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Ma’rib - A Journey to the Queen of Sheba's City

posted on: Oct 11, 2022

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Some one and a half hours after leaving Sana’a, Yemen’s capital for Ma’rib, better known as Queen of Sheba’s City, I was excited.  A lifetime of longing to visit this historic city and examine evidence of its famous dam was about to be fulfilled.  As we drove onward, the Biblical story of Sheba’s visit to test the Wisdom of Solomon and our trip to her city soon overwhelmed my every thought.

Crossing the 2,200 m (7,216 ft) high al-Fardah Pass we descended into the country’s Eastern desert.  The rocky semi-arid landscape, which we traversed was criss-crossed with wadis (dry riverbeds) and dotted with acacia and tamarisk shrubs.  This led to volcanic lava fields that remained 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.  After its destruction, the dam was forgotten, but Sheba’s visit became a part of the Bible and was instrumental in the creation of many myths and legends about this fabled queen.  

We drove through the dusty streets of this 21st century town to rest awhile in Bilqis Mareb Hotel – carrying the Arabic name of the Queen of Sheba (Bilqis in Arabic).  As I relaxed and sipped a beverage 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), which for many centuries and the most famous city in ancient Yemen, edges Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter), one of 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 incense road made it the richest and mightiest state in 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 1,300 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 the 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 the dam’s perfectly set stone blocks bear witness to the skills 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 Marib and the surrounding area fled to the four corners of Arabia.

One of the modern Arab leaders who traced his lineage to Wadi Nahayan near Ma`rib was the late Sheikh Zayed an-Nahayan, 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 several 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.

Our first stop was at the Awwam Temple, dedicated to the moon god, Almaqah and the sun god Shams, it is the main temple in Ma`rib and known locally as Mahram Bilqis (the sanctuary of Bilqis).  Built around 1200 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. 

In the 1998 work again began on excavating the temple and in the summer of 2000 an international team of scientists organized by the American Foundation for the Study of Man found evidence that this ancient sanctuary is packed with artefacts, artwork, and inscriptions.  The finds have produced excitement in the archaeological world.  Professor Bill Glanzman, the project’s director is quoted as saying the temple could become the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.  Edward Keall, Curator of Middle Eastern Archaeology at the Royal Museum in Toronto, expects the finds will make the temple as important as the ruins of Pompeii, the pyramids, or the Acropolis.

Our next stop, a short distance to the west, was another temple dedicated to the moon god Almaqah.  Known also as Barran Temple or Arsh Bilqis (Sheba’s Throne), it still has five still-standing symmetrical pillars and these, along with the uncovered floor section of the temple, give an indication of how it must have looked in its days of glory.

Of the Great Dam, little remains.  The sluice gates 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 ancient Sabaeans.

It was only a few minutes’ drive to the New Dam that in less than half a decade 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 sleeping region.  Already, the valley is filled with citrus orchards and fields of grain, awakening it from its lengthy slumber.

Ruined multi-storey buildings made of mud in the district of Marib, Yemen

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.  The town is virtually deserted.  Almost all the homes, some incorporating stones from old monuments with Sabaean inscriptions and motifs, have been abandoned for New Mar’ib, 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 leaves on the edge of Ma`rib’s romantic monuments – a mecca for foreign tourists.  As I observed him enjoy his favourite pastime, “Where are his thoughts?” I thought to myself.   Mine went back in the ancient land of Sheba and its legendary queen.