Height: 66.000 cm
Width: 110.000 cm
Thickness: 34.500 cm
Room 53: Ancient South Arabia
Bronze altar to Rahmaw
Sabaean, 6th century BC
Probably from Marib, Yemen
This fragmentary altar is made of bronze and is cast in relief. It is decorated with three rows of sphinxes shown frontally below a Sabaean dedicatory inscription to the god Rahmaw. It is thought to come from Marib, which was the capital of the kingdom of Saba, the oldest and most powerful of the states in the South Arabian region.
The southern Arabians had the monopoly on two of the most prized materials of ancient times: frankincense and myrrh. These two resins only grow in eastern Yemen, southern Oman and Somaliland. Their production and trade were in the hands of the ancient South Arabians. Every temple and wealthy home in the Mediterranean and Near East used these precious aromatics, and purchasers were prepared to pay for their weight in gold. This is the historical background to the legendary Old Testament account of the Queen of Saba (in Hebrew, Sheba) making her caravan journey to Jerusalem.
Although the South Arabian pantheon is not properly known, each of the South Arabian kingdoms appears to have had its own national god. For example, Qataban's principal deity was Amm ('paternal uncle'), whereas Saba's god was Almaqah, a sun-god whose motifs include a bull's head.
A.G. Lundin and S.A. Frantsouzoff, 'An inscribed Sabaean bronze altar from the British Museum', St Petersburg Journal of Orien, 9 (1997), pp. 384-91
W. Daum (ed.), Yemen: 3000 years of art and c (Penguin, 1988)
St J. Simpson (ed.), Queen of Sheba: treasures from (London, The British Museum Press, 2002)