The rise and fall of great citiesZabid studied by Canadians [Archives:2005/821/Culture]

March 3 2005

By Edward Keall
For The Yemen Times

The Canadian Archaeological Mission in Yemen began its program of activity in 1982 after receiving a favourable response from Qadi Isma'il al-Akwa' who was then the director of the Organization for Antiquities, Manuscripts, and Libraries.

Our request was for permission to study the archaeology of Zabid and its surrounding territories between Bayt al-Faqih to the north, Hays to the surrounding territories between the sea and the mountain foothills.

The reason for choosing Zabid was because of the city's reputation that attracted students from many parts of the Islamic world for study. We wanted to see what evidence there was for other kinds of contact within Yemen, as well as abroad, to take a real measure of Zabid's importance.

My interest in choosing Zabid for a study project was based on the fact that in Canada I teach a class covering the subject of great Islamic cities, places like Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul. I explain to students how these cities developed, who was responsible for development sponsorship, why the cities were successful, and why they sometimes fell into decline.

Zabid was an important place, but it was much smaller than these other famous cities. It was theoretically possible to understand enough about Zabid in a few years so that I could make a significant contribution in my own lifetime.

Adding to the advantage of working in Zabid as an archaeologist was the fact that various writers have described the history at different times, people like Umarah al-Yamani, ak-Khazaji, Ibn al-Mujawir and Ibn al-Dayba. We have to bear in mind, though, that there is often a discrepancy between what writers record and what archaeologists find.

This is because writers may have a personal bias in what they choose to record. We too may have our own bias because of our cultural background and training. So we must try to combine the two disciplines in the final synthesis.

As an example of the kind of information historical texts give us, from Ibn al-Mujawir we learn the fact that the city walls of Zabid were circular in shape. This helps explain why the mosque of Mustafa Pasha al-Nashshar now lies outside of the city. In fact, the patterns of the agricultural fields in this area seem to suggest that the circular walls of the city encompassed the mosque when it was built. We know the date of the structure because the governor was buried in a tomb next the mosque when he died in 1555.

With this information about the date of the structures we can also learn something about architectural practices at the time. For the dome of the tomb was built using a slightly different constructional technique than that employed in the mosque.

We may judge that this change occurred around 1550, and we can attribute dates before or after 1550 to other buildings using either of these two different techniques. For instance, the picturesque mosque at al-Fazzah on the coast was built using the second technique, so it was built more recently than 1550.

The same principle holds true in evaluating the small domes in the qibla aisle of the Grand Mosque in Zabid. An inscription in the aisle of the mihrab declares the qibla construction to be the work of Sultan 'Amr, the last of the Tahirid sultans, in 1492. The shapes of the domes confirm that they were built before 1550.

From our examination of the al-Iskandariyyah building we have determined that its architectural form and decoration allow us to place it in the 13th -14th century, much earlier than the times of Iskandar whose name it takes. In fact, Iskandar adopted the mosque in 1543 when building was in need of repair.

He assigned irrigated farmland in the Wadi Zabid to support a madrasa (religious college) in the mosque, and built the grand minaret that is dramatically visible from the main highway today. Iskandar's dedication of land to the college is recorded in a waqfiyya (Foundation Trust) text carved in stone and added to either side of the mihrab.

The announcement in the text of the amounts of harvest that were to go towards support of the college each year underlines the extent to which irrigation agriculture was the backbone of the Zabid economy. The al-Iskandariyyah madrasa did not have dormitory accommodation for the students in the way these religious colleges do in countries like Egypt, Syria or Iran. Rather, in Zabid, the students were housed in separate residences called ribats.

The al-Iskandriyyah mosque/ madrasa was originally an integral part of the city. Today it stands with two of its incorporated within the defences of the Zabid Citadel. The Citadel was formerly used by the army as its regional barracks and was occupied permanently under the Imam.

The Canadian Archaeological Mission was a mosque would be made part of the military defences. The explanation became clear following archaeological excavations.

In the 16th century when the Ottoman Turks came to occupy Yemen, their fort in Zabid was quite small. We can identify the remains of this fort as Ottoman because of the cannon balls found in it. The Ottomans were the first to introduce the cannon to Yemen.

But in spite of their superior weaponry, the Ottoman had difficulty in controlling the country, and They were already forced by 1638 through uprisings to abandon their hold on Yemen. The Zabid fort was the last of their strongholds. But as mentioned above, the fort was really quite small. The al-Iskandariyyah building lay well outside of the fort.

Incorporation of the al-Iskandariyyah in a military citadel came two hundred years later when Zabid was once again threatened by outside forces. Numerous hostilities preceded the building of the defensive walls.

There were threats from various sides – including from the Wahhabis, the Abu Arish, the British and the Ottomans. In all likelihood it was the Ottomans who made the decision to construct a wall to connect various buildings that already existed and conveniently to join them together by a linking perimeter defensive wall.

The walls were provisioned with gun slots, and one of these was cut through from the inside of the minaret, barbarically defacing part of Iskandar's inscription. Battlements were built on top of the north and east walls of the mosque.

The action speaks of the need to take immediate action. The result was a large open space as we see it already. The defences were not very strong but were dependent upon the superior fire-power that the military forces had over the residents.

In 1940 when the American Ambassador in Aden was making a diplomatic visit to see the Imam he wrote a letter to Washington describing his visit to Zabid while on his way to Sana'a. he wrote of being received by a delegation at the Bab al-Qurtub (the south gate of Zabid) where trumpets sounded. During his visit he went inside the Citadel and saw a garden of rich vegetation irrigated by water drawn up by a draught animal walking down a ramp in a standard Yemeni tradition of that time.

Today, some of the functions of the old citadel are no longer valid in this time of economic and social change in Yemen. In collaboration with Yemen's General Organization for Antiquities and Manuscripts, together with financial support from the Fund for Social Development, the Canadian Archeological Mission has made good progress in conserving the old structures and finding a modern purpose for their use. We are currently in the final stages of completing the archeological land ethnographic museums, with financial support given by the Japanese Embassy.

Our current target is to restore some of the remaining derelict buildings and install an information center so that all can learn what we have found out from our research.

* Edward Keall, Director of the Canadian Archaeological Mission of the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Canada. He has been here in Yemen on an expedition to study Zabid's archeology and history.