Archæological Exploration in Arabia


    MR. H. ST. JOHN PHILBY opened up an attractive vista for archæological exploration in an account of his recent journey through Arabia before the Royal Geographical Society on November 15, when he suggested that the Sheban country might be the original homeland of the Phenicians whose place of origin has not yet been determined. In the summer and autumn of last year Mr. Philby traversed Arabia from north to south, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, a journey of which there is no previous record, although he himself considers that it may have been a route followed at times in the days of the old spice trade. To the archaeologist, the most interesting part of Mr. Philby's lecture dealt with his visit to the ancient Himyaritic capital of Shabwa, where, however, he found no evidence to support Pliny's statement, if the identification of that writer's Sabota with Shabwa be accepted, that it had contained sixty temples. The remains of one outstanding temple of supreme magnificence was found, with two ruin heaps within the walls, which one day may be found to contain temples, At the same time there is a possibility, in Mr. Philby's view, that Pliny may have been referring to the whole district of the 'two Shebas', which might well have possessed sixty temples in the days of its prosperity. In the heart of the desert two necropolises were discovered, forty miles away from the nearest wells to-day. Here there were thousands of circular tombs built up of untrimmed slabs of local limestone. The largest tomb was ten feet high and twenty-five feet in diameter. All the tombs had been rifled of their contents and in no instance was evidence of human burial discovered. Judging from the inscriptions, these tombs date from Himyaritic times or earlier. Similarities with cemeteries at Bahrain and in the central Arabian provinces point to Phenician affinities ; while certain signs among the inscriptions and rock engravings seem to stand half-way between pictographs and letters, recalling the reputed relation of the Phenicians with the origins of the alphabet.

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    Archæological Exploration in Arabia. Nature 140, 885 (1937).

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