Yūsuf As'ar Yath'ar Dhū Nuwās (Masrūq)

views updated


YŪSUF AS'AR YATH'AR DHŪ NUWĀS (MASRŪQ) , the last (13th) and most famous king of the Ḥimyarī kingdom of *Yemen (522–525/530 c.e.–637–640/645 Ḥimyarī Era), who adopted Judaism in 380 c.e. Nothing is known about this important historical figure from any Jewish source, and nothing has been preserved in the historical memory or in the oral and written tradition of the Jews of Yemen themselves. All that was known about him originated in contemporary biased – clearly anti-Jewish – Christian literature in various languages and religious trends. These traditions also found their way into Arabic historical literature by means of South Arabian sources. But the updated epigraphic research since the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th century, enabled scholars to better understand the story of the Jewish king. The first trustworthy depiction was given by H.Z. Hirschberg (1946), and later by Christian Robin (2003, 2005, and 2006). In the Ḥimyarī inscriptions the Jewish king is mentioned as Yūsuf As'ar Yath'ar malik kull al-shu'ūb (king of all nations), but in the Arabic historical sources he is known as Dhū Nuwās. Scholars differ about the meaning of the nicknames Dhū Nuwās andMasrūq. Regarding the first, the common explanation refers to his alleged braids or ponytail, while other say that he was first the qayl (king) prince of a small locality named Nuwās. As to the second nickname, Masrūq, some say that it has the same meaning (the common one) of Dhū Nuwās, used by the Najrānīs, while other claim it is a disgraceful nickname used by his opponents: the wicked, the abominable or the killer.

Yūsuf was a descendant of the tuba' (royal) family of a Ḥimyarī dynasty, but he was not the son of his predecessor Ma'dīkarib Yu'fūr (519–522). He took control of the kingdom about June 522, after the death of the king who was placed on the throne by the Christian kingdom of Aksūm in Abyssinia. Some sources state that he was the successor of Rabī'ah, a member of the same dynasty; but some scholars believe he was a usurper. Judaism had already been adopted in the Ḥimyarī kingdom by the reformer king Abūkarib at the end of the fourth century, as proved by the total disappearance from that time of polytheistic divinities from the Ḥimyarī inscriptions and the multiplicity of Ḥimyarī Jewish inscriptions along with a complete absence of Christian inscriptions until 530. But Yūsuf himself had converted to Judaism, already prior to his accession to the throne, although there is a tendency in modern Arabic research to deny his Jewish conviction and to allege that he was Nestorian, namely Unitarian Christian (al-Faraḥ, 750), against all unequivocal evidence of epigraphy. However, Yūsuf's policy was to unite all the princely factions in his territory into one Jewish kingdom. After seizing power, Yūsuf revolted against Abyssinia, seeking to throw the foreign Ethiopian invaders out of Yemen. According to Christian sources (Syriac and Greek), as well as early Arabic sources, he conducted a fanatical policy of forced conversion to Judaism; he captured the Ethiopian garrison in the capital of Ẓafār (125 km south of *San'a) and burned the church there as well as other Christian churches in the country, such as that of Makhāwān (modern Mochā). Then he annihilated the Christian population connected with Aksūm and Byzantium, particularly in the coastal areas and in Najrān. But later Yemeni-Muslim scholars of the 10th–12th centuries offer a different story. They write about two Dhū Nuwās, one who indeed destroyed the Christians, and the other, who lived 400 years earlier and was a great king.

Two Christian contemporary sources, the Syrian 'Book of the Himyarites' (Ketava de-Ḥimyarayya) and the epistle of Simon of Beit Arsham, relate that Yūsuf maintained political relations with the ḥakhamim of *Tiberias, two of whom negotiated with the Christians who were besieged in Ẓafār. Basing himself on this information, Hirschberg put forward the theory about a Jewish international coalition of Mar Zutra, a scion of King David and direct successor to the position of exilarch in Babylonia who had immigrated to Tiberias and was backed by the Persian kingdom, and the Jewish king of Ḥimyar against Christian Byzantium and its allies in the kingdom of Aksūm and in Yemen.

The greatest event of his reign is the capture of Najrān, the large Monophysite Christian stronghold in northern Yemen. Christian sources quote John of Ephesus that Dhū Nuwās decided to persecute the Christians living in his kingdom as a response to the persecution of his co-religionists in their kingdoms, especially in the Byzantine Empire, and that after taking control of the town he burned its Christian residents. The first quoted number of dead in those sources was relatively small – 200 – but in the course of time it was gradually inflated and under their influence (also in Arabic sources, which were separated from the events by hundreds of years), rose to 70,000. Some scholars believe that there is also an allusion to the burning of the Christians in Najran in the *Koran (Sura 85:4–5).

