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The Dynamics of Zabid and Its Hinterland: The Survey of a Town on the Tihamah Plain of

North Yemen
Author(s): Edward J. Keall
Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 14, No. 3, Islamic Archaeology (Feb., 1983), pp. 378-392
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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The dynamics of Zabid and its hinterland: the
survey of a town on the Tihamah plain of
North Yemen

Edward J. Keall


In archaeological terms, the Tihamah plain of North Yemen has been greatly neglected. Yemen
is one of those areas in the world where the country's main archaeological attraction, namely
the site of Ma'rib, has tended to obscure other remains out of all proportion to their relative
scientific significance. The Ma'rib dam and the associated history of the Sabaean kingdoms,
interwoven as they are with the romantic traditions of the Queen of Sheba, have quite clearly
been the preferred focus of attention for most archaeologists gaining access to this somewhat
obscure corner of the Arabian peninsula. Given the fact that the Sabaean monuments are
invariably built of stone and that the inscriptional decorations are a rich source of factual
information, archaeology in North Yemen has often been the preserve of the epigrapher. Often,
in fact, the discovery of new inscriptions has been regarded as more exciting than the interpret-
ation of the presence of the sites at which the texts were found. While the Tihamah plain may
yet reveal significant traces of settlement from the several centuries covering the Sabaean to
Himyaritic periods (7th century BC-6th century AD), most indications are that the coastal
plain was then somewhat of a backwater, and that the incense trade and the intensively-
irrigated agriculture (which was in part funded by the income from that trade), were concen-
trated in the Highlands and in the wadi basins to the east. By contrast, the Tihamah is known
to have been important in Islamic times, possibly partly as a result of the introduction of new
types of crops and related farming techniques.
The archaeology of the Islamic period is a notoriously under-developed branch of the general
discipline, and for this reason as well as for the one previously expounded, the Tihamah plain
has not been subjected to the type of systematic survey which has proved elsewhere to be so
effective in determining the patterns of historical human settlement. No small part of this may
be due to the fact that the climate of the Tihamah is unbearably hot and humid in summer-
time, a practical consideration which deters some researchers who have to work in the summer,
or at the very best tends to reduce their effectiveness. The year is punctuated twice by brief
monsoon rains, in spring and autumn. The winter is comfortably warm, making archaeological
work feasible, though sand-filled winds often reduce visibility and make working conditions
difficult. What has made the Tihamah a feasible place for systematic archaeological studies is

World Archaeology Volume 14 No. 3 Islamic archaeology

?R.K.P. 1983 0043-8243/83/1403-378 $1.50/1

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The dynamics of Zabid 379

the present government's open attitude towards archaeological expeditions, and the develop-
ment programmes which since the 1967 revolution have resulted in paved roads and the avail-
ability of vehicles and supplies. The Tihamah is particularly attractive to the Islamicist because
of the presence of the town of Zabid, which according to tradition was founded in the early
9th century AD as the seat of an independent dynasty. Associated with the Ziyadid dynasty
was the circumvallation of the town and the subsequent development of Zabid as a centre of
industry, commerce and learning. Later, other dynasties came to assume power in Zabid. For
centuries the history of the town was intimately linked with the fortunes of these dynasties
and their struggles to control the economy and reins of government. Medieval historians who
described the physical features of Zabid and the actions of its rulers give us invaluable insights
into how to interpret the findings derived from survey work.
The Zabid project of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is concerned with the dynamics of
the settlement as a medieval town and its interrelationship with the hinterland, as well as with
determining the nature of the material culture of the region in which Zabid is centred. The area
under study in 1982 was bounded by Khawkhah and Hays in the south, and by Bayt al-Faqih
in the north (Figs. 1 and 2). The major aims of the expedition were to locate sites, to establish
a ceramic typology and to examine standing architectural remains.
So far, without permission to excavate, the team's findings have been limited to observations
made from examinations of surface features and of free-standing remains. In conjunction with
information drawn from medieval texts, the success of the team in establishing working hypoth-
eses regarding settlement patterns and ceramic typologies has been satisfying. The pottery has
been sufficiently analysed to enable us to date sites with some certainty, which means that
systematic surveys will be able to put sound site analysis into effect. A study of ceramics and
of the architecture is already enabling the project to draw conclusions about the way in which
imperial and local dynastic interest in the area affected the settlement patterns and the material

