Pre-Kalebian African conquest of South Arabia

Yonathan ‘Ālem
4 min readApr 7, 2021
Map of the Horn of Africa and Arabia in late antiquity

Historians discussing the colossal Aksumite conquest of South Arabia typically refer to one historical event in the 6th-century carried out by King Kaleb ʾElla ʾAṣbeḥa against the Jewish kingdom of Ḥimyar. Although his occupation is the most documented out of all Aksumite conquests against the region, it is certainly not the first. One of the earliest accounts of a foreign dark-skinned ruler in South Arabia is found in the writings of ʿĂqībāʾ ben Yosef, a 2nd-century Jewish scholar travelling to meet the Jews in South Arabia (Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashana 26a). In the commentary on the Book of Numbers (Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 9:34), it’s written: “The King of the Arabs asked Rabbi ʿĂqībāʾ, I am a kūši and my wife is a kūši(t)…”

Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 9:34 in the original Hebrew

Since the word כּוּשִׁית (kūši) is an over-arching word used in the Hebrew Bible to describe a dark-skinned person, equivalent to αἰθίοψ (aithίops) in Greek, it’s difficult to accurately designate the particular ethnicity of this “King of the Arabs”. Considering how the closest dark-skinned African peoples to South Arabia were only a few hundred kilometres across the Red Sea in Adulis, it wouldn’t be an uneducated guess to suggest this “King of Arabs” hailing from this region, albeit a very generalized one lacking historical validity. However, one only has to look approximately a century later to find solid ground for an African king ruling south-eastern Arabia. A previous article of mine documenting the mysterious throne of Adulis (modern-day Eritrea) revealed the warrior’s extensive description of his conquest of the “Arabitai” and “Kinaidocolpitai” across the Red Sea. Despite the physical throne being swept under the Eritrean sand dunes of history, the story remains resistant to the erosional winds of Arabia.

Sabaic inscription (not related to article)

Sabaic epigraphy provides the strongest archaeological attestation of the king’s conquest and is dated to 200–230 AD. Unlike what was recorded from the throne of Adulis, the possible name of the king is mentioned when describing “ḥabashat” forces under the king “GDRT”. Although it must be stressed that this is still somewhat debated since Stuart Munro-Hay has proposed the king to be Sembrouthes instead.

Moreover, the Sabaic epigraphy has also been used to explain the Latin inscriptions dated to the same time period found at the Farasān Islands (off the coast of Jazān) which indicate a naval disruption in the Red Sea due to the presence of Roman legionary detachments responding to a crisis. These inscriptions furthermore illuminate an obscure section in the sophist Aelius Aristides’ oration:

“… the wickedness of peoples who live along the Red Sea.” (To Rome)

Equally relevant historical documentation from Ptolemy’s “Geography” and a chronicle from St. Hippolytus’ of Rome, both written in 2nd century AD, point to a people called “Kinaidocolpitai” which according to some translators means gulf or bay of homosexuals and is identified as the Ḥijāz in Saudi Arabia. One should quickly recognize that this is the same toponym mentioned by the king from Adulis:

“I sent both a fleet and an army of infantry against both the Arabitai and Kinaidocolpitai who dwell across the Red Sea, and I brought their kings under my rule. I commanded them to pay tax on their land and to travel in peace by land and sea. I made war from the lands of Leukê Kômê to the lands of the Sabaeans.”

Leukê Kômê is identified as the modern-day city of Al Wajh in northern Ḥijāz which emphasizes the wide-scale conquest of the entire eastern Arabian peninsula.

Map of the Arabian Peninsula based on Ptolemy

What occurred in these territories vary depending on the Sabaic sources themselves. Inscriptions at ʾAwwām (Maʾrib) mentions an alliance between King GDRT (from Adulis), Sabaʾ, Ḥaḍramawt and Qatabān against Ḥimyar. Meanwhile, the inscription at Adulis point to an invasion against the Sabaeans but one of the explanations given to account for the contradictory evidence is that “Sabaean” was an over-arching term meant to describe the South Arabians of Yemen without taking into account the various kingdoms. That being said, it can be confidently affirmed that many of these kingdoms were tributary states to Adulis which is surprisingly documented on stones at Meroë. Of course, like all foreign conquerors, this rule came to an abrupt end as recorded by the Sabaic inscriptions which detail turmoil in South Arabia under the successors of King GDRT. As the restoration of authority to local Arabian tribes culminated during the end of the 3rd century AD, the Adulites departed and the Kingdom of Ḥimyar established its power — for the meantime.

Map of the Ḥimyarite Kingdom dominating South Arabia in the 3rd century



Yonathan ‘Ālem

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