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Episode 45 - Arabian bronze hand

Arabian bronze hand (made second to third century AD), from Yemen

All this week I've been looking at the ways in which, around 1,700 years ago, the great religions of the age created images that would bring the faithful closer to their gods, and how those religions became embedded in the great empires of the time. We've had images of the Buddha, Hindu gods and Christ. Today's object is part of a human body but it doesn't belong to a god; it's a gift to a god, it's a right hand, cast in bronze.

We all know the expressions... to give your right hand for something, to be sitting at someone's right hand, or to be someone's right-hand man. Well, we can imagine the man whose hand this represented, wishing very much to be at the right hand of his particular god - he even bears the god's name, Ta'lab.

"Looking at a hand like this - it's an object that you could see in so many cultures through the Middle East over the last two thousand years. The labels change - Judaism, Islam, Christianity, paganism - but the objects endure." (Philip Jenkins)

"I suppose, being a hand surgeon, I don't actually regard it as being quite so disquieting as someone who isn't used to this sort of thing, but a cut-off hand has eerie sort of features about it, and one has a slight concern that it might move!" (Jeremy Field)

The first four programmes this week have been about religions that have millions, or hundreds of millions, of followers, but 1,700 years ago there were far more religions in the world than today, and many, many more gods. Gods at this date tended to have strictly local responsibilities, not the worldwide embrace that we're used to now. In Mecca, for example, before Mohammed, pilgrims worshipped in a temple which had a statue of a different god for every day of the year. Today's programme is about one of those numberless Arabian gods, that didn't survive the coming of Mohammed.

His full name was Ta'lab Riyam, meaning "the strong one of Riyam" - a Yemeni hill town - and he protected the local hill people. Yemen in the third century was a prosperous place, a hub of international trade that produced some of the most sought-after commodities for the vast market of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and India. It was Yemen that supplied the whole Roman Empire with frankincense and myrrh.

I'm in the study room of the British Museum, and I'm holding the hand of a man called Wahab Ta'lab. It's a life-sized hand, just slightly smaller than my own, made of bronze, and it is surprisingly heavy. It's very lifelike, but as it's got no arm attached to it, it does look as though it's been severed. But according to Jeremy Field, orthopaedic and hand surgeon at Cheltenham General Hospital, this is not the case:

"What they have done so carefully is the impression of the veins, which would probably go against it being some form of amputation, because if a hand was amputated the veins would be empty, because obviously the blood drains out. These are very carefully crafted, and really quite beautiful.

"I'm sure this is a human hand, but there are certain things that are slightly odd about it. The nails, the 'spoon-shaped' nails, are really indicative of someone who potentially might have anaemia, for some reason; the fingers are really thin and spindly, and also there is this deformity of the little finger, which I think has probably been broken at some stage, at the end of it."

It's small medical details like these that, after 1,700 years of oblivion, bring Wahab Ta'lab back to life. I find myself wondering how old he was. The veins on the back of the hand are very prominent. And, above all, wondering how he broke his little finger. Was it perhaps in battle? It doesn't look as though it was in the fields - this doesn't seem like the hand of a labourer. A fortune-teller of course would look at once for the lines on the palm of the hand, but the palm of this hand has been left unworked. There are lines, though, but they're on the back, and they're lines of text. They're written in an ancient Yemeni language which is linked both to modern Hebrew and to Arabic, and the inscription tells us what this object was for, and where it was displayed:

"Son of Hisam, [the] Yursamite, subject of the Banu Sukhaym, has dedicated for his well-being this his right hand to their patron in his the god's shrine dhu-Qabrat."

It's a pretty baffling series of names and places, but if you're a historian trying to reconstruct the society and the religion of ancient Yemen, pretty well all you have to go on is inscriptions like this one. There are about 10,000 of them known, each one, it has to be said, more opaque than the other. But if you actually unpick the inscription on this hand, it does in fact contain a great deal of information. From it we learn that this bronze hand was dedicated at the temple of the god Ta'lab Riyam, in a place called Zafar, high in the Yemeni hills. The owner of the hand, Wahab Ta'lab, tells us that he belongs to a clan, and that that clan in turn is part of a larger tribal organisation, whose god was Ta'lab.

So, Wahab Ta'lab had obviously been named after his own god. And as a further sign of faith he's dedicated his hand publicly to Ta'lab, at the centre of the city of Zafar, where it would have been seen along with other offerings of gold, bronze or alabaster, representing human figures, animals, arrows, spear heads, that sort of thing. But in return for these offerings, the god Ta'lab was expected, in general terms, to see the donors alright.

