Many centuries ago, the community of Saba was one of the four biggest civilisations which lived in South Arabia.
Ruins of the Temple of Ma’rib
Historical sources relating to Saba usually say that this was a culture akin to that of the Phoenicians. It was particularly involved in commercial activities. The Sabaeans are recognised by historians as a civilised and cultured people. In the inscriptions of the rulers of Saba, words such as "restore," "dedicate" and "construct" are frequently used. The Ma'rib Dam, which is one of the most important monuments of this people, is an important indication of the technological level this people had reached.
The Sabaean state had one of the strongest armies in the region and was able to adopt an expansionist policy thanks to its potent army. With its advanced culture and army, the Sabaean state was without question one of the "super powers" of the region at the time. This extraordinarily strong army of the Sabaean state is also described in the Qur'an. An expression of the commanders of the Saba army related in the Qur'an, shows the extent of the confidence this army had in itself. The commanders call out to the female ruler (Queen) of the state:
… "We possess strength and we possess great force. But the matter is in your hands so consider what you command." (Qur'an, 27:33)
Because of the Ma'rib Dam which had been constructed, with the help of quite advanced technology for that particular era, the people of Saba possessed an enormous irrigation capacity. The fertile soil they acquired by virtue of this technique and their control over the trade route permitted them a splendid lifestyle, full of well-being. However, instead of giving thanks to Allah for all this, the Qur'an informs us that they actually "turned away from Him." Furthermore, they refused to heed the warnings and reminders issued to them. Because of these poor moral values, they merited punishment in the sight of Allah and their dams collapsed and the flood of Arim ruined all their lands.
The Ma’rib Dam (shown in the pictures above and to the side) was one of the major works of the people of Saba. The dam collapsed in the flood of Arim, mentioned in the Qur’an, and the Sabaean state was weakened economically and eventually collapsed.
The capital city of the Sabaean state was Ma'rib, which was extremely wealthy thanks to its advantageous geographical position. The capital city was very close to the River Adhanah. The point where the river reached Jabal Balaq was very suitable for the construction of a dam. Making use of this condition, the Sabaean people constructed a dam at this location at the time when their civilisation was first established, and they began irrigation. As a result, they reached a very high level of economic prosperity. The capital city, Ma'rib, was one of the most developed cities of the time. The Greek writer Pliny, who had visited the region and greatly praised it, also mentioned how green this region was.232
The height of the dam in Ma'rib was 16 metres, its width was 60 metres and its length was 620 metres. According to the calculations, the total area that could be irrigated by the dam was 9,600 hectares, of which 5,300 hectares belonged to the southern plain. The remaining part belonged to the northern plain. These two plains were referred to as "Ma'rib and two plains" in the Sabaean inscriptions.233 The expression in the Qur'an, "two gardens to the right and to the left," points to the imposing gardens and vineyards in these two valleys. Thanks to this dam and its irrigation systems, the region became famous as the best irrigated and most fruitful area of Yemen. The Frenchman J. Holevy and the Austrian Glaser proved from written documents that the Ma'rib dam existed since ancient times. In documents written in the Himer dialect, it is related that this dam rendered the territory very productive and was the heartbeat of the economy.
The dam that collapsed in 542 led to the flood of Arim and caused enormous damage. The vineyards, orchards and fields cultivated for hundreds of years by the people of Saba were completely destroyed. Following the collapse of the dam, the people of Saba appear to have entered a period of rapid contraction, at the end of which the Sabaean state came to an end.
When we examine the Qur'an in the light of the historical data above, we observe that there is very substantial agreement here. Archaeological findings and the historical data both verify what is recorded in the Qur'an. As mentioned in the verse, these people, who did not listen to the exhortations of their Prophet and who rejected faith, were in the end punished with a dreadful flood. This flood is described in the Qur'an in the following verses:
There was, for Saba, aforetime, a Sign in their home-land-two Gardens to the right and to the left. "Eat of the Sustenance [provided] by your Lord, and be grateful to Him: a territory fair and happy, and a Lord Oft-Forgiving!" But they turned away [from Allah], and We sent against them the Flood [released] from the dams, and We converted their two garden [rows] into "gardens" producing bitter fruit, and tamarisks, and some few [stunted] Lote-trees. That was the Requital We gave them because they ungratefully rejected Faith: And never do We give [such] requital except to such as are ungrateful rejecters. (Qur'an, 34:15-17)
In the Qur'an, the punishment sent to the Sabaean people is named as "Sayl al-Arim" which means the "flood of Arim." This expression used in the Qur'an also tells us the manner in which this disaster occurred. The word "Arim" means dam or barrier. The expression "Sayl al-Arim" describes a flood that came about with the collapse of this barrier. Islamic commentators have resolved the issue of time and place being guided by the terms used in the Qur'an about the flood of Arim. For example, Mawdudi writes in his commentary:
As also used in the expression, Sayl al-Arim, the word "arim" is derived from the word "arimen" used in the Southern Arabic dialect, which means "dam, barrier." In the ruins unearthed in the excavations made in Yemen, this word was seen to be frequently used in this meaning. For example, in the inscriptions which was ordered by Yemen's Habesh monarch, Ebrehe (Abraha), after the restoration of the big Ma'rib wall in 542 and 543 AD, this word was used to mean dam (barrier) time and again. So, the expression of Sayl al- Arim means "a flood disaster which occurs after the destruction of a dam." "… We converted their two garden [rows] into gardens producing bitter fruit, and tamarisks, and some few [stunted] Lote-trees" (Qur'an, 34:16). That is, after the collapse of the dam-wall, all the country was inundated by the flood. The canals that had been dug by the Sabaean people, and the wall that had been constructed by building barriers between the mountains, were destroyed and the irrigation system fell apart. As a result, the territory, which was like a garden before, turned into a jungle. There was no fruit left but the cherry-like fruit of little stumpy trees.234
The Christian archaeologist Werner Keller, writer of "Und Die Bible Hat Doch Recht" (The Holy Book Was Right), accepted that the flood of Arim occurred according to the description of the Qur'an and wrote that the existence of such a dam and the destruction of the whole country by its collapse proves that the example given in the Qur'an about the people of the garden was indeed realised.235
After the disaster of the Arim flood, the region started to turn into a desert and the Sabaean people lost their most important source of income. Their lands, which had been agricultural havens of prosperity and financial strength, disappeared. The people, who had not heeded the call of Allah to believe in Him and to be grateful to Him, were in the end punished with this disaster.
232. Hommel, Explorations in Bible Lands (Philadelphia: 1903), 739.
233. "Marib", Islam Ansiklopedisi: Islam Alemi, Tarihi, Cografya, Etnografya ve Bibliyografya Lugati (Encyclopedia of Islam: Dictionary of Islamic World, History, Geography, Ethnography, and Bibliography,) 7, 323-339.
234. Mevdudi, Tefhimül Kuran (An Honoring of the Qur’an) 4, Insan Yayinlari (Istanbul), 517.
235. Keller, Und die Bibel hat doch recht, 230