Historical review

During the formative years of the Islamic occupation, when various political and religious
power structures were being established, Yemen remained very much out of the mainstream
of imperial Islamic concerns. The Abbasid Caliphate, based in Baghdad, had more pressing
problems in the administration of its empire elsewhere. However, a revolt amongst the Asha'irah
tribe on the Tihamah plain was considered sufficiently dangerous by the Abbasid Caliph al-
Ma'mun to prompt him to dispatch a certain Ibn Ziyad, in AD 820, to settle the troubles. What
transpired was what happened so often in Islamic history, namely that once the mission was
successfully accomplished, the leader of the expedition refused to take further orders from the
imperial government. Ibn Ziyad declared himself an independent ruler in Yemen. Traditionally
he is accredited with the foundation of Zabid as a town, where previously there had been only
In the early 11 th century, after nearly two hundred years of continuous Ziyadid rule, power
was assumed (following an assassination) by Najah, a former Abyssinian slave, who resumed the
recognition of Baghdad as the seat of the orthodox Caliphate. That such an act was significant
in terms of Yemeni history is underlined by the fact that the fanatical Isma'ili movement had

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380 Edward J. Keall

Figure 1 The medieval pilgrimage routes through Yemen.

already begun its machinations to control the country. Eventually, during the fierce interplay
that took place between the Najahids and the Sulayhids (whom the Isma'ili Fatimids had
installed in the Highlands), Najah was himself murdered. It was a period of intense instability
as rival factions contested the control of the Tihamah.

The struggle for that control culminated in the middle of the 12th century with the overthrow
of the last Najahid by the Sufi Ali ibn Mahdi. His devastating rampages through the countryside,
including the siege of Zabid in 1160, needless to say had unsettling effects upon the economy
and administration of the Tihama. Ironically, the Mahdi lived for only a year following the fall
of Zabid, but the appeal of its citizens for help from the outside had already set in motion what
was to produce an invasion and the occupation of the Tihamah by a foreign power.
It was the Ayyubids of Egypt who responded to the appeal. They were staunchly orthodox
in their religious attitudes, and their interest in acquiring a base in Yemen was in part a reflection

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The dynamics of Zabid 381

Figure 2 The survey area, Tihamah plain, 1982. Numbers represent areas where sites were sherded.

of their aspirations to ensure, now that the Isma'ili Fatimid threat had been eliminated,
that control of the pilgrimage cities of Mecca and Medinah lay in the hands of orthodox
Sunnis. In 1173, Saladin sent his nephew as commander of the forces to occupy a fragmented

However, deputies within the Ayyubid administration took affairs into their own hands,
declining further to recognize the superior authority of the Cairo-based Ayyubids. Power was
transferred without a struggle, largely because the takeover occurred within the military
structure. At this time three members of the Rasulid family were part of the occupying forces,
having reached their modest but influential positions as a result of loyal service in the Ayyubid
army, going back to its days in Syria in the 1160s. When the Ayyubid governor of Yemen was

