History of biblical proportions

By Jan Creaser

According to the Bible, never "was there any such spice as the queen of Sheba gave king Solomon," and it appears that an international team of researchers excavating the Mahram Bilqis site in Yemen would consider any discovery linking the 3,000-year-old temple to the Queen of Sheba the spice of their work. Led by University of Calgary Adjunct Associate Professor Bill Glanzman, the team combined traditional patience-testing practices of archeology with modern technology to help unearth the secrets of the temple since 1998 and will continue to do so long into the future.

"These powerful figures are a big part of the mystique of the site today," said Glanzman about Islamic and Christian references to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The Temple of the Moon God, as Mahram Bilqis is known, is located in northern Yemen near Marib, the city historians believe was the capital of the most popular and prosperous of the five ancient Arabian states–the one ruled by the Queen of Sheba. The temple’s history suggests it was a sacred site for pilgrims throughout Arabia from about 1200 BC to 550 AD and, according to Glanzman, it is the largest and one of the most important pre-Islamic sanctuary sites in Arabia.

While Glanzman and his team are certainly uncovering long-buried history, they are not the first archaeologists to visit the site. Austrian Eduard Glaser described the surface of the site in 1888, and the first archaeological work began in 1951 when American archeologist Wendell Phillips began excavation of the Peristyle Hall, a room outside the main wall that is the entrance to the holy of holies. However, his team was forced to leave the country suddenly due to political unrest, and the site remained untouched by researchers until Glanzman’s team arrived in 1998. The team had to re-excavate the Hall before they could begin to uncover what lies under the sand inside the wall, an area that researchers say has not been seen for over 1,000 years.

"[It’s] very exciting, unbelievable–nobody’s seen this for thousands of years," said Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, President of the American Foundation for the Study of Man. "Many days we’re out there before our workers… they appreciate that we’re working on this site, to help uncover their history."

Hodgson was given the concession by the Yemen government to finish the work her brother, Wendell Phillips, began in 1951.

Glanzman shared Hodgson’s enthusiasm and passion for the project, and also illuminated the sometimes bittersweet nature of archeological work.

"When buildings are uncovered, adrenaline starts to flow. Nobody wants to stop," he said. "Often archeology is painstaking and rarely does one get such fine architecture. [At this site] we actually have frankincense so perfectly preserved it still smells like frankincense."

The U of C’s archeology department isn’t the only one involved in this exciting research project. Professor Brian Moorman, of the Earth Sciences department, oversees the high-tech side of uncovering this site. His team uses ground-penetrating radar to help determine what’s under the ground before the archeologists dig. The Canadian-developed radar technology was originally designed to locate oil, natural gas, water and minerals, and for projects like climate change studies. However, Moorman did not hesitate to laud its uses for archeology, describing how the GPR helps identify the most important locations to excavate first.

"The desert is similar to the Arctic," he said. "[The level of detail] varies from one site to another and [in Yemen] we’re looking at seeing six to eight metres below the surface and [we] can see objects as small as 20 centimetres in size."

The GPR surveys showed the walls and the floor of the Peristyle Hall that Phillips’ crew discovered in 1951/52 that had been re-buried under four metres of sand. It also detected other structures beyond the Hall, which have since been uncovered. The only major downside to the technology appears to be that it determines areas for future excavation long before the archeologists will ever get to it–meaning patience is a virtue the geologists must learn.

Although Yemen suffered political difficulties in the past, the researchers are hopeful they will continue their work long into the future, and the U of C hopes to remain a member of the team for years to come.

"We’ve only just begun," said Glanzman. "We’re ready to march into a millennium’s worth of archeological work at this site."

Folklore, archeological, historical and linguistic data all connect the legendary Queen of Sheba to south Arabia and the area around Mahram Bilqis. The researchers hope to find clues to her identity in the ruins at the Temple of the Moon God, as she remains nameless to this day. Because this site is already famous for its eight pillars, which appear on Yemeni currency, it is being considered for designation as a World Heritage Site.

"The potential for tourism and cultural development, and classification as a World Heritage Site will bring up the value of this monument to the same level as the pyramids of Giza," enthused Glanzman.

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