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Saba and Sabeans

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This Saba (Sheba) must not be confounded with Saba (Seba) in Ethiopia of Isaiah 43:3 and 45:14. It lies in the Southern Arabian Jôf about 200 miles northwest of Aden. The Sabeans are mentioned in the Bible as a distant people (Joel 3:8), famous traders (Ezekiel 27:22-3; 38:13; Job 6:19), who exported gold (Isaiah 60:6; Psalm 73:15; Ezekiel 38:13), precious stones (Ezekiel 27:22), perfumes (Jeremiah 6:20), incense (Isaiah 60:6), and perhaps slaves (Joel 3:8), and practised brigandage. The genealogies of Genesis connect them now with Dadan, as sons of Regma (10:7; cf. 1 Chronicles 1:9) and of Jecsan (25:3; cf. 1 Chronicles 1:32), now with Asarmoth (Hadhramôt), as sons of Jecsan (10:26-28, cf., 1 Chronicles 1:20-22). These details point to two Sabas, one in the south contiguous to Hadhramot, another in the north near Taima (Job 1:15; 6:19) and El 'Ela (cf. "Comptes rendus de l'académie des Inscriptions" etc., June 1910); but which was the original home of the Sabeans, cannot yet be decided. Hommel indeed places it in the north, near Idumean Dedan, and identifies it with Aribi-Yareb (whose queens figure in Assyrian inscriptions), with the Saba, whose queen visited Solomon (1 Kings 10), which is probably mentioned as tributary to Theglathphalasar III (745-27 B.C.), and whose ruler, Ithamara, paid tribute to Sargon in 715 B.C. Thence (according to Glaser) the Sabeans moved south in the eighth or ninth century and established their kingdom on the ruins of the Minaean power. This theory is plausible and solves the difficulty of 1 Kings 10; but the identification of Saba with Aribi-Yareb is arbitrary, and all present evidence disproves the existence of kings in Saba till much later. Sargon, who lavishes the title of King on his tributaries, refuses it to Ithamara, the Yethamara of Sabean inscriptions, and these inscriptions point to a long period of rule by Mukarribs (priest-kings), ten of whose names have been preserved.

Their capital was Çirwah. Authorities agree in dating their rule from the beginning of the tenth century B.C., and in making the advent of the kings contemporaneous with the destruction of the Minaean kingdom. Here agreement ceases. Glaser, e.g. dates the Sabean kings from 820, Müller from 750, and they can certainly not be placed later than 500 B.C., since at least seventeen of them reigned before 115 B.C. At that date a new era begins. The Himayarites (Homeritae of classical geography) overthrew in that year the Kingdom of Saba, and founded the "Kingdom of Saba and Raidân". In 25 B.C. the army of Aelius Gallus failed miserably before the walls of Marib, the Sabean capital. About A.D. 300 the ever-increasing Abyssinian immigrants overthrew the Himyarite dynasty, and inaugurated the "Kingdom of Saba, Raidan, Hadhramôt, and Yemen", which, after yielding place for an interval to a Judaeo-Sabean kingdom and violent religious persecution (cf. Pereira, "Historia dos Martyres de Nagran", Lisbon, 1899) was re-established by Byzantine intervention in 525. After the rout of the Viceroy Abraha at Mecca in 570, the Persians seized their opportunity, and Southern Arabia became a Persian province till its incorporation in Islam.

Modern discoveries confirm the classical and Biblical accounts of Sabean prosperity. Ruins of fortresses and walled towns of temples and irrigation-works, cover the land. Of the immense dams the most famous is that of the capital, Marib, which did service, after repeated restoration, down to the sixth century of our era. Thanks to irrigation, agriculture flourished. Gold, too, abounded, with silver and precious spices. Brigandage reinforced the natural products. But the chief source of wealth was the trade route from India to Egypt and northern Syria, which passed through the Sabean capital (cf. Müller, "Der Islam im Morgen- und Abendland", I, 24 sqq.). Accordingly, when, in the first century after Christ, the Ptolomies exchanged the Southern Arabian route for a direct road from Alexandria to Egypt, the decline of Sabean prosperity began. Thus the bursting of the dam of Marib was the consequence, not, as Arabic legend pretended, the cause, of the disintegration of the Sabean tribes. The Sabean polity seems to have been based on the feudal system. Two kings appear to have shared the supreme power, but the monarchy was not hereditary, and passed on the king's death to the first male born during the reign to one of the leading families. The heads of these families shared with the king the exclusive right to sanction the building of castles, and are even called the kings of their own tribes. Of other magistrates-e.g. the eponymous magistrates- we know little more than the names. A wide principle of individual equality seems to have prevailed; strangers were admitted as clients; slaves abounded. Women appear to enjoyed equal rights with their consorts and are sometimes called "mistress of the castle". Concubinage prevailed, but not polygamy. Sabean art has in some respects merited high praise, but it lacks originality, and betrays at different periods the influence of the surrounding civilizations. The coins, the king's head with an owl on the reverse, are sometimes of fine workmanship (cf. Schlumberger, "Le trésor de San'a Daris", 1880). The earliest date from the fifth century B.C. Many recent writers attribute to the Sabeans the invention of the Semitic alphabet.

