DASI

digital archive for the study of pre-islamic arabian inscriptions

Editor: Jérémie Schiettecatte


Site plan.
Breton 1998: 270

SITE INFORMATION

Ancient nameS²bwt
CountryYemen
Geographical areaShabwa
GovernorateShabwa
KingdomHadramawt
Himyar
CoordinatesLatitude: 15° 22' 8"    Longitude: 47° 1' 30"    
Coordinates accuracycertain
Type of siteSettlement
TribeTribe: Ḥḍrmt
Lineage: Mkrbm
Lineage: S²hrm
Lineage: Ṣdqḏkr
Deitiesʾlmqh
ʿṯtr
ʿṯtr ḏ-Qbḍm
ʿṯtr Yllm S²rqn
bʿl ḏ-Mḥẓy
ḏt-Ḥmym
ḏt-Ḥs³wlm
ḏt-Ṣntm
ḏt Ẓhrn
Hwbs¹
Ḥwl
Rḥmnn
S¹yn
S¹yn ḏ-ʾlm
S²ms¹
Wd
StructuresDwelling (indeterminate)
Dwelling (concentrated)
Dwelling isolated
Quarry
Light hydraulic structure (ex. canal, well)
Large hydraulic structure (ex. dam)
Building with political function
Fortress
Rampart
Small temple
Large temple
Graveyard
Rock inscriptions
LanguageSabaic, Ḥaḍramitic
General descriptionExtension 15 ha ca. The site is located at the conjunction of wādī ʿIrmā and wādī ʾAtf, at the SE limit of Ramlat as-Sabʿatayn, on the Jawl highland. Shabwa has moreover a very decentralized position in respect to the extension of the ancient kingdom of which it was the capital, but it was on the other hand closer to the western heart of ancient South Arabian civilization. It is also encircled at North by schist hills and by limestone and sandstone slopes. The environment was thus very favourable more for its natural resources (e.g. salt mines) than for extensive agricultural exploitation (water courses were poorer in respect to the most western South Arabian sites). Shabwa was furthermore at the centre of several routes, and this determined its essential role in commercial activities. (A. Agostini)
ChronologyThe probes revealed that the site was inhabited at least since the 16th century BC. The site became capital only at the beginning of the historical South Arabian phase (7th century BC) and its most flourishing moment was between the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Traces of fire have been detected in several areas and they should be dated around 1st centuries BC/AD. A most serious sack was suffered during the 3rd century AD, but the site was inhabited at least until the 5th century AD.
Classical sourcesEratosthenes of Cyrene, in Strabo Geogr., 16, 4, 2 (3rd cent. BC): Σάβατα
Pliny the Elder, Nat. Hist. VI, 32, 154-155 ; XII, 30, 52 ; XII, 32, 63 (1st cent. AD): Sabbatha/Sabota
Periplus Maris Erythraei § 27 (1st cent. AD): Σαυβαθά
Claudius Ptolemy, Geogr. 6.7.38 (2nd cent. AD) : Σάββαθα
Identification1936: H. St.J. Philby
Archaeological missions1938 R.A.B. Hamilton (UK)
1974/2002 MAFRY (France) [1974-78 dir. J. Pirenne – since 1978 dir. J-F. Breton]

MONUMENTS

Shabwa is the only South Arabian settlement to have had two rings of walls. The first one was delimiting the settlement proper, more regular and trapezoidal in shape. The inner ring is 1550 m long and regularly spaced by slightly prominent towers. Four gates have been detected in this area. There are differences in the conception of this fortification, as well as in the types of material used. It seems that in the later phase a particular pink mortar was also more frequently used. The second ring is detectable only in some portions, and in its northern part some buttresses and recesses are still visible. This was delimiting a larger area and is more irregular because it follows the heights flanking the site. Other gates assured to entrance to this larger part of the town, with no dwellings, as the only detected structures are some hypogean tombs (see below), and several salt mines in the northern sector (al-Sabkha plain).
This was probably the main temple of the town and it lays at the end of the central road which divides the settlement in two parts and running N-S (at the other extremity the Palace S²qr is standing, see here below). It is leaning against the al-ʿAqab hill, at the SE end of the site, and this should have given a considerable prominence and visibility to the building. The main body is not preserved, and the only visible structure is the monumental staircase in stone which leads to a four-columned propylon. In this area a huge pedestal was intended to hold a colossal human statue, considered the size of the footprints on it, since the statue (probably in bronze) is not preserved. Smaller pedestals for other statues were situated in front of each column. Behind the portico there was a narrow terrace closed by a wall which could be the foundation for the main temple structure. The lower terrace was also housing big bronze statues (probably life-sized horses). The building technique is very refined, using ashlar masonry and partly faced with polished stone slabs. The ruins should be dated to the last phase of the structure, thus to the 2nd – 3rd centuries AD.

