The secret Jewish kingdom of…Yemen?


Ever wonder about the Jewish kings beyond David and Solomon? Join Yael and Schwab as they uncover the intriguing story of a lesser-known monarch from 5th-century Yemen. Delve into the complex history of Yosef Dhu Nuwas, a Jewish convert who ascended to the throne of the ancient kingdom of Himyar.

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Schwab: Welcome to Jewish History Nerds, where we do exactly what it sounds like, nerd out on awesome stories in Jewish history.

Yael: I’m Yael Steiner and my childhood dream was to stay in school forever.

Schwab: I’m Jonathan Schwab and I am in school forever. Yael, we’re here at the last episode of this season, and I hope you have a good one to cap it all off.

Yael: I have what I think is one of the more unique stories of the season.

Schwab: Like that.

Yemenite Torah scrolls (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Yael: We are going to be talking about the Himyarite kingdom, which was a kingdom in the southern highlands of Yemen at the beginning of the first millennium that had for 200ish years Jewish kings, and it was a Jewish kingdom.

Schwab: Of everything you’ve said so far, I’m familiar with the concept of a kingdom and everything else is new to me.

Yael: So in particular, we’re going to be talking about the last Jewish king of Himyar, Yosef Dhu Nuwas. Are you familiar?

Schwab: I am not familiar at all. I’m familiar with the name Yosef as a traditional Jewish name.

Yael: You should know he chose the name Yosef to take upon himself when he became a Jew. Spoiler alert, he was not born a Jew.

Schwab: It was a Jewish kingdom where the kings were Jews?

Yael: So the king that immediately preceded him was pagan, but the king that preceded that king was Jewish. And that was the first Jewish king of Himyar. So there were a grand total of two Jewish kings of Himyar.

Schwab: Hmm. Okay. So I know nothing. Everything you’re saying is completely new and for me, I just, I have no way to even situate myself in this. I can locate Yemen on a map. I think.

Yael: I also think I can, but on some days maybe not. 

Schwab: I feel like I would get confused which side it’s on. I know Yemen and Oman are on the bottom of that peninsula. But because of recent events in the news, I think I know which one is Yemen because it borders on the Red Sea.

Yael: So yes, it is the Southern Arabian Peninsula and also because of current events, and I definitely don’t want to make light of them, I have been paying attention much more to Yemen, but while preparing this episode, I was thinking about how for many in our generation.

Schwab: Oh, I feel like I know exactly what reference you’re going to make for children of the 90s.

Yael: Yemen will forever be associated with Chandler Bing.

Schwab: Yup. Mm -hmm.

Yael: Baruch dayan ha’emet rest in peace, Matthew Perry. For anyone who doesn’t know, on Friends, Chandler tries to escape his annoying girlfriend by pretending that he’s moving to Yemen. In particular, 15 Yemen road, Yemen.

Schwab: It’s a great statement, I think, of the cultural place that Yemen again until recently occupied in the American mind of this is such an obscure country that no one would even know where it was. And it’s a place you could run away to.

Yael: Correct. A hundred percent. Where is the last place she’s going to find me? Yemen. And how little does she know about Yemen? I’m going to tell her my address is 15 Yemen Road, Yemen. Anyway, putting aside Chandler and Janice’s ill-fated romance-

Schwab: The other thing that I do know about Yemen is that I do know that there is a Jewish connection to Yemen, that there were Jews in Yemen, but can’t even say a lot about the history there other than like, oh, these are some interesting customs that Yemenite Jews have.

Yael: I believe that at present, the number of Jews left in Yemen is in the single digits, such as the sad state of affairs in the world. But I too do know some Yemenite Jews and I unfortunately don’t know enough about their customs other than I, as many Ashkenazic Jews do, view them in an amalgamation with other Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews. And I do think it’s the first time that we are talking about Mizrahi or Eastern, which literally translates to Eastern, but what we usually refer to as, what would you call them? Arabian Jews? I don’t know how historians classify Mizrahi Jews, but we have talked a lot about Sephardic Jews, but mostly in the European context of Spain and Portugal. So I think this is a nice pivot for us to talk about a major Jewish community. We’re not really going to be talking about mainstream Yemenite Judaism, but to talk about another place in the world where Judaism did flourish for a long time.