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382 Edward J. Keall

dispatched on a mission to reclaim Mecca from the Sharifs, but died on the campaign, th
Rasulid brothers found themselves in control of the Tihamah.
The 14th century marks a new period in the history of Yemen, with Rasulid power and
influence extending as far as the Hadramaut and Dhofar. In adopting Yemen as its home, the
Rasulid dynasty was to become the most positive force in the formulation of a distinctive
material culture in the Tihamah, stemming from over two centuries of development and invest-
ment. Taizz was the Rasulid capital in summer, and Zabid in winter. Finally, however, the
expansion of Mamluk influence in the Hejaz was such that Rasulid power was weakened, and
the dynasty was replaced when Amir ibn Tahir made himself independent in AD 1454.
While the Tahirid rule represents another phase of 'indigenous' control, it was short lived.
At the beginning of the 16th century a new factor entered the politics of the Red Sea. Follow-
ing the dramatic rounding in 1498 of what was to be called by Europeans the 'Cape of Good
Hope', the Portuguese entered the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. As a bulwark against
Portuguese penetration into the Red Sea, the Mamluks regarded the Yemen as a vital possession.
(Portuguese control of the Red Sea would have meant that the Mamluks were themselves cut
off from direct access to the spice islands.) The latter's trade monopoly had been broken, and
now their own internal security was being threatened. The subsequent invasion of Yemen by
the Mamluks, designed to establish a power base there, appeared to set the stage once more for
a period of Egyptian-based foreign domination. Htowever, in the following year, the Mamluks
themselves were ousted from Egypt by the expansionist movement of the Ottoman Turks,
whose control of the Mediterranean was growing rapidly in the 16th century. The foreign force
then which came to occupy Yemen was, in fact, the Ottoman Turkish one. From the point of
view of the internal administration of the Tihamah, there is an extremely interesting interlude
when a part of the military occupying forces of the Mamluk invasion of 1516 acknowledged
the rights of the Ottomans and ruled there independently on the latter's behalf until the
Sublime Porte was able to establish a governor there in 1533.
Later, significant developments in the Tihamah include the 1608 establishment of British
and Dutch trade missions at Mukha (Moccha). Obviously, this semi-colonial presence speaks
clearly of the demise of Yemeni independence. Mukha, as the new centre of commerce, was
enormously prosperous because of the high profitability of the coffee trade. (Its name, of
course, is synonymous with coffee.) But it was a fickle prosperity, which faded as soon as
coffee trees were established in other parts of the globe, especially in the New World. Even
before that, the concentration of commerce in Mukha had begun to spell the decline of Zabid,
which thereafter became no more than a provincial town, albeit a centre of traditional learning.
Then, in 1635, came an indigenously inspired move which ousted the Ottoman administration.
But this particular move came from the Shi'ite Zayidi highlanders who made San'a' the capital
of the Zayidi Imamate. The predominantly Sunni Tihamah was neglected even by the internal
Yemeni administrators. Zabid had long since ceased to be a dynastic capital, and it remained
a very modest town by world standards (though still occupied), and only the pressures of the
Ottomans to return, as they did in 1848, brought the Tihamah and Zabid into focus again. The
second Ottoman occupation lasted until 1918, when the empire collapsed during World War I.
The main port of the second Ottoman administration was Hodaydah, which has remained
the capital of the province to this day.

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The dynamics of Zabid 383

Ceramic analysis

The sherd survey relied upon a four-wheel-drive vehicle which was used to follow tracks through
the cultivated areas, as well as to make deliberate attempts to reach port sites. Sites were
examined cursorily to gain an immediate impression as to the approximate date. Intensive
sherd pick-up was conducted only if the assemblage appeared to include new types, or if the
site seemed to present a particularly good sample of a known pottery type. The choice of site
was in no way dictated by a systematic 'random' selection principle. Once sherded, sites were
located on a 1:50,000 map through reference to the UTM Zone 38 Grid of a Transverse
Mercator projection. By choosing an arbitrary co-ordinate just east of Zabid as the base, the
maps were divided up into a grid system of 500-m squares, such that the site of Ghulayfiqah
on the coast (Fig. 2, site no. 18) is defined as N.56 W.67 (28 km north of grid origin, and 33.5
km west). Three mounds immediately north of Zabid were designated N.03 W.05: A, B, and C
(cf. Fig. 3). Now that a working typology for the pottery of the region has been established,
the next step will be to initiate a more systematic survey. (A sherd selection representative of
the typology has been housed in the National Museum in San'a'.) An impression of the variety
of ceramic types can be seen in Fig. 4. Most of the pottery has been dated by using a seriation
process, with fossil indicators provided by a handful of imported wares.
One of the most characteristic pottery types to be associated with Zabid and its hinterland
is a glazed ware of which the design shows as a light blue motif against a dark blue background
(Fig. 4, no. 8). It appears to be a deliberate imitation of the 'underglaze painted black and
turquoise' wares which are traditionally associated with the 12th and 13th centuries in Syria,
Mesopotamia and Persia. In the traditional versions, the positive element of the design was
produced by the application of a black paint over a white background (beneath a transparent,
turquoise glaze). The Yemeni potters used their white paint to produce the positive element
of the design, a slight but subtle difference. Despite the fact that they too were mass produced,
the Syrian wares were superior in technique to the local Yemeni versions. For want of a better
term, 'Blue Tihamah' ware can be usefully applied to the type.
Often found in conjunction with the Blue Tihamah type was another slip-painted ware in
which the white slip-paint appears as light yellow against a green background beneath its
transparent yellow glaze. This 'Green-Yellow Tihamah' type is often characterized by the use
of a distinctive motif in the bottom of the bowl, such as a six-pointed star (Fig. 4, no. 10).
Cruder, coarser versions of the Blue and Green-Yellow wares (with the yellow becoming more
a 'Bleeding Green', e.g., Fig. 4, no. 13) indicate that the 13th-century wares were continued as
local, traditional types perhaps even well after the 15th century. The terminal date has not yet
been ascertained; nor has a finite chronological distinction yet been made between the Blue
and Green-Yellow types, for occasionally the latter occur in a discrete sample without others
A locally made unglazed pottery with elaborately combed and deeply incised designs can be
associated with the Blue Tihamah ware, and thus belongs in a similar time frame (Fig. 5, no. 9).
These unglazed pots are often characterized by a light-coloured pink slip on the outside. Intricate
patterns with inscriptions drawn in a scratched outline and the background filled in with
punctate marks (Fig. 5, no. 12) or with stamped designs (Fig. 5, no. 14) can be compared with
similar examples from the site of Hama in Syria, which has a terminal date of AD 1401 (Riis
and Poulsen 1957).