  • photoTemple of S¹yn.
  • photoTemple of S¹yn, reconstruction.
Following the typical Hadramitic model, the temple extra muros was erected at the flank of a hill. This is Qārāt al-Hadīda which is reachable through a tortuous passageway at the western limit of the settlement. The building is laying upon a large terrace formed by choppers and mortar. Its plan has a trapezoidal shape and measures 14.5 x 8 m. The inner temple consists of an unique hall with only one lateral bench, the roof was probably sustained by wood pillars. The divinity to whom the building was dedicated is not known.

  • photoTemple extra-muros.
This big structure consists of two main buildings. The first is a massive basement, realized with a very refined technique and ashlar masonry, measuring 57 x 39 m. A long corridor divide the whole body in two main lateral aisles, with long and narrow rooms. The portion opposite to the entrance has similar rooms but perpendicular in respect to the latter. In front of the entrance a big court is encircled by an ample U shaped portico designed with octagonal pillars while several regular rooms are behind it. This forms the second part of this complex. A severe destruction occurred in the 230 AD and while the main building was restored according to its original layout, the court was on the other hand more intensively modified. The building behind the portico was in fact raised with a second floor which was mainly a roofed gallery. Many pillars were sustaining the roof and realized regularly spaced openings through the central court. Capitals were positioned above those pillars and they were fully decorated with vegetal and animal motifs, in particular griffins and horned lions. Traces of frescos, richly decorated and painted, have been found on the walls. All these later modifications sensibly denounce a strong Hellenistic influence in the decoration and arts.

  • photoThe 'Royal Palace'.
  • photoShabwa. General view of the palace.
  • photoRoyal Palace. Decorated Capital.
The two flanks of hills Qārat al-Ghirān and al-Burayk served as necropolis. They seems to be away from the principal routes of the town and from the other sanctuaries so far detected. The tombs have been realized inside the natural rocks, but architectural interventions sometimes enriched the entrance. This is the case of Tomb 1 which has a vestibule whose lateral sides are framed by two walls divided by wood beams and decorated by stone rectangular panels with hollows and red paint. Some stairs allow the access to a subterranean chamber, followed by another one further below while multiple niches (3 to 5) have been organized at their sides. They probably served as family tombs and revealed traces of subsequent reuses, even if the vast majority of them have been pillaged in later times. This model of hypogean tombs seems particularly spread in this region.

  • photoHypogean tombs.
  • photoStelae from sepulcrum.
Inside the inner walled circle many ruins are still visible above the debris, and the French Mission identified at least 120 singular building. Only a limited portion of this vast site has been fully investigated but, although the buildings are regularly distributed, it has been supposed that the town did not have specialized areas: the dwellings were in fact concentrated more according to the owner families than according to their functionality. Even if it is not always possible to indicate precisely their original function, it is however very probable that the vast majority of them served as private houses. They follow a common pattern, since most of them are formed by a high stone basement which allows to hypothesize also the original tripartite plan (cf. also domestic architecture in Timnaʿ). The rest of the building was realized with a combination of wood beams and mud bricks, and in many cases they probably had several floors.

  • photoBuilding 44.

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RELATED SITES

near al-ʿOqm (Unknown)
near Shiʿb al-Layl (Unknown)
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west of ʿUqayba (Unknown)
near al-ʿUqla (ʾnwdm)

RELATED MATERIAL

Epigraphs in CSAI
Objects in CSAI

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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