But Wahab Ta'lab must have been pretty alright to start with, only a man of real wealth could offer a bronze hand as beautifully made as this. This is the cast of a hand that "all the perfumes of Arabia" certainly did sweeten. But, by the international standards of the day, his whole society was wealthy. At the time of our hand most of south Arabia was effectively one state - a confederation of tribes like Wahab Ta'lab's, known to historians as the Himyarite kingdom. Many monumental buildings survive, and along with them numerous inscriptions, which are evidence of a rich, sophisticated and in some measure literate society. Yemen at this point is no backwater; it dominates the entrance to the Red Sea, and with it the great trade route that linked Egypt and the rest of the Roman Empire to India. Writing in 79 AD, the Roman author Pliny the Elder explained why the Yemenis were so rich:

"The chief productions of Arabia are frankincense and myrrh... they are the richest nations in the world, seeing that such vast wealth flows in upon them from both the Roman and the Parthian empires; for they sell the produce of the sea or of their forests, while they purchase nothing whatever in return."

The "Incense Road" was in its way as important for the exchange of goods and ideas as the Silk Road. Frankincense was used by the Romans in absolutely vast quantities, and was the principal form of incense in the ancient world. The altar of every god in the Roman Empire, from Syria to Cirencester, burned with Yemeni incense. Myrrh had various uses: as an antiseptic for dressing wounds, for embalming - it was essential for Egyptian mummification - and in perfume. Although it's not a strong fragrance, it has the longest life of any scent known. Indeed it was myrrh that lay behind "all the perfumes of Arabia" which could not sweeten Lady Macbeth's bloodstained hand, although they would certainly have washed and sweetened Wahab Ta'lab's. Both frankincense and myrrh were very expensive. A pound of frankincense cost the equivalent of a Roman labourer's salary for a month, and a pound of myrrh twice as much. So when the magi bring frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus, they're bringing not only gifts fit for a god - they're also as valuable as their other gift, gold.

We've got no contemporary written sources, but this hand, other pieces of bronze sculpture of similar quality, and the ancient industrial slag recently discovered in south Arabia, show that Yemen was then a major centre of bronze production. Wahab Ta'lab's hand is clearly the product of skilled metal-workers. If you look at it carefully you can see that it's been cast using the lost wax technique, and very beautifully finished at the wrist. So our bronze hand is definitely a complete object, not a fragment broken off from a larger sculpture.

Offering replica body parts to the gods is by no means peculiar to Arabia. You find them in Greek temples, in medieval pilgrim shrines and in many modern Roman Catholic churches - used to ask a god or a saint for bodily healing or as a thank-you for recovery. So perhaps Wahab Ta'lab wanted his broken finger healed, although the inscription suggests that it was a broader prayer, for general good health.

Wahab Ta'lab's hand speaks to us from a religious world that was dominated by local gods, who looked after particular places and peoples. But it was a world that wasn't going to last. Arabian aromatics had powered the religious life of the pagan Roman Empire, but when that empire converted to Christianity and no longer needed frankincense for worship, the incense trade was dealt a massive blow, contributing to a collapse in the Yemen economy. Local gods, like Ta'lab, disappeared, perhaps because they were no longer delivering the promised prosperity. Suddenly, in the 370s, offerings to traditional gods just stop, and their place is taken by other gods with a wider, universal reach - these are the religions of today. Within the next couple of centuries the rulers of Yemen shift from Judaism to Christianity to Zoroastrianism and finally, in 628, to Islam, which has remained the dominant religion of Yemen ever since. Gods like Ta'lab no longer stood a chance.

But some elements of Ta'lab's world did live on. We know for example that, like many Arabian gods, he was venerated through pilgrimages to his shrine. The religious historian Philip Jenkins, of Pennsylvania State University, is fascinated by elusive survivals like this:

"There are aspects of the old pagan Arabian religion which do live on into Islam, and into Muslim times. Especially in the practice of the pilgrimage, the Hajj - what goes on at Mecca. Muslims would absolutely reject any pagan context, obviously - they frame it in terms of Abraham and his story, but probably the events of the Hajj closely recall what would have happened in pagan times at that centre.

"I've suggested that religions die, but, as when people die, perhaps they leave ghosts - and you can see across the Middle East many ghosts, many survivals of older religions, in the newly successful religions. So as you look at Islam, for example, you see many, many survivals from Christianity and Judaism. The Qur'an is absolutely littered with stories which make no sense, except in terms of what the Christians and Jews of that time would have understood, the sacred stories. Also in terms of the buildings of Islam, the institutions of Islam, the mystical practices of Islam, you can see a great many of these ghostly survivals. Then, as Islam spreads, it carries on drawing new kinds of pattern in from older religions, and evokes new ghosts."

Eventually that spreading Islam would conquer most of the world that we've been talking about this week. Indeed, it would conquer all the places from which our objects have come, except Dorset.

Next week we'll be looking at how the victorious Islamic rulers administered their conquests. We'll be in Damascus with the ninth caliph... and with two gold coins.

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