becomes evident.

Judaic Colonization in Arabia

Some of the Babylonian Jews freed by Cyrus returned to Judah to renew Judaic life and rebuild their sacred Temple. Most of the Jews stayed behind in Babylonia, for they had become a vibrant, productive element in the ancient Land of the Two Rivers. Great Jewish trading and banking houses developed, and triggered an expansion of Babylonian agriculture and industry, and, to an extraordinary degree, international commerce. Jewish traders were instrumental in pioneering the so-called "Silk Route" to the Far East from the fifth century B.C.E.9 It did not take long before intrepid traders from Babylonia, having conquered the formidable Gobi desert to China's capital, Kaifeng, branched out across the equally challenging Arabian Peninsula. Bustling colonies were established at a string of oases that provided havens for caravans destined for Himyara. At these oases they continued to befriend and carry on a mutually beneficial commercial relationship with the nomadic Bedouin Arab tribes of the desert lands.

Excerpt from an ink and watercolor rendering by William Henry Bartlett of the “Principal Range of Tombs,” Petra, 1845-48. The scene might well have been depicted 2000 years earlier! Ilustration courtesy of Aramco World, 5/6/94

Archaeological evidence indicates that both Jewish and Nabatean traders were active in the area well before the Common Era. The Nabateans, of Arabic origin, whose main center at Petra is one of today's archaeological marvels, composed a viable civilization at that time. Petra lay along one of the main routes into Arabia. "The Nabateans were the immediate eastern neighbors of the Jewish people during the fateful centuries of Maccabean, Herodian, and Roman rule, and who had very close relations with the Jews, both friendly and hostile. These Nabateans had originally been an Arab people, but adopted the Aramaic language [the lingua franca of the Jews]... In addition to their linguistic assimilation, these Nabateans settled down; and so completely were they submerged in the predominant civilization that, some centuries later, the word "Nabati," Nabatean, signified in the language of the Muslim Arabs an Aramaic-speaking peasant."10

The Babylonian Jews traversed the route through Palmyra as well as through Petra and Dilmun [See map]. The evidence for both Judaic and Nabatean presence in the desert and intercourse with the Bedouins and Himyarites takes the form of graffiti found throughout the desert wasteland along the natural trade routes between the Mediterranean coast and Himyara. A typical example is a tombstone inscription of a "Yehudaya," erected in Al-Hijr, ascribed to either 45 B.C.E. or 42 C.E.11.

A number of Arabia's oases sustained enough agriculture through irrigation to make sizable sedentary communities possible. During the first few centuries of the Common Era, Judaic agricultural and artisan communities burgeoned at sites along the route to Himyara. In addition to replenishing the caravans that passed through, these colonies flourished as trading posts for the Bedouins.

By the first century C.E., the Romans were entrenched in Egypt and Judea, and control of trade with the Orient became important to them. The extent to which the Jews of Arabia remained as vital intermediaries between the West and the Far East is evidenced by the fact that for many centuries, the Jewish traders kept the Greeks and the Romans entirely ignorant of the true provenance of spices such as cinnamon and cassia, spices that Jewish traders were obtaining from the Far East.

Both the well-traveled Herodotus (485-425 B.C.E) and the great Greek philosopher Theophastrus (372-286 B.C.E.), for example, believed that those Far-Eastern spices came from trees that grew in Arabia. The fact is that "there is not a trace of cinnamon there nor could there be; the plants require a degree of moisture not to be found in that parched peninsula."12

It is even more curious that Strabo, 400 years after Herodotus (60 B.C.E.-21 C.E.), and other Greeks in an even later period in which the Seleucids were solidly installed in Persia, still cited Arabia as a source for cassia and cinnamon! They alternately labored under the illusion that the spices came from East Africa. Strabo, in fact, terms Somalia and Ethiopia (Abyssinia and Sudan), the region he considered the southernmost part of the world, as "Cinnamon Country!"

