In the Wadi Markha with Jean-François Breton

by David Warburton

Yemen Update 30/31(1992):26,35

Trying to sight a ranging pole half concealed behind some rather lush vegetation at Hajar am-Nab, I obtusely continued to marvel at my luck, for when I took this job, I figured that it would be a long time before I would be gazing through a theodolite again. Last September, I had set up a grid for a surface collection of Acheulian material at Kteir 23 in the al-Kombasin in Syria, and the day after I got back, Sheila Carapico offered me the job as resident director in Sanaa. Accepting the opportunity with alacrity meant that any plans for continuing to direct that operation in the Spring of '92 had to be abandoned for the pleasures of a desk job in Sanaa; and I had gone to Syria to escape from paperwork in Basle. It was thus quite a shock to find that before my colleagues had returned to al-Kom, I was already back in the field, even if it was only for two days in a very minor part of Jean-François's survey project.

Jean-François directs the French Archaeological mission in Yemen, and for the past few years he has been conducting a survey operation in the western part of the Governorate of Shabwa where the borders of the ancient kingdoms of Saba, Awsan, Hadramaut and Qataban met, with the result that they were frequently redrawn, depending upon the relative strength of the rulers. The large kingdom of Awsan was apparently conquored by the Sabaen Mukarrib Karib'il Watar in the fifth century B.C., but according to J. Pirenne, a relatively minor kingdom - restricted to the Wadi Markha region - of the same name resurfaced during the centuries around the beginning of our era. The exact date of its ultimate demise is unclear, but it must have suffered from the rise of the maritime based Red Sea Trade dating to the second century of our era, and ultimately incorporated into the Himyarite Empire. In any case, the region of the kingdom was cut by the modern border of the two Yemeni states, making access difficult before unity. When the border was finally eliminated, one of Jean-François’s first goals was to take a look at the sites there, and he was kind enough to invite me to join him for a brief trip, during which we were able to visit four large tells.

The tells were not exactly terra incognita,as J. Pirenne, B. Doe and Yusuf 'Abdallah, among others, had visited some of them, but no one had yet tried to make plans of them and gather surface pottery, which is what Jean François has been doing. Last December he was in the area to the north of the Jabal Kushar, the mountains of schist that separate Wadi Markha from the Empty Quarter, where he plotted the last of about 70 sites, and this trip in February 1992 was intended to put the last few sites on the map, so that a preliminary version could be printed.

We were thus trying to get an outline of each tell, attempting to identify any fortifications, structures and pottery that might be visible. Many ancient South Arabian cities are associated with a small temple in the lower town outside the perimeter of the main tell. The main tell is generally formed by the houses and structures within a city wall defining the limits of the tell itself. These walls were basically makeshift, closing off the open space between two houses, so that the fortified front visible from without was a combination of walls expressly built, and the external walls of the houses on the edge of the city. The larger tells we visited had however a slightly different plan, as there would appear to have been a citadel of some kind on each one making up about a quarter of the total surface area, built slightly higher than the rest of the town. The - admittedly fragmentary - city walls we examined would appear to have been as well built as others that Jean-François has seen.

The pottery that we found was not exactly impressive, consisting of the crudest cooking pots and storage jars, but the few recognizable pieces that we did pick up seemed to indicate a rather later date for three of the four tells, hinting that the area was only abandoned in the final centuries before the Islamic era. This corresponded to the paleographic characteristics of one of the inscriptions which the villagers showed us at one tell, and would thus extend the "known" dates beyond even Pirenne's first century A.D. date, which in fact corresponds quite well to the reference to the "Coast of Awsan" in the Periplus.

It is perhaps not entirely amiss to suggest that the defensive character of these towns be associated with the specific history of the "second" Awsan kingdom. The defensive elements apparent elsewhere can be attributed to historical developments, villages being haphazardly transformed into prosperous cities, which were only threatened when the accumulated wealth began to attract the attention of neighbors who were undergoing a similar transformation, leading to a preliminary kind of fortification. If the highpoint of the renewed Awsan kingdom is correctly assigned to the centuries just before and after the beginning of our era, then its cities may owe their origin to the trade-generated wealth already present around them. They may have been agricultural centre providing goods for the caravans travelling along the fringe of the Empty Quarter, and thus emerged at a period when fortification was already widespread in South Arabia, so that their internal architecture leapt directly from that of a village to a fortified city. During our survey we also came across one sand-covered tell that seemed to be markedly older and may thus date to the period of the first kingdom, and if one is permitted to speculate far beyond the evidence on offer, it is conceivable that Awsan region - and not just the kingdom - was effectively eclipsed for the two or three centuries when it fell under Sabean and Qatabanian domination.

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