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384 Edward J. Keall

Figure 3 Mounds and sherd scatters outside the walled confines of Zabid.

Another type of glazed ware has proved to be useful in the seriation process, though o
be less sure of the origin of the type owing to the fact that 'sgraffiato' wares have a c
history in the Middle East. The type found in east Zabid has a red body clay, a white ov
slip with a design scratched through [hence, 'sgraffiato'], together with green and brown
in a transparent glaze (Fig. 4, no. 9). Occasionally the rim of the bowl is scalloped. Rivet

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The dynamics of Zabid 385

in one fragment, indicating repairs, are a reflection of the relatively high value of these vessels,
which were probably imported from northern Syria in the 1 1th century. Identical in technique
is a bowl from Hama (Riis and Poulsen 1957: Fig. 1105B). Comparable material can be found
in the discoveries from the Syrian site of al-Mina (Lane 1938). The surface evidence in the
Tihamah would suggest that the sgraffiato wares found there are no later than the 12th century.
The prototypes, including examples with scalloped rims, come from 10th-llth-century Iran
(Lane 1947a: P1. 31). The discovery at Ghulayfiqah (Fig. 2, site no. 18) of two fragments of
Classic Fatimid lustreware (Fig. 4, no. 7) makes an llth-12th-century date for the associated
sgraffiato wares quite feasible (see also pp. 330-1, in this volume).
The unglazed wares previously described, which can now be assigned a 12th-14th-century
date through association with the glazed wares, are distinguished by the deep scorings and
intricacies of their designs, and by the pink slip. This sets them apart from another local version
of unglazed pottery on which the design is limited to a broad wavy groove on a red vessel,
whose body fabric is red throughout (Fig. 5, no. 10). Wasters of this type were found at Zabid
on the mounds east of the highway, where none of the Blue Tihamah wares was in evidence.
A pre-12-century date is hypothesized. Small, but nevertheless distinctive, fragments of
wares imported from Iraq, recovered from this east Zabid area, enable one hypothetically
to isolate the wavy-band pottery to the 8th-llth centuries AD. The Iraqi material includes
both 8th-century relief glazed wares (Fig. 4, no. 3) which are described as 'hibs' (water-
storage jars) in catalogues, as well as a single 9th-century Samarra lustreware fragment (Fig.
4, no. 2).
A third major type of unglazed ware has proved to be diagnostic for the pre-Islamic period,
presumably Himyaritic. It is characterized by the red burnished exterior of the vessel, a series
of deep but simple punctate impressions, and a broad range of handle types (Fig. 5, no. 1)
Similar types are given a lst-2nd century AD date by Selma al-Radi of the National Museum,
through association with inscriptional material found north of the 1982 ROM study area.
Only one site containing single period pottery of this type was located within the survey area
(Fig. 2, site no. 12); it was quite extensive, with a sherd scatter covering 4 hectares.
At the other end of the time-scale, sites were noticeable for the presence or absence of
'export blue and white' wares from China, which are by far the most predominant pottery
represented on the surface of the mounds at Mukha. There, the oriental porcelains range in
date from the 15th-19th centuries, though the 17th and 18th centuries are the historically
attested period of Mukha's short-lived prosperity. Comparable Chinese export wares have been
excavated at Kilwa, an Islamic trading city on the East African coast (Chittick 1974). An
important find at Mukha, from the cemetery area on the north side of the Grand Mosque, was
an almost complete 'footed cup' of the type generally associated with the town of Hays. This
particular piece, which has the distinctive footed goblet shape, together with punctate designs
and an overall green glaze, can be designated 'medium Hays' because of the medium coarse
quality of its fabric. Extremely fine pieces of Hays ware have been found elsewhere, as well
as the dreadfully coarse types, which the dying ceramic industry at Hays still produces. The
earliest date for the Hays wares has not yet been established, but sites where large quantities
of relatively good quality Hays wares are found appear to have been occupied at least between
the 13th and 15th centuries. The remarkably distinctive shape of the small stemmed cup is
unique in the Islamic world (Fig. 4, no. 14), though one must note the closeness of profile
to the much larger Mamluk cups. It is clearly a distinctively Yemeni type, though presumably

