Arabian desert surrenders Queen of Sheba's secrets

3,000-year-old temple opens a new door to Arabia's ancient civilizations

2000

Researchers from the University of Calgary are participating in an American Foundation for the Study of Man project to unlock the secrets of a 3,000-year-old temple in Yemen. Archaeologists believe the temple could prove as significant a discovery as the ruins of Pompeii, the pyramids of Giza, or the Acropolis of Athens.

The Mahram Bilqis - pronounced Mah-ram Bill-kees (or Temple of the Moon God) lies buried under the sands of the southern Arabian Desert in northern Yemen and is believed to have been used throughout the reign of the legendary Queen of Sheba. According to University of Calgary archaeology professor Dr. Bill Glanzman, the project's field director, the sanctuary was a sacred site for pilgrims throughout Arabia from about 1200 B.C. to 550 A.D.

"The sanctuary is packed with artifacts, pottery, artwork and inscriptions, opening a new door to the ancient civilizations of southern Arabia," says Glanzman. "We've probably excavated less than one per cent of the site, with many of its treasures still buried far beneath the sands. This is the largest and one of the most important pre-Islamic sanctuary sites in Arabia."

U of C archaeologists and geologists are part of an international contingent of researchers working at Mahram Bilqis. This team, organized and sponsored by the American Foundation for the Study of Man (AFSM), is working closely with Yemeni archaeologists and local Bedouin groups to excavate the sanctuary, document and preserve its artifacts, and restore and reconstruct sections of the temple.

"We have an enormous job ahead of us," says Glanzman. "Our first task is to wrest the sanctuary from the desert sands, documenting our findings as we go. We're trying to determine how the temple was associated with the Queen of Sheba, how the sanctuary was used throughout history, and how it came to play such an important role in Arab folklore."

Eight limestone pillars remain standing at the front of the temple, half-buried by the desert sands. Behind the site's peristyle hall, a wall of heavy limestone blocks (around 3.5 metres thick), covered in ancient inscriptions, surround the sanctuary. While the top six metres of the wall are exposed, sub-surface surveys of the area indicate the temple's foundations still lie 9–10 metres below the sands. Glanzman estimates it will take another 2–3 years before the excavation of the walls is completed.

Despite the team using state-of-the-art equipment, the excavation and documentation of the site remains a slow process, with the work frequently being hampered by sand storms and blistering heat.

While excavating, researchers have discovered large quantities of animal bones at the site, suggesting the sanctuary was used for animal sacrifices. Samples of these bones have been brought back to the UCalgary for DNA analysis and for comparison with the skeletons of modern species.

Once the site has been excavated, Glanzman says the team plans to restore and reconstruct sections of the temple to show visitors how they believe it looked during its last period of use in the 6th Century.

"The ancient builders of this temple used extremely advanced engineering techniques," says Glanzman. "To reconstruct it, we first have to understand how the original stone masons carved the blocks and then teach the Yemeni masons these skills. We're hoping to rejuvenate crafts and masonry skills that have lain dormant for more than 1,400 years."

Plans have been discussed to retain part of the sanctuary as it was found, giving archaeologists of the future—who will have different methods and more advanced technology—opportunity to work on the site in its original condition.

"In many respects, the Queen of Sheba's kingdom was the cradle of the Arab civilization and the Mahram Bilqis was at the very heart of this kingdom," he says. "This temple may well be considered the eighth wonder of the world."

Originally published on ucalgary website Sept. 12, 2000
By Andrew Wark, News Services & Media Relations