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Excavating Zabid

Royal Ontario Museum Yemen Project Overview

al-Asha’ir Mosque probe

Edward Keall
Curator Emeritus
Royal Ontario Museum

A traditional old ablution pool (birkat) still in use in Zabid, in 1990

al-Asha’ir Mosque probe

In the heart of the city, insight into the character of the city’s core was for a long limited to observing deposits recovered from deep shafts dug for the construction of new toilets attached to private houses. But in 2005, Keall accepted the invitation from Yemen’s Social Fund for Development to help determine the extent of damage due to water seepage inside the al-Ashaʿir mosque. This allowed for a deep probe to be made inside one of the arcades of the prayer hall, next to the minaret that was judged from the probe to be of Ayyubid date. It was determined that the mosque walls had been rebuilt several times over the centuries, but always with the same alignment of walls, commensurate with the tradition that it was one of the oldest mosques of Islam (founded during the lifetime of the Prophet). But at the nine metre depth below street level, where the base of the minaret had been built by chopping into previously existing brickwork, that earlier wall alignment was different, clearly not from a mosque. The first mosque could have been much smaller, built further away. But the size of the trench at that depth did not allow for its exposure.


The cause of the structural damage was bad drainage connected with the mosque’s ablution facilities – leaking water taps on top of the old birkat, which itself had earlier also leaked and been filled in with rubble. The Social Fund proposed a second excavation (in 2007) when it was decided to open up the birkat to solve the drainage problem. A trench was excavated through the original qudad-cemented floor. Beneath it, the strata were completely lacking in any trace of an Ottoman presence. It was concluded that the birkat was highly likely attributable to the Rasulid queen Jihat Farhan who is reported to have commissioned one in 1412. The birkat had been constructed over the remnants of a number of demolished kitchen ovens that had features typical of kitchens known in Yemen as makhbazah. Whether the kitchens next to the mosque provided income to support the mosque, or were just kitchens in the suq next to the mosque for students, remains unknown.   


Emptying backfill from the 15th century al-Asha’ir birkat


Looking down onto the makhbazah layer in the probe below the birkat


Workmen waiting for excavated dirt to be lifted out of the trench


Excavating remains of the makhbazah kitchen features


Digging into the indeterminate remains of the Ziyadid layer of the city

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