Saving the history of Yemen

We don’t have much information on how the Sabaeans worshiped and prayed to their gods. All that is known is that the frankincense and myrrh sold in Saba were widely used in the rituals of several religious denominations of the time. During their long and perilous crossings of the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, traders and pilgrims frequently stopped in the oases of Marib, where they worshiped Almaqah. Saba led the way in writing and language. Its influence in the fields of architecture, iconography and decoration spread throughout southern Arabia, and was spread even further by traveling merchants.

Long before the war that rages today, the royal temples of Yemen were already the target of looters and greedy foreign archaeologists, claiming ownership of all finds. Perhaps the most famous – for some, infamous – of them is Wendell Phillips, an American who undertook the excavations of several sites in southern Arabia from 1950 to 1952. “Time fell asleep here , and the witnesses of ancient civilizations were buried in the deep sand, preserved like flowers between the pages of a book,” he wrote in Qataban and Sheba, published in 1955, which recounts his first visit to Yemen.

Wendell Phillips’ excavations took place in particular at the temple of Awwâm, where he brought to light the treasures of the Sabaean site, revealing immense pillars, a monumental fortified enclosure and a cemetery containing the bones of 20,000 citizens of the kingdom. The excavations revealed the temple, built at the beginning of the first millennium BC. Thus, Awwâm became, with Barân, one of the most famous historical sites of Yemen, famous for its emblematic pillars, its bronze and alabaster statues and its characteristic inscriptions.

Wendell Phillips’ work at the Temple of Awwam was followed by that of European and American archaeological teams who continued to excavate the site. Their discoveries of artifacts and inscriptions would go on to make Marib one of the most popular destinations on Yemen’s once-busy tourist route.

Today, the few visitors can walk alone on the protective sand, sweeping it away to reveal the smooth stones of the temple floor, polished by pilgrims over the centuries. They can also contemplate the sculptures of ibexes posted as sentinels on the ceremonial staircases. Or follow the mysterious contours of the strange inscriptions that run along the pediment of the inner enclosure of the sanctuary. Even in the dazzling light of day in the middle of the desert, Awwâm is imbued with mysticism. But the temple’s most important artifacts are in the National Museum of Sanaa, controlled by the Houthis and closed due to the conflict, or thousands of miles away in museums and private collections in the West and the Persian Gulf.

Led by Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, sister of Wendell Phillips, the last expedition to the Temple of Awwâm ended after a fatal attack by Al-Qaeda in 2007. Over the next few years, the engraved base of an alabaster statue 2,300 year old was ripped from the temple floor; he was last seen at an auction house in Paris.

These fifteen years of archaeological abandonment were however a blessing for the antiquities of the sanctuaries of Marib brought to light: in the temple of Awwâm, 2 to 3 m of sand covered essential parts of the sacred enclosure. “It’s better that everything is underground. Sand is security,” sadly concludes Sadeq al-Salwi, Marib’s director for the General Organization of Yemen Antiquities and Museums (GOAM), a Yemeni government body.

Saving the history of Yemen