The Zabid Project

Background to the Zabid Project

Presented in 1982 with the opportunity to explore an aspect of Yemen's rich archaeological past, the Royal Ontario Museum opted to focus on upon the town of Zabid, which lies on the Tihamah coastal plain flanking the Red Sea. Zabid flourished as an important administrative and cultural center in the mediaeval Islamic period, and survives today as a modest provincial town.

Founded in the early 9th century AD, Zabid became a major seat of learning, enjoying special status in Yemen for many centuries. But published works have done little more than refer to it as a charming relic with an important past. The overall aim of the Project is to understand the way in which the city of Zabid developed and flourished in mediaeval times as a market, administrative, and Islamic university center with an international reputation. The Zabid Project therefore covers topics ranging from urban development, monumental and vernacular architecture, to sponsorship of the arts and industrial production. Data are derived from site plans, buildings, artifacts and inscriptions, in conjunction with the study of eye-witness historical accounts.

Close cooperation was established between the Project and Yemen's General Organization for Antiquities and Libraries (GOAMM), and surface reconnaissance of Zabid and its hinterland was conducted in 1982 and 1983. In 1987, a five-year renewable agreement was signed between the two parties, establishing the Project as the Canadian Archaeological Mission of the Royal Ontario Museum (CAMROM). The third five-year agreement was signed in 1998.

The Project involves continuing regional reconnaissance as well as excavation of different sites in and around Zabid, to explore questions of urban development, monumental and vernacular architecture, and industrial production. Understanding the city's fortunes also necessitates defining the economic basis of its existence, and studies are directed towards describing the function of the irrigated farmland, as well as interpreting the role of Zabid's long-since abandoned Red Sea port sites.

A recent unexpected discovery was the exposure of relics connected with megalithic monuments that can be ascribed to a previously unknown Yemeni Bronze Age culture from the 2nd millennium BC. The discovery provides the basis for a much broader understanding of the region's entire history.

Completed Initiatives

Surface Reconnaissance

Surveys of the region have documented the extent to which the landscape has changed since the 9th century. A primary factor in determining this has been the ability to establish control over the different trends that have occurred in ceramic production, thus allowing us to determine the terminal date of occupation of a site.

From the surface surveys it can be seen that Zabid itself, occupying a privileged geographic location and enjoying good water and farm land along a natural communication route, once covered a larger area than it does today. The smallest settlement would appear to be the one that existed at the time of the 1962 Revolution. Sections of the former city lie abandoned beyond the last surviving city wall, with only mosques preserving a memory of the area's former importance.

The surveys located two lost port sites, helping document the time when Zabid was once in direct contact with China. Elsewhere, abandoned settlements reflect a time of formal capital investment in irrigation projects or the awarding of temporary tax concessions that were made to promote the use of marginal farm land.

Looking back into pre-history, it is apparent that the landscape has been altered considerably by human hand, particularly through irrigation agriculture, which was not practiced here before the Bronze Age. Nevertheless, it is clear that the region's environment has always been fragile, and a tendency towards desertification has been present throughout human history.


Excavations were initiated after the signing of the agreement in 1987. This work has been directed towards the different character of various sections of the city at different periods of time. The earliest phase encountered relates directly to the time of the city's foundation in the 9th century, when a number of small villages may have been incorporated in the new urban center. Although these discoveries have been made outside the town, traces of 9th century occupation have been located in many parts of Zabid.

For the 13th-15th century period, at the height of Zabid's fame, remains of mediaeval houses unearthed beneath what was the old city wall surviving in 1962, clearly document a time when ordinary neighborhoods stretched beyond the last city limits. An industrial workshop, located outside of the citadel, has been linked with copper coin production, and defines the area as being part of the government quarter, even before the present citadel was built.

To the north of Zabid, an abandoned settlement can probably be interpreted as the remains of a suburban villa. The relic has almost completely disappeared, but the discovery that the structure was built on sand provides important clues about the mediaeval environment.

Excavations inside the citadel have been directed towards answering the question of the citadel's foundation, and for how long a period this section of Zabid has been the government quarter. The activities of the 17th century garrison, which is known to have been besieged within the citadel at one time, are documented by traces of a cannonball workshop and numerous smoking pipes.