Western ignorance about the source of spices continued into the Late Roman Period. Two other Greek writers, erudite physicians who discoursed at great length on the substances, Dioscaides (1st c. C.E.), and Galen (c. 130-201 C.E..), still believed in separate sources for cinnamon and cassia, blithely unaware that cinnamon is nothing more than ground up cassia!

The Greeks and Romans were likewise unaware that another avidly sought spice, malabathron, was made from the leaves of the same tree from whose bark cinnamon and cassia were made. The physician Dioscorides presumed that the spice came from the spikenard plant of Mesopotamia. The spikenard plant and the spices, cinnamon and cassia, figure prominently in the Bible. The Mishnah has many references not only to the familiarity of the Judaic sages with spikenard and the other plants but names the sages that traded in the products.

The Jews obviously were adept at keeping a secret!

The very origin of the Roman and Greek names of spices from the East point to the Jews as the traders who brought them to the West. In Psalms (45:9) we encounter the word kesiah, clearly the model for the Greek word kasia. Kiddh becomes the Greek Kitt, a cheap grade of cassia. Herodotus was the first to identify the origin of the Greek word kinnammon from the Canaanite [therefore Hebrew] language.13

Augustus, the first Roman emperor, eager to obtain information about the routes to the Far East, is said to have commissioned "the original travel guide" from Isadore of Charax (a town near the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers). Isadore forthwith authored The Parthian Stations, which served for centuries as a guide to the Far East.14

An important historical event highlights the extent to which not only the Babylonian Jews, but the Roman Judahites were versed in the trade routes to Arabia Felix, as the Romans called Himyara. The familiarity of the Judahites with the routes through Arabia is evidenced by the arrangements for a Roman military expedition into southern Arabia under the command of Aelius Gallus, proconsul of Egypt. Its purpose was to counter the opposition of and competition by the Ethiopians in obtaining aromatics and precious stones from Himyara and to expand Roman hegemony over the area. An army of 10,000 Roman soldiers were assigned to the task. The Romans knew little about the region. Gallus turned to Herod for assistance. Herod obliged by supplying Gallus with 500 Jewish troops as scouts to augment the Nabateans in his formidable army. The Judaic contingent was undoubtedly intended to facilitate the expedition through intimate knowledge of the routes and byways of the Arabian peninsula. They were valued for their contacts with the Bedouins and the local sedentary populations and for their familiarity with the indigenous languages. The military adventure took place in 25-24 B.C.E. Nonetheless, it was ignorance of desert conditions that defeated the Romans. Disease and the lack of water disastrously ended the expedition.15

Roman and Byzantine Christian Intervention

The Romans were frustrated again and again in their attempts to establish military control over the land routes to India The Babylonian Jews, being outside of the Roman polity, steadily and peacefully increased their presence and influence through commerce with the indigenous Arab peoples. The Judahite Jews under Roman rule collaborated with their Babylonian compatriots in the expansion of Judaic influence among the Arabs.

Bishop Simeon of Beth Arsam in Syria, inveighed against the Judahites, registering loud and bitter complaints about their abetting of the Babylonian Jewish influence among the Arabs. "Those Jews who are in Tiberias," he wrote, "send priests of theirs year by year and season by season to stir up commotion against the Christian people of the Himyarites."16 In fact, there is much evidence confirming Simeon's concerns. For example, a remarkable third-century inscription and monogram of a Himyarite Jewish elder, Menahem, was recovered from the catacombs in Beth Shearim, in which he had been interred along with the revered redactors of the Mishnah.

