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Some say that he traded in gold and silver; others say that he reclaimed and cultivated lands north of Sana’a. It is also said that he was an intellectual who was close to the ruling class. The accounts differ on Habshush, one of the most mysterious figures in modern Yemeni history.
Hayyim bin Yahya bin Salem al-Fetihi (1833–1899), known as Habshush, was a coppersmith as well as a historian of Yemeni history. He became a rabbi later in life and had a strong influence on the Jewish community in Yemen. In his youth, he accumulated a large amount of wealth, much of it made during his famous journey through the kingdoms of old Yemen with the French traveler and orientalist Joseph Halévy (1827–1917). It was rumored that he had found a part of King Solomon’s treasures and that the discovery was the source of his great riches. In fact, little is known about his personal life, with the exception of some myths and legends that are passed around by the elderly in Sana’a. Near the eastern gate of the Jewish Quarter lie the ruins of a large palace,1which they say belonged to Hayyim Habshush.
Habshush was well versed in geography and history. His memoirs and the few documents remaining today reflect his passion for minerals and his vast knowledge on the sources of gold in the mountains and deserts of Yemen. In one rare manuscript,2he talks about the mines dug by Yemenis in mountains, hills and deserts where gold existed in rock formations or as small stones in riverbeds and streams. Habshush’s expertise seems to have impressed the ruling Turkish authorities at the time and gained their attention. In the same manuscript, Habshush recounts the story of the discovery of a large piece of gold in an area called Jabal al-Dhamer in Tihama. When the piece of gold was discovered by the Turkish ruler, Habshush was asked to travel to Tihama to assess the area and examine the rocks. When Habshush arrived at the site, he ordered the workers to dig across several points on the top of the mountain. After a period of digging, the smell of sulfur filled the air. Habshush examined the mines and confirmed that the mountain was home to dense sulfuric rocks, but that there was no evidence of gold.
Surveying the Land of Sheba
When Joseph Halévy received funding and support from the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters, he set off in 1869 on a historic mission to decipher the ancient Yemeni language. The mission was pioneering and unique in its endeavor; however, researchers believe that Halévy used it as a cover for another, unknown, mission. Throughout his journey Halévy never revealed this to his assistant, Habshush,3whom he hired to work as a guide and to copy the inscriptions. Months later, after the end of the journey, Habshush and Halévy traveled back to Sana’a, bringing 685 inscriptions, copied from 37 sites; which means that they copied the majority of Yemeni inscriptions known to date. The number of these inscriptions was double the Phoenician inscriptions, and surpassed the number of all other categories of Semitic inscriptions.4
The two departed from the northern gate of Sana’a, known as Bab Sha’ub. They traveled for three days through al-Jiraf, al-Rawda, and then through al-Rahba, which is part of Bani al-Harith.5Afterwards, they continued towards Arhab and Nahim. Habshush describes the Khared River as wide and high throughout the year. According to his account, the river was full of fish, and the people of Sana’a and its surroundings relied on fish for their daily diet. This might seem strange to those who know the dry climate of Sana’a today. Habshush further surprises us by naming more rivers near Sana’a that were known for fish: Sarded from the west, Naba’a from the south and Al Khared from the north.6
In Halévy’s account, he writes that he traveled along the Khared River from its beginnings in Shara’a in Arhab, until its end, as it disappeared into the desert of al-Jawf,7expressing his surprise at the existence of inexhaustible springs in this dry region of Yemen. As their journey continued along the river, Halévy was convinced that this was the river mentioned by the Greek historian and geographer Strabo (64 BC–23 CE), who spoke of a river where the Roman expedition to Yemen ceased in 25 BC. It was there that Halévy could not contain his excitement and jumped up in joy. He and Habshush had uncovered a temple mostly buried under the sand, with its upper parts above the surface of the ground.
According to researchers,8the temple was dedicated to the god Athtar, and dates back to the eighth century BC. Located on the left bank of the Khared River, 100 km away from Sana’a, the temple was known to the residents of al-Jawf as the temple of The Daughters of Ād, the legendary tribe from the early Arabian peninsula.* The name references the 16 columns in the temple that are identical to five columns in al-Maqah Temple in Marib.9The columns contain large engraved drawings of female figures standing on a podium, in addition to drawings of ibexes, ostriches, snakes and bullheads. The temple is unique in its architecture and the ornate engravings found on the pillars and at the entrance door, as well the columns surrounding the courtyard.
In the vicinity of the temple, Habshush found the remains of the city of Neshan, now known as al-Khorba al-Sawda, with its remains, markets, alters and large reliefs. Most scholars believe that it was the city captured by the Roman prefect Aelius Gallus during his campaign on Yemen, which reached Marib, and was mentioned in the Roman texts under the name of Athrula.10
Near the wall of this city, Habshush found a dense forest. There is no doubt that the disappearance of this forest today is connected the disappearance of the Khared River, whose springs have been dry for decades. Although Habshush and Halévy’s journey took place less than a century and a half ago, Habshush takes the reader of his memoirs by surprise, describing Yemeni communities unknown today. Among these groups were a community he named Mujtam’a al-Qarar. Individuals belonging to the community called Qarawi, and Habshush describes them as a social class that has no relation to the local Yemeni tribes. In his book, written in colloquial dialect, Habshush writes, “They are neither Muslims nor do they mingle or intermarry with Muslims or enter their mihrabs. They only live collectively similar to the Yemenite Jews”. Habshush did not expand on his descriptions of this social group in terms of appearance or race, for example, nor in terms of their number.**
The duo continued on to al-Jawf and reached Najran, where they were greeted by Jewish families. Habshush mentions on various occasions that Halévy asked him to go away and continue the search for inscriptions for many days, while he remained behind, visiting and discussing with the Jewish communities there. This part of the journey raises a question about the goal and purpose behind Halévy’s trip. Was Habshush falsely informed? Was Halévy’s trip connected to the project of building a Jewish state in Palestine?
