The Jewish Kingdom of Yemen


Did you know that Yemen was a Jewish kingdom during the fifth century CE?

Established around the 2nd century CE, one of the key players in the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula was the now long forgotten kingdom of Himyar, which by the 4th century had become a regional power. Headquartered in what is today Yemen, Himyar had conquered neighboring states, including the ancient kingdom of Sheba (whose legendary queen features in a biblical meeting with Solomon).

Most scholars now agree that, around 380 CE, the elites of the kingdom of Himyar converted to some form of Judaism.

The Himyarite rulers may have seen in Judaism a potential unifying force for their new, culturally diverse empire, and an identity to rally resistance against the Byzantine and Ethiopian Christians, as well as the Zoroastrian Empire of Persia.

It is unclear how much of the population converted, but all references to pagan gods largely disappeared from royal inscriptions and texts on public buildings, and were replaced by writings that refer to a single deity. In several inscriptions in Sabean and Hebrew, this god is alternatively described as Rahmanan - the Merciful - the "Lord of the Heavens and Earth," the "God of Israel" and "Lord of the Jews", with invocations often ending with shalom and amen.

For the next century and a half, the Himyarite kingdom expanded its influence into central Arabia, the Persian Gulf area and the Hijaz (the region of Mecca and Medina).

Sometime around the year 525 CE, Himyar eventually fell to Christian invaders from the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum.

Through Christian and Muslim rule, Jews continued to be a strong presence in the Arabian Peninsula. This is clear not only from Mohammed's dealings with them, but also from the influence that Judaism had on Islam's rituals and prohibitions (daily prayers, circumcision, ritual purity, pilgrimage, charity, ban on images and on eating pork).

In Yemen, the heartland of the Himyarites, the Jewish community endured through centuries of persecution, until 1949-1950, when almost all its remaining members - around 50,000 - were airlifted in secret to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet.

Until 1976, when an American diplomat came across a small Jewish community in a remote region of northern Yemen, it was believed the Yemenite Jewish community was extinct.

Nineteen of the last remaining Jews in Yemen were covertly evacuated to Israel in 2016.

There are currently less than 50 Jews living in Yemen, who suffered terribly during the country's civil war, but since many of them are elderly they are reluctant to leave.