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386 Edward J. Keall

inspired by external contact. It is conceivable that the original inspiration for the incised de
comes from the early imported sgraffiato wares.

Historical perspective on the ceramic data

Certain historical nuances can already be extracted from the sherd counts made at a selectio
sites. Quite clearly the broadest range of ceramic types belongs to the Rasulid period of the
13th-1 5th centuries. Moreover, the majority of sites were found to have been occupied during
this period. Indeed on present evidence it would appear that the Rasulids were responsible for
a greater density of occupation of the area under study than at any time before or since. The
medieval writer al-Khazraji provides the literary insight into the significance of this phenomenon
when he describes how Tughtakin, the general of the occupying Ayyubid forces, determined to
confiscate and rent out all Yemeni agricultural land in order to maximize his revenues (Stookey
1978). The Rasulids followed his practice in extracting as much revenue as was practical.
Regulations were introduced which were designed to create uniformity and standardization,
which in turn would allow revenues to be increased.

Initially the Rasulid policy of heavy taxation was also matched by high investment. But
already by the end of the 13th century the tax-collectors had begun to impose such additional
burdens upon the farmers that the exacted tax exceeded the productive capacity of the taxable
land. The result was that at the turn of the 14th centuiy there was a great deal of hardship and
resentment amongst the people, and punitive expeditions were sent out to put down the

Fig. 4 Sherd descriptions: glazed pottery, both imported and locally produced

1 Red clay, green glaze, relief decoration with Arabic inscription. N36 W03, near Huseiniyeh (Fig. 2, area
16). Umayyad, C. 8.
2 Buff clay, lustre paint in 'golden brown and greenish yellow. N01 W02, Zabid East (Fig. 2, area 10).
Abbasid, C. 9.
3 Yellow clay, turquoise glaze outside, paler inside, with applied studs. N01 W02, Zabid East (Fig. 2, area
10). Umayyad, C. 7-8.
4 Pinkish buff clay, white slip, scored grooves and lines, yellow glaze. N56 W67, Ghulayfiqah (Fig. 2, area
18). Egyptian sgraffiato, C. 11-12.
5 White glazed porcelain with vertical surface parings. N56 W67, Ghulayfiqah (Fig. 2, area 18). Chinese
porcelain, C. 11-12.
6 Yellow clay, overall white glaze. N56 W67, Ghulayfiqah (Fig. 2, area 18). Egyptian imitation porcelain,
C. 11-12.
7 Yellow clay, white slip, yellow lustre paint. N56 W67, Ghulayfiqah (Fig. 2, area 18). Egyptian Fatim
lustre, C. 11-12.
8 Red clay, white slip-painted decoration beneath thin blue glaze. S59 E40, near Hays (Fig. 2, area 2).
'Blue Tihamah', Rasulid, C. 12-13.
9 Red clay, white slip, sgraffiato design with green, brown and yellow stains. N56 W67, Ghulayfiqah (Fig.
2, area 18), 'Hatched sgraffiato', Syrian, C. 11-12.
10 Red clay, green paint under thin yellow glaze. N03 W05, Zabid North (Fig. 2, area 8). 'Green-Yellow
Tihamah', C. 13-14.
11 Buff clay, white slip, blue paint beneath glossy transparent glaze with green stain. S59 E40, near Hays
(Fig. 2, area 2). 'Tihamah Blue and White', C. 13-15.
12 Grey stoneware. N03 W05, Zabid North (Fig. 2, area 8). 'Grenade', C. 12-13.
13 Red clay, white slip, green paint bleeding into the transparent, colourless glaze. S58 E40, near Hays (Fig.
2, area 2). 'Bleeding-Green Tihamah', C. 13-15.
14 Pinkish buff clay, olive green glaze, scored decoration. N02 W04, Zabid North (Fig. 2, area 8). 'Medium
Hays', C. 13-15.