Pivotal in the study is the al-Iskandariyah citadel mosque, whose exterior walls were incorporated at one time as part of the defenses. Analysis suggests that it is a forgotten "royal" mosque in the government quarter of the city, rather than a minor structure in a military barracks. The cavalier treatment of a religious structure in this way seems to indicate that the defenses were erected in an act of desperation, perhaps at a time of acute weakness in the middle of the 19th century.

Architectural Studies and Restorations

Studies of the standing monuments in Zabid have included documentation of the four surviving city gates, and of eighty-six mosques located in and around the city. From the standpoint of form and style, some of the mosques are clearly mediaeval structures, with a known heritage that can be established from historical texts. Other buildings are relatively new structures, retaining a link with the historical past only in the use of their name. Many of the new mosques have no ancient heritage at all, except that they are built in a style that retains strong links with the past. Studies already completed allowed members of the Project to trace the development of mosques in the Tihamah from flat-roofed to triple-domed type.

The strength of the vernacular architectural tradition in Zabid is one of the town's most striking characteristics. A consistent re-use of old bricks and brick fragments, which are recycled from derelict structures, has given rise to a distinctive treatment for the facades of buildings. The small brick module lends itself readily to decorative use.

The original interest in restorations was prompted by the need to stop the imminent collapse of the derelict citadel. The restoration work has also allowed probes, not otherwise possible, to be made deep into the interior of structures. The story emerging from the buildings above ground, which speaks of constantly changing structures, is as important as that derived from the remnants unearthed beneath. The southeast quadrant of the citadel (Bab al-Nasr) is integral to the understanding of the history of the complex. An intimate knowledge of the customary building practices derived from this work has proved to be invaluable in understanding the past. Work proceeds with a minimum of interference to the normal operation of Government House, which is located in the newer, northwest part of the citadel. The restored rooms provide a practical work-base for the Project and have become a visible expression of the potential of a heritage conservation program

In 1997 the first restoration work was conducted inside the al- Iskandariyah mosque, which has been judged by style to have been originally built by the Rasulids in the 14th century. A unique inscription has been exposed next to the mihrab prayer niche; it announces sponsorship of a madrasa in the building, in the name of emir Iskandar, in the year 940 AH/AD 1533. A start on cleaning the painted ceiling decorations has already been made.

Historical Studies

The primary academic focus of the Project is an archaeological one, and includes the time from the city's foundation date in the early 9th century until the 17th century, when changing economic and political fortunes saw the settlement reduced from a dynastic and cultural capital to a modest provincial town with an important past. Several eyewitness accounts or personal histories written during the city's hey-day provide unique insights into the history of the settlement. This makes significant interpretation possible even from a relatively small amount of archaeological data. The carved stone text inside the al-Iskandariyah mosque, which lists tracts of land donated in the 16th century towards support of a religious college, is a priceless document for illuminating the significance of the farmland in the economic life of Zabid.

Continuing Objectives

Since the scope of the Project encompasses a wide range of topics, ranging from urban architecture to rural economy, the focus of study for any given season depends very heavily upon a number of practical considerations. In this exploratory situation, formal theory is less important than demonstrable progress. The overriding choice of where to work remains availability of funds, followed by accessibility from the Project headquarters in the Citadel, and the ability to conserve and adequately display the exposed remains. The Project cannot afford to work in complete isolation from Yemen's own aspirations for a preservation of cultural heritage program. Topics targeted for attention have been chosen to reflect a balance between academic considerations and public interest.

Until twenty-five years ago, the land of Yemen remained as an obscure backwater in the Middle East, hostile to outsiders of any kind, self- confident in the importance of its historical past, but disadvantaged in global terms. Although the recent discovery of oil in Yemen promises to raise the national and economic expectations of the country once more, it is crucial not to allow the obvious beneficial changes that will occur to be outweighed by the disadvantages that all too often accompany modern development. The Project has already established a successful working relationship with the Yemeni authorities on a national and local level. Since there still exists in Zabid a strong cultural identity, there is a unique opportunity here to maintain an ongoing cultural program. The demonstrated success of the Project guarantees return on investment.