The Christian hierarchy took the matter seriously. They demanded that "the chief priests in Tiberias and in the remainder of the country be cast into prison... that they give sureties that they will not send letters and emissaries to the king of Himyara... and to tell them that unless they do so, their synagogues will be burned down, the Cross placed over them, and the Christians will take control of them."17

In addition to Christian correspondence, much of the Arabian graffiti surviving from the first few centuries of the Common Era (such as an inscription of Simon in the year 307), are "indubitable remnants of pre-Islamic Arab-Jewish life."18

As Nabatean civilization waned, Jewish influence in Arabia grew and eventually displaced that of the Nabateans. Nabatean inscriptions themselves attest to a process by which Jewish traders had become so well established that they became the very representatives of the Nabateans in Hejaz after 300 C.E. Citing two of these Nabatean inscriptions, Werner Caskel notes that "These are the beginnings of the Jewish population [of the region], which later occupied all the oases in the northwest, including Medinah."19

The profundity of Judaic influence upon Arabian culture is evidenced by the Aramaic or Hebraic etymology of the names of tools and products among the Arabs, and by the very names of the population centers that had grown from simple trading posts at oases to sizable villages and towns. For example, a settlement referred to in Egyptian sources as Athribis, and recorded in Greek literature as Yathrib, became the Arabicized but Hebraic el-Medina (meaning "urban district"). The town of Khaibar, for another example, some 60 miles north of Medina, appears to derive from the Hebrew term heber, ("association"), referring to an association of several Judaic communities at what had evolved into a major agricultural and trading center. Alternately, an Arab writer suggested that the name derives from the Hebrew kabir, meaning strong or stronghold.20

"Here in their new homeland in Arabia the Jews introduced handicrafts, the goldsmith's art, and the [date] palm, which became to the [later] Mohammedans what the potato became to the Irish. Here they founded Medina. Here they helped the Quraish convert their villages into cities. With their great numbers and twenty-five hundred years of experience the Jews gave [the future] Mecca a cosmopolitan air."21

These communities were sustained agriculturally by the introduction of irrigation systems, advanced methods of cultivation, and a variety of new Mesopotamian crops. "They also developed new arts and crafts from metal work to dyeing and the production of fine jewelry, and taught the neighboring tribes more advanced methods of exchanging goods and money. Most of the agricultural terms and names of implements recorded in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry or the Qu'ran are borrowed from their Aramaic speech. Arab traditions themselves ascribe to them the introduction of the honey bee and many new fruits, including the date. The palm tree, long glorified in Palestinian letters as a symbol of Judaism, now became the object of adulation in Arabic poetry as well. A Jewess was reputed to have brought the first [grape] vine to Ta'if near Mecca, an area later proverbial for its viticulture."

"By their irrigation systems, the observance of certain dietary rules, and especially by building their castles on hills rather than in the fever-infested valleys, the Jews pioneered also in fighting the theretofore deadly diseases. So impressed were their neighbors that, on one occasion, an Arab woman who had lost several children vowed to bring up as Jews all her future offspring."22

In the mid-fourth century the land routes through Arabia to the Far East had become tempting prizes to both the Romans and Byzantines. The main routes led from the heart of Persia., where, in the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, the Zoroastrian Sassanians harbored a Judaic civilization that included great universities and a population of well over a million Jews. The Talmudic period reached its height at this time. Jewish artisans and traders constituted the industrial and commercial heart of Persia, and it was they who had pioneered the trade routes into China and India.

The northern routes through Persia were secured under Persian control by campaigns under the Sassanian king Shapur II (310-79). The Romans and Byzantines empires were obliged therefore to humiliatingly employ Jewish intermediaries for the silk, spices and other exotic products from China and India. The Christian empires sought an alternate route to Arabia Felix (Himyara) and access to the sea route to India

The trade routes through Arabia were likewise under the sway of Persian and other Jews independent of the Jews under Roman hegemony. These Jews were effectively proselytizing, and therefore blocked not only access to Eastern markets but also to the spread of Christianity. Judaic proselytization was proving highly effective in attracting Arabs, for Judaic anti-establishment precepts were in perfect accord with the Bedouin philosophy of independence.