The fall of Najrān and the alleged massacre of its Christians caused an enormous shock in the Christian world, which issued a call for a war of vengeance. Patriarch Timothy of *Alexandria wrote a letter to the Ethiopian emperor Ella Aṣbaḥa iii Caleb urging an aggressive action against the Jewish Ḥimyarī king, and the Byzantine emperor Justin i offered the use of 60 ships. The Ethiopian forces, led by Caleb himself, started a crusade and were eventually victorious in a great battle on the shore of Zabīd in 525. Yūsuf, who despite his endeavors could not secure any allies from among the enemies of the Byzantine Empire or from among the local chiefs, was defeated and fell on the battlefield. A South Arabian legend, later infiltrated into modern Jewish literature (Friedberg 1893/9), relates that Yūsuf sprang into the sea astride his horse and was drowned. But in 1931 the German archaeologists Rathjens and Wissmann unearthed his tomb in Ghaymān, southeast of *San'a. Yemen, however, remained a restless province, and Caleb soon granted it independence under the Christian prince Abraha (535–565). Ḥimyar remained under the control of Aksūm until the conquest of the country by the Persian Sassanids c. 570/5.

During the 1950s five inscriptions were discovered within the proximity of Najrān, referring to Yūsuf with clear Jewish elements, all of them from June–July 523 (Ry 508, Ja 1028, Ry 507, Ry 513, Ry 515). These inscriptions enriched the information about the Jewish king. Three of them were written by Sharaḥbīl Yaqbul, the commander of the royal army and a member of the Dhū Yazan family. The two other were written by other officers of the same army. From Ry 507 and Ja 1028 we know the Arabic names of Yūsuf: As'ar and Yath'ar. The inscriptions Ry 507 and Ja 1028 provide interesting details, like the submission of military units from Najrān. It is hinted that the king suspected the Monophysite Christian community in Najrān of treason. Indeed, the agitation against the king in Najrān was effective and an open revolt broke out. A number of Jews in the town were killed, and its inhabitants openly refused to obey the king's orders. On this occasion Yūsuf would not forgive the inhabitants of the town and he set out to conquer it. The Christian sources concede that the king proposed peace in exchange for the submission of the town and that it was only after he realized that his offer went unheeded that he started to fight.

The Jewish elements are: ' ' lhn for Elohim (Ry 508, Ja 1028), Yosef the name of the king (Ry 508, Ja 1028, Ry 507), Rb-hd or Rb-hwd – the God of the Jews (Ja 1028, Ry 515), and Amen (Ry 513). According to Ch. Robin (2006), however, the depiction of the victories of Yūsuf on his Christian opponents and the destruction of the churches in Ẓafār and Makhāwān (Ry 507, Ry 508, Ja 1028) was the main goal of the inscriptions, intimidating the rebellious Christian Najrānīs. This interpretation of the inscriptions that the conflict between Yūsuf and the residents of Najrān was basically political contradicts the strong impression received from Christian and Arabic sources that it was religious. Robin conjectures that Yūsuf was much less radical than Abūkarib in his religious politics. He just wanted a Jewish government without requesting to establish the organization maintained by Abūkarib. For him his opponents were first of all those foreign powers – Byzantium and Aksūm – who wanted to dominate Yemen, using the Christian Ḥimyarīs, and not Christians as a whole. Yūsuf's ambitions were more political and military than religious.


H.Z. Hirschberg, Yisrael ba-Arav (1946), 76–111; idem, in: Tarbiz, 15 (1943/44), 129–43; idem, Ereẓ Kinnerot (1950), 80–89; idem, Kol Ereẓ Naftali (1968), 139–46; idem, Yahadut TeimanPirkei Meḥkar ve-Iyyun (1977), J. Ryckmans, La persécution des Chrétiens Himyarites au sixième siècle (1956); G.D. Newby, A History of the Jews of Arabia, (1988); A. de Maigret, Arabia Felix (2002); M. Al-Farḥ, Tabābi'at al-Yaman al-Sab'in (2002), 749–59; Ch. J. Robin, in: Arabia, 1 (2003), 97–172; idem, in: jsai, 30 (2005), 1–51; A.Sh. Friedberg, Zikhronot Le-vet David (1893/9).

[Yosef Tobi (2nd ed.)]