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The dynamics of Zabid 387

5 6





Figure 4 A selection of diagnostic glazed sherds.

troubles. This resulted in the dispersal of settled farmers and their return to marginal sub-
sistence which involved raiding other productive land. This reinforced the tendency for the
sedentary population to take flight. The result was a complete reversal of the previous century's
developments, when the Sultan had deliberately promoted the settlement of marginal land
by awarding tax concessions, albeit for ulterior motives. Although the specific date need not

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388 Edward J. Keall

5 X,


" 'S





13 14

-es~ar _anra 84 ~ cm

Figure 5 A selection of diagnostic unglazed sherds.

be taken literally - al-Khazraji states that the decline of the Tihamah began in 1353, when a
punitive expedition was sent against the Asha'ir tribe in the Wadi Rima' - there is a margin of
general truth in it. The archaeological record would tend to confirm that the Tihamah was
considerably less settled in the 15th century than it was in the 13th.
It is hypothesized that the majority of sites inland tend to lie far enough from the mountains
to have flat ground for farming and ease of communication, but near enough to them to have
access to good sub-surface water and flood run-off for irrigation purposes. Coastal settlements

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The dynamics of Zabid 389

seem to have shifted from time to time as reef and sand-bar conditions changed. A wide range
of sand dunes separates the coast from the irrigable lands nearer the mountains. Today the
number of tracks penetrating the dunes is very limited. One can assume that sites are to be
found between the ports and the centres inland which they served. It is not yet clear, however,
whether the extent of the dunes has increased since medieval times. The dunes do shift, cover-
ing up sites from time to time. But it is also their nature to keep moving, so that the total area
covered may not necessarily be any greater than before, so long as environmental conditions
have remained the same. As far as the Rasulid period is concerned, sites can be located with
persistent frequency along the route of the old pilgrimage road which led from Taizz via Hays
and Zabid. In addition to Zabid itself, major sites are known to be located southeast of Hays,
at Huseiniyeh, east of Mansouriyeh, and at Mahjam (see Fig. 1). Clearly, on the basis of historical
texts, it will be possible, eventually, to assign the historical names to these sites. Other smaller
sites have been located in between. Generally speaking, it would appear that the larger sites
are located on the higher ground adjacent to the fans of alluvial soil which have been set down
by flood-course deposition originating in the highlands. Down-cutting by these wadi flood
courses in recent historical times has resulted in a terrain punctuated by wide, dry gully beds,
with higher reaches of gravels and fans of alluvium at regular intervals (cf. Fig. 2). Today, even
in the monsoon season, water rarely flows in the flood channels west of the main road, since it
is tapped for agricultural purposes. Sites here must have been dependent upon well water for
most of the year. The number of the sites would have been dependent upon the quality of the
water table, and would themselves have had a direct bearing on the continuing level of that table.
In view of the fact that the historical texts speak of different ports in use at different times,
location of the port sites was an essential part of the 1982 expedition. Along the coast, modest
habitation is made possible by the presence of fresh water close to the surface, but it is a very
narrow strip of land that supports vegetation in this way.
From texts dealing with a complicated story about the intrigues of two Fatimid missionaries
to Yemen, we learn that Ghulayfiqah, where they arrived, was the port of Zabid at that time.
Eighth- to twelfth-century sherds have been located here. But we also know from the texts that
later ports were developed elsewhere, and it is difficult to judge accurately from surface indi-
cations whether the twelfth century was the terminal date of the port's use. Given the nature

