South Arabian People

South Arabian

South Arabian differs from the Arabic spoken by most Arabs. It descends directly from the Arabic of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms and is a major influence on the Semitic and Cushitic languages of the Horn of Africa. South Arabian speak-ers are limited to several small pockets in Dhufar, Socotra Island, and Musandam Peninsula in the modern states of Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. There are five major groups left today: the Harasis, the Mahrah, the Qarah, the people of Socotra Island, and the Shihuh, totaling over 150,000.

The majority speak a form of Mahri. The Harasis and Mahrah are primarily pastoralists; the Qarah are mainly settled agriculturalists, while the Shihuh of the Musandam live a transhum-ant life of mixed animal husbandry, sub-sistence farming, and fishing, moving up and down the mountains with the seasons, though many today workin jobs in the United Arab Emirates. The Shihuh migrated from Yemen in the second cen-tury CE and have subsequently mixed with Baluch from Iran/Pakistan.

Somalis consider the Mahrah to be cousins (ibn ‘Amm), and certain Somali tribes trace their descent back to Himyar, the semi-mythical founder of the Kingdom of Himyar, the most powerful of southern Arabian states in the sixth century CE.The South Arabian kingdoms arose around 1000 BCE and lasted through the seventh century CE. In the eighth century BCE, the Kingdom of Saba dominated the region and influenced the development of the D’mt civilization of Ethiopia. By the fifth century BCE, Yemeni kingdoms had developed sophisticated stone archi-tecture and complex social, political, and religious organizations.

They exercised a good deal of political influence north into the peninsula and across the straights into the Ethiopian highlands. Archeological evidence in both Yemen and Ethiopia indi-cate strong connections between the two areas, including monumental stone archi-tecture and temples to South Arabian gods similar to those of the Kingdom of Saba. The first major state in Ethiopia, Aksum, was founded by Yemenis around 100 CE, and in 525, the Ethiopians in turn con-quered Yemen.

In 570, the Ethiopians invaded the Hijaz from Yemen, but were turned back by perhaps an outbreak of plague; an incident mentioned in the Qur’an (Surat al-Fil; surah 105). In turn, the Sassanids of Persia forced the Ethio-pians out of Yemen in 572, but by that time, the South Arabian economy was in decline and Persian rule was short-lived. Yemenis were among the first to convert to Islam and contributed to the success of the Arab-Muslim conquest of the Middle East and North Africa.

South Arabia developed its own alpha-bet, from which Ge’ez and other Ethiopian languages are derived. The South Arabian alphabet, though older, was replaced by the North Arabian alphabet with the spread of Islam, and is no longer used to write the language. Islam also brought the spread of Northern Arabic as the main medium of speech, and the number of South Arabian speakers declined to the sit-uation of today.

The Mahrah and Qarah live close to each other in the Jabal Qarah region of Dhufar and across the Omani border with Yemen into the Hadramawt, where until the middle of the 20th century, they lived primarily from transhumant pastoralism. The two seem to share a common origin with the Mahrah stemming from the Qarah. The Mahrah established an independent Sultanate in Dhufar and the Hadramawt with its capital at al-Ghaydah. The Sultans of Mahrah gained control over Socotra Island in 1511, and it remained part of the Sultanate until 1967.

The British estab-lished a protectorate over the Sultanate in 1886. The Sultanate of Mahrah was even-tually abolished and incorporated into South Yemen in 1967.The Harasis live mainly in the Jiddat al-Harasis, a large pebble plain between Dhufar and northern Oman. They are pas-toral nomads famous for the quality of their camels.

They joined a confederation of Bedouin tribes against their close rela-tives, the Mahrah, despite the fact that they speak a dialect of Mahri. The Harasis stayed out of the conflict between Oman and Dhufar rebels in the 1970s and allowed Mahri families to take refuge among them. Today, the Harasis are part of an integrated development program to preserve the wild oryx and provide grazing for their camels.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Carter, John R. L. Tribes in Oman. London: Peninsular Publishing, 1982.

Chatty, Dawn. Mobile Pastoralists: Develop-ment Planning and Social Change in Oman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

De Maigret, Alessandro. Arabia Felix: An Exploration of the Archeological History of Yemen. London: Stacey International, 2002.

Heard-Bey, Frauke. From Trucial States to United Arab Emirates. Dubai: Motivate Press, 2004.

Insoll, Timothy. The Archeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cam-bridge University Press, 2003.

Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Schippmann, Klaus. Ancient South Arabia:From the Queen of Sheba to the Advent of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Pub-lishers, 2002.

Shoup, John A. “Harasis.” In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab States Today: An Encyclo-pedia of Life in the Arab States, edited by Sebastian Maisel and John A. Shoup. West-port, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Shoup, John A. “Mountains.” In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab States Today: An Ency-clopedia of Life in the Arab States, edited by Sebastian Maisel and John A. Shoup. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009.