Sabean Alabaster Camel - FF.25
Origin: Yemen
Circa: 900 BC to 300 BC
Dimensions: 7.50" (19.1cm) high x 8" (20.3cm) wide
Collection: Sabean
Style: South Arabian
Medium: alabaster
Condition: Very Fine


This striking camel is a shrine piece or religious artefact from the ancient kingdom of Saba which ruled over the lands of southwestern Arabia, centered in modern day Yemen. Technically, the Sabeans are one of four major powers in this area, also including the Minaeans, the Qatabanians and the Hadramites, but the peoples as a whole became subsumed as a single entity by the middle of the first millennium BC. Saba is perhaps better known as Sheba, whose famous Queen was recounted as having visited Solomon in the pages of the Old Testament. The wealth of the kingdom is legendary, and is primarily attributable to Saba’s position at the crossroads of the ancient world, receiving consignments (particularly of incense) from all across the Middle East, Asia and the Mediterranean basin. The city of Marib was also in an ideal position to control the trade route between India to Egypt, although this lucrative venture was cut short in the 1st century AD following the foundation of a nautical route from India directly to the port of Alexandria.

As well as being a highly successful nation state in their own right, the Sabeans embraced the multiplicity of cultural influences that came with their status as a trading superpower. Their alphabet – Musnad – was one of the most complex and elegant of the day, while they also had a second, cursive system (Zabur) that was used for day-to-day operations. They mummified their dead, had a pantheon of gods, and possessed liberal attitudes to the deities and traditions of outsiders. They also had a complex social stratification system, extensive public buildings and ceremonial architecture, and a literary/theatrical heritage that survives in fragmented state. It is for their art, however, that the Sabeans are best remembered. Their religion and mythology fuelled the themes of their sculptural works – primarily anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statuary – while their contact with other cultures and nations led to a highly derived and distinctive style. There are major works in bronze, precious metals and exotic minerals, but they are perhaps best known for works in soft stone such as alabaster.

The role of the camel was of course vital to the economy of all Middle Eastern states; they were able to keep the city alive, and without their assistance, the trade routes that brought wealth to the Sabeans would have been unable to function. So it is unsurprising to see one immortalised in this way. Identifying the intended role of the piece is of course more speculative, although it may be either a form of “sacrifice” to a deity for good economic fortune, or alternatively a personal talisman designed to harness good fortune in an unknowable ancient belief system. In our terms, however, it persists as a well-executed and elegant piece, with a certain whimsical quality. The animal is standing immobile, rather than in a dynamic pose. Nonetheless, the sinuous nature of its lines lends a powerful sculptural quality to what might otherwise be a rather mundane topic. The proportions are fairly accurate, although the body is fairly low, with disproportionately large feet. The eyes, nostrils, ears and feet (cleats) are all incised in clear, well-defined lines, which contrast with the soft curves and golden glow of the patina. The piece has evidently been well-handled – and perhaps has seen the application of libations – and was perhaps buried with its owner. This is an unusual and charming statuette, and a worthy addition to any Near Eastern art collection. - (FF.25)




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