Standing at the bottom of a dusty wadi, I crane my neck to take in the huge structure rising above me: row upon row of precisely cut stone, set seamlessly without mortar some 2,500 years ago, soaring 50 feet into the fading desert sky.
To call this ancient engineering marvel a mere dam feels almost derogatory. When the Great Dam of Marib was built in what is now Yemen, its earth-and-stone walls spanned an area nearly twice as wide as Hoover Dam. The still standing colossal sluices were part of a sophisticated system that controlled the flow of seasonal rains from Yemen’s highlands to its parched desert in the east, nurturing agricultural oases across almost 25,000 acres of wasteland. And in the middle of it all, a thriving economic hub: Marib, capital of Saba, the Arabian kingdom most famously associated with its legendary leader Bilqis, immortalized in the Bible and the Quran as the queen of Sheba.
At Marib’s peak, starting in the eighth century B.C., this dam was the source of prosperity for the Sabaean capital—and the reason it existed as a fertile, food-producing, water-abundant stopping point for thirsty camels and hungry traders.
The kingdom flourished in southern Arabia, where prized frankincense, myrrh, and other aromatic resins were bought and sold at the affluent heart of an incense trail that stretched from India to the Mediterranean. Saba was also a critical point of the caravan economy, where valuables such as ivory, pearls, silks, and precious woods were taxed as they moved between East and West.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and Marib’s wealth now lies in oil and gas reserves beneath the sands of the surrounding governorate with the same name. This makes the city a strategic target in the war between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates–led coalition supporting local forces opposed to the Houthis’ expansion, a war that has wracked Yemen for eight years. Since 2020 the ancient capital has been the primary front and one of the last metropolitan redoubts for the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
In the failing light I wander around the remaining walls of the dam’s network of barriers, awed at the construction of the massive earthen walls and wondering at the complex logistics required to sustain a thriving city in southern Arabia thousands of years ago. Then the familiar sound of artillery broiling in nearby mountains echoes across the wadi.
“Did you hear that?” Ammar Derwish, my Yemeni assistant and translator, whispers in the near dark. The next blast is a little louder, and the answer comes before his question is repeated.
“Yes, I heard it.”
Yemen’s current war runs parallel to, and in some places directly over, the treasures of its past. Its ancient kingdoms—Saba, Qataban, Main, Hadramawt, Himyar, Awsan—are the genesis of the Arabian Peninsula’s civilization. From feats of hydraulic engineering to meticulous inscriptions, this history tells of a merchant people and a sophisticated, settled civilization far removed from the long-held stereotypes of desert-wandering Arabs dominant in 19th- and 20th-century Western popular culture and its depictions of the region.
The war began in 2014, when northern Houthi rebels took the capital, Sanaa, with the help of loyalists of former president Ali Abdallah Saleh. His successor, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, was put under house arrest. Hadi fled to exile in Saudi Arabia, prompting the Saudi kingdom to launch an aerial bombing campaign with the support of a regional coalition backed by the United States and other Western nations. All sides have shown little regard for the 30 million civilians at their mercy, and the threats to Yemenis and the dangers to their heritage go hand in hand.
Museums have been leveled by air strikes; hundreds of distinctive, centuries-old, multigenerational family homes destroyed; pre-Islamic temples bombed; and Sufi religious shrines razed by militants.
In the face of the devastation, a small but dedicated network of Yemeni historians, archaeologists, and others passionate about the country’s past are pursuing their own quietly determined mission to preserve Yemen’s antiquities—ancestral artifacts that are locked in the nation’s museums, hidden in warehouses, and still buried safely beneath the sand. Mindful of the priorities of their fellow citizens and the millions of people displaced by the conflict, they focus their endeavors on future preservation for present-day Yemenis who have a more pressing concern: survival in the midst of war.
Over millennia, the queen of Sheba’s capital evolved from the largest city in southern Arabia to a dilapidated, 21st-century provincial town synonymous with gun-toting, kidnapping tribesmen enraged by a central government that whisked away revenue from its oil and gas reserves with little to no local benefit. Marib also became associated with al Qaeda, after militants from the group’s Yemeni branch claimed to have carried out attacks on oil and gas pipelines and on foreigners. Yet, since 2014, these stereotypes of lawlessness have been replaced with another. Today’s Marib is almost unrecognizable from the dust bowl town of eight years ago, with scores of new houses, a brand-new beltway, and hotels and restaurants built by those fleeing Houthi territory and fighting. Marib is now Yemen’s wartime boomtown.