"To salvage the empire's life line to India, as well as to build up a system of Roman satellite states as a permanent threat to Persia's flank, Constantius embarked

upon a policy of converting to Christianity the fare-flung Arab settlements and their Ethiopian neighbors. More immediately successful in Ethiopia, where Egyptian influence combined with the presence of old Jewish communities had long paved the way for Christianity, his and his successors' missionary efforts led to the conversion of the northern Glassimids and the establishment of Christian communities in Najran and elsewhere on the Peninsula proper."23

"Abyssinia came more exclusively under the influence of Rome, and Christianity made more progress there. In course of time the Abyssinians succeeded in establishing their power on the other side [of the Red Sea], and it was by supporting their overlordship that the Romans sought to maintain their hold upon South Arabia, while Persia, on the other hand, sought to foster the spirit of independence among the native population."24

The Christians viewed Judaic influence as inimical to their own universal campaign for conversion. The Christian historian, Philostorgius, wrote that when the Christian missionary Theophilus arrived in Himyara about the middle of the fourth century, he found there "not a small number of Jews... whose accustomed fraud and malice" he had to silence. Philostorgius and Theophilus were referring to the effective proselytizing by the Jews in the region, and to the threat to Christianity Jewish precepts posed not only abroad but at home!25.

The Spread of Judaism among the Arabs

Notwithstanding Christian efforts and despite the power of Rome behind them, "Judaism continued to gain even more ground. In a fifth-century inscription a person named Sahir, probably a convert, wrote 'Blessed and praised be the name of the Merciful, who is in Heaven and Israel and its God, the Lord of Judah.' Sahir also gave to one of his sons the good Jewish name Meir."26

Thousands of inscriptions have been found in Yemen, the former Himyara. Their recovery was not a simple matter, for "infidels" were, to say the least, unwelcome The earliest research on and recovery of inscriptions had to be done surreptitiously, and it took brave men to carry it off. In 1843 a Frenchman, Thomas Arnaud entered Ma'rib, the city of the Queen of Sheba, in disguise and made the first European description of its ruins.

A tin of honey being proudly displayed by Islam Ahmed Ba Dhib, whose family traces its roots in Yemen back more than a thousand years. The dry climate keeps the moisture level of the honey low, making for a viscous consistency prized by connoisseurs. The date palm and the honey bee were introduced into the Arabian Peninsula by Jewish colonists and traders. Photo by Eric Hansen, from his article in Aramco World, “The Beekeepers of Wadi Du’an,” 1/2/95

Arnaud was followed in 1869 by another disguised scholar, Professor Joseph Halevy, a French Jew also famed for being the first European Jew to visit the Beta Israel, the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia. and subsequently becoming an advocate for the community. Halevy smuggled out 686 forbidden copies of inscriptions.27

Halevy was followed by the Austrian, Edouard Glaser, who made three incognito trips to Ma'rib between 1880 and 1893 and brought back hundreds of artifacts and copies of over 1,000 inscriptions. A large proportion of these inscriptions, some dating back to the first century, can be identified as Judaic in origin. They clearly establish the existence of a powerful Judaic influence prior to the advent of Islam.

Judaic presence and influence throughout the region burgeoned steadily throughout the first few centuries of the Common Era. The process is substantiated by solidly sympathetic references to Jews and Judaism in pre-Islamic Arabic literature. By the sixth century, it is clear that "Jewish tribes dominated Yathrib (Medina)... Among some twenty Jewish tribes mentioned in later Arabic literature stand out the Aramaic-sounding Banu Zaghura. More important were the Banu Nadhir, Banu Quraiah and Banu Qainuqa', who between them, occupied at one time fifty-nine strongholds and practically the entire fertile countryside... Other Jewish settlements... included Dedan, Al-Hijr, Teima, Ablaq, central Arabian Yamana, Ta-if, and possibly, Mecca"28

An Arab/Jewish Kingdom

Bedouin Arabs from all over the peninsula were attracted to the flourishing Judaic settlements, and many opted to settle down to a sedentary life. These Bedouins were hospitably received by the Jewish farmers, and many became proselytes. In some cases, the Bedouins were prevented from joining the Jewish community unless they converted. The Arab writer al-Bakri , for example, states that the Bedouin tribe Banu Hishna desired to become part of the Jewish community in Teima, and "were prevented by the Jews from entering their fort as long as they professed another religion, and only when they embraced Judaism were they admitted."29

A number of inscriptions, and particularly one dated 516 C.E., inform us that an important Arab chieftain, Ma'ad-Karib Ya'hur, "King of Saba and Dhu-Rhaidean, and Hadhramaut, and Yamnat, and their Arabs of Taud and Tihanat," probably professed Judaism, and that it may even reflect a sort of conversion or other type of adherence to the Judaism of some of his progenitors. What is certain is that his son, Dhu Nuwas, was a firm believer in Judaism.

