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A Journey to Queen of Sheba’s City

posted on: Oct 19, 2021


By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

After passing through a fast expanding and dusty suburb of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, on our way to Ma’rib, better known as ‘Queen of Sheba’s City’, we were treated to Yemeni hospitality at tis best.  Stopping at a gas station, our group of 12 which included four Americans, six Yemenis living in the U.S.A. and my brother and myself from Canada, discussed paying for the gas.  However, it was only a game.  Our Yemeni friends had already collected the money among themselves.  When we asked why we were not included, one of them smiled saying, “We are Arabs.  You are our guests.”  The matter was closed.

Ascending from the Sana’a basin, we passed through the village of Beni Hashash, in the heart of a grape-growing district.  At the end of town, our driver stopped to buy qat – leaves of a plant which are mildly exhilarating.  Chewed by almost 80% of the men and 10% of the women, it has replaced coffee as Yemen’s main crop.  The leaves are not addictive since Yemenis who emigrate soon forget their afternoon sessions of qat.  Its great drawback is its price.  Much of the families’ incomes are wasted on this very expensive leisure plant – costing from $1. To $60., depending on the quality, for a day’s supply.

Entering the barren al-Gharas Mountains, we ere soon driving ghroug the 2,300 m (7,544 FT) high Ben Ghalen Pass, then down to a desert plain, dotted with spots of greenery.  After about a half an hour, my friend Yahya, a Yemeni immigrant in America, said that there were several Jewish villages nearby whose inhabitants had, for hundreds of years, lived in peace with their Muslim neighbours.  He went on to say that the Arab-Israeli conflict had not in any way affected this relationship.

About two hours after leaving Sana’a, we were winding our way across the eastern Yemeni hills, then under the shadow of Haylan Mountain we descended into the eastern desert.  Now, it was easy going on a straight and well-paved road.  The rocky semi-desert countryside which we traversed was criss-crossed with wadis (dry riverbeds) and dotted with acacia and tamarisk shrubs.  This led to volcanic lava fields which styed with us until we reached New Ma’rib – 173 km (107 MI) east of Sana’a.

Entering the modern town, one does not see any evidence of the legendary dam, a miracle of the Sabaean civilization, which with the visit of the Queen of Sheba to the court of King Solomon, has made this spot in Yemen famous.  We drove through the dusty streets of this 20th century town to rest awhile in Bilquis Mareb Hotel – carrying the Arabic name of the Queen of Sheba.  As I relaxed and sipped a drink in its air-conditioned atmosphere, I thought of this famous queen and the nearby dam, mentioned in the Qur’an.

Ma’rib, the capital of Saba (Sheba) for many centuries and the most famous city in ancient Yemen, edges Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter), the largest and most forbidding deserts in the world.  In the days of antiquity, it was the capital of the kingdom of Saba which first flourished about 1,000 B.C. Its inhabitants for centuries held a monopoly of the frankincense and myrrh caravans.  This gave the country a thriving prosperity and helped spread Saba’s fame from Rome to India.  Ma’rib’s location, astride the ancient world.  

In the 8th century B.C., a great dam was built between two mountains in Wadi Adhana, near Yemen’s best-known town.  For more than 1,500 years, this largest of the hundreds of dams which at one time dotted south Arabia, provided irrigation for about 259 sq km (100 sq MI) of fields -traces of which remain – and provided food for about 50,000.  An old saying about rh area says: “Wanderer, if you come to the land of the Sabaeans, do not fear the sun; for the shade of the trees will follow you wherever you go.”

The dam was one of the wonders of the Arabian Peninsula and formed the basis of the Sabaean Empire’s agricultural wealth.  A remarkable feat of engineering which was built to deflect run-offs, it was about 1/2 km (1/3 MI) in length, 60 m (197 FT) in width and rose to 18 m (59 FT) high.  The remains of eh dam’s perfectly set stone blocks bear witness to the skill of the Sabaeans.  Even by today’s standards, its construction is a remarkable feat.  

In its long history the dam was breached many times, but always repaired until 570 A.D. when it was almost completely washed away.  With its passing so withered the Sabaean civilization.  As a result, the inhabitants of Ma’rib and the surrounding area fled to the four corners of Arabia.

One of today’s former Arab leaders who traced his lineage to Wadi Nahayan near Ma’rib was Sheikh Zayed an-Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and head of the United Arab Emirates.  After the disaster, his ancestors migrated to the shores of the Arabian Gulf.  In the 1980s, besides aiding in a number of Yemeni development projects, he financed a new 75-million-dollar dam 3 km (2 MI) upstream from the old dam.  It is a little larger than the one built by the Sabaeans, and its stored waters are again turning the desert green.

For us, Ma’rib’s ancient remains – the most famous archaeological site in the Yemen – were more inviting than the New Dam.  Our first stop was at the Sun or Awwam Temple, known locally as Mahram Balqis.  Built in the 8th century B.C., it was partially excavated in 1952 by Wendell Phillip’s expedition.  However, his archaeologists only scratched the surface.  They were forced to flee for their lives due to the resentment of the local inhabitants who believed that treasures were being stolen from the site. It was strange to see the temple pillars growing out of a hole in the ground, still half-hidden in the sand – even parts excavated have again been concealed.  The uncovering of the remainder of the temple is a waiting challenge.

Our next stop was the Temple of the Moon, dedicated to the moon god al-Ma’qah, a short distance to the west.  Known also as ‘Arsh Balqis (Sheba’s Throne), it is in the process of being excavated and renovated.  The five still-standing symmetrical pillars and floor section of the temple which are obvious to visitors give an indication of how it must have looked in its days of glory.

Of the Great Dam, little remains.  The sluice gats on both banks of Wadi Adham are the only significant reminder of a once very important irrigation structure.  We examined the north gate, then walked across the now soil filled dam.  Near the middle, there appeared to be some remains of the dam wall projecting above ground, but we could not tell for sure.  At the south sluice gate, we sat down and rested, truly awed by the engineering skills of the Sabaeans.

It was only a few minutes drive to the New Dam which in less than half a decade has restored, to a degree, some of the prosperity of this renowned spot in the Yemen.  There is little doubt that the New Dam and the oil discovered about 100 km (62 MI) east of Ma’rib will, in the future, revive this long dead region.  Already, the valley is filled with citrus orchards and fields of grain.

Our tour ended at old Ma’rib, impressive from a distance with its tiny-windowed towering mud buildings which dominate the landscape.  Many had gaping holes and there were remains of others, destroyed during the Yemeni civil war in the 1960s.  Most of the homes, some incorporating stones from old monuments with Sabaean inscriptions and motifs, have been abandoned for New Ma’rib, a short distance away.

Leaving this town on the verge of joining the nearby ruins, we drove to New Ma’rib and were soon dining on a fine Yemeni meal.  Relaxing after the repast, I watched our driver chew his qat on the edge of Ma’rib’s romantic monuments – a mecca for foreign tourists.  As I observed him enjoy is favourite pastime, where were his thoughts?  Mine went back in the ancient land of Sheba and its legendary queen.