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Excavating Zabid

Royal Ontario Museum Yemen Project Overview

Study of Zabid’s urban form

Edward Keall
Curator Emeritus
Royal Ontario Museum

A probe into this old city berm revealed buried below it remains

of robbed-out Rasulid-era houses

Study of Zabid’s urban form

In 1987, with excavation permits now allowed, a program centered on Zabid was proposed and accepted. By that definition, the so-called Canadian Archaeological Mission of the Royal Ontario Museum (CAMROM) in Yemen is a multi-facetted project on the Red Sea coastal plain of the Tihamah. The main focus is the Islamic city of Zabid, a living town with important medieval traditions known from written texts. As explained, Zabid lies mid-way between the foothills of the Yemeni highlands and the coast. Evidence for the city’s past has come from varied contexts, from regional site reconnaissance, trench excavation and scrutiny of architectural remains. Serious attention has also been given to the region’s prehistory. It is argued that if we want to evaluate Zabid’s prosperity in medieval times, we must ascertain what went on before the city’s reputed ‘fiat’ foundation in 820 CE. Considerable effort and financial resources have been applied to the study of Zabid’s pre-Islamic past.


The ROM Project’s initial aim was to define the settlement of Zabid’s physical evolution as an urban place. Strategic soundings were designed to help evaluate patterns of land use over time in different areas of the city. Different parts of Zabid and surrounding area were targeted in this operation. Naturally, in areas where the settlement was still inhabited, reaching the past was a challenge. Our primary excavation record has come from the southeastern sector of the city, both from inside and outside of the Citadel where until recently there was no modern overburden. A number of exposures have been made on the periphery of the city on its eastern side, in contexts that may be properly described as ‘suburban.’ Exposures reaching 13th century layers beyond the most recent city wall underlined the fact that between the Rasulid and First Ottoman Occupation periods the settlement had covered a much larger area than it did in the 1960s. It also had a circular layout, mirroring Ibn al-Mujawir’s famous round city map. In the 2011 season of excavation, it was determined that the city had been a lot smaller in circumference before the Najahid era, when a text speaks of the fact that – to avoid royal palace intrigues ­– a slave-queen had built for herself and infant son a villa outside of the city wall. Excavations suggest that this may have been in the area of the present Citadel. It is argued that shrinkage of Zabid to its once again smaller 1960s oval shape began around 1560, when the embattled Ottoman garrison in Zabid hurriedly demolished houses for building materials to erect a small fort, and  to clear the ground for cannon fire beyond their newly shrunken city wall. The last city wall was built in 1807 (conforming to the oval shape of the Ottoman period). Except for the four city gates and the citadel, all the bricks from the city walls were sold by the government for recycling in 1963.


Oval city of Zabid in 1980s, with a ghostly image of its medieval (larger circular shape) visible

in the land forms of the ground surface


The surviving east city gate


Trench excavation outside of 19th century city wall, with al-Iskandariyyah mosque and minaret beyond


Ornamental pool remaining outside of Citadel,

from an otherwise robbed-out Tahirid-era villa

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