The University of Chicago Magazine

October 1997


Town and Country

An Oriental Institute team explores the agriculture of early Arabia and discovers the towns that resulted.

During much of the first millennium b.c., the kingdom of Saba`, or Sheba, was one of the major empires in southwestern Arabia. Known for its spices and agriculture-as well as for the queen who visited King Solomon-the Sabaean kingdom, along with the Minaean, Qataban, and Hadramawt kingdoms, once comprised what is now the country of Yemen.

For years, scholars believed that the frankincense trade between southern Arabia and the Mediterranean during the first millennium b.c. was the most likely reason that towns began to develop in Arabia. Then a team from the Oriental Institute traveled to the moist highlands of Yemen to study the ancient terraces covering the slopes.

Three seasons of fieldwork-the first of which ended two weeks before full-scale civil war broke out in the region-yielded numerous new archaeological sites, including two towns that the team dated to the Bronze Age, 3000­1000 b.c. Research associate Tony Wilkinson and professor McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68, leaders of the researchers team, describe their findings in a recent issue of the journal Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy.

Located in a high plateau region about 50 miles from San'a`, the capital of Yemen, the two towns the team excavated are Hamat al-Qa, which dates between 2250 b.c. and 1500 b.c., and al-Sibal, pegged to between 2500 b.c. and 1700 b.c. The towns, each about 12 acres in size, had a dense layout of streets and rectangular buildings. One even had a defensive wall.

"Rather than growing up in the arid valleys fringing the Arabian desert, as was the case of the incense trade towns, these early centers developed on the more verdant plateau to the southwest, at elevations in excess of 6,500 feet," says Wilkinson.

The towns apparently grew up independent of trade with other areas of the ancient Near East, as the people were able to support themselves on the strength of their own agricultural development, which was based on some of the world's first agricultural terraces and, some two thousand years later, an excellent system of dams. The construction of the terraces and dams, notes Gibson, demonstrates a thorough understanding of civil engineering.

Terraced agriculture in Yemen probably began about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, making it among the oldest in the world, according to Wilkinson and Gibson. As people cleared vegetation to plant crops, Gibson says, they likely developed terraces to enlarge the cultivated area in the mountain valleys, but the technique also helped prevent erosion.

Centuries later, stone dams were constructed across wadis, channels created by rainwater. Many dams in the area with the most terraces were low, relatively weak structures used to collect rainwater and direct it towards valley fields, but the U of C archaeologists also found higher dams, which deflected flood water. To channel the water, workmen built sluices adjacent to the dams, in many cases carving these channels through bedrock.

"To build the dams, people used very finely cut volcanic rock," Wilkinson says. "The builders of the dams had a precise understanding, not only of dam construction, but also of the whole watershed system that fed the dams. They were able to construct just the right size dam for each particular area."

In Yemen today, as elsewhere in the world, terraced fields remain an important feature of mountainous agricultural regions. A number of studies have been done on agriculture in Yemen from the viewpoint of modern technology, but the Oriental Institute project, says Gibson, was the "the first study of the terraces in an archaeological context."

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