In the story of King Solomon (or Suleyman, as he’s known in the Quran), a flamboyantly striped hoopoe bird tells him about a powerful queen whose people worship the sun and not the almighty God. Solomon, gifted with the power to communicate with the animal world, commands the hoopoe to deliver an invitation to this mysterious monarch, the Queen of Sheba.
While there’s no established archaeological evidence supporting her existence, the soaring stone pillars associated with her reign speak volumes about the majesty of a structure thought to have been built in the 10th century BCE.
With its twelve steps leading to the throne, the temple stood buried in the drifting sands of the Arabian desert until a German-led archaeological excavation in 1988 followed up on findings first sighted by two American journalists almost three decades earlier near the city of Marib. Whether the site actually corresponds to the mythical Sheba, also known as Saba, is a riddle yet to be solved.
Anwar Hamid, a restaurant worker from Ibb, stopped here with his family on his way to Saudi Arabia. Overflowing with emotion, he stood on tiptoe facing the five remaining 12-metre-high pillars of the Barran Temple, also known as the throne of Bilqis.
Snapping one photo after another, the 30-year-old bubbled with pride at what he described as “the glory and greatness” of his Himyarite ancestors. He said their ingenuity surpassed everything he’d gleaned from textbooks and websites, especially regarding the temple symmetry and the pillars inscriptions.
“It’s hard to believe they’re so old,” he said, marvelling at the Southern Arabian script engraved in stone. “The inscriptions look as if they were done with modern machines.”
The vast temple complex contains several architectural units, including a courtyard.
Munir Ghanem, a 50-year-old temple guard, said many gold and bronze artefacts are missing. He outlined traces of the legs of a missing bull statue whose mouth had dispensed water into a stone basin. “This was among many treasures that were looted,” he said.
Yemen’s ambassador to UNESCO affirms this. “In recent years, hundreds of pieces have been smuggled – human and animal statues, inscriptions, household tools, weaponry, and more,” said Muhammad Jumaih. “Some of them have been displayed at galleries in Paris, Tokyo, and several US cities.”
A few months ago, he added, a large shipment of artefacts en route from Sana’a was seized at the Saudi port of al-Wadiah.
A frank exchange between Hamid and the guard pointed up another problem at the site – albeit easier to solve – as Hamid’s family looked in vain for a shaded spot to cool off in the summer heat. “The place is fascinating and shows how civilised we were,” he said, “but…”
The guard interrupted to stress that most visitors left impressed by the magnificence of the complex and the way their ancestors lived.
We have to stand guard against vandalism.”
“Then why this neglect?” Hamid asked, perplexed by the lack of facilities. The nearest hotel and restaurant are at least 10 kilometres away in Marib. “There’s not even any place to sit beside the ground,” he said.
Ghanem acknowledged the complaint, one he’s heard often. “But officials don’t care,” he replied. “Otherwise, they’d allow investors to provide services here, and visitors would be more comfortable.” The local economy would benefit as well, he added.
Households in the area have stepped in to fill part of the service gap; an initiative Ghanem has welcomed. He introduced Mohammad, a neighbour who built three bathrooms in his yard for visitors to use. “Whoever needs anything can knock on his door,” Ghanem said.
Protecting Cultural Heritage
Guarding the Barran Temple for more than 15 years has given Ghanem’s life special meaning, like a cherished friend. “I can feel my identity here,” he said. “Without it, I lose my sense of belonging.”
He’s committed to keeping an eye on the visitors of the temple, who number about 100 daily. “We have to stand guard against vandalism,” he said. Given the expanse of the site, he and his five colleagues cannot monitor the entire temple complex.
Their most vital task is to protect the 17-ton stone pillars from graffiti, which would destroy the inscriptions.
A favourite time to view the temple is at dusk, when the heat of the day subsides and the sun casts an enchanting light on the pillars. Ahmed Saad, 40, accompanied by nearly 20 members of his family, said he enjoys coming here every Friday for a break from the urban bustle of Marib. He is convinced such sojourns bolster Yemeni identity.
“This place acquaints us with our roots, our starting point through generations,” he said. “It’s good to meet others and share conversations about this submerged treasure.”
For many Marib residents, the monument is also a refuge from the smell of gunpowder, a reminder of the trauma of Yemen’s war that has lasted over six years.
About a kilometre away, the Sabaean Awwam Temple stands on a natural platform with eight pillars and numerous geometric panels, statues, carvings, and large engraved stones. This temple, dedicated to the worship of the god Almaqah, was once a place of pilgrimage for people all over the Arabian Peninsula. The temple’s library of stone records includes inscriptions believed to date back nearly 2,700 years.
This place acquaints us with our roots, our starting point through generations.”
Looters have defaced stones and vandalised dozens of columns in Awwam Temple, which suffered neglect for decades.
Yasser al-Aghbari, Deputy Director of the Tourism Office in Marib Governorate, attributes this disrespect to a lack of public awareness of the importance of historical monuments. He also pointed to an “absence of any financial allocations” for the maintenance and restoration of these tangible heritage landmarks.
“We are working hard to find possibilities for this,” al-Aghbari said. “In the future you will see an improvement in these places.”
In the story of the Queen of Sheba, her throne and the might of her kingdom greatly impressed Solomon. If the temples of ancient Saba get adequate stewardship and the violence in Marib subsides, Yemenis and other visitors can be equally enchanted by these towering wonders for generations to come.