Weeks later, they returned from Najran through the desert road and down to al-Jawf and Marib. On the way they passed the city of Baraqish and what is known as the Throne of Balqis, as well as the Marib Dam before heading west towards Saraweh. There they were captured by a tribal group, after a rumor spread that Halévy was a wandering wizardwho came to collect the buried treasures of the Kingdom of Sheba through his magical powers. At that time, Yemeni villagers often chased out Europeans who came to Yemen because they believed they were disguised wizards who came to steal ancient treasures. For several days, Halévy and Habshush were beaten and dragged for long distances. However, in the end, they were able to bribe guards and flee to Sana’a.
Habshush’s role is erased, while he tries to bring his voice to the world
After returning to France, Halévy published a 520-page report, ‘An Archaeological Exploration in Yemen’, in which he presented all the inscriptions he had brought from Yemen. He then published a comprehensive introduction, analysis and hypotheses about these inscriptions, followed by another report in 1873, ‘A Trip to Najran’.11Strangely, Habshush was not mentioned in any of these publications, although Halévy continued to write extensively about this journey. There was only one single occasion in which Halévy indicates that Habshush accompanied him, but he described him as an obsessed man who came in search for the graves of ancient Jewish rabbis in al-Jawf.12This was shocking since Habshush was the one who translated for Halévy during the journey, and he copied the inscriptions with sincerity and dedication. In many cases, he even saved Halévy from bandits or tribal groups who wanted to kill him.
Halévy didn’t only erase Habshush’s role, but claimed that he had copied all the inscriptions himself.13Twenty-three years later, Habshush wrote a book titled ‘An Examination of Yemen’ in which he presented his personal vision of this journey. He narrates the journey day by day, confirming that he had copied all the inscriptions himself except the inscriptions of the temple of The Daughters of Ād, because Halévy thought it was worthy of copying himself. Habshush mentioned various events in his book that refer to Halévy as an arrogant and lazy man. He describes these incidents with much irony and scorn,14criticizing Halevy’s lack of courage and expressing his resentment at the unforgivable erasure of his role in the journey.
The ambiguity surrounding Halévy and Habshush’s story and their journey is interesting and curious. They were at the vanguard of researchers who traveled to the cities and temples that we know today, the wanderers who stepped into these wondrous worlds hidden in the desert without the conditions that would allow them to fully reveal their secrets. This ambiguity may have been due to the cultural and religious conditions of the Jews and the sensitivity of the Muslim Yemeni society towards them, and it may be due to the preoccupation of the Yemeni historians of the era with stories of rulers and battles, away from cultural and social matters. In general, this exciting and dramatic journey captures the reader’s heart and stirs the imagination from the very first moment, prompting them to follow to the end. One can only imagine how the story could be told in a film.
* The people of Aad are mentioned in the Holy Quran. According to the Quran, they were subjected to punishment by God who destroyed their kingdom for rejecting the message of their prophet Hood.
** They could be groups belonging to the Roma community, mentioned by orientalist Robert Bertram Serjean in an article about the Roma of the Arabian Peninsula.
- Qudaimi I. (2010). The story of the Jewish Quarter in Sana’a: Arabic Article in aljazeera.net/news/cultureandart
- مخطوطة شوكين ق 544. مكتبة جامعة القدس 98. ترجمة وتقديم سامية نعيم (1992). المركز الوطني للبحث العملي- باريس. ص137
- حاييم حبشوش (1893). رؤية اليمن. ترجمة سامية نعيم (1992). المركز الوطني للبحث العملي- باريس. ص 52.
- يحى الإرياني (1992). حبشوش وهاليفي” مصداقية البساطة وخيبة العلمنة المتعالية”. مركز الدراسات والبحوث اليمني.
- جوزيف هاليفي (1872). تقرير حول بعثة أثرية إلى اليمن(1989). ترجمة منير عربش. مركز الدراسات والبحوث اليمني. ص 29.
- نفس المصدر. ص 15
- حاييم حبشوش (1893). رؤية اليمن. ص47
- جوزيف هاليفي (1872). تقرير حول بعثة أثرية إلى اليمن. ص30
- Ashwal F (2019). Neshan (Aad’s Girls) and the purpose of the Elios Gallus Campaign to Yemen: Ministry of Local Administration published in the official website of Al-Jouf Governorate .http://aljwf.com/?p=2354
- Strabo (7 BC). The Geography of Strabo. Published in Vol. VIII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1932. P782
- Toby J & Ben Zvi Y. Joseph Halevy and the Study of the Jews of Yemen. P26
- جوزيف هاليفي (1872). تقرير حول بعثة أثرية إلى اليمن. ص43
- Toby J & Ben Zvi Y. Joseph Halevy and the Study of the Jews of Yemen. P25
- سامية نعيم (1992). مقدمة كتاب رؤية اليمن لحبشوش. المركز الوطني للبحث العملي- باريس. ص 4
Shihab Jamal al-Ahdal, is a researcher in Cultural Anthropology. Holds a Bachelor degree in Media (University of the Future – Sana’a). He works as a public relations officer at Basement Cultural Foundation.