South Arabian Alabaster Statues
Highlighted Works of Art - 2005 Autumn
It was not until the 18th century that Europe, fascinated by ancient Greek and Roman culture, also began to show an interest in the Oriental cultures of adjacent regions. Even more unjust was its attitude towards the legacies of peoples living on the fringes of the cultures regarded as classical. But as the world grew global, it became evident that from its very beginning Graeco-Roman culture was nurtured by sources of various kinds and directions. Following-sometimes even preceding-the 20th century changes in traditional artistic expression, attention was paid to formerly unknown arts that had an autonomous message. The legacy of ancient South Arabia belongs among the most recent discoveries of European culture.
The southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula roughly corresponds to present-day Yemen and is rich in mountains and plains suited for agriculture. It was an area that the Greeks believed to be fabulously wealthy, at least after Herodotos's account in the 5th century BC. Based mostly on scanty, second- or third-hand information, it was dubbed 'Fortunate Arabia' from the 3rd century BC. Roman authors also referred to it as Felix or Beata Arabia, and distinguished it from the desert region, Arabia Deserta, which occupied most of the peninsula. The Mediterranean peoples attached great importance to 'Fortunate Arabia', since it was the sole supplier of frankincense (present elsewhere only in Somalia, which was formerly connected to it), as well as of myrrh, cinnamon, other scents and spices, and special types of wood. South Arabian traders transported gold, silver, ivory, and tortoise-shell from Africa, as well as treasures from India: essential elements of a luxurious lifestyle both in Greece and Italy.
Ancient Greeks and Romans embarked late and infrequently on expeditions to the area. Its discovery was equally slow in modern times. Researchers during the 18th and 19th centuries were interested merely in its inscriptions, and systematic excavations only began in the 1950s. However, during the last two or three decades several countries have commenced large-scale archaeological research there, especially after the merging of the region's two historically different parts into the Republic of Yemen in 1990. Finally, the travelling exhibition of 1997, shown in a number of countries, has shed new light also on ancient Yemen's formerly unappreciated art.
So far we can draw only a sketchy picture of the first millennium of South Arabian cultural history, and even this is uncertain in many respects, especially as regards chronology. South Arabian culture seems to have been established by tribes that moved in from the desert around 1200 BC and succeeded the area's Bronze Age civilization. Its character was only acquired at the end of the 8th century, when the Sabaean Kingdom established its rule over most of the area. (Thus the Old Testament story of the Queen of Sheba visiting King Solomon in the 10th century cannot be considered to be entirely authentic historically.) Sheba was the birthplace of South Arabian culture.
To our present knowledge, of the four major South Arabian kingdoms (the Minaean, the Sabaean, the Qatabanian and the Hadramawtian) it was Sheba that first witnessed use of the script, which developed in line with centuries-old traditions. Consisting of only 29 consonantal signs and related to the Phoenician alphabet through a common origin, this script was in itself a masterpiece of South Arabian art. The monumental inscriptions of Sheba constituted a model for other South Arabian scripts, while its Southwest Semitic dialect and architecture also served as examples.
Although from the 5th century the other kingdoms of South Arabia also gained in strength, despite internal wars the area preserved its relatively unified caravan culture until the 1st century BC. Its economy was based on agriculture aided by monumental dams and irrigation works, as well as on the marketing of its products in Gaza, to which they were transported along desert tracks on domesticated camels on a 2- to 3-month trip. From the 8th century the country established contacts with Mesopotamia, neighbouring Egypt and, most importantly, Ethiopia. At the same time it was also characterized by a reclusion from foreigners, which was the principal cause of the vague picture of it in the Mediterranean region.
All this changed dramatically in the 1st century BC, when a group of Qatabanian mountain tribes settled down on the coast and established the state of Himyar. Himyar first became a rival to Sheba, then from the late 3rd century AD engulfed it, conquered Hadramawt and united South Arabia in one kingdom.
Around 110 BC, the Greek Eudoxos discovered how people can turn the monsoon to their advantage when sailing to India. As a consequence, the significance of caravan routes was overshadowed by that of the ports: South Arabian and Indian products were shipped across the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Realizing this, Augustus attempted to conquer southwestern Arabia in 25 BC, but his army could not cope with the severe climate. Although in the 4th and 5th centuries AD Himyar was an important factor in the Near East, later it came under Ethiopian rule. It was then conquered by Sassanian Persia and in 628 joined Islam, which put an end to the ancient culture of South Arabia.
Excavations are bringing to light more and more remains of South Arabian monumental stone architecture beginning in the 8th century BC. Sculpture has two distinctive branches. Bronze statuary flourishing from the very beginnings first followed the great Near Eastern models, then from the 3rd century BC it was patterned after Hellenistic types. In contrast, stone statuary first using limestone and then a kind of alabaster abundant in the area preserved local styles and iconographic types for 8-9 centuries. These works of art clearly show the distinctive features of South Arabian art. Alabaster statuary flourished between the 4th century BC and the 1st century AD. Owing to the lack of datable contexts, within this period it is difficult to determine the precise chronological order of single objects, mostly because forms were developed fairly early and continued with practically no change.
The Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities has acquired three South Arabian statues in the past years. The seated female type existed from the beginnings of South Arabian sculpture to the end of alabaster statuary in the 1st-2nd centuries. The statue clearly shows the main characteristics of this local art: an attraction to cubistic forms and blocks, immobility, frontal view, neglect of naturalistic features and details (the legs are unarticulated supports, the lower part of the body is disproportionately shorter than the upper one, the neck is unrealistically thick, the breasts lie almost at the shoulders, the dress is smooth, the arms are separated from the body by drilled holes, the feet are unmarked). Only the face is richer in details: as opposed to the Graeco-Roman habit of painting sculptures, on South Arabian alabaster statues only the eyes show colour through inlays carved from different materials. The hair at the crown of the head was modelled from stucco or plaster, and is now indicated by a rough surface. The holes piercing the ears and-as a rare exception-also the nose once contained metal jewellery. The statue could have been made at any time between the 4th and the 1st centuries BC.
In all probability, the statue of the ibex dates from the end of the heyday of alabaster statuary. Its block-like appearance and the complete disregard for details that would divert one's attention from the elementary form (only the horns are marked) show the most important features of South Arabian art. The ibex was a sacred animal, which is proved not only by the account of its ritual hunting, but also by its frequent use as an altar embellishment. The statue must have been intended as a votive gift for a sanctuary.
The third statue, the male portrait, is intact except for the part under the chin. The rough surface of its back and of the straight-cut crown of its head indicates the original function of the statue: it was placed inside a niche cut into a one-meter-high limestone slab. The head was embedded into the stele with plaster, and above it ran an inscription naming the deceased. Hundreds of similar pieces came to light intact in the cemeteries of Sheba and Qataban. They are generally dated to the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Their characteristic feature is the moustache and beard marked with dots; the surface of the pupils is moulded for colourful stone or glass-paste inlays, and similar decoration may have filled the grooves of the eyebrows as well.
After the opening of the sea routes, relations with the Mediterranean cultures became livelier and Hellenistic influences in South Arabia grew stronger. The influence of works of art imported from the 3rd century BC onwards began to oust local artistic forms, and led to the emergence of a strongly Hellenised production. The characteristic components of this can be seen on a find discovered near Sanaa, the present-day capital of Yemen: the fragments of two larger-than-life royal statues dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD and showing the inscribed names of their artists, the Greek sculptor Phocas and the local bronze-caster Lahayamm.
János György Szilágyi