30. A South Arabian Alabaster Stele

2nd–1st century BC
Size: 40 × 18.5 cm

It is easy, pleasing, and indeed usual to relate a sculpture such as this to more contemporary creations. In this case Brancusi springs to mind, and the Celtic head preceding cannot help but remind us of Elizabeth Frink. The analogy is a false one, but at least it has helped widen our appreciation of what until recently was seen as ‘primitive’ compared to the Classical canon on which so much of our culture reposes. The example of Gauguin and the early 20th-century appreciation of African sculpture by Picasso, André Breton and others, has had profound repercussions.

South Arabia has the most fascinating history. Already in the 3rd millennium bc the incense of South Arabia was burned in the temples of Egypt. As time passed the tribal kingdoms became rich from this trade, and developed sophisticated techniques for managing water for their crops. The wealth increased greatly with the domestication of the camel in the 1st millennium bc, enabling caravans to reach the Near and Middle East. Under Imperial Rome South Arabia became even richer as its ports serviced the spice fleets between Italy and the Far East. And thereafter it became a relatively forgotten area. Its lively mixture of savagely competitive communities of Jews, Christians and pagans was largely ‘smoothed’ out by the arrival of Islam in the 7th century, but apart from the period of the Rasulid dynasty from the 13th to the 15th centuries, it has remained culturally inert. Nevertheless, the quirky and empathetic relics of its great past shine out wherever one encounters them.