New Discoveries in Mahram Belqis [Archives:2000/19/Last Page]

May 8 2000

Tawfeek Al-Shara’abi
Yemen Times,
It is a well known fact that the Yemeni civilization was deeply rooted in history. Mareb was the cradle of one of the greatest civilizations that ever existed in the Arabian Peninsula. Mahram Belqis, Moon Temple, the legendary home of the Queen of Sheba, mentioned in the Bible, the Holy Qura’an and the Ethiopic Holy Book, is a great historic edifice that bears testimony to the civilization that once flourished there.
Now works at the temple site are in full swing to excavate the huge piles of sands that had accumulated there over thousands of years. The excavation was first conducted by the American Foundation for the Study of Man over many seasons, the first of which was on April 20, 1998 and continued till the end of May. The second was in December 1999. The third field season started during April and continued through mid-May 2000. A new accomplishment of the expedition in this season is a new site to the South of the eight pillars. It was found during the removal of a large sand dune that had blocked the view of the Awwam sanctuary. Tawfeek Al-Shara’aby of the Yemen Times visited the spot of the temple and compiled a comprehensive survey about the sanctuary and the excavations that are taking place.

Mrs. Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, President of the American Foundation For the Study of Man, said “It is so exciting to be sitting here beneath the pillars of Mahram Belqis in the Peristyle Hall where my brother Dr. Wendell Phillips initiated the excavations at the site in 1950s. Now I have the opportunity after his untimely death fifteen years ago to return here and see his dreams fulfilled, to finish this great cultural heritage site of Yemen, the largest holy place in the Arabian Peninsula. We intend to make this sanctuary one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions as we continue excavating here.
We have assembled a leading international team of archaeologists, specialists, geologists, photographers, scholars and Yemeni technicians from General Organization of Antiquities, Manuscripts and Museums.
Last week we came to discover a new site. While we were excavating these piles of sands on the right of the Peristyle Hall in front of the great monumental inscriptions on the Awwam’s wall we ran into a stone. We stopped and with careful excavation we sighted the top of a wall. We found a monumental building. It is an overwhelming feeling to be able to discover something yourselves. Every body of our team as well as the workers are working very hard. I keep telling every body that expedition life in archaeology is exciting and very rewarding, but involves very tedious and laborious work.
We started in 1998 and excavated outside and inside Awwam temple for the first time. Now we are undertaking major sand removal operation. So far, the funding has been from my family, and from the American Foundation for the Study of Man. However, with this major scale sand removal which we are doing, we definitely need more funding. I feel that it is time that the Yemeni businessmen community help me reveal and excavate one of the greatest cultural heritage monuments of Yemen.
I am very much appreciative of the Prime Minister, Dr. Abdul Karim Al-Iryani’s encouragement and advice as well as those of Dr. Yusuf Abdullah, President of the General Organization of Antiquities, Manuscripts and Museums. There are some organizations that are helping me such as Yemenia airlines and Mr. Al-Shebam of the Universe of Tourists. We have received the whole equipment from the government which is a tremendous help.
Dr. William D. Glanzman, from the Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary, Canada, is the Field Director of Mahram Belqis project. He has to design all strategy and its implementation on the site; directs the conduct of all tasks and oversees the proper recording of all efforts. He also acts as the Registrar for all artifacts. He has also to organize the team of specialists that come to work in Yemen.
The first time he came to Yemen was in 1983 with Dr. Othman Ghaleb, Assistant Field Director. They were at the time students in the University studying for their doctorate degrees. However, his first time to see Mahram Belqis was in 1993.”
At the sit of the temple, Dr. William Grandsman shed some light on the whole sanctuary by saying “Dr. Phillips expedition was in Yemen in from December 1951 to February 1952 working in the Peristyle Hall. Standing to the north of the 8 pillars and looking to the west at the Old and New Dam. The wall goes all the way around. It is 258 meters from one end to the other. It is ovoid in shape almost a kidney-shaped. Its inside length is a little over 19 meters and the width right through the access of the Peristyle Hall is 17 meters from inside right up to the hall. This is the largest pre-Islamic sanctuary we have in the Arabian Peninsula.
Inside the wall we do not know for certain what is in there. However, in December 1999, we conducted a sub-surface survey in the sanctuary, in the form of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to determine the depth of wind-blown sand and silt, the thickness of the underlying archaeological deposits, and to examine the nature of the underlying bedrock formation. So we have a pretty clear idea of what the interior looks like in some areas. The wind-blown sand from the Ramlat Al-Sabatain have accumulated against the wall, on the interior and all sides.
