Translated by Albert LaFarge
Sheba, or Saba, is a region of high mountains and vast deserts situated in the southwest of the Arabian peninsula, in present-day Yemen. In the ancient Mediterranean world it was the fabled source of merchant caravans laden with aromatic spices. The mysteries and riches of Sheba and its people figured in the works of classical authors like Herodotus, and enticed the likes of King Solomon, Alexander the Great, the Emperor Augustus, and kings of Ethiopia and Byzantium. From the eighth century B.C. to the first century A.D., the kingdom of Sheba dominated other realms in Southern Arabia, imposing its language, institutions, and artistic forms throughout the region.
In Arabia Felix from the Time of the Queen of Sheba, Jean-François Breton provides us with a fascinating and detailed description of this remote civilization, the uniqueness of the region’s geography and climate, and the major events that shaped its history. Calling on the resources of modern archeological discoveries, he offers valuable insights into the Sabeans’ daily life, their agriculture and skill in irrigation, their customs and religion, their modes of commerce, and their relations with neighboring civilizations.
“Arabia Felix was the name the ancient Romans gave to a fertile and prosperous land blessed with rare fragrances—and shrouded in mystery. This name, a Latin translation of the Greek Arabia Eudaimon, would eventually make its way into English as Araby the Blest. This exotic landscape, thought to be located at the southern edge of the inhabited world, was said to disappear regularly under thick fog and violent monsoon rains. After a storm, its soil would exude a fragrance strong enough to roil the senses. The pleasure of myrrh was considered divine; frankincense subverted the body’s equilibrium, producing a sublime stupor. Arabia Felix was fabled for its luxuriant fields, fragrant date palms, inexhaustible gold mines, and countless flocks and herds. High mountains barred access from the north, but traders brought reports of boundless luxury and palaces studded with gems, where precious cinnamon was burned like kindling. Decadence and inertia were said to sap the strength of the men, who renounced all earthly pleasures in favor of the fountain of immortality. The richest of these fabled tribes were the Sabaeans, who possessed all the fruits of the earth and the riches of Asia and Europe. Fortune was evidently an unjust goddess: She had imparted all good things in abundance to the Sabaeans.” —from the introduction
“[A] much needed contribution to the ancient Near East for the English-speaking world. What Jean-Francois Breton has produced is an impressive introductory account of our current state of knowledge of Yemen’s history in the first millennium B.C. that is complementary to studies of the ancient Orient, and that will provide a more complete picture…. [H]is account is fresh, lively, and lucid. Breton is readable and reliable, and as fine an introduction to South Arabia as is now available in English.” — The Historian