Instead of camels carrying incense of years past, trucks laden with bags of cement for houses and hotels trundle back and forth across the desert to Marib. Oil production that shuddered to a halt in 2015 gradually resumed and now supports an economy that makes the city effectively independent from the rest of the country.
The population of Marib and its surrounding governorate—fewer than a half million before the war—has increased up to sevenfold, swelled by displaced people escaping Houthi-controlled areas and contested territories. An estimated 85 percent of the Marib governorate’s population are those displaced by the conflict.
The city’s change in fortune, however, is once again under threat. A Houthi offensive launched in early 2021 hit the mountains that loom behind Marib’s ancient dam and intensified earlier this year. The city is now in range of rebel missiles, dozens of which have landed in districts where dusty displacement camps, home to more than 200,000 Yemenis and migrants, sprawl as far as the eye can see. So far, the destructive airpower of the coalition forces—in addition to killing and injuring more than 19,200 civilians countrywide since 2015—has kept the Houthis at bay. As the front lines shift, Marib’s residents await their fate, one that may mean seeking shelter for the third or fourth time in this war. This year has seen the longest period of respite from the violence. A two-month cease-fire that began in April was extended for a further two months in June, in the hope that political talks might bring the war to an end.
The conflict’s most active front line is of greatest concern for the civilians it threatens, and the damage already done to Yemen’s cultural legacy demonstrates that those fighting this war have no hesitation in turning esteemed heritage sites into battlefields. In May 2015 a coalition air strike hit one of the sluice gates of the Great Dam of Marib, tearing through its remaining tower. A cascade of rubble is left in its place.
To the east of the modern city are Saba’s storied temples, the Baran and the Awwam, the queen of Sheba’s throne and sanctuary, respectively. Spaced less than a mile apart, these unique temples—dedicated to Saba’s chief deity, Almaqah, god of irrigation and agriculture—are the source of much of what precious little we know about the Sabaean world.
Details of how the Sabaeans worshipped and prayed are murky. What is known is that the frankincense and myrrh traded at Saba were widely used in rituals of several religious denominations of the day. Traders and pilgrims continually passing through would venerate Almaqah as they stopped at Marib’s oases on their long, treacherous journeys across the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Saba led the way in writing and language. Its cultural influences on architecture, iconography, and decoration spread throughout southern Arabia, carried farther afield by traveling merchants.
Saba’s affluence made Marib a target for rival kingdoms and conquering armies. In the first century B.C., Rome, after vanquishing Syria and Egypt, diverted the lucrative trade route from overland to sea, bypassing the city. Two Roman legions and auxiliary troops had tried and failed to take Marib after besieging it around 25 B.C., but once trade was rerouted, Saba’s power deteriorated. The neighboring kingdom of Himyar annexed Saba in A.D. 275.
Well before the latest war, Yemen’s royal temples were targets of looters and of voracious foreign archaeologists who assumed ownership of any finds. Arguably the most famous—to some, infamous—of the latter was Wendell Phillips, an American who excavated several sites in southern Arabia from 1950 to 1952.
“Time fell asleep here, and the husks of ancient civilizations were buried in deep sand, preserved like flowers between the leaves of a book,” Phillips wrote in his 1955 book, Qataban and Sheba, about his first visit to Yemen. “The land looked forbidding, but it was rich with the spoils of time, and I wanted to unearth some of those riches, digging down through sand and centuries to a glorious past.”
Dig Phillips did, most famously at the Awwam Temple, where he was the first to uncover the treasures of the Sabaean complex, exposing soaring pillars, an enormous walled enclosure, and a cemetery that held 20,000 of the kingdom’s citizens. Excavations revealed the temple dated from the early first millennium B.C. Awwam, along with Baran, has become one of the most widely known historical sites in Yemen, associated with iconic stone pillars, bronze and alabaster figurines, and distinctive inscriptions.
