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Excavating Zabid

Royal Ontario Museum Yemen Project Overview


Edward Keall
Curator Emeritus
Royal Ontario Museum

Picturesque three-domed mosque of al-Fazzah



Reputedly, the oldest mosque in Zabid is the al-Asha’ir (as probed in excavations, see above) located in the heart of the suq. Its ground plan consists of a central, inner courtyard surrounded by an arcade. Such mosque ground plans in academe are known as ‘hypostyle’. Academics claim that the plan is inspired by the layout of the Prophet’s house in al-Madinah. Tradition holds that the al-Asha’ir mosque dates back to its foundation by Ibn al-Salamah, the famous 11th century Ziyadid era wazir. But if that is true, traces of that time era lie at least ten metres deep below the courtyard.


The other hypostyle mosque in Zabid is the Friday Mosque (jami’a al-kabir). Curiously, it lies at the western edge of old Zabid. The style of its original structure suggests that it was built by the Ayyubids. Theoretically, this means that it could have been first constructed in open space, outside of what was then the earliest urban configuration of Zabid. Physically, the qibla aisle with its two small domes is clearly a later addition. Conveniently, a lengthy inscription identifies this work as due to sponsorship by the Tahirid sultan ‘amir in 1492.


Structurally, this has vital implications for the understanding of later mosque construction in Zabid. For the Tahirid domes of the jami are built up over hooded devices, called ‘squinch’ in academe. This structural technique for dome construction was maintained in Zabid until the early Ottoman period. The domes of Mustafa Pasha al-Nashhar’s mosque was built using squinches, while the dome of his adjacent tomb (died 1555) was constructed using a ‘saw-tooth pendentive’ – a kite-shaped device influenced by Anatolian architectural practices. After the Ottomans, all mosques in Zabid (if domed) were built using the pendentive. This allows us to state definitively that the original domed structure of the so-called al-Iskandariyyah mosque was built before the Ottomans, most likely in the Rasulid era. It was Iskandar Mawz – the maverick Lawandi governor of Zabid – whose institution of a madrasa and addition of a minaret in 1536 gave the mosque its false ‘Ottoman’ reputation.


Of the eighty-three neighbourhood mosques surveyed in Zabid by the CAMROM project, a number were flat-roofed. When domed, sometimes it was a single dome surmounting the mihrab; at other times, either two or three small domes were featured along the qibla wall. This principle applies to most of the pre-modern mosques built in the CAMROM Tihamah study area (except for the multiple-domed Grand Mosque in Bayt al-Faqih).


The walls of the Rasulid-era mosques were usually covered with elaborately painted polychrome designs. Invariably, in the more conservative Zaydi-era, these painted designs were covered over with whitewash. In part, this went along with what became the normal tradition in Zabid of whitewashing mosques, to herald the on-set of Ramadan. In recent times, expressions of sanctity have resulted in Zabid’s mosque domes being painted green.


By contrast with other parts of the Middle East, a building designated as a madrasa in Zabid has no different layout than that of a mosque. There were no dormitory rooms provided for students. Seemingly, students must have been housed in ordinary houses within the city.


Courtyard and arcade of the al-Ash’air mosque


Piers built in the last century,

in the arcade next to the Ayyubid minaret


Southern entranceway

half buried below the street level


Looking from the arcade up out onto the street


Courtyard and arcade of the Ayyubid jami’, with two Tahirid era-added qibla aisle domes


The al-Iskandariyyah dome being whitewashed at the on-set of Ramadan


One of the Rasulid-era painted squinches inside the al-Iskandariyyah dome


Detail of the squinch painting being conserved


Minaret added by Iskandar Mawz, defaced by a gun slot cut by Sharif Hammud

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