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Excavating Zabid

Royal Ontario Museum Yemen Project Overview

Commemorative Monuments in Islamic Tihamah

Edward Keall
Curator Emeritus
Royal Ontario Museum

Wali’s tombstone at al-Hima greased with oil

Commemorative Monuments in Islamic Tihamah

The Canadian expedition in the Tihamah encountered numerous features that reflect strong traditional, local cultural traditions. Generally speaking, identifiable cemeteries consist of unadorned graves, marked by shallow heaps of pebbles or bits of stone and brick. A small headstone is not unusual. In the Rasulid-era cemetery at al-Fazzah, the outlines of small prayer spaces defined by mud-bricks appeared mysteriously for a brief moment at dawn, before the sun had dried out the tops of the damp underground bricks.


Not all of the observable practices comply strictly with the mainstream tenets of Islam. The tombs of revered figures receive a lot of attention from the local inhabitants. The burial places of religiously revered persons (wali) are often draped with fragments of cloth, in the hopes that god will see the cloth and associate it with the pilgrim donor, thus imparting a blessing (baraka). A wali’s tomb may also become oil-stained from being touched by the innumerable hands of pilgrims. Intercession with the spirits of the dead are reflected in the traces of candles lit on a grave. Seemingly replicating this sense of light is the single known instance of fluorescent and incandescent bulbs placed on the grave of a wali at al-Fazzah.


 Some graves have headstones made from fragments of pillars that were originally part of the region’s Bronze Age megalithic culture in the Tihamah, when cultural practice involved the widespread gathering and transportation of naturally occurring megaliths.    


Impression of a prayer space in a Rasulid cemetery at al-Fazzah


Commemorative flags on the grave

of a religiously revered figure (wali)


Broken pots on a grave, with traces of charcoal from fires lit in them


Light bulbs placed on a wali’s grave at al-Fazzah


Grave marked by a headstone made

conveniently from a recycled piece of a Bronze Age pillar

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