Eventually, Phillips fled Marib following rising tensions with local authorities and tribes who accused him of incompetence, failure to pay local workers, and trying to smuggle artifacts. Phillips was reluctantly received by the British who controlled Aden to the south; the governor of the British protectorate later described him as “a danger and unscrupulous.” Phillips’s work at the Awwam Temple was followed by European and American archaeological teams that continued to unearth more of the site, finding artifacts and detailed inscriptions that made Marib one of the most popular destinations on Yemen’s once busy tourist trail.
Today the rare visitor can tread solo across the protective sand, dusting it back with an inquisitive hand to reveal the smooth stones of the temple’s floor, polished by pilgrims over the centuries. One can also admire the ibex sculptures standing sentry at broad ceremonial staircases and track the puzzling contours of the distinctive—almost Star Trek-ian—inscriptions that tower and wind around the inner enclosure of the sanctuary. Even in the glaring light of a desert day, Awwam feels mystical. But the temple’s most important artifacts are now at the National Museum in Houthi-controlled Sanaa, closed because of the conflict, or thousands of miles away in the museums and private collections of the West and the Persian Gulf.
The final expedition to the Awwam Temple, led by Phillips’s sister, Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, ended after a 2007 al Qaeda car bombing that killed two Yemenis and eight Spanish tourists at the site’s entrance. In the years after, a 2,300-year-old inscribed alabaster statue base was ripped from the temple floor; it last appeared at an auction house in Paris.
The past 15 years of archaeological neglect, however, has also been a blessing for the exposed antiquities of Marib’s sanctuaries: In the Awwam Temple, more than six feet of sand has reburied critical areas of the sacred precinct. “It’s better that everything is under the ground. The sand is safety,” ruefully concludes Sadeq al Salwi, the Marib director for the General Organization of Antiquities and Museums (GOAM), a Yemeni government agency.
Following the caravan route south into Shabwah governorate and Saba’s ancient neighbor and rival, the kingdom of Qataban, is its former capital, Timna. It’s less than 40 miles as the crow flies from Marib but more than a three-hour drive in wartime Yemen. Ammar and I count the skull-and-crossbones signs warning us of minefields as he guides our SUV across a sand squall. Camels, emerging like ghostly figures along the roadside, pick at shrubs. This area has changed hands more than once between Houthis and coalition forces during the conflict. Locals carefully avoid speaking ill of either side, not knowing who might be in control next week or next month.
At Timna, the damage to the country’s cultural heritage is revealed at its destructive worst. During our walk through the city’s remains, the ground bleeds 2,000-year-old pottery sherds and more recent additions: spent shells from AK-47s and tanks, and the brassy hulls of 50-caliber machine-gun bullets. Empty ammunition boxes litter foxholes dug down into the ruins of Timna’s main temple dedicated to Athtar, a god of thunder known to be vengeful. The Houthis utilized the tactical benefit of the raised ground Timna was built on, turning it into a military position and inevitably drawing the bombs of Saudi and Emirati fighter jets.
The heart of the Athtar Temple has been torn open, hemorrhaging gray, blue, and red hues of stone that set Timna apart from the yellow Jurassic limestone of Marib. A 33-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep crater is all that’s left to see on the sanctuary’s eastern flank. The gaping hole from the coalition air strike dwarfs two young children skipping over boulders thrown by the bombing’s explosive force.
The Italian Archaeological Mission in Yemen excavated at Timna from 1990 to 2005 and funded construction of a new museum there that was empty when they left amid deteriorating security. The building is littered with rubble, walls blown out by battle damage. Before Yemen’s most recent unrest, foreign tourists came daily to Timna, according to Abdallah Dawam, the site’s longtime chief security guard and our guide around the ruins.
Timna’s unfinished, bombed-out shell of a museum is one of three such institutions in the governorate under the care of Khyran al Zubaidi, the director of GOAM’s Shabwah branch. There is also one in Bayhan, shuttered for 25 years, and another in Ataq, the provincial capital of Shabwah. The government allocation for the three museums is just 16,000 Yemeni riyals (less than $20) a month.
