Was There a Jewish Kingdom in Arabia?
A Study of the Ancient Kingdom of Himyar
The year is 525 CE. The place, Arabia, a land filled at that time with many idolatrous Arab tribes which were not yet united under the banner of one religion. To the northwest lies Bavel, where the Sasanian empire reigns over the Jewish community led by the Rabbanan Savorai, while to the northeast is Eretz Yisrael, where the Byzantine empire rules with an iron fist over the Jews whose leaders are the sages in Tiberias.
Yet, astonishingly, in a place known as Himyar, a region in southern Arabia along the Red Sea coast, King Yussuf, a Jew, rules over a Jewish Kingdom. Who is Yussuf, and what are the origins of his kingdom?
The Himyarans were one of many pagan societies that inhabited the Arabian peninsula until the mid 300s, at which point monotheism began to spread throughout the Middle East. Some tribes converted to Christianity, while others retained their pagan ways until the advent of Islam. According to legend, a Himyaran king, Abu Karib, (who reigned from 390–420) invaded northern Arabia and captured the city of Yathrib.1This is the modern city of Medina, in Saudi Arabia. After leaving a garrison in place there, Abu Karib moved on, only to be informed that the people of Yathrib, including its Jewish tribes,2There were several Jewish tribes in Yathrib/ Medina who had been residing there for centuries. The Jews continued to live there until the onset of Islam, when Mohammed mercilessly persecuted them. had rebelled against him, and killed his son. Abu Karib returned to Yathrib and laid siege to it, but during the siege he became ill. Two Jewish sages surreptitiously exited the city and used their medical knowledge to heal the king. They succeeded in persuading him to lift the siege and later, to convert to Judaism. After Abu Karib and his entire army adopted Judaism, they returned to Himyar along with these sages, where they converted the rest of the populace to their new faith as well.
Evidence for the Conversion Story
Based on the above story, it would appear that the people of Himyar converted around the year 400, and this assumption is corroborated by archeological evidence. Julian Robinson, a French professor who conducted archaeological excavations in the Himyar region, writes in a study entitled Himyar et Israel, that prior to the year 380, all Himyarite religious inscriptions refer to pagan deities, but those which date after that year take on a monotheistic cast, including many references to Hashem as “rachaman.” Other inscriptions mention the word “shalom” as well as the words “people of Israel.”
Still more telling, is the discovery of an entire cavern of Himyarite tombs in the Beit Shearim catacombs in the Galil. According to Professor Robinson, the inscriptions on the graves are both in Hebrew and the ancient Arabic language of Sabean. Professor Robinson also mentions another tombstone in a private collection, which reads as follows: “Yosef son of Awfa…who died in the land of Tafar [this refers to Zafaar, the Himyarite capital] in the land of the Himyarites left for the land of Israel, and was buried on the eve of Shabbos, the 29 day of the month of Tammuz, equal to 400 years of the destruction of the temple.”
That Himyaran, named Yosef, was the son of Awfa, which is an Arab name. This may indicate that he was a convert, and the date of his burial, 470 CE, makes it plausible to speculate that he may have converted along with the rest of the Himyarans.
In addition, it seems that many Himyarites learned to speak Hebrew, as Himyarite inscriptions have been discovered that use Hebrew lettering.
Although we have presented evidence for a mass conversion of Himyarites to Judaism, there remain several troubling questions on this account.
To begin with, our knowledge of the story of their conversion comes exclusively from Islamic tradition, hardly a reliable source of information. Another problematic aspect is the fact that the Himyarites are not mentioned in any Jewish source. The Geonim are silent on the topic, and even the Raavad, who speaks of the Khazari kingdom in his Sefer HaQabbalah, makes no mention of Himyar. The third problem is that of King Yussuf, as we will explain.
