The beady eyes of seven resting ibex peer out of this small, 5-by-8-inch alabaster frieze from ancient Yemen. When viewed from the front, the figures of the ibex seem at first shapeless and ill-defined, their long muzzles and protruding horns offering the only clues to their identity. From the side, however, the full spiral of the ibex’s characteristic back-turned horns comes into view, while its reclining pose is artfully depicted with the front and hind legs tucked neatly beneath the body.
This ibex frieze, dating to the late first millennium B.C., is characteristic of much of the art of ancient South Arabia—the home of the Biblical Queen of Sheba and the ancient world’s emporium for exotic goods and fragrances. Although little is known about South Arabian religion, the ibex motif appears frequently in temple reliefs and friezes and also decorates the borders of numerous cultic steles. In antiquity, ibex abounded in the hills and mountains of South Arabia’s rocky highlands, and many scholars believe these sacred animals were ritually hunted and slaughtered in honor of the gods as a guarantee against drought and famine.