Schwab: Enough that they were the kings.

Yael: Correct. It’s interesting. Yemenite Jews today and throughout history have had an interesting relationship to this Himyarite kingdom because there has been a hesitation of some Yemenite Jews to associate themselves with the kingdom of Himyar because they don’t want to associate themselves with some of the actions that those kings took, which were fairly anti-Christian, as we’ll see as we progress throughout the episode. And also because those two kings were converts, and the qualitative nature of their conversion is not clear to us historically.

We do know that Yosef Dhu Nuwas had a relationship with the Jewish leadership in Tiberias, including the third mar zutra. Mar zutra was an exilarch or the head of the community in Persia. And he then goes to Tiberias, and the third mar zutra, the son of that exilarch, maintains a relatively strong center of Jewish learning and power in Tiberias. And we know that Yosef Dhu Nuwas did have a connection to him. So we don’t have any reason to believe that his conversion was anything but authentic. But I do think the community is reticent to put Yosef Dhu Nuwas on a flag, for instance.

Schwab: Interesting. Okay. I have one quick question. I know this isn’t the main topic, but this mar zutra thing, the Exilarch is the head of the diaspora community, right? Like outside of Israel. So what is he doing in, in Israel?

Yael: So that’s a great question. He was given permission by the ruling powers in Persia. I believe it was Persia and not Babylonia, but I won’t swear to it, to return to the land of Israel. Though, and it’s still considered a diaspora role because the Jews are not at that time ruling the land of Israel. It is at that time under Byzantine power. And beating back the Byzantines and their influence was a main concern of Yosef Dhu Nuwas. He did not like their encroachment on the Arabian Peninsula, and particularly on the land of Israel. And there is speculation that he was working with Mar zutra and the community in Tiberias to try to recreate or renew Jewish power over the land.

Schwab: Hmm, okay. I feel like I’m very rapidly catching up on all of these things. I have two questions or points. One, there are a lot of details of this story that remind me a little bit of one of our episodes from the first season, the story of Hazaria. But it sounds like we have a lot, that’s really shrouded in a lot of legend and a lot of misunderstandings. It sounds like we have a lot more of a solid historical record here in this story.

Yael: I used the word speculate or speculation a few minutes ago, and we do have a much more solid historical record here, but there are two things I want to note. One is that we have no Jewish sources about the Himyarite kingdom, Yosef Dhu Nuwas or any of this. Everything we know about it comes from non-Jewish sources, mostly Syriac and Greek, Christian sources, which were, we believe, being taken down contemporaneously to these things happening.

But one thing that I definitely noted in my research for this episode is that there’s a lot of contradiction, there’s a lot of speculation, and even though we pride ourselves on being a history podcast, I do want to say that this is where things get murky. And there are particularly Jewish historians in modernity who say we should not believe these stories about what the Jewish kings did. They are apocryphal and they are here to paint a bad picture of the Jews. I do realize at this point in the podcast that I have not told you what year this is.

So we situate ourselves in the southern Arabian Peninsula in the fifth and sixth centuries. Yosef Dhu Nuwas died in 525. But it’s also important to situate ourselves at a time that was pre -Islam. Islam did not exist. Mohammed had not come on the scene. There was no Quran. There was no Muslim religion of any kind. So I think while it is natural for us in our contemporary civilization to associate Muslim life with Arabs, it’s important to note that when we talk about the Arabs at this time, they are not Muslim. Most of them are pagan. Some of them are Jewish as they become Jewish with the conversions of the Himyarite kings. And some of them are Jewish because they’ve been in Arabia since the time of Joshua.