Around 522, Yussuf became the final king of Jewish Himyar.3See The Throne of Adulis, by G.W. Bowersock Shortly before he ascended to the throne, the Ethiopians had invaded Himyar and installed their own king, as we shall later see. When this king died, Yussuf was able to seize power. He set about persecuting the Christians in his territory and forced them to convert to Judaism. In the year 523, King Yussuf burned all the churches in the capital city of Zaphar, with their worshippers still inside, and slaughtered 300 Christians in his custody who refused to convert.
The following year, he sent a letter gleefully detailing his atrocities to a conference that took place in Ramle which included representatives of the Sassanian empire and envoys from the Byzantine emperor Justinian.4The Throne of Adulis, by G.W. Bowersock Why Yussuf chose to do this is unclear. Perhaps he hoped to gain an alliance with the Sassanians who were enemies of the Byzantines, by boasting of his treatment of the Christian populace. Whatever his motives, the news of his actions infuriated the Byzantine delegation. One of the attendees at this convention, a priest named Symeon, was so incensed at Yussuf’s deeds that he published them in a letter that became known as “The Book of the Himyarites.” We quote here from Synmeon’s letter:5This letter can be found in the journal Pseudo-Dionysus of Tel Mahre Chronicle, p. 53.
…Sorrow and distress came upon us because in our presence, a letter sent by the Himyarite to the King Mundir, came and gave a letter full of boasting in which was written thus: Know my brother Mundir, that the king whom the Ethiopians established in our country has died. The Winter season came, and the Ethiopians could not set out to our country to set up a Christian king as they used to, therefore I became King over the whole country of the Himyarites.
First I seized all the Christians who confessed [Yoshke], if they would not become Jews like us. I killed two hundred and eighty priests who were there, and together with them, the Ethiopians who guarded the church. Of the church of theirs I turned into a synagogue…
The letter goes on to describe more of Yussuf’s cruelty, and ends with a call to action:
Through these writings and tidings here, grief came upon all the Christians here. And we have written to the Bishops…about what has happened in the land of the Himyarites… We suggest to you…that it should be quickly made known to the archimandrites and Bishops, especially the chief priest of Alexandria, that he might write to the King of the Ethiopians to get ready at once to help the [Christian] Himyarites. But let also the Jews of Tiberias be seized, and be forced to send a message to the Jewish king who has appeared, that he may put an end to the strife and persecution in the land of the Himyarites.
Symeon’s letter had the desired effect. The Byzantine emperor asked the Archbishop of Alexandria to request, of the Ethiopians, that they invade Himyar. The Ethiopians were only too happy to comply in an effort to recover their former land holdings in Arabia. In 525, a large Ethiopian fleet crossed the Red Sea and landed on the Arabian coast. Many sources tell us6The Throne of Adulis, p. 97. that Yussuf’s army tried unsuccessfully to set up a huge chain to block the invading fleet from landing. The Ethiopian army swiftly conquered Himyar, killed King Yussuf, and established a Christian kingdom in Himyar, thus ending the Jewish rule of the region.
Earlier, we mentioned two of the problems with the standard historical version of a Jewish kingdom of Himyar. There is a third one as well: The difficulty of accepting the historical veracity of the accounts of Yussuf’s barbarity and his attempts at forced conversion. These reports are deeply at odds with all of Jewish law and tradition, which rejects bloodshed and cruelty of every kind and discourages even voluntary conversion.
Answering the Difficulties
Although there are serious questions regarding the veracity of the story of the Himyarites’ mass conversion, for the reasons described above, none of them pose an insurmountable obstacle, either, to a belief that the story may be true. For example, the lack of any mention of the Himyarite conversion in Jewish sources is unsurprising, since in general very little is known to us about that historical period altogether. Indeed, we know almost nothing about the leaders of the Jewish people at that time, the Rabbanan Savorai,7This refers to gedolei Yisroel who lived in the time period between the Amoraim and Gaonim. other than their names. 8See Iggeres Rav Sherira Gaon who provides a list of the Rabbanan Savorai. Concerning Yussuf’s barbarity to the Christians, too, it may be contended that perhaps the Himyarans still retained some of their pagan ways after their conversion.