Historians of the Greek and Roman world named ancient South Arabia, centered in present-day Yemen, Arabia Felix (“Happy Arabia”). They praised South Arabia’s fertile lands, which yielded grains, vegetables, fruits, and other commodities that were exported throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Between 1000 BC and the 6th century AD, South Arabian kingdoms prospered through a sophisticated economy based on long-distance trade. One such kingdom was Saba, the land of the Queen of Sheba, who, according to biblical traditions, traveled to Jerusalem to present King Solomon (10th century BC) with gold, precious stones, incense and other goods carried on Arabian camels.
Rich in natural resources and famed for its artistic traditions, Yemen is now a center of international concern. Since conflicts erupted in March 2015, nearly 3,000 civilians have died, and Yemen’s cultural heritage has been irreparably damaged. Under the sponsorship of the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), museums around the world are highlighting Yemeni heritage for Yemeni Heritage Week (April 24-30, 2016). Follow #Unite4Heritage on social media to see what partner museums are doing to raise international awareness on the great richness of Yemen’s culture and history.
The collection of ancient Yemeni art at the Walters Art Museum is the generous gift of Dr. Giraud and Carolyn Foster. In the early 1960s, Giraud Foster served as the personal physician to Imam Ahmed ibn Yahya, king of Yemen (r. 1948–62). During his service, Giraud was gifted with Yemeni works of art, which he continued to collect in subsequent years of world travel. These ancient Yemeni alabaster artifacts, which that from the sixth century BC to the fourth century AD, are now displayed at the Walters for all to enjoy.
In 2010 Mr. Derek Content and Mr. Benjamin Zucker bequeathed a superb collection of Yemeni silver, assembled from 1960 to 1980, to the Walters and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Pieces in this collection include female headpieces (diadems), bracelets, necklaces, and belt fittings, as well as daggers made exclusively for the Muslim male elite. These masterful works record the names of the Jewish artisans who created them as well as their Muslim rulers.
According to oral traditions, a Jewish presence in the Yemen region dates back to the reign of King Solomon, who is believed to have sent artisans with the Queen of Sheba when she returned to her Arabian kingdom. The earliest historic evidence for Jews in the Arabian Peninsula, however, dates to the initial centuries of the Common Era. From the inception of Islam in the seventh century, Jewish and Muslim communities co-existed in Yemen, although few Jews live there today.
See a selection of the Walters ancient, early modern, and modern Yemeni works of art, now on view in the Ancient Near Eastern Art gallery.