The Great Marib Dam, one of the engineering wonders of antiquity

Yemen is a relatively fertile country, thanks to its location on the seashore and its humid climate. It has valleys and mountains to the west, with heights exceeding 3,500 meters, but also desert plateaus to the east. Here is located the Rub al-Khali, considered the largest sand desert in the world.

From very ancient times the inhabitants of the region developed a system of water management by means of dams. From the coast of the Red Sea to the limits of the Rub al-Khali you can find today the ruins of many of them, small and large, made of mud or stone.

One of these ancient dams is the Great Marib Dam. Its ruins are very close to another modern one, near the city of the same name, ancient capital of the Kingdom of Sheba, and in the valley of the river Dhana in the Balaq hills.

With its 14 meters high and more than half a kilometer (650 meters) long, it is considered one of the wonders of ancient engineering. It is the work of the Sabaeans, a Semitic people who founded the kingdom around the 12th century BC and controlled the spice trade in Arabia and Abyssinia. The dam was built in the 8th century BC (according to an inscription dated to the time of Yatha’Amar Watar I, who reigned between 760-740 BC) on the site where an earlier structure from 2000 BC already existed, according to the latest archaeological findings.

One of the inscriptions on the dam / photo Nabatea

The geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi, a Syrian Muslim of Greek origin who lived between the 12th and 13th centuries, described it as follows:

It is between three mountains, and the flood waters all flow to the one location, and because of that the water only discharges in one direction; and the ancients blocked that place with hard rocks and lead. The water from springs gathers there as well as floodwater, collecting behind the dam like a sea. Whenever they wanted to they could irrigate their crops from it, by just letting out however much water they needed from sluice gates; once they had used enough they would close the gates again as they pleased

Yaqut al-Hamawi, Mu’jam al-Buldan (1228)

The original work was 4 meters high and was made of compacted soil, with a spillway and locks at its northern end. Around 500 B.C. a reform raised its height to 7 metres and reinforced the interior face with a stone covering.

Around 145 B.C. the dam broke, which some researchers believe is the same one that caused the flooding of the Arim mentioned in the Quran, causing great devastation and massive migration of people to surrounding lands.

The neighbouring Himyarite kingdom took control of the dam around 115 BC. (it would eventually conquer the entire kingdom of Saba around 280 AD) and would undertake works that, over four and a half centuries (until 325 AD) increased its height to 14 metres, as well as adding five drainage canals, two masonry-reinforced locks, a settling pond and a kilometre-long canal ending in a distribution tank. All this allowed the irrigation of an area of 100 square kilometers.

It is known from the inscriptions found on the dam itself that it was repaired at least twice before the arrival of Islam. The first time was in 450 and the second in 543. The inscriptions detail both the costs and the number of workers involved in the work.

The final disaster occurred in 570-575 AD. The dam broke again causing a great flood, so much so that it is even mentioned again in the Quran, and was never repaired:

There was for [the tribe of] Saba’ in their dwelling place a sign: two [fields of] gardens on the right and on the left. [They were told], “Eat from the provisions of your Lord and be grateful to Him. A good land [have you], and a forgiving Lord. But they turned away [refusing], so We sent upon them the flood of the dam, and We replaced their two [fields of] gardens with gardens of bitter fruit, tamarisks and something of sparse lote trees

Quran 34:15–17

Unfortunately, the ruins of the Great Marib Dam were severely damaged in an air strike by Saudi Arabia on 31 May 2015.


Sources

The Marib Dam (Nabatea) / Aramco World / The Great Marib Dam – the eighth wonder of the world / New Developments in Dam Engineering (Martin Wieland, Qingwen Ren, John S.Y. Tan, eds.) / Inam’s Water World / Wikipedia.