Fig. 5 Sherd descriptions: unglazed pottery, locally produced

1 Grey core, burnished reddish-brown exterior. N17 W04, north of Zabid (Fig. 2, area 12). Himyaritic,
AD. C. 1-2.
2 Grey core, red exterior. N01 W02, Zabid East (Fig. 2, area 10). C. 9-10.
3 Red. N01 W02, Zabid East (Fig. 2, area 10). C. 9-19.
4 Buff, punctate design, fire blackened. N02 W05, Zabid North (Fig. 2, area 8). Pre-AD 1400.
5 Grey core, buff exterior, fire blackened (as no. 4).
6 Reddish-brown (as no. 4).
7 Grey, with fine impressed mesh decoration (as no. 4).
8 Coarse red. N02 W04, Zabid North (Fig. 2, area 8). Probably traditional modern.
9 Pink, cream slip, incised decoration. N01 W05, Zabid North (Fig. 2, area 8). C. 12-13.
10 Red, grooved decoration. N01 W02, Zabid East (Fig. 2, area 10). C. 11-12.
11 Grey core, red, grooved decoration on rim. N35 W01, near Huseiniyeh (Fig. 2, area 14). C. 9-11.
12 Pink, cream slip, scratched decoration with Arabic inscription. Mahjam (north of study area, see Fig. 1).
C. 12-13.
13 Grey core, reddish brown, scratched design. N01 W03, Zabid East (Fig. 2, area 10). C. 9-11.
14 Pinkish red, stamped design. S01 W03, Zabid South (Fig. 2, area 6) C. 12-13.

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390 Edward J. Keall

of the coast, with its coral reefs, sand-bars and eroding waterfront, it may well be
larger ships anchored off-shore, with smaller boats bringing goods to land. The goods
made their way further inland to the major settlements, and this may have taken plac
quickly. There was perhaps no need for permanent settlement in the manner of a Medi
port city. The Red Sea trade was intermittent, being dependent upon seasonal monso
it is difficult to imagine the permanent port residents, except for the government
being other than those from the lower rungs of society. Under these circumstances
fulfilling cycle of growth would not have been present, and the port itself would have
quite modest. Solid structures may have been limited to the customs facilities, like a
border-crossing. The need to indulge in this convoluted guessing-game stems from the
the mounds at Ghulayfiqah, though moderately extensive (about 1 hectare), reveal n
of the important antique structures one would expect to find in such a now isol
Brick-robbing can hardly have been the reason for the lack of visible remains, unles
activities were so well organized as to involve ships. A sondage is urgently called for
well as in Zabid, to help clarify the situation.
In Zabid there is a problem in interpreting the heavy sherd density on the slopes of
called 'moat' which surrounds the town. Parts of it are still visible, though they are
appearing with the development of Zabid's perimeter and with the persistent, indisc
dumping of trash by the town's residents. But the more serious drawback to the prop
standing of the 'moat' stems from the fact that chance sections cut through the dyke
moat reveal that they consist of nothing more than random accumulations of ancien
They are the middens of the medieval period which have been concentrated outside th
main four gates, and in a deliberate configuration conforming generally to the circular
the walls themselves. No doubt the depressed area between the rings of sherd-covered
reflects some deliberate function, perhaps to receive surplus water during flood time.
between the gates is no longer visible, though the aerial photograph of ten years ag
reveals its robbed-out trace. By all accounts, this wall and its associated gates date no
than the early 19th century, before the arrival of the second Ottoman occupation.
Sherds collected from the mounds north of the modern town, including the area
the northern branch of the wadi course, indicate that by far the largest suburban s
occurred during the Rasulid period. This extensive settlement is likely to have consi
the most part of plantations and villas of the kind referred to in texts. It remains to
tained whether the water table was higher at the time, permitting irrigation to be m
sive than it is today, but was depleted by excessive exploitation, or whether adverse
conditions brought on a reduction in the land farmed. It may usefully be added that th
east of the main Hodaydah-Ta'izz highway have produced evidence of settlement only
to the 12th century (Fig. 3). It is possible that this area represents the site of one of th
which existed before the actual founding of Zabid as a town in the 9th century. On
side of Zabid where the earliest material has been recovered, the disused shaft of a w
fortunately reveals nothing but conglomerate gravels in the side of the shaft. The g
concentration of sherds occurs on the agricultural dykes where the soil has been hea
and, through erosion, a greater density of sherds has been left on the surface.

