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Excavating Zabid

Royal Ontario Museum Yemen Project Overview

Formal Start of the Project in 1982

Edward Keall
Curator Emeritus
Royal Ontario Museum

Formal Start of the Project in 1982

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution snuffed out the previously very active Royal Ontario Museum’s archaeological program in Iran. Ed Keall chose to shift his research focus to the study of Islamic cities – ironically with the expectation at that time that no modern state upheaval would ever again terminate his fieldwork. Expeditiously, what was then the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) had opened its doors to foreign researchers and businesses, after centuries of closed-door positioning under the Zaydi Imams. In 1981 Keall seized the opportunity to explore North Yemen for a prospective new ROM program. Qadi Ismail al-Akwa graciously accepted Keall’s exploration proposal. The trip included Zafar Dhibin, al-Ganad, Taizz, al-Mukha, and Zabid. Of those, Zabid offered the most potential. It had interesting vernacular architecture – a study worthy of focus in its own right – along with its known medieval past, which offered archaeological potential for exploration.


The charm of Zabid’s traditional brick architecture was largely due to the use of baked bricks recycled from medieval buildings. The mining activity was extremely destructive to the archaeological record. However, understanding the process is very revealing in term of the city’s dynamic; and use of the bricks, along with many broken pieces set with lime mortar (noura), led to the development of intricately decorated house facades. In its heritage conservation program, the Canadian Mission used local builders and the traditional building techniques. The work led to a better understanding of the traces of excavated medieval buildings.


Other important considerations for the choice of Zabid for study was that there are a number of Islamic era writers who described the city (like Umarah al-Yamani and Ibn al-Dayba), meaning that potentially archaeological work can be meshed with textual records. The seasonal spate of the Wadi Zabid is also still used for farmland irrigation, allowing for an understanding of how the system operated in medieval times, which helps furnish a sense of the source of the city’s former prosperous economy.


In 1982, in the YAR, excavation permits were not easily obtained, due to the long-standing bitterness about American Wendell Phillips’ behaviour when excavating at Marib in 1952. By contrast, non-destructive surface and monument study were highly approved. The proposed ROM study region was centered on Zabid on the Red Sea Tihamah coastal plain, measuring 100 km north-south (between Bayt al-Faqih and Hays) and 50 km east-west (between the Sarat foothills and the Red Sea). Surface reconnaissance of archaeological sites and documentation of standing architectural remains were conducted in and around Zabid in 1982 and 1983. A significant part of that field survey included the identification of ephemeral sites along the Red Sea coast that could be associated with al-Ghulayfiqah and al-Fazzah, ports of entry for goods shipped during the monsoon season from the Indian Ocean. Cemeteries proved to be a useful source of pottery, because graves were often dug into the ground of abandoned settlements, churning up old pottery as a result. The many small shrines of the region helped us advance our knowledge of dome construction techniques and changing styles.


In 1987, extensive repairs were conducted on the structures of the Zabid Citadel barracks, primarily aimed at furnishing an operational base for a long-term Canadian operation. In the 1990s, this morphed into a formal cultural heritage program, with a museum, visitor facility and irrigated garden. The Governor of Zabid agreed to have the old granary building adapted to create a museum. Some citizens of Zabid donated family heirloom pieces to be included in the displays. Other sections of the museum were used for the presentation of excavated artifacts. Another building of the old Citadel barracks was dedicated to the display of information about the Canadian Mission’s work. Also a two-fold initiative was made in the open space in the heart of the Citadel – firstly, to create some shade for visitors; secondly, to impart to school children the idea that traditional plants (like indigo and perennial cotton) could be grown without the need for massive amounts of water. (Tube-well irrigation of banana plantations has drastically lowered the level of the water table in the Tihamah in recent times).


 Despite the current chaos in the country, the Zabid Citadel Visitor Centre is still open to visitors. Sadly, however, the initiative to establish a bee colony inside the Citadel – to generate income to support the Visitor Centre – was thwarted when the bee colony being shipped from Taizz was blown up by a Saudi rocket.


Tihamah plain with the Sarat mountain chain beyond, to the east


Across the rooftops of Zabid,

looking towards the wadi irrigated farmland in the 1980s


Modern cemetery surmounting a potsherd covered,

derelict medieval settlement


The dome structure of the inner shrine indicates that it was built much earlier than the outer one


Vitrine of pottery (12th century to pre-modern)

inside the Zabid Citadel Granary Museum


Display of information panels about the Canadian program, 

inside the Zabid Citadel Visitor Centre


A class of university students viewing the deep excavation trench
inside the Citadel


Mixed school group looking down into the deep trench


Pioneering a watered garden in the Zabid Citadel

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