Marib through an Indian eye: essence of ancient south Arabian Peninsula [Archives:2006/943/Last Page]

May 4 2006
Marib is mentioned in ancient inscriptions from 1000 BC, and it has so many historical witnesses to the Sheban Kingdom.
Marib is mentioned in ancient inscriptions from 1000 BC, and it has so many historical witnesses to the Sheban Kingdom.
By: Rajib Chakraborty
It was nearly the end of 1998 when I received an assignment in Yemen from my office in Delhi. To be very honest, Yemen was not known to me like other modern Arab nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, so I had to get some information from the internet.

Yemen is situated in the lap of the Arabian and Red Seas, well-distinguished by borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman in the southernmost part of the Arab world. Though I had heard about Aden port from the pages of history in childhood, I never had heard the name of Yemen's capital Sana'a.

However, once a visa and tickets were arranged, I reached Sana'a airport one evening, suppressing all the pain of leaving relatives. After arriving, I realized there are no such dazzles of modern cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Muscat. The city is a perfect pictorial combination of ancient Arab heritage surrounded by natural walls of hills.

The next day, we started for Marib, 170 km. east of Sana'a, where our project site was awaiting us. Leaving behind the green fields of Sana'a's suburbs, our land cruiser began traveling the undulating asphalt road, which was like swinging black ribbons. On the way, we crossed two hills, well-adorned with natural sandstone cleavage.

Immediately after crossing the second hill, we came down to the plain. On both the sides of the road, the desert spread with its massive emptiness. There was no evidence of trees, no evidence of people and no evidence of cattle anywhere except the checkpoints. We ultimately reached Marib after two and a half hours of travel. After meeting the local project authority, we proceed to the Marib Dam site, the origin of our assigned project.

Marib is mentioned in ancient inscriptions from 1,000 B.C. There are so many historical witnesses to the Sheban kingdom in Marib. Though locals are not much bothered about it, Marib has special importance to historians, archaeologists and foreign tourists.

In Assyrian inscriptions, Sheba's kingdom was pronounced the richest, most prosperous and powerful kingdom in south Arabia. The Queen of Sheba, also known as Queen Bilqis, was the Sheban dynasty's greatest ruler. During her reign, the dynasty reached its peak in culture, trade and agriculture. At the same time, in the sixth century B.C., the old Marib Dam was constructed, blocking the Wadi Adana riverbed.

To date, the great dam's ruins and its well-planned distribution system implemented in that ancient period are a surprise to modern engineers. The arid zone became fertile via this superb irrigation system – not only in agriculture, but also in the caravan trade, as Sheban merchants traveled 3,400 km. to Gaza in modern Palestine carrying frankincense, myrrh, spices and gold. There was not a temple or wealthy home in Jerusalem, Babylon, Greece or Rome where such resins were not required. The Queen of Sheba's caravan journey from Marib to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon also is described in the Bible.

After 100 A.D., Sheban power began to decline with the rise of the Himyarites. Sea trade became more important and western regions adjacent to the Red Sea began flourishing instead of the eastern regions of the Sheban kingdom. In 600 A.D., the great Marib Dam collapsed under a catastrophic flood and civilization gradually vanished under the grip of irresistible sand dunes. The Qur'an described Marib Dam's final collapse as God's punishment on the end of the old world and the turning point in history.

Yemen's government has taken measures to restore its prosperous agricultural past and as a result, a new Marib Dam was constructed three kilometers upstream of the old dam site in 1986. The reservoir filled with bluish-green water is a mind-blowing scene against its arid background and is worth seeing.

In eastern Marib, Baron Temple, also known as Bilqis' Throne and constructed in the eighth century B.C., stands as a witness to Sheban architecture. To date, five eight-meter-high pillars of single stone stand challenging the sky and adverse weather and also serve as a national symbol of modern Yemen. The ruins of a stone boundary wall, internal temple walls and steps are amazing.

Approximately 1.5 km. from Baron Temple is Marib's most important and famous temple, which was completely buried under sand dunes. Excavations still continue to unveil its history. Dedicated to the sun god, its original name was Awam Temple, but it later was renamed Al-Maqa to worship the moon goddess. Locally, it is called Mahram Bilqis.

The temple's main structure is emerging from the sand and eight numbers of similar propylons with the same smooth rock finish also are visible. Its stone walls are curved with various designs and inscriptions and its stone wall fence also is oval-shaped like the sun or moon.

Near Marib city exists Old Marib, a cluster of multi-story mud and clay buildings. During the Sheban period, clay technology was very rich. Though weather has destroyed their original shape, these mud house ruins are enough to surprise any visitor and a few dwellers remain in them following their repair. Adjacent to the old town, the ruins of a temple with its slender rocky columns also attract.

Though these are valuable witnesses to millenniums of ancient south Arabian history, they are not properly protected. However, some effort now is being made to protect them. You neither must purchase any ticket nor must spend a penny to visit these ancient sites. In the heart of town, four-star hotel Marib Bilqis awaits to welcome you.

If you travel five kilometers south of the city, you can ask your driver for a ride over the sand dunes. There you can visit lush green orange groves, another desert wonder. You can see every Bedouin tribesman roaming with an AK-47 and women driving pickups to bring grass from the fields for their cattle.

We are working to restore irrigation canals to distribute water from Marib Dam to the desert to transform it into a rich agricultural hub. Within the context of our field work in Bedouin villages, we are able to mix with the locals. Bedouin social structure is different from other parts of Yemen, as there are few tribes, but they always are creating trouble between each other and are not so comfortable with Yemen's general laws.

Whatever is in their minds, they always respect us as the foreign engineers. Many times, they invited us into their homes for lunch. The warmth of their hearts and purity of their hospitality always attracts us. We feel proud to be a part of restoring the prosperous agricultural past of Sheba.

Not only Marib, but all of Yemen is an excellent blending of rich ancient civilization, years-old heritage and natural beauty. Nobody could imagine such a scenic country exists in the Arab world until he walks in Yemen. However, more initiative, effort and planning is required to attract tourists to taste 'the essence of the ancient south Arabian Peninsula.'

Rajib Chakraborty is an Indian civil engineer. He has worked on various civil engineering projects in Yemen since 1998 and he is currently Assistant Resident Engineer on the prestigious Marib Dam and Irrigation Project.