There are also two other things that are very clear inside the wall. One of them is that there is a well. It is not very large may be about a meter diameter. It is located just as one enters through the Peristyle Hall into the sanctuary a few meters inside towards the North-West. There is also a very long wall or a large block of stone on the right and several remains of structures. We believe that many of these structural remains may be dedications to Al-Makah where the priests may perform rituals.
In 1998, we conducted a small excavation work on the interior to see how deep the sand and where the archaeological deposit is. We found an approximately six and a half meter of sand overlying the archaeological deposit which is proposed of a very small remains: little pieces of pottery, glass, bronze, marble statues, bronze statues, etc. That small size indicates that there was an activity inside the sanctuary after it was last in use. One could see the remains of this also on all the pillars including the eight pillars, for each one of these pillars has holes put in certain positions around the sides. This means that originally there were blocks inserted onto the pillars probably dedications. These holes indicate where the patches replaced on the pillars. All of those may have been in marble, many others in bronze which is a valuable metal. So when the sanctuary was no longer used after or during the sixth century, people came by and broke them off, leaving the holes behind and no trace of the block. They did the same thing on the interior rampaging around through dedications taking valuable metals, especially bronze. Excavations of 1952 exposed hundreds of these dedications to Al-Makah, large blocks with inscriptions on them and holes cut for the feet of statutes. Almost every one of those blocks has holes cut for at least one statute. Some of them are three, other ones four, others are even five statues. All the statues are gone. However, we have blocks like these in the National Museum and Military Museum in Sana’a. The best of them are in the Exhibit Museum now in Rome. Besides, the most complete and the largest one is the famous statue of Ma’ad Kareb now is in the Exhibit of Rome.
Outside the wall we have two operations this year. They are designed to remove the debris so that we can actually begin to work inside the sanctuary wall. We removed the sand on the Northern part of the site. There is a huge sand dune that extends all the way beyond the limits defined by the fence for the sanctuary.
So our first aim is to remove the sand and stones that were put here in 1952 from inside the Peristyle Hall so that the pressure and the weight of stones on sand do not push the wall once we started excavating the Peristyle Hall again. We have other goals as well. One of them is to re-resume every thing inside the Peristyle Hall. Then, we have to excavate the eight pillars so as to know why they are placed there. We will also come to know about what kinds of buildings were outside the wall, how they are related to the Peristyle Hall and why does it have the orientation that each corner faces a cardinal point?
The sanctuary is about 5 Kilometers away from the Old City of Mareb which was once occupied. It is a long way from the city to the sanctuary which existed at this specific place for a reason which we think it has to do with the fertility of the region. The region here was the most fertile all over Yemen. In antiquity, we had the largest set of irrigation structures here. And as the Holy Qura’an says that in Mareb there is an ancient dam and that there are two gardens “Janatain”, one is on the right and one is on the left. Between them, of course, is Wadi Al-Dana that separates the two gardens. Therefore, one garden is where there is the ancient remains of the Old City of Mareb while the other is here where the temple is located. We think that the reason behind establishing the sanctuary here could be that the fertility of the region was best found in the location of the temple. In addition, farmers told us that the ground water is only 20 meters below the surface.
About the structure around here is that the ovoid shape wall that defined the holiest of holies was actually built over several generations. We have very early inscription that Edward, the Austrian explorer, found along the Southern portion of the wall and it mentioned a famous Mokareb of Sheba, the Mokareb “Someone who brings the tribes together and creates a unified political force” is the ruler of Sheba before “Malek” meaning King. The Mokareb that is mentioned here is Ya’adi Al-Barek Bin Somuali. No-body has seen this inscription since 1888.
On the opposite site of the wall over the Northern and Western portions we have a series of 8 inscriptions that were uncovered by the American expedition in 1951. Those date approximately to the five century B.C. Six of these inscriptions are still present while two have been removed. On the Southern part of the wall many stones have been removed.
From all the evidence put together, this sanctuary was used for over more than 2000 years.
Many of the inscriptions on the North and West side of the wall mention about rulers and high officials who are involved in the construction of some parts of the wall. A very small newly discovered inscription on the wall in 1998 shows that the place around the temple is getting crowded with offerings to Al-Makah. It specifically states that it is forbidden to put up any kind of monument, to build any thing, to leave any thing behind from the inscription all the way to the entrance. This inscription dates to the second or the third century. So we have to imagine that this place used to be very crowded with monuments with offerings to Al-Makah. It is so because it is the largest pre-Islamic sanctuary. The word Awwam according to language specialists means something like the place of pilgrimage. There is a deep-rooted pilgrimage tradition here in South Arabia.

To be continued next issue..