National Geographic : 1979 Aug
In antiquity, Saba- the Sheba of Biblical accounts - controlled the trade routes for frankincense, myrrh, gold, ivory, and spices. 20th century, I reflected, still finds itself at a crossroads for wealth originating elsewhere. WELL OFF THE BEATEN TRACK of frontline reinforcements, we stopped the pickup at a skeletal monument to Yemen's past glories. Rains gushing down the wadi long ago washed away most of the earthen dam; once it had stretched 2,000 feet across the Wadi Dhana, its sluice gates diverting floodwaters to 4,000 acres of farmland (page 259). How many backs had strained to lift the gates' five-hundred-pound stone blocks into place? In the script of the Himyarites-a pre-Islamic people-a toppled stela told of a partial rebuilding in the fifth century A.D. Repairs were undertaken, it said, by "twen ty thousand men, 14,600 camels, and 12,000 pairs of donkeys." Marib was the capital of the land of Saba, the Biblical Sheba. Its queen, the Koran says, ruled from "a magnificent throne." The Old Testament says she visited King Solomon in Jerusalem (about 950 B.C., be fore the dam was built) "with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones." Both descriptions fit the wealth of ancient Marib, as do the ruins of its huge temple. Eight thick columns remain of a huge por tico that led to an elliptic enclosure. I stepped off 100 paces from one side of the arena to the remnants of wall on the other side-a sizable and costly house of worship. A decline in the incense trade and sixth century invasions by Abyssinians and Per sians led to a crumbling of those early Yemeni kingdoms. But today North Yemen remains a country where the nearly un changed past lies only a hillock or ravine away from the present. A short distance from the temple we stopped again at a Bed ouin tent surrounded by bleating goats and dour camels. "The home of my cousin," explained Saud. The camels were for producing milk, not for transport, he pointed out. Inside the tent the cousin motioned us to recline on rugs and lean against thick cushions. Young women in long black dresses, veiled to their dark and luminous eyes, served us tea spiced with clove and cardamom. From one of the tent poles our host hung his Soviet-made 251 Today's north-southboundary was demarcatedin 1904 not by the Yemeni peoples but by the British, who controlledAden, and the Turks, who held sway over Yemen.