Ancient South Arabian

Authored by: Anne Multhoff

The Semitic Languages

Print publication date:  March  2019
Online publication date:  March  2019

Print ISBN: 9780415731959
eBook ISBN: 9780429025563
Adobe ISBN:


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Ancient South Arabian (ASA) is a group of epigraphically attested languages of the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, roughly the area of present day Yemen (Map 13.1). It is documented in inscriptions covering a range from the early first millennium bce up to the 6th century ce. Though often treated as one common language “Ancient South Arabian,” it can actually be divided into four different languages: Sabaic, Qatabanic, Minaic and Ḥaḍramaitic. These languages largely correspond to different political entities, namely the kingdoms of Sabaʔ, Qatabān, Maʕīn and Ḥaḍramawt. These kingdoms were centered in the great wadis on the fringes of the Ramlat as-Sabʕatayn desert and existed both on the basis of rain-water agriculture (maintained mainly by monsoon-floods from the mountains) and long-distance trade along the incense road. Agricultural activities are thus a common topic in extant texts. Whereas a common pantheon comprising deities like ʕAṯtar (ʕṯtr), Wadd(um) (wd(m)) or ʔAṯirat (ʔṯrt) shines through the texts throughout South Arabia, a number of additional national deities were worshipped in the different kingdoms and tribes, such as ʔAlmaqah (ʔlmqh) in Sabaʔ, ʕAmm (ʕm) in Qatabān, Siyān (syn) in Ḥadramawt and a triad consisting of ʕAṯtar, Wadd and Nakraḥ (nkrḥ) in Maʕīn. Beside these prominent figures, a broad range of minor deities is also attested. Apart from the mere names, little is known about the character, function or internal relations of these deities within the pantheon. During the late 4th century ce, however, a complete change in the religious system can be observed. From this time onwards, any allusion to the traditional pantheon disappears from the inscriptions, being replaced by a monotheistic faith. This monotheism, invoking a deity called ‘the God’ (ʔln or ʔlhn), Raḥmānān (rḥmnn) or ‘the lord of heaven and earth’, was first inspired by Judaism. After the Ethiopian invasion in 525 ce, however, it was changed to a Christian denomination.

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