Zabid: Originality, history and beauty [Archives:2006/948/Culture]

May 22 2006
One of the ancient mosques in the city of Zabid
One of the ancient mosques in the city of Zabid
By: Mazin Al-Saqqaf
Hodeidah Bureau

The city of Zabid is considered one of Yemen's most prominent historical cities, playing a significant role in Yemen's Islamic history. It represented a center for knowledge and scholastic activity whose effects reached varying corners of the Muslim world. It achieved such a prestigious status due to its consecutive rulers' interest in knowledge and scholarly pursuits. Without prior written agreement, they concurred to make Zabid a center of interest for students exuding knowledge and culture.

In terms of knowledge, Zabid reached such a level as that reached by Mecca, Cairo-based Al-Azhar University, Al-Zaytoun University in Tunis or Baghdad, the capital of Caliph Al-Rasheed. Thus, Zabid achieved such a high position in terms of civilization and culture which makes it stand out in the crowd of Arab and Muslim cities.


The city of Zabid lies on Tihama plain, southwest of Al-Hodeidah province with a latitude of 110 meters and situated between Rima' and Zabid valleys. It is bound on its eastern side by Wosab Al-Safil and Ras Mountains, on the west by Al-Bukhaita district, on the north by Bait Al-Faqeeh province and on the south by Hais province. With this location, Zabid lies midway between the sea and mountainous areas, equidistant between them at 25 kilometers.

There are many opinions regarding the city name's etymology. Some claim it is named for the valley in which it is located, which in turn was derived from the name of the tribe that originally inhabited the valley.

Historical features

Of the most important historical and tourist landmarks and attractions in Zabid are its ancient walls, gates and mosques.

The first wall built around the city was under the reign of Al-Hussein bin Salamah in the fourth century after Hijra. It was later rebuilt in 588 after Hijra (791 A.D.) and rehabilitated many times since until 1222 after Hijra.

Zabid has four gates: the eastern gate called Al-Shabariq Gate, named for Al-Shabariq village; the southern gate called Al-Qartab Gate, named for Al-Qartab area in Zabid Valley; the western gate called Al-Nakheel (palms) Gate in reference to the abundance of palm trees in that area of the city and the northern gate called Siham Gate named for Siham Valley.

The old city wall of Zabid is different from those of the old cities of Sana'a and Sa'ada in the sense that Zabid's wall was built in a circular manner out of mud brick. Between each two sections of the wall is a one-meter high rectangular opening and two other openings to the right and left for archers. The wall is three meters high with a tower every 100 meters. A barrack lies between each two gates and a room tops each gate for watching. The room's roof is fenced and used for archers and firing.

Mosques and schools: center of scholarly interest

Since the beginning of Islam, schools were established in Zabid and rulers kept building them throughout history. Zabid's golden school era was under the reign of the Rasoulid state, namely King Al-Ashraf II whose full name was Ismail bin Al-Abbas (778-803 A.H.). Some 236 schools and mosques were scattered across the city at that time, thus, the city rivaled the Muslim world's most remarkable cities. Since then, this number has reduced and currently has reached as low as 82.

Zabid's numerous schools produced thousands of clerics and religious scholars. These schools were founded at different times, making Zabid the best knowledge-providing center.

Ancient mosques

Zabid enshrines approximately 29 mosques, the most famous and oldest of which is Al-Asha'ir Mosque, reportedly built in the eighth year after Hijra pursuant to directives from the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). Built by Al-Asha'ir tribesmen who were led by the prophet's companion Abu Musa Al-Ash'ari, it was famed as one of the prophet's blessed mosques. The mosque was rebuilt many times afterward.

The second mosque is the Grand Mosque, one of Yemen's largest ancient mosques – the largest being Sana'a Grand Mosque – and part of Zabid's cherished antiquities collection. Many modifications and changes were introduced to the mosque throughout the ages, which was first founded in 225 A.H. and renewed three times at long intervals by sultans and princes controlling the region.

The mosque was demolished in 897 A.H. during the reign of Sultan Al-Dhafer Amir bin Abdul-Wahab, who rebuilt it into an exquisite piece of architectural art. Its height was increased by approximately 3.5 meters and greatly expanded with a ceiling compelling wonder. It also was decorated with various patterns and had two large domes erected at the front section of its roof – one to the east and one to the west. Following this reconstruction, the mosque had 70 meters of arches, 140 pillars, 190 cylinders, 12 domes, 13 doors, 40 windows, seven cubicles and three water tanks.

Arts bearing witness to the time

Besides being dubbed “the city of scholarship and scholars,” Zabid added extra distinction to itself, actually excelling in various areas of human civilization such as arts, architecture, castle building, etc. The city exhibited architectural masterpieces during consecutive periods and its houses still preserve original artistic touches and characteristics. Art seen on house fronts, gates and decorations, as well as engravings and scripts on pulpits and imam niches inside mosques and the remains of great historic palaces and similar places all bear witness to the city's original arts.

Moreover, the city's master plan is circular-shaped with a four-gate wall. Whenever danger loomed, the gates closed. Inside the city are narrow lanes and an old market that becomes full of movement every Sunday. The marketplace is divided into different sections based on commodities or industries. The city was famed in the past for weaving different types of textures as well as leather tanning, etc. It also has rich folklore with distinguished dances, songs and customs.

A perennial antiquities source

In addition to its currently seen treasures and antiquities, Zabid still is an inexhaustible fountain of civilization and heritage. Excavations conducted by a 1997 Yemeni-Canadian expedition revealed the presence of prehistoric settlements in Al-Madman area west of Zabid near the Red Sea. The site dates back to Yemen's Bronze Age (2500-1800 B.C.).

The expedition also unearthed other archeological sites scattered across Zabid, the most important of which was in the northern section named Al-Qasr Quarter, wherein ancient earthenware was found dating back to the third century A.H., others to the Himyarite era and others to the Stone Age.