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Work Stele representing the camel-herder 'Iglum

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Arabia

Stèle funéraire

© R.M.N./H. Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities
Arabia

Author(s):
Demange Françoise

This stele has an inscription at the top in south Arabic script giving the name of the deceased, followed by a curse on anyone who destroys the stele. It is decorated with a champlevé relief depicting a scene from the life of the deceased and what appears to be a funeral banquet. The lower half features a man on horseback driving a harnessed dromedary before him, possibly indicating that the deceased belonged to one of the camel-herding tribes which traded in Arabian incense and spices.

An original art form

Toward the end of the first millennium BC and in the first centuries AD, the kingdoms of southern Arabia developed an original art form in which the influence of Greco-Roman and Oriental art can be seen.
The devotional statuettes and steles placed in temples were carved in locally quarried alabaster - a pale, translucent stone that is very easy to sculpt. Some steles were carved with just inscriptions, while others, such as this one, were carved with champlevé scenes forming a narrative.
At the top of the stele is a funeral inscription in the Sabean dialect, written in south Arabic script. It gives the name of the deceased as 'Iglum, son of Sa'adillat the Qaryot. There follows an invocation of the god Athtar the Oriental, one of the principal deities of the south Arabic pantheon, calling down his curse on anyone who destroys the stele.
The narrative scenes and the inscription are separated by an ornamental row of vines. This motif, widely used for decoration in architecture, betrays the influence of Hellenistic Syria on local artists.

A funeral banquet

The upper part of the stele depicts a banquet scene. The main figure, doubtless the deceased, is shown sitting by a table covered with dishes. In his right hand he holds a goblet. He is wearing a long tunic. A few incisions in the alabaster represent the embroidered epaulettes that would have adorned his outfit. To the left of the table is a smaller figure - either a servant or the son of the deceased - wearing a simple skirt patterned with squares and carrying two goblets. Next to him stands a third, larger figure, possibly the wife of the deceased. She is carrying what appears to be a wineskin or, more likely, a musical instrument - a sort of lute played by women. Other funeral monuments feature similar illustrations of lutes. Banquets were traditionally accompanied by music in the Oriental world.

Scenes from the life of a camel-herder

The lower part of the stele represents a man on horseback driving a dromedary in harness before him. This is likely to be a scene from the life of the deceased, who was in all probability a camel-herder. Caravans of camels carried Arabian incense and spices right across the desert, as far as the shores of the Mediterranean. They also carried luxury goods from the Horn of Africa and the coast of India. Dromedaries were tamed in the second millennium BC and were progressively used both for transport and as beasts of burden, as they were faster and had greater powers of endurance than donkeys, previously the only animals used by the herders. Dromedaries can cross great distances in the desert. By taming them, the camel-herding tribes were sowing the seeds of their future prosperity.

Bibliography

Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum IV445, académie des inscriptions et Belles-lettres, Paris
Calvet Y., Robin C., Arabie déserte, Arabie heureuse, Paris 1997, pp.107-108
Muller, in Yemen, 3000 years of art and civilisation, Innsbruck 1988
Expositions :
Au royaume de Saba, archéologie du Yemen, Paris,1980 ; Aux sources du monde arabe, l'Arabie avant l'Islam, collections du Musée du Louvre, Paris 1990

Technical description

  • Stèle funéraire

    Ier siècle - IIIe siècle après J.-C.

    Arabie du Sud

  • Albâtre

    H. : 55 cm. ; L. : 29 cm. ; Pr. : 8 cm.

  • Acquisition 1883 , 1883

    AO 1029

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Arabia: Arabia Felix, Arabia Deserta, 7th century BC–3rd century AD
    Room 19, temporarily closed to the public
    Vitrine 1 : Arabie du sud : offrandes et mobilier des temples

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