Dhu Nuwas changed his name to Joseph, and assumed the role of defender of the Jews. He campaigned "to erect through Judaism a dam against advancing Christianity." He formed a coalition army to stem the incursion of the Abyssinian Christian forces when they threatened to destroy Himyara's independence.

Abyssinia (Ethiopia) lay directly across the Red Sea from Himyara (Yemen). Abyssinia came under the influence of Rome, and Christianity established a firm foothold there. The Romans sought to obtain a stronger hold upon South Arabia by supporting Abyssinian overlordship. The Abyssinian Christians were also supported by the otherwise anti-Roman Byzantines. Persia, on the other hand, sought to encourage the spirit of independence among the native Arab population.

The Abyssinians launched several campaigns to conquer the Bedouins and convert them to Christianity. Their invasion through the southern flank of the Arabian peninsula was decisively stemmed by the forces under Dhu Nuwas During these hostilities Nuwas retaliated against the "traitorous" Christians in the town of Nejran, an event that led to a spate of atrocity stories by the Christians. Nuwas was accused of brutally exterminating the Christian community of that town. The minor local affair was exaggerated into a commemoration by eastern churches of the martyrdom of the Nejran Christians on several dates. Typical of the tales told was one of a nine-year old Christian girl who was said to have spat in the face of Dhu Nuwas, saying "May thy mouth be closed, Jew, killer of his Lord."30

This and other equally spurious stories were being spread by Simeon, the Syrian Bishop of Beth Arsham , along with his insistent complaints about the support being given by the Jews of Tiberias to their Arabian coreligionists. Simeon was not averse to manufacturing stories to support his case. He reported that while on a diplomatic mission in Hira, he saw a messenger of the Arab king of Himyara "bearing a letter to the [Arab] Lakhmid king, Mundhir, which ended in the following exhortation:"

"...You may rejoice that we have not left a Christian, not one, in this land of ours, and that you may also act likewise... but as for the Jews who are in your dominion that you be their helper in everything."

How Simeon was able to read such a secret missile is left to the imagination. Simeon's accusations, whether true in their details or not, spurred Justin I to request the Patriarch Timothy III of Alexandria to enlist the Abyssinian king Elesbias to intervene in Yemen against "the abominable and lawless Jew." The Abyssinians received massive support from the Byzantines, who, despite their quarrels with the Romans, supplied the ships to transport the Abyssinian troops to southern Arabia.

Dhu Nuwas was unable to obtain equivalent support from the Persians, inasmuch as at that moment (523-25) the Sassanian empire was crumbling from unceasing internal rifts and other disastrous exigencies. The forces under Dhu Nuwas were defeated, and he was killed while trying to repel an overwhelming Abyssinian invasion. It is said that rather than surrender, "Riding his horse up a tall cliff which overlooked the sea, he committed suicide by jumping into the water."31

The Christians did not win a lasting victory, for the sympathies of the Arab tribes clearly lay with the Jews among them, both immigrant and converts. A popular liberation movement was launched against Abyssinian Christian domination under Saif Dhu Yazan, a descendant of Dhu Nuwas and likewise a professing Jew. Curiously, Saif, aware of friction between the Rome and the Byzantines, ventured to appeal to the Byzantine emperor for aid against the Abyssinians. "Byzantium had every reason also to resent Abyssinian non-cooperation in her recurrent conflicts with Persia." The ploy by Saif was disdainfully rebuked, because "'You are Jews, while the Ethiopians are Christians.'"

