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Nehama C. Nahmoud presents the Jews of Yemen, Part II: The Jewish Kings of Yemen

Reader Response

Then and Now / Living History
January 1, 1998 / 3 Tevet, 5758

When We Were Kings

The Jews of Yemen, Part II

By Nehama C. Nahmoud

The most exciting and glorious period in the story of the Yemenites is set between the destruction of the Second Holy Temple and the coming-of-age of the founder of Islam, Muhammad (about 620 CE).

The Arabs in pre-Islamic days were out-and-out idol worshippers; but those who lived in the cities, of course, were in constant contact with the large Jewish populations there, and even the Bedouin tribes who lived in the desert were familiar with the "People of the Book."

Moslem legend tells of a desert sheik, Tub'a Abu Kariba As'ad, who reigned as king of Yemen from 390 to 420 CE. He took his tribe north from Yemen to Medina (now part of Saudi Arabia) to fight the Jews of that city. But instead of conquering, he himself was conquered -- by the words of Medina's rabbis. He returned home with two Jewish scholars in tow and became a convert. His tribesmen were at first reluctant to give up their ideas and way of life, but Abu Kariba convinced them of the truth of Judaism and they, too, accepted the yoke of the Creator, thus beginning the Jewish kingdom of Himyar, as Yemen was called during that period.

Accompanying this legend, archeologists have uncovered an interesting inscription from that period, carved in stone, with a sentence in ancient Hebrew appearing in the middle. The inscription tells about a building erected by a man whose first name was Yehudah and continues, "with help and charity of his G-d, the creator of his soul, the G-d of the living and the dead, the G-d of heaven and earth, who created everything; and with the support of His people, Israel; and by the authority of the King of Sheba; and by the authority of his tribal lord." The content of the inscription is very different from Christian inscriptions of the same period.


Sheikh Yusuf Dhu Nuwas (517-525 CE) was the last Jewish king of Yemen and was himself a convert. He inherited an inevitable situation from his weaker predecessor. When Dhu Nuwas began his reign, the kingdom was in a general state of deterioration, and the Ethiopians, meanwhile, had not lost a minute. They had moved their army into several cities, including the capital -- even turning the main synagogue into a church -- all without shedding a drop of blood.

Neighboring Ethiopia had become Christian circa 327 C.E., during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who ruled from the Greek capital of Byzantium, and it was bent on expanding its spiritual, if not temporal, territory. The Ethiopians had infiltrated into Yemen gradually over the years since their embracing of Christianity. Backed by Christian Byzantium, they had made repeated efforts at missionizing among the Yemenites.

Among Dhu Nuwas' first acts as king was to unite all the princely factions in his territory into an effective army and to go into action. Sarhil Yakbal, one of his prince-commanders, wrote a description of Nuwas' Ethiopian wars, the highlights of which were the battles of Ta'afar and Najran.

The battle of Najran appears to have been an event which shook the entire region: some believe to have found an echo of this battle even in the Koran itself, as well as in Christian literature of the era. In fact, three related inscriptions were discovered near Najran in the 1950s, one of which gives us an intimate peek into life in Najran.

It describes the city as a hotbed of Christian agitation against the king, ending in a revolt in which some Jews were killed. Christian sources acknowledge that the king requested Najran's residents to surrender and live in peace, attacking the city only upon their refusal to do so.

Reports of the fall of Najran stirred up the desire for revenge in the Christian world, and Yusuf Dhu Nuwas was killed during a subsequent Ethiopian invasion in 525 CE.

An Arab legend has Yusuf ridding his horse into the waves of the sea and drowning; but two German researchers found a princely tomb in 1931, believed by some to be Yusuf's.

Some of the recent archeological discoveries linked to the old Jewish legends can be as imagination-stirring as the legends themselves. During the years of 1936 and 1937, excavations were carried out in the Amoraic-period cemetary of Beis Sh'orim, near Haifa. Archeologists came across four chambers containing sarcophagi and inscriptions in Greek. One read: "The people of Himyar"; another: "Menachem, Elder of the Community." Pottery shards found in one of the burial chambers were dated at the second-half of the Third Century, CE. The Jewishness of the Tombs' occupants is confirmed by both a shofar and menorah. It is surmised that the Yemenites brought their leaders to be buried in the Holy Land.

The latest inscription pertaining to this legend is "Rechov Yusuf Dhu Nuwas" enameled on a modern street sign in the heart of downtown Jerusalem.

Previously: The Beginning

Next: The Muslim Period


Nehama C. Nahmoud is the author of several works on Oriental, Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews. She lives in Jerusalem.

©1998, Jewish World Review