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Often wilfully overlooked if not neglected by today's Eurocentric civilisation, the history of Sabaea is one which is every bit as rich and intriguing as any other culture ever to have visited the face of the earth. Located at a time when the Middle East used to be the crossroads of all trade in the Old World, the Sabaeans were crafty traders and able sailors as befitting a society dependent on trade, whose cities and warehouses formed a vital maritime route between Africa, the Mediterranean and India. Riches and exotic goods weren't the only exports — even in the death throes of their civilisation, the Sabaeans themselves would become the unwitting contributors towards the development of one of the world's greatest religions: Islam.
Men of the DesertEdit
Like the northern half of the Middle East comprising of the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, the Arabian lands were colonised by various human tribes as early as 2000BCE, concentrated mainly around the relatively fertile hills of Yemen. By the onset of the 4th century BCE, the coastline of Yemen was increasingly becoming urbanised with a population made prosperous through trade. This was the period of crisis in which the Persian and Greek polities were faltering if not falling apart and rising back again, resulting in a power vacuum which the Sabaean peoples could and did fill in. Sabaean society was soon developed around city-states ruled by monarchies around which the tribes rallied. with four regional powers: the Sabaeans (who soon lent their name to the rest of their subjects and vassals), the Minaeans, the Himyarites and the Adramites.
These four powers were not alone, however — various Arab tribes also inhabited the coasts of the Arab Peninsula if they were not grazing and raiding their way across the Empty Quarter. Nevertheless, the Sabaeans, ensconced around what is today Sana'a, were the most powerful amongst all the tribes of the region: both the Torah and the Qur'an refer to the peoples of Yemen at this time as the "Sabaeans" which suggests that the many tribes of Yemen lived in some sort of confederation headed by the same. The term "Sabaea" itself was based on the name of this tribe — "Saba" in Arabic, and "Sheba" in Hebrew. Elsewhere, the Qataban tribe lived in Timna, while the Himyarites ruled over Aden and Zafar and the Adramites were settled around a wide region centred around a city to which they gave their name — present-day Hadhramaut.
From various coins and inscriptions left behind in Yemen, Sabaean religion apparently had a focus on fertility and staying alive. It was polytheistic and was headed by not one but two solar deities: Almaqah and his consort, Shams. Unlike other religions, the Sabaeans were somewhat unique in that they practised astrolatry and that their principal deities were based on the planets. Arab writers claimed that in all of the Sabaean lands, there were at least seven temples of different colours, with one for each planet as well as the sun and the moon.
A Flower Amidst the SandsEdit
Sabaea's location between Africa and India and its access to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean meant that it occupied a location most favourable to entrepôt trading. this civilization was exceptionally wealthy. According to the Qur'an Saba's queen, known in the west as the Queen of Sheba, ruled from "a magnificent throne" and also visited King Solomon in Jerusalem, arriving, says the First Book of Kings, "with a very great train with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones..."
By providing trans-shipment of silks from China, produce from East Africa and treasures from India — cinnamon and pepper, gold and precious stones — the Sabaeans, and other South Arabian peoples, dominated trade between the civilizations of the East and those of the Mediterranean. Clearly, much of this trade was in luxury goods, but ordinary goods were traded too. A 1st century traveller listed these products as available in the market place of Saba's chief port: textiles, saffron, sweet rush, fragrant ointments, wine and wheat.
The Happiest Times
Even so, there was one commodity for which Sabaea became most famous for: frankincense and myrrh — for which the ancient world had a nearly insatiable appetite. They were used by the ancient Egyptians in embalming, were burned as offerings to the pagan gods of East and West, were valued as medicines from first-century Rome to 11th-century Persia, and perfumed the state occasions of royal and imperial courts throughout the known world well into the early Middle Ages. Yet they grew, almost exclusively, in Southern Arabia — whose inhabitants told fabulous tales about the dangers and difficulties of collecting them in order to deter competitors — and were a vital factor in the prosperity that earned the area the name Arabia Felix — Happy Arabia.
