Eliana Rudee / JNS.org
A Yemenite family walks through the desert to a reception camp set up by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee near Aden. Nov. 1, 1949. Photo: Zoltan Kluger/Wikimedia Commons.
An exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem shows that the ancient people living in the southern Arabia region (present-day Yemen) were largely connected to the land of Israel, despite being isolated from the rest of the Eastern world by seas and deserts.
On display for the first time, the new exhibition “Yemen: From Sheba to Jerusalem” explores the history of the ancient kingdoms of southern Arabia — Sheba, Qataban, Ḥadhramaut, and Maʿin — their commercial links with the land of Judah during the First and Second Temple periods, and the origins of the Yemenite Jewish community.
Through the trade in incense and aromatic plants like myrrh and frankincense — used in Temple worship, and worth the value of gold and silver at the time — modern-day Yemen became a key hub in ancient Near Eastern trade.
Biblical references such as Isaiah 60:6 also comment on trade from Sheba to Jerusalem: “Dust clouds of camels shall cover you, dromedaries of Midian and Ephah. They all shall come from Sheba; they shall bear gold and frankincense, and shall herald the glories of the Lord.”
This trade route also made it possible for Yemenite Jews to make the journey to the land of Israel. Though the trek was 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles), which often took two whole months to complete, there was extensive commercial trade between the two lands, and the bones of Yemenite Jews were often taken to Israel to be buried.
“Yemen is probably one of the most remote lands of the Bible that we have, but the ancient Yemenite Jewish culture had a dream to be in the land of Israel,” said museum director Amanda Weiss. “That longing to have that connection to Israel and to the Bible, the Tanach, was something that never waned or got lost along the way, no matter how long and hard that journey was.”
The artifacts on exhibit, said Weiss, are evidence of the longing of those people, tracing their journey and the intermediaries in the spice trade — the peoples of North Arabia, especially the Nabateans, who left a wealth of artifacts at numerous sites in the Negev and Arava deserts.
By the end of the fourth century CE, the kings of Himyar (south Arabia’s last major kingdom before the advent of Islam) adopted a monotheistic religion inspired by Judaism, and it became known as the “Jewish Kingdom of Himyar.”
According to the exhibition, the Himyarite kingdom was destroyed in 525 CE by armies from the Christian Ethiopian kingdom of Axum. However, a vibrant Jewish community endured and developed its own unique culture, while also establishing ties with Jewish communities around the world, until most of Yemen’s Jews immigrated to the newly formed State of Israel.
Though Yemenite Jewish tradition says that the Jews arrived there following the warning of the Prophet Jeremiah of the destruction of the First Temple, exhibition curator Oree Meiri said that the first evidence of Jews in Yemen dates back to 25 BCE, with the Roman attempt to conquer Saudi Arabia.
The exhibition tells the story of the roots of the Yemenite Jewish community from the time of the kingdom of Himyar (110 BCE) onwards. It features images by photographer Naftali Hilger, who visited Yemen several times until the outbreak of civil war in 2015, documenting everyday life of the small Jewish community that stayed after most of its members had left for Israel.
The display shows the continuum of Jewish faith from ancient history in southern Arabia to the present, illustrating a powerful message that the community remained a unit and faithful to Judaism, carrying on their culture from generation to generation, Weiss said.
“This is the story of one resilient community that has survived with its traditions for thousands of years,” she affirmed.
The exhibition was inspired by Weiss’ late grandfather (the father of Batya Borowski, Weiss’ mother and the co-founder of the Bible Lands Museum), who emigrated from Yemen to British Mandatory Palestine in 1907.
The 89-year-old Borowski has said that creating an exhibition “about the history of the Yemenite people in Yemen and connections they had to the State of Israel” was one of her biggest dreams, and has now finally come to fruition.