And some of them are Christian, as Christianity is on the rise at the beginning of the millennium, and the Byzantines have taken over control of the Holy Land. And the Byzantines are essentially the eastern arm of the Holy Roman Empire. And they are spreading Christianity everywhere they go, including into North Africa, including into Arabia, and obviously the Holy Land. So that’s where we are.

Schwab: And displacing the dominant religion, which is paganism.

Yael: Paganism, which doesn’t have a unifying force. The first king to convert to Judaism is Abu Kariba, and it’s a really interesting war story as to how that happens. But there are some historians who say that the reason why Abu Kariba was successful in converting so many of his peers at that time was because Judaism, by its nature, appealed to the Arabs. And one of the reasons that was given in a source that I looked at was its simplicity, which I think is hilarious, but maybe compared to paganism.

Schwab: We’re just gonna take that one line. Judaism appealed to the Arabs in its simplicity.

Yael: Correct. And nobody will ever take that out of context. And one thing that I definitely did not necessarily worry about, but, you know, it’s stuck in my mind was that while I was researching this, I was taken to some fairly antisemitic, problematic websites that I’m hoping don’t get me on some kind of watch list.

Before we get into the details of how these two kings became Jewish, I just want to mention that some of the things that they are purported to have done are not great. And they don’t reflect very well on them as people. And I would hate for them to be ascribed to any group of people or any group of my coreligionists.

Schwab: Mm -hmm.

Yael: And there are certainly modern historians who argue that we should take them with a grain of salt and they might be apocryphal as they were written to make the Jews look bad. 

I also want to note that this is our last episode of the season. And we’ve talked a lot about why we study history and what stories we tell and who tells them. And I think that it is important that we tell stories that don’t always make us look good because we’re people and we’re not immune to vices and we have good history and bad history, quote unquote, and we can’t limit ourselves to only the things that make us look the best.

Schwab: Yeah, I’m very intrigued now. But sounds like I might have some mixed feelings about the characters involved and their associations with Judaism.

Yael: So I’m going to take you to the year 390 of the Common Era, the Kingdom of Himyar in southwestern Yemen. In Hebrew, it was called Mamlechet Chimiar. And in Greek, it was Homerite, which the Greeks do like a good Homer, so interesting there. The king in Himyar is a pagan by the name of  Abu Kariba Assad. And he is trying to beat back the advance of Christianity that is coming out of Rome and the Byzantine conquerors who were in the Holy Land. He makes his way through the peninsula in order to try to put restraints on the encroaching Christianity. And he gets to a place known as Yathrib, which today we call Medina, one of the holiest places in the world for Muslims. But as I mentioned earlier, this is all pre-Islam. And he gets to Medina or Yathrib. And he doesn’t face much opposition from the locals. So he leaves his son there, installs him as a governor, and starts to head back to Himyar.

A few days later, he gets word that the people of Yathrib had killed his son. Turns out they may have seemed apathetic, but they were not really looking to be governed by an outsider. So he turns around and he goes back to Medina/Yathrib and he puts a siege on the city. Kills a lot of people.

During the siege, the Jews and the pagans of Medina are fighting against Abu Kariba, who is this outsider who had come from Himyar to overtake them. And he becomes ill, Abu Kariba. And apparently what happens is that two Jewish scholars go to him during this siege and they cure him. And when they cure him, which is only described in the sources that I’ve seen as a miracle, we’ve not gotten any other details on that, they plead for a lift of the siege and for peace.

Schwab: The basic details of that part, I just feel like is a sort of trope that I’ve heard so many times. Like, that is a story of Jewish history. The Jews were under attack and then the Jews helped the king, gave him medical advice. There was a prophecy. There’s something very Jewish about we were not able to fight them back with military might, but we drew upon our wisdom and helped the person in power and therefore were able to save the city from its siege or famine or whatever.

Yael: Right. There are hints of the Mordechai and Esther story where Mordechai saves Achashverosh by revealing a plot, an assassination plot against him. It also reminded me in more modern times of the fact that I believe Anwar Sadat, who was the president of Egypt, had a Jewish doctor who was very close to him. And I think that was the only positive relationship he had with a Jew at any point in time, but that relationship did ultimately come into play in diplomatic relations with Israel. So it’s definitely something that spans the centuries.