The supreme god of Saba was Il-Mukah, to whom was joined in the inferior capacity of spouse or daughter, the sun-goddess Shamsh. Other deities were Athtar, the morning or evening star, Ta'lab, "Patron of Riyâm", Haubas, Rammâm, and others-names which may be merely epithets of the moon-god. Submission towards and intimate affinity to the deity is the characteristic of the Sabean religion. The inscriptions commemorate gratitude for success in arms, "man-slaying", health, preservation, safe return, booty, and rich crops. Worshippers offer to the gods themselves and their children, register vows, and attest their fulfilment. Votive offerings consisted in gilt images of the object, and one king dedicated as many as thirty golden ("gilt") statues on one occasion. We can only make a passing allusion to the predominant influence attributed by some savants to Southern Arabia on the formation of the Mosaic institutions. Especial stress is laid on the Arabian origin of the Divine name and of many religious terms, on the scruple of the Arabians about using the Divine name, their designation of priests as Levites, their laws of ceremonial purity, their imageless worship, their sin-offerings etc., especially when viewed in the light of Abraham's ancestry, and of the intimate connection of Moses with Midian. Apart, however, from the fact that the question belongs to the Minaean rather than to the Sabean problem, the materials at present at our disposal do not warrant any probable solution of the question.


Classical Geographers: GLASER, Skizze der Geschichte u. Geographic Arabiens (Berlin, 1890). Arabic Geographers: see especially Müller, Die Burgen u. Schölsser Südarabiens nach dem Iklîl des Hamdani (Vienna, 1879). Sabean Inscriptions: Corpus inscr. Semit., IV (Paris, 1889--); HOMMEL, Südarabische Chrestomathie (Munich, 1892); MULLER and MORDTMAN, Sabäische Denkmäler (Vienna, 1883); MULLER, Sudarabische Alterthumer im Kunsthistorische Hofmuseum (Vienna, 1889).
General Reference: HOMMEL, Aufsätze u. Abhandlungen (Munich, 1892); WEBER, Arabien vor dem Islam (Leipzig, 1901); Idem, Studien zur Sudarab. Altertumskunde, I-III (Berlin, 1901-7); GRIMME, Mohammed (Munster, 1895); KÖNIG, Fünf neue Landschaftenamen im a. Test. (Berlin, 1902); HARTMANN, Der islamische Orient, II (Leipzig, 1909); HASTINGS, Dict. of the Bible.
For Biblical Aspect: HOMMEL, Ancient Hebrew Tradition (New York and London, 1897); IDEM in HILPRECHT, Explorations in Bible Lands (Edinburg, 1903), 741-52; LANDSDORFER, Die Bibel u. die südarab. Altertumsforschung (Munster, 1910); GRIMME in Zeitschrift der morgenländischen Geschichte, LXI, 3S sqq.
Sabaean Religion: NIELSEN, Die altarab. Mondreligion (Strasburg, 1904); IDEM, Der Sabäische Gott Il-Mukah (Leipzig, 1910).
Modern Explorations: HOMMEL in Hilprecht, op. cit., 697-726; WEBER, Forschungsreisen in Südarabien bis zum Auftreten Glasers (Leipzig, 1906); IDEM, E. Glasers Forschungsreisen in Südarabien (Leipzig, 1908).

About this page

APA citation. Hartinger, J.A. (1912). Saba and Sabeans. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hartinger, J.A. "Saba and Sabeans." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Marie Jutras.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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