(46) Arabia - Antiquities. Destruction of Antiquities by the Early Mahometans. Black Stone of Káabeh. Wells.
Arabia proper is singularly destitute of antiquities, in the ordinary sense of the word, the northern or "Adscititious" Arabs having been, so long as they remained within their own territory, a remarkably unconstructive race, and the "pure" or southern Arabs not much better in this respect. Niebuhr, in his justly celebrated Travels though Yemen, mentions the ruins of Ghmadan, the ancient palace of the Himyarite kings, near Sanaa, as well as the remains of several other fortresses in adjoining villages; but these ruins, like those subsequently visited by Palgrave in Jowf, bore no distinctive traces of architecture or date, beyond a barbaric coarseness of material and great thickness of wall. More remarkable, because better defined in history, are the remains of the great dyke of Mareb already mentioned; its vestiges, said to colossal in their dimensions, extend across a ravine of about 2 furlongs in breadth; they are in part of hewn stone, and testify, it not to the skill, at least to the diligence of the Himyarite Arabs. A few Himyaritic inscriptions have been discovered, some in Yemen, more in the provinces of Hadramaut and Mahrah, but have been too carelessly copied to afford proper materials for philological investigation. When decipherable, they indicate a dialect resembling the Abyssinian or Amharic; but throw no real light on the history of the country or the condition of its inhabitants.
Destruction of Antiquities by the Early Mahometans
It is true that in addition to the non-constructive character of the early Arab race, account must be taken of the destructive policy, aggravated by iconoclastic zeal, pursued by the conquering Mahometan tribes of the north, who within their own territory, even more than in the acquired lands of Egypt, North Africa, and elsewhere, carried out the plan of establishing their own religion and system, not merely on the ruins, but, so far as possible, on the effacement of whatever had preceded it. Hence, of the old idol temples which once covered Arabia, nothing now remains except the megalithic vestiges of an enormous stone circle, resembling those found in some parts of Europe, and consisting of large boulders, each about 14 feet high, placed on end, originally crowned by a similar horizontal series. This was visited by Palgrave when traveling in the province of Kaseem, near Bereydah; two others are reported to exist in the same district. Nor, the Meccan relics apart, had any of the numerous idols once worshipped throughout the peninsula been discovered till the Swiss Munzinger, three years since, found among the heaps of a deserted village near Aden a small bronze statue representing a naked hermaphrodite figure, over the head of which rises an ornament resembling the Egyptian pshent.
The Black Stone of Káabeh
The black stone of the Meccan Káabeh, said to be of volcanic formation, and perhaps an aerolite, had, however, been an object of popular adoration long before Mahomet preserved it from destruction by giving it a place in a new and more enduring superstition; and the Kaabeh itself, though ruined and rebuilt again and again, the last time in 1627, till not a vestige probably of the original structure now remains, has yet, it appears, certainly preserved the outline, and, in all essential respects, the dimensions of the original pagan shrine. It is an oblong massive structure, almost a trapezium, though the sides and angles are slightly unequal; its length 18 paces, its breadth 14, and its height from 35 to 40 feet. There are no windows, and the only entrance door is placed 7 feet above the ground; the entire building is of large, irregular, and unpolished blocks of ordinary stone. Its ornamentation is wholly modern.
Lastly, several wells, jotted with seeming capriciousness over the desert, are said to be, and probably are, of great antiquity; certainly they are works which much exceed the skill of the Arabs of our own day. One such, "Beer Shekeef" by name, in the north-west of the peninsula, presents a cylinder of about 5 feet in diameter at top, but gradually enlarging till it reaches the water at a depth of nearly 200 feet, and is lined with hewn stone throughout . The Arabs declare it to be a work of pre-Islamitic times. Less remarkable in its proportions, but not less ancient, is the holy well called of Zemzem, at Mecca. But this and the great mosque of that city, as also the famous mosque of Medinah, which encloses the tomb of the prophet, and other buildings of the same category, will find their proper place in other articles. So will also the celebrated excavations of Petra, which, besides their being beyond the limits of Arabia proper, are not in themselves Arab but Graeco-Roman in their character. With regard to the numerous mosques and other buildings, some of great beauty, erected by Arab architects incoquered countries, as in Syria, Egypt, Africa, or Spain, they are in fact nothing more than adaptations of the various local styles, and often of the very materials that the conquerors found ready to their hand.
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