Palaces, Temples and Laws: Coexistence in Yemen’s Ancient Structures

Samar Abdullah
The kingdoms of ancient Yemen established a number of institutions to advance social, economic, and political cooperation. There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to palaces, temples, and laws; they are all examples of structures crucial to Yemen’s alliances throughout time. Several artefacts can tell us much about this tradition of coexistence.
Inscriptions in Musnad, the Temple of Awwam, September 2021. © Zain Alaabdain Ben Ali / Arabia Felix Magazine

Yemen’s earliest historical accounts are often associated with the Kingdom of Sheba in the 10th century BCE, a time when nearly all ancient Yemeni symbols and structures emerged. The most notable structure is the Marib Dam. According to Mohammed Bafqih’s book The History of Ancient Yemen, the dam was constructed in the era of Sumuhu’ali Yanuf, the first mukarrib, or ruler, in Sheba (around 528 BCE). Other rulers subsequently renovated the dam, but once it collapsed in 575 CE, according to a Yemeni proverb, “the unity of Sheba was shattered.” 

The regime in Sheba alternated between mukarribs and kings. While the mukarribs combined priesthood and leadership, the king, as supreme authority of the state, was more engaged in politics than religion. Yemen’s ancient kingdoms were born out the unification of different groups or tribes. In his book, Social and Economic Conditions in Ancient Yemen, Jawad Matar writes that such groups were composed of peoples who shared common interests, beliefs, or crafts, and that each group had its own king and deities. The polis (city), or hajar, emerged once it had basic structures such as a temple, palace, and water sources, according to Asmahan al-Garoo, Associate Professor of History at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat and author of Studies on the Cultural History of South Arabia. Economic interests, religious beliefs, and community cooperation brought various peoples together, which led yet more complex social systems to prosper over time.


The Palace as a Structure of Governance

A respected norm in ancient Yemen was the royal palace’s role as a symbol of government. 

“With various architectural units as rooms for government affairs, the palace served as an institution where alliances were made between kingdoms,” said Anwar al-Hayer, Professor of Ancient Yemeni Architecture at Sana’a University.

Al-Hayer describes the Hargab Palace in Zafar, 130 km south of Sana’a, as an example. The most prominent structure in the Kingdom of Himyar, it was built in the 5th century CE with distinctive geometric architectural elements, among them a courtyard paved with polished white balk stones. The dooryard was an uncovered square surface paved with smooth, rectangular limestone blocks. Surrounded by rooms, the palace also had access to a well, which may have been at the end or the centre of the dooryard. The throne, or mathwab, was adorned with depictions of animals and plants, as well as inscriptions.

The miswad, a government advisory council, was the most prominent unit in the palace, hosting consultations with tribal representatives.

نقوش في معبد أوام، يونيو ٢٠٠٥م. © جون بوين

Inscriptions at the Temple of Awwam.
© Jon Bowen

The Temple as a Structure of Religious Coexistence

Ancient Yemenis built temples to worship their deities embodied in the sun, moon, and Venus. The most significant is in Marib: the Temple of Awwam, known as the Sanctuary of Balqis, dedicated to the deity Almaqah. The oval temple, located between two limestone hills behind eight stone columns, was built by Yada’il Dharih I, known for his construction of monumental buildings during his reign around the 5th century BCE.

Structures of coexistence in ancient Yemen include a number of legal and commercial systems.

Each region and tribe had temples where the faithful held religious rituals to fulfil vows, drive out evil spirits, or make offerings such as animals, land or silver statues. Others would gather to pray for rain or successful hunting. A temple was also a place of pilgrimage for celebrations in al-abha, the rainy month, as revealed in inscriptions at the Temple of Awwam during the reign of King Yasir Yuhan’im and his son at the end of the 3rd century. Temples also served as places to make public admissions of guilt.

Anwar al-Hayer concludes that Yemenis benefited greatly from this kind of spiritual sovereignty and religious tolerance. By accepting various deities rather than going to war over them, he said, “ancient Yemenis used the time they spared as an opportunity to build their civilisation.” 

The temples’ origin was linked to the priests, appointed by royal decree, to resolve land disputes and serve as mediators between the faithful and their deities. A legislative inscription from the city of Qarnaw in the Valley of al-Jawf, dating back to the era of King Ilyafa Yashur in the 3rd or 4th century BCE, refers to Rasho, meaning priest, and its feminine form: Rashot.  This indicates the presence of priestesses in the temple, according to Professor al-Garoo. 


Laws for Preserving Rights and Relationships

Structures of coexistence in ancient Yemen include a number of legal and commercial systems that protected the rights of different social groups and fostered prosperity. For example, the Ma’in kingdom (800-150 BCE) established what Khaled al-Hajj, chief antiquities specialist at the Public Authority for Antiquities and Museums, called“an institutional system” that regulated relationships with foreign women to guarantee their marital rights. Inscriptions dating back to the Ma’inian State in al-Jawf document marriage contracts between Ma’inians and women from Gaza, Egypt, the Levant, and Mediterranean kingdoms and states such as Rome and Greece. This indicates the existence of a system to document such relations within the framework of political and social structures. Ma’inians also formed alliances with neighbouring trade centres all the way to Egypt.

One of the most famous laws in Yemen’s history is one that protected consumers’ rights at the Shammar Market in Timna, the capital of the Qataban Kingdom. While no account of the kingdom’s year of origin has been found, said Abdullah Abul-Ghaith, Professor of Ancient History at Sana’a University, the name Qutban was inscribed on Naqsh an-Nasr, or Inscription of Victory,  at the beginning of the 7th century BCE, which indicates it was a Yemeni state during the 8th century BCE or earlier. 

This and other laws helped establish order in Yemen’s various kingdoms and coincided with several developments, such as the expansion of terraced farming, the regulation of farmland ownership, and an agricultural calendar, still in use today, to specify planting and harvesting seasons.


A History Rich in Supportive Structures

Yemen’s ancient history abounds in systems that were formed to uphold social cohesion, respect diversity, and support the well-being of the population. 

“Those who have no past have no present,” said Mohammed al-Omari, 44, who has devoted much of his life to documenting the story of Yemen. His Facebook group, The Beautiful Time, provides a historical window to anyone interested in the country. 

سدّ مأرب القديم. تاريخ الصورة: ما بين ١٩٧٣ و١٩٩٠م. © فرناندو فراندا | مكتبة الفنون، مؤسسة كالوست كولبنكيان

The ancient Marib dam, (photo ca. 1973-1990).
© Fernando Varanda / Arts Library, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

This group branched out from a previous one, Yemen’s Old Pictures, which al-Omari formed in 2012 with Arafat al-Bahluly, Mohammed and Riyadh al-Dharafi, Mohammed Na’im, and Hussein al-Omari. 

“Access to Italian and German archives provided me with many archival photos of Yemen,” said al-Omari, who works for the al-Lahza TV channel in Sana’a. 

Since its launch in 2017, the Facebook group’s general policy has been to provide an impartial portrayal of Yemeni history. But the group is not limited to photos from the past; it also corrects mistaken assumptions about the country and offers detailed interpretations of historical symbols and their relevance to coexistence.

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