Much like his colleague Al Salwi in Marib, Al Zubaidi has been an archaeologist in Yemen for more than 35 years, and he’s been the head of antiquities in Shabwah since 1986. As he reels off the dozens of foreign-led excavations he’s been part of, it’s apparent the wealth of firsthand knowledge he’s gathered likely makes him and Al Salwi the world’s leading experts on the Sabaean and Qataban kingdoms. Al Zubaidi’s passion for history is infectious as he shows us around Ataq’s museum.
The archaeologist’s 32-year-old son, Ahmed, points out that concern for Yemen’s cultural heritage is low on the list of priorities for the authorities. The lack of electricity and water and concerns over security are bigger problems. “But this,” Ahmed says, referring to his father’s dedication to Yemen’s heritage and holding his hand over his chest, “this is in his heart.” One thing is for certain: The archaeologist isn’t doing the job for the money. Even with his decades of experience, Al Zubaidi is paid approximately a hundred dollars a month by the Yemeni government, slightly higher than a soldier’s income.
More than 70 percent of Yemenis need humanitarian aid in a country that before the war imported (paying in U.S. dollars) up to 90 percent of its food. Starvation is being used as a weapon of warfare, and the United Nations has repeatedly warned of famine conditions in Yemen, despite food being plentiful in the markets. A de facto blockade by the anti-Houthi coalition has seen imports plummet along with the currency; meanwhile the Houthis have been accused of hampering aid distribution and ramping up taxes to fund their war effort. The price of basics such as wheat, flour, and rice has increased by 250 percent, while the value of the Yemeni riyal has fallen nearly 80 percent against the U.S. dollar over the course of the war. To make matters worse, almost half of the country’s wheat comes from Ukraine and Russia. “People will sell anything to fill their bellies and feed their children. It’s a matter of life or death,” Al Zubaidi says of the increasing problem of looted artifacts.
In his own attempts to save objects, he has wandered local markets, negotiating to try to claim back for the museum any antique pieces he can. Last year he used his government salary to give a reward of approximately $450 for some 20 pieces he estimates are from around 700 B.C., including several complete vases and alabaster figurines. He’s still waiting to be reimbursed by the government for the objects, which are now on display in the museum. The people selling these objects don’t know the value of them, Al Zubaidi notes. But what value can be put on history, to preserve it for future generations, when the children of the present are dying from hunger? His question hangs in the air.
Al Zubaidi’s greatest find during his years of work was in Shabwat, capital of the Hadramawt kingdom. It was a distribution center for the frankincense produced there and famed in its heyday for its numerous temples. Local sheikh Hassan Rakna walks Ammar and me through Shabwat’s ruins, stopping to rest at the top of a 30-foot-wide staircase. He describes the discovery of a stunning winged lion—with horns of an ox and a cobra for a tail—that was found at the site. Al Zubaidi was part of the excavation team that unearthed the stone griffin, believed to be from the third century A.D. Along with many of Shabwat’s most precious artifacts, the piece has been locked away for safekeeping in the vaults of the National Bank of Aden, a 230-mile drive to the southwest.
Another eight days’ camel walk south from Shabwat along the ancient caravan route, the flattened peak of an extinct volcano rises hundreds of feet from the white sands where the Arabian Peninsula meets the Gulf of Aden. Climb to the summit to face a blustering easterly wind rushing through the rubble of an old watchtower, and you can imagine what this place might have been like two millennia ago: merchants, porters, and customs guards in the busy royal port of Qana; ships destined for Egypt and India with priceless payloads previously off-loaded from camel trains into black stone warehouses, the remains of which still dot the cliffside.
But daydreams about bygone kingdoms can be fleeting here, as armored convoys and battered pickups mounted with guns and fighters still speed down paved highways where Saba’s storied caravans once crossed.
On the long desert road out of Shabwah to Aden, Ammar and I drive through another sandstorm, and the lonely sound of an oud trickles through the car stereo. The melody entwines with verses from Yemen’s most famous modern poet, the late Abdallah al Baraduni, whose words feel so much more relevant to Yemen today than the prosaic waxings of colonial archaeologists who saw the country’s history as frozen and static, as blossoms dried in a book.
“In the caverns of its death my country neither dies nor recovers. It digs in the muted graves looking for its pure origins,” Al Baraduni laments. “For its springtime promise that slept behind its eyes. For the dream that will come for the phantom that hid.”
This story appears in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.