Cultural Heritage Preservation: The Zabid Citadel

Building Conservation

The Project's work in the Citadel has already helped prepare the ground for wider acceptance of the validity of a building conservation program for all of Zabid. The immediate challenge is to complete the restoration of the remaining third of the structures in the defined area. The end result will be a preserved historic monument which serves the immediate needs for a structured focus for visitors.

It is judged by the Project to be very important that a variety of uses for the structures of the Citadel be maintained. The constant flow of residents to Government House, the Law Courts, and the Prison give the compound a life that cannot be replaced simply by providing facilities for tourists. Wherever possible, plans will be made to integrate both functions, for visitors of all kinds.

Visitor Facility


As a result of the work undertaken since 1987, CAMROM operates its field project from a base in the restored part of the Zabid citadel, and has opened a small on-site museum for the benefit of visitors. The creation of a permanent archaeological base in the town affords the Project a high profile and allows the results of the work to be visible, even when fieldwork is not being actively conducted. Apart from the daily curiosity of foreign tourists, immense interest in the Project is shown by the dignitaries and ordinary citizens of Zabid, who express pride in the preservation of a significant remnant of their cultural heritage. Facilities within the on-site museum are to be upgraded, with improved signage and availability of information about the Project and its findings.

There is a record from the 1940s of the Citadel housing a tropical fruit garden. Initial attempts to recreate a sense of greenery and shade in the center void have been very successful. It is hoped that, in addition to providing a place of relaxation for visitors, the garden will also be a forum for explanation about plant varieties native to the area of Zabid. Provisions will be made for growing and displaying both desert and irrigated varieties of plants. For this purpose it will be necessary to upgrade the water supply by drilling a well and installing a pump. The garden experience will be integrated with that of the museum.

Citadel Mosque

The citadel mosque is a building worthy of attention in its own right, as part of the study of Zabid's architectural heritage. Continuing restorations will enable the Project to study the details of its decorations more closely, establishing its cultural significance, at the same time as completing the first major step in a professional conservation program for the mosques of Zabid. But, apart from any academic interest for the Project, conservation of the carved and painted wall and ceiling decorations in the mosque is called for on account of its suitability for promotion as a "museum" structure.

As a result of repairs made to the structure, both by the Project and by the Yemeni Mosque Authorities, a small group of mature students has recently formed a learning circle in the mosque. This recreates the sense of the 16th century dedication of a school inside the mosque. It is proposed that part of the restored buildings of the Citadel be dedicated in future to serve the purpose of a student residence, adjacent to the mosque. To serve this end, it will be necessary to relocate the Prison to the restored west end of the Citadel.

Training Program

CAMROM acknowledges that a primary obstacle in the development of an effective archaeological and cultural heritage program remains the lack of sufficient training that has been available in Yemen. However, it is equally important to recognize that archaeology and building conservation are disciplines in which practical experience plays an important role. CAMROM's presence in Zabid furnishes a unique opportunity to provide that practical training on site. Training needs to focus upon three aspects: archaeological fieldwork, building conservation, and museum studies. In addition, provisions need to be made available to permit those attached to the Project to improve their language skills. This applies both to English for Yemenis and Arabic for Canadians.

Contacts: Edward J. Keall, Royal Ontario Museum

CAMROM Project Reports Available On-Line

"In the Yemeni Desert: Water, Water, Everywhere," by E. J. Keall. ROM Archaeological Newsletter, Series II, no. 51 (February 1994).

"The Thrones of Zabid," by E. J. Keall. ROM Archaeological Newsletter, Series III, No. 1 (February 1996). Has selected bibliography for the project.

"Island Story: Yemeni Style," by E. J. Keall. ROM Archaeological Newsletter, Series III, No. 5 (August 1997). Has selected further reading on the area and topic.

"Mud, Sand, and Sod's Law in Dusty Old Zabid" (E. J..Keall), Yemen Update 30/31 (1992) 24-26.

Project funding (past sponsors): The Royal Ontario Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum Foundation; The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; The National Geographic Society; The Royal Netherlands Embassy, Yemen.

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