Protecting Yemen's Ancient Capital
Marib, the capital of the ancient South Arabian kingdom of Saba and home to the legendary Queen of Sheba, now finds itself on the front lines of one of today’s most protracted and devastating conflicts, the Yemeni civil war. The roughly 60-acre site, which includes the towering remains of monumental pillared temples and one of the ancient world’s largest dams, is just miles away from the modern city of Marib, an oil-rich provincial center that has emerged as a pivotal flash point in Yemen’s nearly decade-old war between Houthi rebels and internationally backed government forces.
Inhabited since at least the mid-second millennium BCE, Marib rose to prominence in the early first millennium BCE as the capital of the Sabeans, a powerful and wealthy kingdom that controlled access to South Arabia’s valuable incense trade—the likely reason for the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Jerusalem in 1 Kings 10. Though poorly known to history (and archaeology), the Sabean capital features several unique and well-preserved religious complexes, including the seventh-century BCE Bar’an Temple dedicated to the South Arabian god Almaqah and distinguished by its six giant, monolithic pillars (one broken) that guarded the grand peristyle entrance to its elevated podium and sanctuary (see photo above). Marib was also renowned for its Great Dam—the remains of which still stand some 20 feet tall and extend several hundred feet—that channeled powerful seasonal flood waters onto expansive fields and gardens that made Marib a flourishing desert oasis for more than two millennia.
These towering emblems of the country’s rich ancient heritage are increasingly under threat. The modern city, which now shelters many Yemenis who have been displaced by war, is a frequent target of Houthi rebels, with the city’s expansive ancient ruins often in the line of fire, while a coalition airstrike in May 2015 partially destroyed one of the Great Dam’s main sluice gates. Looting of Marib’s archaeological sites is another concern, as desperation, hunger, and disease have led some to sell antiquities to help alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis wrought by the war.
Yemen’s archaeologists, with support from the international community, are doing what they can to save the country’s heritage before it is too late. The greatest attention is given to documenting and recording sites that are under imminent threat of wartime damage or destruction, while museum staffs are working tirelessly to document their collections so that local and international authorities can more easily identify artifacts that might eventually be damaged or looted.
In recognition of its incredible archaeology and historical and cultural significance, Marib was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in January 2023 but was simultaneously listed as “in danger” due to the threats it faces from the ongoing conflict.
Glenn J. Corbett is Editor of Biblical Archaeology Review magazine and a specialist in the archaeology of the lands of the Bible, with more than two decades of excavation and field experience working on projects in Jordan, Turkey, and Israel. Prior to joining BAR, Glenn was Associate Director of the American Center of Research (ACOR) in Amman, Jordan, where he directed the award-winning Temple of the Winged Lions project in Petra. In addition, while working as Program Director for the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, he spearheaded efforts to help preserve threatened archaeological sites and museums in Yemen and other countries ravaged by conflict.
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