So Abu Kariba is very grateful to these two scholars, these two Jewish scholars who we believe were named Ka’ab and Assad, and he converts to Judaism. And he returns to Himyar with Ka’ab and Asad and insists that the people of the kingdom convert. And many do, though the sources say some of them did it because they were attracted to the simplicity.

Schwab: Judaism is famed for its simplicity.

Yael: FAMED for its simplicity.

Yael: So people in Himyar start to convert. Abu Kharib was a very aggressive military leader.

Schwab: Yeah, from the story so far, that’s pretty clear.

Yael: And it is possible that he was killed by his own soldiers because they were tired of going to battle for this guy. And when Abu Kariba is killed or dies of natural causes, depending on who you ask, the throne of Himyar was usurped by a pagan named Dhu Shanatir, which I definitely am not pronouncing right, but I don’t know if anybody knows how to pronounce it right.

So this guy, Dhu Shanatir, he also seems like not the best. He apparently was known for abusing many of his subjects, regardless of their religious affiliation, kidnapping them, taking them to the palace, torturing them, and then throwing them out a window.

Schwab: Equal opportunity oppressor. It’s not a discrimination thing, he’s just a tyrant.

Yael: Correct. After Dhu Shanatir, Yosef Dhu Nuwas takes the throne. Dhu Nuwas, who we believe his original name was ’As’ar Yath’ar, is also known as Yosef Dhu Nuwas and also known as Masruq. Dhu Nuwas means Lord Sidelocks, which… Sounds like a Mel Brooks character. Robin Hood Men in Tights, perhaps?

Schwab: It sounds like, an antisemitic, just like someone made a comic strip that’s the most offensive thing.

Yael: So I was thinking about that. I too believe that it sounds highly antisemitic, but I’m not sure why. And the two possible motivations that I came up with are that Sidelock sounds like Shylock.

Schwab: Interesting.

Yael: And that the word sidelock, while not inherently antisemitic, is only ever really used in the context of describing ultra-Orthodox Jews in a negative light.

Schwab: Ultra-Orthodox Jews themselves would never say, these are my side locks when talking about their own practice. It’s only a word that people who are less familiar with a community would use to talk about something in that community. So probably it’s used far more negatively than positively.

Yael: So. Lord Sidelocks, Yosef Dhu Nuwas had very long black curly sidelocks. And that is how he got his name. And Yemenite Jews, until the point in time that they got to the modern state of Israel, wore their hair in the style of Dhu Nuwas with these very long sidelocks. So it was definitely a cultural norm. 

Schwab: And did he convert before becoming king?

Yael: Yes, he did.It’s not clear 100 % when, though there are sources who say that holy men came from Tiberias, where the Jewish leadership was at this time. In fact, the quote unquote patriarchy, which was the Jewish consul or embassy to the Holy Roman Empire at that time, was based in Tiberius. It is said that holy men came from Tiberius to Himyar to convert this man, Joseph Dhu Nuwas, and that is meant to give more weight to the status of his conversion.

I should note that historians differ shockingly. They differ on everything with respect to this story. Historians differ as to whether or not Dhu Nuwas was a Rabbinic Jew or a Sadducee. Most people consider the Judaism of the Himyarite kingdom to be Rabbinic, which makes sense when you think about the fact that they were in touch with the Tiberius people. But there are some who do say that they were Sadducees. Again, I don’t want to cast aspersions on archaeologists. I don’t want to go an entire season without mentioning Indiana Jones. I do think that there is value in archaeology, obviously. But it just goes to show you how much more we have to learn and how incomplete record keeping can lead to differing legends and differing lore.

Schwab: Yeah, it really is very different studying, I don’t know, an 18th or 19th century Jewish intellectual that we have tons of records about versus studying this 5th century story where so much is interpretation and speculation and trying to piece things together that we have very few pieces of.