Just how happy were they? A tale regarding Alexander the Great best describes just how much frankincense was valued. As a young man, Alexander was scolded by his tutor Leonidas when making an excessively large offering of it to the gods, who told him to "be more sparing until you have conquered the land where it grows." Much later after his conquest of Persia, Alexander thought it a jolly good joke to send a whole shipment of frankincense and myrrh as a gift to Leonidas. As the Roman historian, Pliny, put it, "It is the luxury that is displayed by man, even in the paraphernalia of death, that has rendered Arabia 'The Happy.'"
Hydrocracy and TheocracyEdit
Sabaean society appears to have been very much based around the tribe, with a king or chief (known as a muqarrib, later rebadged as malik) holding absolute power over the lives and deaths of his people. This power was not just backed up by brute force — the Sabaeans were also masters of water management and had learnt to master the building of dykes and reservoirs to tap rainfall from the mountains. The most famous centerpiece of these systems was the Ma'rib Dam. Built as early as the 7th century BCE by tthe Sabaean king Sumhu' Alay Yanuf, the dam spanned an 1,800-foot gap cut through the Balaq Hills and distributed precious water to cultivated areas by a system of branching canals.
Religious architecture was also the pride of the Sabaeans. Islamic lore also suggests that the Ka'aba up north in Mecca was built by the prophet Ismail, supposedly the progenitor of the Arab race: if so, the appearance of the Ka'aba today (albeit purged of its pantheon of idols) and its architecture may provide us with a foretaste of what basic Sabaean architecture may have looked like — the foundations of large temples have also been discovered in central Yemen, proving that the Sabaeans were also expert builders.
The Sabaean peoples were also known for building some of the world's first skyscrapers. Many of these tall tower houses can still be seen in areas such as Anbar and Shibam today. Despite this seeming sophistication, however, life was not as happy as the Romans thought it was for them — conflict between the many cities and tribes was very common, and tall tower houses like these may have been built for protection, like the many towers built in the Caucasus, Italy and Scotland during the Middle Ages, By 100BCE, the Sabaeans were no longer the main power in the locality and their cities were annexed by their Himyarite neighbours. The Himyarites would now found an empire which stretched from the shores of Africa to the Gulf of Hormuz.
Decline and DormancyEdit
Despite the consolidation of Himyarite hegemony, their days were numbered. By the 3rd century CE, the Roman Empire was in crisis. The fall of Rome did not bode well for the Sabaeans, and as the empire's finances and power began to dry up, so did opportunities for continued trade which was the lifeline for the Himyarites. The adoption of Christianity also caused greater commercial carnage as demand for Sabaean frankincense was also discouraged — it would take almost 1,000 years for demand for frankincense to spike up again in Christian Europe.
With the loss of trade came a loss in strength, and the Sabaean peoples were at the mercy of foreign invaders and greater conflict as the ensuing economic crisis resulted in greater competition for resources. One of these foreign invaders was the Kingdom of Axum in East Africa from across the Red Sea. By the 2nd century CE, Axum had established itself and was proving itself as a force to be reckoned with, able to exert itself as far as Egypt at the height of its 800-year rule.
As would be expected, it also tried to intervene in Sabaea, and fought many conflicts with the locals to exert its influence, but even then this was not sufficient to finish them off. The Qur'an suggests that the destruction of the Ma'rib dam was the straw that broke the camel's back, and mentions that the collapse of the dam caused a massive flood which resulted in widespread destruction, leading to the collapse of Sabaean civilisation. From the archaeological evidence we have collected from this area as well as written accounts from the early 1st millenium CE, it can be argued that conflict and infighting had prevented the Sabaeans from effectively maintaining their irrigation systems, eventually leading to what is presumably the loss of the same, displacing as many as 50,000 survivors to leave the land and migrate northwards.
Nevertheless, it was not the end for them. Some of these survivors may eventually have arrived in the Hejaz, where they settled down. Much later, the descendents of these people would also become the very first converts of Islam as well as its first disseminators, a religion which has very much stood the test of time well into our own era. For the time being, however, the old Sabaean culture would go extinct and disappear under the desert sands until it was rediscovered again by a French archaeologist, Joseph Halévy in the 19th century.