Ancient country in South Arabia. Saba (Heb. š ebā' and sebā ') and its inhabitants, the Sabaeans, are mentioned several times in the OT, where these people are portrayed as renowned traders, especially of gold and incense, and also as raiders. The best-known reference to them is in the account of the visit of the (unnamed) Queen of Saba to King Solomon (1 Kgs 10.1–13), which was primarily for a commercial purpose. Outside the Bible, the earliest certain mentions are to be found in the Assyrian annals in 738 b.c. and again c. 685 b.c. Four centuries later Greek writers refer to Saba and its population. The Assyrian and biblical sources prove the existence of rather large Sabaean colonies in the far north of the Arabian Desert, which depended on Saba in the south. Archeological discoveries in Palestine attest an early presence of south Arabian colonies.
The history of Saba with its capital city, Mârib, still remains very fragmentary, in spite of the addition of a recent information (especially from excavations by the American Foundation for the Study of Man). Its early stages (8th to 5th centuries b.c.) are characterized by the unification of small kingdoms around Mârib under the mukarrib (unifier). Rulers with this title subjugated the kingdom of Ma‘in (to the northwest) before the end of the period. For reasons unknown to us, Karib’il Watar (c. 450 b.c.) changed his title of mukarrib to that of king and thus inaugurated the second major period, which is divided into four parts on the basis of the royal title. (1) The "King of Saba" period (c. 450–65 b.c.) may be characterized by a greater centralization of the royal power as well as by military efforts. (2) The "King of Saba and Raydân" period (c. 65 b.c. to a.d. 305) is best represented by the famous ’IlšaraḥYaḥḍub, during whose reign the ill-fated expedition of Aelius Gallus (24 b.c.) took place. A long series of local wars gave these kings a much better hold over the surrounding countries. (3) The "King of Saba and Raydân and Ḥaḍramawt and Yamnat" period (c. a.d. 305–425) begins after the conquest of western Ḥaḍramawt and Yamnat (the South); toward the end of this period appear the first kings to embrace monotheism.(4) The "King of Saba and Raydân and Ḥaḍramawt and Yamnat and their Arabs in the high plateau and coast" period (c. a.d. 425–575) is characterized by conquests in the far north, by the anti-Christian persecution in Nejrân by King Yûsuf ‘As'ar Yaṯ'ar (Ḏû-Nuwâs), and by the Habašite (Ethiopian) and Persian occupations.
The social life of the Sabaeans, as of other Semitic populations, was based upon the clan unit. Polygamy doubtless existed from the beginning, but women enjoyed a rather high social autonomy. Thus a certain Gadan'amm was mqtwyt (high official) of her tribe Ḥazfarum. The so-called Queen of Sheba (Heb. malkat-š e bā ') might have held a position similar to this. When traveling with her tribe (and Saba' is known also as a tribal name), she was the leader, and she could have been considered a queen by the Israelites, as the mukarrib Karib’il was considered a king by the Assyrians. Moreover, Makada or Makueda, the personal name of this queen in Ethiopian legend, might be interpreted as a popular rendering of the title of mqtwyt. (According to the Islamic tradition as represented by al-Hamdânî, the queen of Sheba was the daughter of’IlšraḥYaḥḍub.)
The economic situation of Saba was determined by wealth in precious stones and metals, and by fertile soil producing especially incense and tea with the aid of an irrigation system connected with the famous Mârib dam. Products were transported by caravans to the neighboring northern countries to be sold or exchanged. When this very successful caravan trade gradually became replaced by the ship trade, the Sabaeans could no longer sustain the cost of repairs for the Mârib dam, the ultimate collapse of which was the death-knell of their power.
See Also: arabia, 4.
Bibliography: a. jamme, La Paléographique sud-arabe de J. Pirenne (Washington, D.C. 1957). r. l. bowen, jr., and f. p. albright, eds., Archaeological Discoveries in South Arabia (Baltimore, Md. 1958). j. ryckmans, L'Institution monarchique en Arabie méridionale avant l'Islam (Ma 'in et Saba ) (Louvain 1951); La Persécution des chrétiens himyarites au sixième siècle (Istanbul 1956). Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research 143 (1956) 6–10; 145 (1957) 25–30; 151 (1958) 9–16. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York 1963) 2067–70.