The Arabian peninsula, first inhabited more than 8,000 years ago, was earlier populated by Black people. Once dominant over the entire peninsula, the African presence in ancient Arabia is most clearly traceable through the Sabeans. Left: Marib Dam. The next image is a quarter drachm which was minted during the 3rd or 2nd centuries BC – long after the legendary Queen of Sheba's visit to Ethiopia, which is said to have taken place about 950 BC. The coin shows the head of the goddess Athena on the obverse and the owl, Athena's attribute, on the reverse.
The Sabeans were ,the first Arabians to step firmly within the realm of civilization. The southwestern corner of the peninsula was their early home. This area, which was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix,is today called Yemen. In antiquity this region gave rise to a high degree of civilization because of the fertility of the soil, growth of frankincense and myrrh, and the close proximity to the sea. subsequently its importance in the trade routes. The Sabeans have even been called "the Phoenicians of the southern seas."
We are told of the Sabeans in the tenth century B.C. through the fabled exploits of its semi-legendary queen. This woman had all the qualities of an exceptional monarch, and appears to have ruled over a wealthy domain embracing parts of both Africa and Arabia. She is known as Bilqis in the Koran Makeda in the Kebra Negast,and the Queen of Sheba in the Bible. These three documents provide a relatively clear picture of a highly developed state distinguished by the pronounced overall status of women. Bilqis/Makeda was not an isolated phenomenon.
Several times, in fact, do we hear of prominent women in Arabian history; the documents they are mentioned in provided no commentary on husbands, consorts, or male relatives. It only mention either their deeds or inheritance, sometimes both, which enabled them to stand out quite singularly. The Sabeans apparently possessed a dedicated multifocal culture and society. Around the beginning of the first millennium B.C., the period in which Makeda is thought to have lived, we find the emergence of a number of large urban centers characterized by elaborate irrigation systems.
With the domestication of the camel, the southern Arabians could effectively exploit the region's greatest natural resources, frankincense and myrrh, which from the earliest historical periods were much prized and sought after. The purest and most abundant sources of frankincense and myrrh were in southern Arabia and Somalia (Punt), just across the Red Sea. We hear of the Sabeans during the reign of the powerful Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 B.C.E.). In a series of inscriptions detailing Assyrian military successes, there is specific mention of:
"Pir'u, the king of Musru, Samsi, the queen of Arabia, It'amra, the Sabean,-the(se) are the kings of the seashore and from the desert-I received as their presents gold in the form of dust, precious stones, ivory, ebony-seeds, all kind of aromatic substances, horses (and) camels."
It was during the seventh century B.C.E. that the Sabean rulers became known as mukarribs(priest-kings). The earliest known Sabean construction projects, including the mighty Marib Dam (South Arabia's most enduring technical achievement) were initiated during this period. Two mukarribs, Sumuhu'alay Yanaf and Yithi'amara Bayyim, cut deep watercourses through the solid rock at the south end of the site. The Marib Dam which served its builders and their descendants for more than a thousand years, was traditionally believed to have been conceived by Lokman, the sage and multi-genius of pre-Islamic South Arabia.
In effect, the Dam was an earthen ridge stretching slightly more than 1700 feet across a prominent wadi. Both sides sloped sharply upward, with the Dam's upstream side fortified bysmall pebbles established in mortar. The Marib Dam was ″rebuilt several times by piling more earth and stone onto the existing structure.
The last recorded height of the Marib Dam was slightly more than forty-five feet.
Although the Marib Dam has now practically disappeared, the huge sluice gates built into the rocky walls of the wadi are very well preserved.
Thev continue to stand as silent but effective witnesses to the creative genius of the South Arabian people.
When the periodic but powerful rains did come, the mechanism divided the onrushing waters into two channels, which ultimately sustained the area's inhabitants.
Such was the force generated by the turbulent waters, however, that the Marib Dam was periodically washed out. Reconstruction was a formidable task.
In one such operation 20,000 workmen were employed, some of them coming from hundreds of miles away.
At some point during this period, perhaps even earlier, there is evidence of South Arabian settlement in Ethiopia's Tigre province. The remains of actual South Arabian settlements have been found principally at Yeha, Matara, and Haoulti.