Yael: Yeah, it can be confusing, but on the other hand, I also think that any part of history where most of the main players don’t have the same name is inherently more attractive to me. I majored in American history and I love history as hopefully you can tell from this podcast, but I never wanted to take European history because I didn’t want to have to tell the Henrys and the Louises apart from one another. It’s too much for my little brain.

Okay, back to Dhu Nuwas. Dhu Nuwas is the king now in Himyar and he hears about the persecution, particularly in Ethiopia, but really all over the Holy Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, of Jews. And he decides that since the Christians are persecuting the Jews, he is going to persecute the Christians. And he burns down a bunch of churches. I don’t mean to say that in such a sing-songy tone. He burns down a bunch of churches.

Schwab: Honestly, I’ve plenty of stories of Christian rulers destroying synagogues, persecuting Jews. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a story of a Jewish king burning down a church.

Yael: Welcome. He burned down churches, he killed parishioners. In some of the stories, it is indicated that he burned down the churches with people inside. And he does this all across the kingdom. And he gets to a place called Najran. In Najran, he basically puts a siege around the town and kills a lot of Christians. These sources range from 200 killed to 70 ,000 killed, which is a wide range.

Schwab: Yeah.

Yael: And it happens to be that as the sources advance in time, the numbers get bigger. And that is why some of the more modern historians say that we have to take these stories with a grain of salt because they are exaggerated to make the Jews look bad.

Schwab: And who’s doing this killing? Is it Jews? Is it other Himyarites?

Yael: It’s Himyarites, I am assuming most of them are Jews. Apparently, if the sheik of a clan converted, his entire clan would convert with him. It is possible that some of them are still pagans, but it does seem like most of the people in Hemi are converted, if not voluntarily, then by force. Yosef Dhu Nuwas did forcibly convert people to Judaism. Another thing that, again, we generally see happening to Jews rather than the Jews forcing on others.

So we do have here an example of a Jewish leader who is pretty evil, I would say. The Byzantine Empire doesn’t take too kindly to all of this Christian murder, and they send the Ethiopians, who at that time were Christian and are part of the Byzantine Empire. They send the Ethiopians to attack Himyar. And it is the Ethiopians who ultimately depose DhuNuwas. There is a story that Dhu Nuwas refused to be taken alive and that he rode his horse into the Red Sea and drowned rather than allow himself to be taken by these Christian Byzantines, that story perpetuated through the years. And some people still say it’s true. Others say that his tomb was actually discovered in Yemen. So unclear as to whether or not that was something that actually happened.

Schwab: Drowning with your horse in the sea is not, to my mind, a very Jewish thing, because the one example I can think of of someone drowning with their horse in the sea is that’s the fate that befalls the Pharaoh who chases the Jews out of Egypt.

Yael: Yeah, I also associated it immediately with Pharaoh. I don’t know that someone who takes it upon himself to murder hundreds, potentially thousands, potentially tens of thousands of people necessarily has the same mindset that we have, hopefully.

Schwab: I think that’s fair to say. Yes, he converted to Judaism, but it’s not a Judaism that we really identify with or see a lot of similarities to.

Yael: So this war ends in 525 with Dhu Nuwas death and the next Himyarite leader was a Christian viceroy. And from that time, the Himyarite kingdom was Christian until the emergence of Islam and the Muslim, I don’t know if you want to call it colonization-

Schwab: Conquest?

Yael: Yes that’s that’s a good word, the Muslim conquest of the Arabian peninsula not too much later in history. So this is a very short lived Jewish kingdom we have the two Jewish kings with a pagan king in between and obviously the stories are not incredibly flattering mostly because what the Jewish kings do to their subjects is what so many non-Jewish kings and leaders have done to their Jewish subjects over the centuries.

At the same time, I think that for a people who speak so much about autonomy and the ability to live in our own land governed by our own people, it fascinates me that this is something that we don’t talk about in our general history curriculums or curricula.

