Sherds in the Souk

by David Warburton

Yemen Update 33(1993):21,41

In the summer of 1992 they began to build a new minaret for the Imam 'Ali Mosque in the middle of the souk in Sanaa, and for this purpose sunk a trench into the courtyard, about 6x 6 m, and more than 6 m deep. The direction of the General Organization for the Preservation of the Historic Cities of Yemen(GOPHCY) kindly arranged for a temporary halt to the construction, so that a few workers could be permitted to clean one of the faces of the pit. All the walls were covered with cement, which had clung to the walls when they were pouring in the first cement for the foundations, and thus we had no idea of what lay behind the cement. When the first face was cleaned, we had a glimpse into the history of Sanaa that no one had ever seen. At the top, below the remains of the houses, which had been built up against the walls of the Samsara Muhammad b. Hasan, were mixed deposits, below which were two canals, one super-imposed above the other, below which were the remains of walls, below which were sedimentary clay deposits, below which were mixed material, and then the remains of a wall, which rose from the cement surface at the base of the pit. Although I had no idea of the chronology of the sequence, it was clear that the wall at the base of the pit was part of a house, and that a leveling action had occurred when the house was abandoned, and that a street had followed, before another change, when a house was built there. When the house was destroyed, the area was transformed into a garden, the canals serving to distribute water. After a period of abandonment, some more houses were built. The view provided by this foundation trench was extraordinary, and one that no one could have expected.

Still unclear about the chronological significance of the sequence, the workers cleaned off all four walls, and three of them were drawn, while the Swiss Mission in the Old City brought some other workers who collected sherds from each layer. There is a legend that 'Ali Abi Talib stayed at house on the edge of the souk in Sanaa, and that the mosque was built on the site of this house, so I was understandably anxious to know if the section took us down to the beginning of the Islamic period. Initially we thought that some of the sherds from the lower section were roughly XII century AD, which would have given us a sequence for eight centuries, and thus not have been at all bad. There was nothing later than the XV century in the lower layers, and thus it was probable that the canals could be associated with the Samsara Muhammad b. Hasan, the construction of which began in 1651 AD. It was only after quite awhile that it began to look as if the lowest wall visible in the eastern face may have belonged to a house dating to the VIII century AD. As the southern and western faces had traces which predated this wall, the sequence seemed to go back to the beginning of Islam. Among the sherds present in various levels were some prehistoric and potentially pre-Islamic ones indicating that pre-Islamic Sanaa extended even to the area on the edge of the modern blacksmiths’ souk, which is far removed from the Cathedral, and to the North of where the ancient Himyaritic Ghumdan Palace should have been.

It is well known that Sanaa has been settled for a long time, and thus no surprise to find evidence of it. Aden is likewise known to have existed in Antiquity, yet the famous tanks are the only trace of the ancient city, so - following my usual habit, I dropped into a couple of pits in Aden, to check for anything that might be lying around. In one, a mere two metres deep, there were the foundations of but one house, albeit a large one. Thesherds were however a real surprise, for in the foundations of a house which must date to the second half of the XIX century AD, were sherds which probably date to the XVIII century, and perhaps even earlier. The site of a British colonial hospital built in the early1960's likewise produced some interesting sherds. I have not yet seen any, but XVI/XVII century Ming and Thai wares can probably likewise be found in Aden. On the coasts of Arabia oriental pottery is completely normal, as the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Arabs were all busily trading throughout the Indian Ocean basin, at a time when the Yemeni Highlands were deriving their income from the coffee trade, exporting their own products, and receiving gold in exchange, which was being hoarded in places like the Samsara Muhammad b. Hasan, next to which our Sanaa trench was sunk. The gold has since been melted down, but the potsherds remain in the earth in Aden, and other places along the coast.

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