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Afar, Ophir and the Mists of History
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Are the Afar people in your opinion from the Ophir peoples of the queen of Sheba? The name is so closely related sounding.

This question raises interests in factors arising from the mists of ancient times, thoughts and ideas, about which we have little concrete information.

Indeed, some have thought there is a connection to the name we know now as Afar, though the geography is uncertain, since Ophir seems to have been in southern Arabia, as also was Sheba.  But the Sheban (Sabean) area seems to have also covered or been connected in some way to the African side of the Red Sea.  

There is actually no definite link of Ophir to Sheba.  Some references would indicate they are different countries. But a "country" as we understand it today might not really be in view. Sovereignties were often cities or small regions around a city, trading port or oasis. A "country" might be a narrow strip along a waterfront, like the Hijaz, along the Red Sea coast of Arabia in modern times.

Incidentally, these Sabeans were still known as a separate race or tribe of people into the Muslim era.  They are mentioned by Muhammad in the Quran as one of the People of the Book, along with Jews and Christians he knew.

Others, though, have connected the name Ophir to a region in India in olden times, called Sophir.  Others place it along the Arabia coast of the Red Sea, in the region of Medina.  In short, however, there is only speculation, and no clear evidence that ties this to any region or people in modern times.

Other writers discuss these matters in links I am including at the end of this article.

Semitic Names
Names in Semitic writings were usually symbolic, not simply objectively "historical" in the sense we have become accustomed to in the last two hundred years of post-Enlightenment scientism.

For instance, most of the names in Genesis are real words, so carry a meaning or story of their own, which move the story to a suprahistorical level.  For instance, Adam was not the name of an individual, but the normal Hebrew word for Humanity.  From that story it has become the name of individuals.  Similarly, "Eve" (Hawa in Hebrew) is the Hebrew word for "Life."  Thus in Genesis the story is told by the names in this fascinating and powerful pre-history.

The Story Beyond the Story
When you know the meanings of these words, then, the conclusion of the Creation stories in Genesis is that "Humanity joined with Life and produce children [that is, all of us, the human race]."  This is the story within the story, and the story beyond the story.  In the Old Testament, many times the story is in the names.  This means the Genesis story is about all of us, not just some past event.  It is current commentary!

We miss this many times, due to poor, wooden translation, which just transliterates the Hebrew forms instead of translating that to bring over the rich, exciting power in the meaning of the names!  This is a style in the whole Semitic Middle East.  There are some exciting stories form those old cultures!

This also accounts for the instances of name changes in the old stories. This type of thing still goes on in the African cultures I have lived among. Names carry life significance and meaning in many cultures.

Back to Ophir
So much for context.  Now, back to Ophir.  It is less clear in this name, Ophir, what the underlying symbolic meaning would be, as it is not known from other sources than a few cryptic references to it, then the one comment about Solomon getting gold from there.

One other connection to the name is mentioned in one of the discussion linked here.  The connection to the Greek term "apyros," meaning "not fire" or "non-fire" presumably meaning not needing to be smelted, that is pure nuggets or nuggets instead of gold dust.

The ancient names are an ongoing source of fascination for me, as well as enlightenment.

See also my cultural profile:
Afar People of the Horn of Africa

Further information on the Afar and Ophir
Ophir, Afar and Apyros
Ophir, Ethiopia  and Punt
Land of Punt
Where was Ophir?
In addition to the references given in this article, there is also this Old Testament verse:
2 Chronicles 9:10  (The men of Hiram and the men of Solomon brought gold from Ophir; they also brought algumwood [Probably a variant of almugwood] and precious stones. -NIV)


Topic first addressed in an email enquiry to Thoughts and Resources 12 July 2005
Posted 11 August 2005
Last edited 13 June 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD

Copyright © 2005 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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