The Archaeology Fund





South Arabia

Myths and Legends

Research Questions

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 By the mid-first millennium B.C., word of the Arabian incense country had filtered to the West. Herodotus (ca. 440 B.C.) was one of the first to describe the region, although he had never visited there. Talking of southern Arabia, he describes the growing and harvesting frankincense (as well as other products) the groves of which are protected by “tiny winged snakes” (most likely locusts from a local plague). The incense was shipped to Greece by the Phoenicians (Book 3. 107-113). In other scattered passages, it seems to be clear that Wadi Masila/Hadramaut is mentioned (3.9) (photo) and that the incense country was tied rather closely to the Achaemenid Persians who had annexed northern Oman as part of a satrapy called Myci (3.93). Herodotus suggests that the Persians imported a thousand talents of incense (25 tons) from the region annually (3.97)

 Finally, Herodotus mentions a story of the Phoenix, a sacred bird who carries his father wrapped in a golden egg covered by myrrh to Egypt. This event is said to occur only once every 500 years. (Book 2.73). Recent historical and archaeological work on the island of Socotra has prompted scholars to suggest the account may refer to this island. (Photo)

 Following Alexander’s conquest of much of the Middle East, Theophrastus, (ca. 295 B.C.), Eratosthenes (ca. 240 B.C.) And Agatharchides (ca. 132 B.C.) are considered the first westerners to describe the South Arabian city states [IC-038, IC-040, IC-074], peoples, and incense country. Increasingly accurate descriptions are provided which removed much of the mystery from South Arabia [DH1-041].

 Strabo provides the first Roman account of the region based on the expedition of Aelius Gallus (after 24 B.C.) Following this account we have the main books of Pliny (ca. 77 A.D.), the anonymous writer of the Periplus (ca. 100 A.D.) and the map tables and Geography of Ptolemy (ca. 175 A.D.). [ IC-054, IC-055] (See the convenient summary by Groom 1981). Thus, in the space of six hundred years the incense-land and adjoining powers come under the scrutiny of western scholars, merchants, and sailors [DH1-057]. However, the mythical flying snakes and phoenix birds continue to enchant us far beyond their original description.

The South Arabian city of Nagran was the northernmost expression of the South Arabian city state culture. It was the key center for incense trade moving north along the western Arabian spine.

The principal frankincense/myrrh-producing areas in South Arabia and northern Somalia lay between two superpowers of the first century A.D. To the west, the Romans dominated. In the East, the Parthians ruled. Based on the Mathew 2 account in the New Testament, it can inferred that Dhofar was under the influence or rule of the Parthians.

Other medieval map versions of the Ptolemy co-ordinates were written in Latin with occasional interesting annotations.

The South Arabian coastline alternates between easily accessible lagoons and embayments and sheer cliffs. Bronze and Iron Age mariners soon learned to recognize prominent landmarks for navigation along this coast. Ras Fartak (classical Syagros) and Ras Qinqeri may have been the most visible of many such features along this coast.