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The dynamics of Zabid 391


This preliminary survey has raised as many questions as answers to existing problems. But it has
demonstrated that examination of the historical texts, in conjunction with observations made
in the field, can be most illuminating. The relative fluctuations of investment and development
in the Tihamah, alluded to in the texts, can be amply illustrated by the site and sherd counts.
It is apparent that not only was there a strong local ceramic tradition in the medieval period on
the Tihamah, but also that there were numerous sites which had been abandoned by about the
16th century. It is quite clear, too, that metropolitan Zabid once extended over a much larger
area than it did ten years ago (see Fig. 3), and that this extensive development took place in
the Rasulid period. The Royal Ontario Museum has been able to come to grips with some of
the logistics of working in the area, but the greatest promise lies in being able to conduct at
least sondages at selected sites in order best to be able to identify the dynamics of Zabid and
its hinterland.


The Royal Ontario Museum 1982 expedition wishes to acknowledge in the Yemen Arab Republic
the co-operation of Qadi Isma"il al-Akwa', Director of the General Administration for Antiquities
and Libraries, whose offices provided the research permit. Invaluable help was also given by
Bilqis al-Hadrani of the Yemeni Centre for Studies and Research and by Leigh Douglas, Director
of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies.

18.vii. 1982 Royal Ontario Museum



*Chelhod, J. 1978. Introduction a l'histoire sociale et urbaine de Zabid, Arabica. 25(1): 48-88.

Chittick, Neville. 1974. Kilwa: an Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast. Nairobi:
British Institute in Eastern Africa.

*Kay, H. C. 1968. Yaman: its Early Mediaeval History by Najm ad-Din 'Omarah al-Hakami.
London [ 1892]; repr. Farnborough, Hants: Gregg International.

Lane, Arthur. 1938. Medieval finds at Al Mina in North Syria, Archaeologia. 87:19-78.

Lane, Arthur. 1947a. Early Islamic Pottery: Mesopotamia, Egypt and Persia. London: Faber.
Lane, Arthur. 1947b. Later Islamic Pottery: Persia, Syria, Egypt, Turkey. London: Faber.

*Redhouse, Sir J.W. 1906. The Pearl Strings: a history of the Resuliyy dynasty of Yemen by
'Ali ibn Hasan al-Khazraji. Leyden.

Riis, P.J. and Poulsen, Vagn. 1957. Hama, Fouilles et recherches 1931-8: IV/2. Les verreries
et poteries medievales. Copenhagen: Nationalmuseet.

*Salibi, Kamal S. 1980. A History of Arabia. Beirut: Caravan Books.

*Background and supplementary references.

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392 Edward J. Keall

*Smith, G. R. 1974. The Ayyubids and Early Rasulids in the Yemen. London: Gibb Mem

Stookey, Robert W. 1978. The Politics of the Yemen Arab Republic. Boulder, Colo.: Westview


Keall, Edward J.

The dynamics of Zabid and its hinterland: the survey of a town on the Tihamah plain of North

The Royal Ontario Museum Zabid project began in 1982 with its focus upon the town of Zabid
on the central Tihamah plain of North Yemen (Yemen Arab Republic). Using sherd counts
collected from field surveys, the project has been successful in establishing a working typology
for the pottery found in the area of Zabid and in the surrounding 2,500 square kilometres. On
that basis, some preliminary hypotheses regarding the settlement patterns from the 1st century
AD to the pre-modern era have already been formulated. A study of the standing architectural
remains has already been begun.
The long-term objective is to identify more completely the nature and extent of the settle-
ments associated with Zabid, in order to be able to evaluate the dynamics involved in the
foundation, growth and development of an 'Islamic city'. The project still needs to define the
extent of the catchment area which may be demonstrated to have been influenced by the same
external imperial or local dynastic factors as Zabid. So far, the indications are that the greatest
influence upon the settlement pattern and the material culture stemmed from the Rasulid
dynasty (13th-1 5th centuries AD), which had its winter capital in Zabid.

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