Palaces & Temples of Serwah [Archives:1999/11/Culture]

March 15 1999

Serwah is a renowned name in the ancient history of Yemen. History says that the Serwah area was a center of culture during the reigns of the first and the second dynasties of Sheba in the first millennium B.C. It was the most sacred place for the deity of the people and the state of Sheba.
The greatest and most magnificent temples of ancient Yemen were constructed here. Paramount to all was the temple of Al-Makah, the supreme god in the kingdom of Sheba and Dhu-Raydan. Also on this land were built the summer-resort palaces for the monarchs – known as the Mukarebs.
High priests and senior statesmen including the king’s entourage, army commanders, community elders and the powerful local chiefs came for pilgrimages.
At the same time Serwah was a meeting place for intellectuals and the highly qualified civil engineers and architects who were famous for constructing monuments, such as castles,
fortresses, palaces, temples, government buildings, as well as engineering feats such as dams, irrigation canals, and other public utilities.
For all those reasons, Serwah area attracted the best artists and architects who left their exquisite traces on every historical monuments in the city. They worked creatively on every monument, leaving their inscriptions to decorate temple arches, castle walls and palace entrances. They also left behind giant sculptures of various shapes – of birds, animals and humans which were scattered through the city squares or were perched on the gates of temples and palaces as well as the reception halls, dancing galleries, and taverns.
Serwah, about 100 kilometers east of Sanaa, rises to 1300 foot above sea level. The climate is mild and temperatures do not exceed 30 degrees centigrade in the summer and in the teens in the winter.
It is located at the meeting place between the dry-climate of the desert and the semi-cold weathers of northern and western mountain slopes.
Serwah’s geophysical structure is part of the eastern huge mountain geological layers. Basalt and granite layers are most common. There are many dormant or inactive volcanos which are seen in form of high, black protrusion of sharp-ended rocks, located to the north of Bani-Jabr territory. Not far from the beautiful volcanic scenery, to the north and north east, there abound great quantities of basalt and chalky stones in forms of white and red bald stone.
The long valley of Serwah takes a circular shape and appears to slope down till it meets the outskirts of Athana Valley in Mareb. Serwah valley is surrounded and intersected by high mountains which makes it hard to farm the land on a large scale. However, the small cultivated areas depend on ground water for irrigation, although the relics of man-made waterways testify to the use of artificial irrigation by the people of Sheba.
History is very much alive. Modern ways have yet to make their ways into the Khawlan clans who till the land. About the only reminder of the modern times are the Hunt sub-stations which pump oil away to the coast.
The people, sturdy and rugged as the land itself, are as hard as human beings can get any where in the world.
The scenes and views become even more beautiful with the presence of many monuments. These are major attractions to thousands of foreign tourists. Unfortunately, they are as yet unknown to the outside world as it still remains a well-kept secret. The unruly people and rugged terrain does not help either.
There are many places full of antiques in the form of stone pieces inscribed in Musnad calligraphy or decorated in crossed lines. The tourist will also find engraved images of javelins and animals wherever his/her sight falls.
However, there are three main sites that must be visited. Locals give these sites the following names: the Building (Al-Bina), the Palace (Al-Qasser) and the Ruined site (Al-Kherbah). There lie buried inside these three sites the nicest and most magnificent architectural relics in the region. Initial archeological excavations have produced a variety of artistic pieces.
Some scientist once said, “Serwah territory is the greatest antique stock in the civilization of Sheba and Dhu-Raydan.”
This statement is true because this territory has been an outstanding center of civilization for many centuries in the past. It was the seat of a long list of monarchs from the Sheba and Dhu Raydan dynasties.
For this reason too its fame reached the later generations in Yemen and every one was impressed by its magnificence. It became a song for the poet and a subject of speculation for the scientist. Al-Hamadany, the great Yemeni scientist and author of the illustrious books “Al-Ekleel” or the Wreath, and “Description of the Arab Peninsula” once said, “Serwah has no equal among cities.”
Some of Serwah’s palaces and temples were immortalized in a poem by the great poet of Khawlan in the sixth century after Hijrah, A’amer Ibn Ahmed Al-Qushiby. In one of his poems he glorified his ancestors’ everlasting achievements in Serwah. The first three lines of this poem say:
They reigned…
for a thousand months.
And in Serwah they built, the edifice of the South Wind.
The three sites – Al-Kherbah, Al-Qasser, and Al-Bina, occupy one topographical line in the center of the circular valley. Al-Kherbah is located in the middle of this line and up to the north is Al-Bina site where there can found at about 900 meters from the site, ruins of an old water dam. Al-Qasser occupies the southern territory of the line near a village which has been built in recent times inside a castle. The castle dates back to the middle ages, and was apparently built in a style different from that of Sheba.
The first thing one notices when surveying the Al-Kherbah is a high rocky hill on which it was built. On top of this hill are relics of stone buildings which rise in some places to 18 meters. The total area of the site is 260 x 240 meters. Relics of some temples can be seen with inscribed stones scattered here and there. The nearer one approaches, the more relics lie around. So far these relics remain unveiled secrets.
However, the most important thing that attracts the visitor’s attention is the divine temple of Al-Makah and some parts of a once big palace named by the locals the Palace of Bilqis. A group of granite pillars can also be seen in the area.
Al-Makah, a symbol of the chief divinity worshipped at the time of Sheba and Dhu Raydan, is a temple which extends over a wide area. The temple entrance is located in the south. A small tower stands on top of the entrance and appears to be a side gate which in old times must have lead to the temple’s courtyard before it collapsed. Most of the temple’s sides are still standing, of which perhaps the most remarkable are the walls in the eastern side which are still supported by some pillars. Of these walls, there are only five left intact and take the shape of a single mass of stone. They were only a part of the courtyard front wall. The eastern wall of the temple also remains intact.
It is completely built of granite stones carefully cut and polished. The higher parts of the wall are decorated with heads of ibex.
The height of the wall is about
10 meters high. Its architectural style reflects the classical design of old Yemen. The rule in this style is the horizontal stone-coupling. This rule achieves maximum stone connection.
The temple has an outside fence built of two wall close to each other. The space between them is filled with small pieces of stone. Some inscriptions can be seen on this fence. The most important inscription found here is the one known as the Great Triumph which tells about the glorious victories of the King Kareb al-Weter. The story begins at night when this king decided to bring the small fragmented fiefdoms in one national state under one supreme political leadership and with one capital – Serwah. This inscription was discovered by Glazer, a French scientist and explorer in mid 19th century.
The text is composed of 86 lines inscribed on a big marble stone. At Al-Kherbah site,only the front face of inscription that occupies an area of about 7 meters remains. The other half of the inscription was taken to an unknown place until in 1952 it was, by sheer accident, Dr. Ahmed Fakhery, an Arab archeologist noticed the inscription thrown in a stable room in someone’s house. Later it is said that this part of the inscription was taken to the authority of Archeology in Sanaa.
The historical value of this inscription was appreciated after it was deciphered. It conspicuously revealed the significance of the civil war king Kareb led to fulfill his ambitious dream to re-unify the whole country. This step, which took place in the 5th century B.C. has been considered by the contemporary historians a watershed in the political and social transformation of Yemen.