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Ancient temple left neglected in war-torn Yemen

Scholars believe temple, with parts dating to 7th century BC, served as shrine to deity Almaqah

  • A Yemeni militiaman stands atop a limestone column at the Awwam Temple, also known as the Mahram Bilqis, in MaImage Credit: AP
  • An official points to ancient South Arabian script at the Awwam Temple, also known as the Mahram Bilqis, in MaImage Credit: AP
Gulf News

MARIB, Yemen: Along a narrow road in Yemen choked by natural gas tankers and heavily armed soldiers lies an ancient temple neglected and threatened in a nation now at war.

The Awwam Temple links a region now on the front lines of the Saudi-led campaign against the Iran-backed Al Houthi militia to Arabia’s pre-Islamic past, a time of spice caravans and the mysterious Queen of Sheba.

Experts fear the temple, as well as other historic and cultural wonders across Yemen beyond those acknowledged by international authorities, remains at risk as the country’s war rages on.

“All the villages are historic in a way,” said Anna Paolini, the director of Unesco’s regional office that oversees Yemen and Gulf Arab nations. Even just the shock waves of an explosion in the distance can be enough to damage delicate structures. Unesco has shared coordinates of some 50 historical sites with militaries involved in the fighting to try to protect them, Paolini said.

Foreign historians and archaeologists also fled the country over the fighting, halting work at sites like the Awwam Temple, also known as the Mahram Bilqis. Scholars believe the temple, with parts dating to the 7th century BC, served as a shrine to the deity Almaqah.

The nearby city of Marib was the capital of the Saba dynasty, which ruled the area for centuries before the birth of Christ. The kingdom built the Great Marib Dam and controlled spice and incense trade routes. The legendary Queen of Sheba, said in the Bible to have visited King Solomon in the 10th century BC, has been linked to Saba, though Ethiopians claim her as their own.

The Sabaean dynasty later succumbed to challenges from other kingdoms and the Great Dam gave away in the 6th century AD. Islam quickly spread across the Arabian Peninsula soon after.

Marib, which has grown into a city where many displaced by Yemen’s war now live and gunfire echoes through the day and night, has never been a particularly easy place in modern history. Famed American archaeologist and oilman Wendell Phillips began excavation of the Awwam Temple in 1951, but had to abandon all his equipment and flee raiding Bedouin tribesmen with his team.

AP correspondent Wilton Wynn and his photographer wife Leila visited the temple in 1957 on a royal tour of the then-Kingdom of Yemen, apparently becoming the first Americans since Phillips to see the ruins. Wynn described Marib at the time as so remote “our plane was lost for more than a half-hour trying to find it.”

After the dam burst, “the city of Sheba was drowned and the kingdom never recovered,” Wynn wrote in his AP dispatch. “Its population drifted away, leading to tribes moving to Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine.”

German archaeologists resumed work in the region in 1988, though foreign tourists remained a target of militants and tribesmen eager for ransom money. In July 2007, a suspected Al Qaida militant detonated a suicide car bomb in a crowd of tourists, killing eight Spaniards and two Yemenis.

Today, a simple fence surrounds the temple, just off a heavily guarded road leading to a Saudi coalition airbase and an oil refinery. A watchman lives in a small makeshift shack against the fence with his children.

Foreign journalists and officials on a recent tour of Yemen organised by Saudi Arabia slipped through a large hole in the fence to marvel at the ancient South Arabian script inscriptions on stones inside. Some still bore what appeared to be red paint.

Eight limestone pillars towered over the site, though weathered, chipped and marred by the occasional bit of graffiti. A Yemeni militiaman with a Kalashnikov assault rifle over his shoulder quickly shimmied up between two pillars, looking down with a smile at once was one of ancient Yemen’s holiest sites.