Saif's appeal to Persia proved more successful, and brought a Persian expeditionary force. "But the result was merely the exchange of one foreign oppressor for another. Nevertheless, Himyarite Jews, whether of Jewish or Arabic extraction, weathered the harsh Abyssinian regime.... As is well known, Yemenite Jewry continued to play a significant role in its own country, contributing to the building up of the Jewish homeland in Palestine."32

Jewish traders were also important intermediaries in the trade to the Far East through the Red Sea. A substantial colony of Jews were rooted on the island of Yotabe (now Jijban) strategically located in the Gulf of Aqaba.. The island served the traffic to Himyara and India through the Red Sea in the same way as Dilmun did on the north side of the peninsula in the Persian Gulf. In the fifth century an Arab prince and his tribe occupied half the island. The other half was a Jewish Free State that had been there from time immemorial.33 The fact that the two peoples lived and traded peacefully side by side over an extended period of time bespeaks the positive relationship that endured between them.

The island came under Persian occupation in 473, and the Jewish colony continued to carry on Red Sea trade under a semi-autonomous status. Geopolitics make strange bedfellows, and one of the strangest of associations subsequently took place on Yotabe. The Byzantine Emperor Anastasius recaptured the island in 498. At first the Byzantines, finding the Jews commercially invaluable, pragmatically tolerated their activities. In the meantime, campaigns were being launched against the Himyarites and the Jews among the Himyarites. Seven Abyssinian vessels were stationed and furbished for the Abyssinian expedition against the Himyaran co-religionists of the Jews of Yotabe.

About the year 535 Justinian annulled the autonomous status of the Jews. It is likely that he took this action because the Byzantine campaign against the Himyarites was being surreptitiously compromised by the Jews.

The Growth of Judaism in Arabia

In the year 602, however, the fortunes of the Jews again reversed for the better, for the Persians prevailed over the Byzantines, and the Jews were able to continue their land and seaborne enterprises in relative freedom as before. The settlements expanded into sizable communities, occupying "all the oases in the northwest including Medinah."

"Flourishing settlements of this type irresistibly attracted the Bedouins from all over the Peninsula. Much as the latter glorified their freedom and independence from the sedentary way of life, sooner or later they began viewing such agriculturally prosperous oases not only as fit objects for raids, but ultimately also as enviable sources of economic security. By slow infiltration several Arab tribes drifted into Medina and its vicinity, and were hospitably received by the Jewish farmers. By the sixth century, these

new arrivals, steadily reinforced from the south and unified under an able leader, Malik ibn Ajlan, eventually prevailed over their hosts... Nevertheless... vigorous Jewish tribes [in villages] in and around the center of northern Arabia, possibly constituted the majority of the settled population. Of course, they were not all of Jewish extraction. In large part they were descended from Arab proselytes, as indicated in the remarkable story of the Banu Hishna in Teima."34 The story refers to the evidence cited above by the Arab writer al-Bakri, in which a tribe of Arab Bedouins were required to convert before being admitted .to citizenship in a Jewish community.

No less significant than the economic benefits accruing to Arabia as a result of the introduction of wider-scale agriculture and industry was the cultural impact of Judaic literacy, the poems they recited and the stories they told as "The People of the Book."

The Arab tribes, being illiterate, were traditionally engaged in a rich oral tradition of story-telling and allegorical poesy. The Jews carried on a similar oral tradition. Jewish poets were particularly appreciated by the Arabs. Ka'b ibn al-Ashaf of Medina, the son of a Jew and an Arab women, lived his entire youth among the Bedouins, and his poetry reflected his experiences among them.

Some of the Jewish poetry reflected a particularly Arabic warrior flavor, such as that of Samau'al ibn 'Adiyah, who sang, "We are men of the sword, and when we draw it we exterminate our enemies." But Samau'al , the knightly lord of Al-Ablaq, near Teima, whose name soon became proverbial for faithfulness [to Judaism] in the whole Arab world, was typical of the warlike, yet economically fairly advanced Jewish settlers of the Peninsula."

