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The Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen: A Window into Arabia's Past

TitleThe Origins of the Nihm Tribe of Yemen: A Window into Arabia's Past
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsWarren P. Aston
JournalJournal of Arabian Studies: Arabia, the Gulf, and the Red Sea
KeywordsArabia; Nahom; Tribes; Yemen

The 1999 excavation of the Barʾan complex at Mẚrib in Yemen yielded identical Sabaean inscriptions on three votive altars. These dedication texts list the donor’s grandfather as a member of the Nihm tribe, definitively establishing the presence of the tribal name to c.2,800 years ago. The name, rare in southern Arabia, can then be traced through a variety of other inscriptional, topographical and historical sources down to the present-day tribe and its lands. While the consonants NHM refer to ‘dressing stone by chipping’, and may appear in a variety of contexts, an etymological examination of its Semitic roots yields interesting pointers to the possible origins of the name. Multiple links in these roots to terminology such as ‘consoling’, ‘comforting’ and ‘complaining’ have led to the name being long associated with death and the processes of mourning. This paper, therefore, suggests the possibility of the name being specifically associated with a place of burial, perhaps a connection in the distant past to the extensive, still poorly understood, desert necropolis at the ʿAlam, Ruwayk and Jidran complex north of Mẚrib. Being able to firmly document, a specific tribal and topographical name for almost three millennia is significant. Such continuity of a tribal name, perhaps unique in Arabia, would have implications for our understanding of the processes of tribal naming, structure, and movements in pre-Islamic southern Arabia generally.