Arabian bronze hand

Ancient Yemen, AD 100–300

This inscribed bronze hand was given as an offering to the god Ta’lab Riyam in a temple in ancient Yemen. It pre-dates the arrival of Islam in the Arabian peninsula in AD 622.


The right hand was probably a symbol of good fortune, to ward off evil, and was raised in a gesture that demonstrated honour to the deities. In addition to this fine offering, pairs of hands are depicted on dedicatory bronze plaques which were displayed on the walls of temples.

Deceased women are frequently shown with a raised right hand on calcite-alabaster funerary stelae. It appears that warriors even paraded with the severed hands of the enemies in honour of the gods. There is a depiction of warriors carrying these gruesome war trophies on a bronze plaque that was originally displayed in a temple.

This hand was dedicated to the god by a man called Wahabta’lab for his well-being. It reads:

Wahabta'lab son of
Hisam, [the] Yursamite, subject
of the Banu Sukhaym, has dedicated to their patron
Ta'lab Riyam this right hand
in his memorial dhu-Qabrat
in the city of Zafar, for his well being (Robin 1985)

This bronze hand probably comes from the Yemeni highlands. During this period, the kingdom of Himyar was gaining strength in the highlands and battling for power with the kingdom of Saba.

In time the Himyarites would convert the region to monotheism, unite the whole of ancient Yemen, and control the valuable trade of frankincense and myrrh on the overseas route between the Roman Empire and India.

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Object details

Height: 18.5 cm
Width: 11 cm
Depth: 2.6 cm 

 

1983, 0626.2

Room 53: Ancient South Arabia

    References

    W. Daum (ed.), Yemen: 3000 years of art and civilisation in Arabia Felix (Penguin, 1988)

    C. Robin (ed.), Yémen au pays de la reine de Saba (Paris, Flammarion, 1997)

    St John Simpson (ed.), Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen (London, The British Museum Press, 2002)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    P. Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam (Oxford, Princeton University Press, 1987)

    A.C. Gunter (ed.), Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade (Washington, 2005)

    C. Robin, ‘L’offrande d’un main en Arabie pre-islamique: Essai d'interprétation", in C. Robin (ed.), 'Mélanges Linguistiques Offerts à Maxime Rodinson par ses Elèves, ses Collegues et ses Amis (Paris, 1985), pp. 307–20