Traders crossing the Arabian Desert. Illustration courtesy of Aramco World, 7/8/00

Arabs would leave their tents and campfires to gather in the inns and communities of the Jews to "listen to the exploits of one or another biblical hero. These stories need not have clung too closely to the biblical narratives, but were often adorned with all the embroideries of the later Aggadah, or the creations of the story teller's on fertile imagination."35

The biblical stories, retold by Jewish and Arab raconteurs, found their way to a camel-driver's ears, and were eventually noted down by his listeners in the Qu'ran, that is to say, the "Telling."

The "telling" of that history is picked up in the following HHF Fact Paper no. 43-II, The Arabs and the Jews; The Arrival of Islam.


  1. Max L. Margolis and Alexander Marx, A History of the Jewish People, NY. 1927, 248.
  2. Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews," The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969, 245.
  3. Sir Leonard Wooley, Ur of the Chaldees, reprint, 1982, 132.
  4. History of Bahrein,,bh/bahrein/History.asp.
  5. Wendell Phillips, Queen of Sheba,
  6. HHF Fact Paper 39-I, The Birth of the Israelite Nation, Part I, Settlement in Canaan.
  7. Norman A Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979, 3, referring to a work by Charles C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation of Islam, N. Y., 1933
  8. S.D. Goitein, Arabs and Jews, Schocken Books, NY, reprint 1974, 4.
  9. HHF Fact Paper 3: The Silk Route; A Judaic Odyssey.
  10. Goitein, Ibid., 8,9.
  11. Baron, Ibid., 64.
  12. Lionel Casson, Ancient Trade and Society, Detroit, 1984, 234.
  13. Samuel Kurinsky, The Eighth Day; The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization, Jason Aronson, Inc, 1994, 260-262.
  14. Samuel Kurinsky, The Glassmakers; An Odyssey of the Jews, NY, 1991, 273.
  15. Strabo, Geog., xvi 780-782; Dio Cassus liii, 29; Pliny Nat. Hist., vi, 32.
  16. Baron, Ibid., 67-8.
  17. H.H. ben-Sasson A History of the Jewish People, Harvard Un. Press, Cambridge, 1969, 358.
  18. Baron, Ibid., 64.
  19. Baron Ibid., 65, citing Werner Caskel, "The Bedouinization of Arabia," Studies inn Islamic Cultural History, ed. G. E. Von Grunebaum, 36-46.
  20. Ibn 'Abd Yaqut, K. Mu'jam al-buldn Geographisches Wörterbuch, ed. By F wüstenfeld, II, 504F, cited by Baron, Ibid., note 79.
  21. Max I. Dimont, Jews God, and History, N.Y., 1962, 19.
  22. Baron, Ibid., 70.
  23. Philostorgius, Historia ecclesiastic, III.4-5, in J. P. Migne's Patrologiae cursus completus, seris Graeca, LXV, 481 ff. Baon also cites other references, Ibid., note 80, 258.
  24. The Origin of Islam,
  25. Philostorgius, idem.
  26. "Inscriptus Himyariticiae," in Corpus inscriptionum semiticarum. Pub.: Academie des Inscriptions, 4th section, Vol. II, part 3, pp.zûz ff., Nos. 540, 543. See also Baron, Ibid., note 81, 258-9 for other sources.
  27. Halevey's journeys were chronicled in a publication by S.D,. Goitein of a travelogue prepared at the time by Halevy's Yemenite interpreter, Hayyim Habshush, Hezyon Teinman (Travels in Yemen).
  28. Baron, Ibid., 64-5.
  29. K. Mu-jm, Das geographische Wörterbuch, ed, by F, Wüstenfeld, I, 21. Cited by Baron, Ibid., 65.
  30. Baron, Ibid., 67, citing Cosmos Indicopleustes, Topographia Christiana 1,140f.
  31. Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969, 244.
  32. Baron, Ibid., 69.
  33. Heinrich Graetz, A History of the Jews, vol. III, 1967, 56.
  34. Baron, Ibid., 65.
  35. Baron, Ibid., 71.