Schwab: Yeah, yeah, I think it’s a great question. I mean, this is a general, very understudied part of the world. It’s not like we spent six weeks learning about Yemen and skipped this part.

Yael: Right, it’s certainly an ignored part of the world. First of all, it’s far away. It’s culturally very different than what we’re used to. It’s a lot easier to talk about anything that existed within Christiandom because we understand Chrisiandom. Also, because of its economic problems and because it is such a poor country, I believe Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, it doesn’t have the glamour that some of the other Arab states have associated with it. Both in modernity in terms of the Burj Khalifa and the way that the United Arab Emirates has been built up, and also the relatively stereotypical and probably not approved or endorsed stories like Aladdin and Alibaba, things that have invaded popular culture, but that are beloved, none of them really seem to situate themselves in Yemen.

Again, we go back to 15, Yemen Road, Yemen.

Schwab: I think also in addition to the larger history perspective of why don’t we study Yemen? From a Jewish history perspective, I go back, as we’re ending this season, to the first episode of this season and Heinrich Gretz and what we think of as Jewish history. And it’s a history of scholarship and suffering, and this is not either of those stories, right? This is not a story of Jewish persecution and suffering. And this is not a story of Jewish scholarship and rabbis in their great institutions. And this is just this whole other Jewish story, like a completely different narrative that we really just don’t usually think about when we talk about Jewish history.

Yael: And it comes back to what you said earlier about the Hazarians, and it is basically considered this one-off odd thing that happened that isn’t really relevant to the way the rest of Jewish history unfolded in the rest of the world. And yet we have our greatest enemies today saying that none of us are real Jews and we’re all Hazarians and our ties to the Holy Land are completely made up and a lot of that was evident in some of the sources that came up as I did my research. There really is not a ton out there about this.

Schwab: Are you saying that this is not a story beloved by Jews, but the antisemites are all over it?

Yael: It’s Lord Sidelocks.

Schwab: It’s almost too much. If you were making, like I was saying before, your antisemitic comic strip and you named your character Lord Sidelocks, your antisemitic publisher would be like, we’re trying to go for a little more subtlety. This is too strong.

Yael: It’s like naming your character King Big Shnoz. I do think we are running out of time. And as this is the last episode of this season, I wanted to open the floor to you and see if you have anything else you want to say about this episode or any of the other episodes we’ve done this season. And if you’re thinking about why we study history, why we talk about these things, why we do this podcast has changed at all.

Schwab: I just want to say I love this episode because I feel like, we try to keep things different and mix them up. But there are times where it’s felt like, OK, we’re talking too much about the same era. I’ve noted, I feel like I led the conversations on a couple of episodes where we talked about really interesting Jewish women, all of whose stories were unique and incredible, but I feel almost like, okay, are we breaking new ground in asking this question of why are female characters in Jewish history overlooked?

Yael: You’ll note that not a single woman was mentioned in this entire episode.

Schwab: That is true, yeah. And, if Yosef Dhu Nuwas was a woman, I would have asked, and did he have any children? Because he’s a man, it’s not even part of it, yeah.

Yael: He did, and in the entirety of the research I did about this episode, the only reference to a woman was that he had a wife and some children, and it was only mentioned once in the context of his death and the understanding that they too were killed during that war. This episode very much fails the Bechdel test.

Schwab: So yeah, three seasons, 30 episodes into this, I still love that there are stories that truly surprise me and everything you have said today has surprised me and is totally new information and a totally new story. And that’s one of the things that I love most about this and about Jewish history is that it’s something that I feel like I’ve spent a very large portion of my life talking about, if not formally studying in some way, and yet the story is always deeper and more complex and more interesting than I thought it would be.

Yael: There’s so much out there, we don’t even know what’s out there. Again, another pitch for us to go to Cairo and continue unearthing the Geniza, if anybody wants to finance that, you know where to find us.

Schwab: But not Yemen.

Yael: Yes, I think we are gonna skip that for now.

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