site located centrally across the 50-km wide coastal plain of the Tihama, in the Republic of Yemen (14°12′ N, 43°19′ E). Founded in 820 CE (ah 203) and now a seat of local government, Zabid's medieval prosperity was the result of irrigable land watered by seasonal floods, good ground water, access to the Red Sea, and ease of ground communication along the pilgrimmage routes to Mecca.

Mention of the city's walls and four gates appears in the commentaries of ῾Umarah al-Yamani (twelfth century) and al-Khazrajī (fifteenth century). The walls also are emphasized in Ibn al-Mujawir's thirteenth-century map of the city: it shows a concentric wall system, with varying dimensions attributed to different dynasties. Curiously, the city wall with largest circumference is ascribed to the little-known and rather weak eleventh-century Najahid dynasty of Yemen. There has been a tendency for modern commentators to assume that Zabid's standing gates reflect the medieval configuration of the city (see Chelhod, 1978). Surveys by the Canadian Archaeological Mission of the Royal Ontario Museum, directed by E. J. Keall, indicate that the modern gates have no great antiquity (Keall, 1984). In his unpublished diary Glaser located the pre-Islamic city on a map at a point 10 km (6 mi.) north of modern Zabid (see map reproduced in Pauly-Wissova, 1968, p. 1315). From the study of sherds found on a large site north of Zabid, the mission's finds lend credence to Glaser's otherwise unsubstantiated observation (see Keall, 1983). This site may date back to the second millennium BCE.

Beginning in 1982, the Canadian mission, guided by 1:50,000 maps, surveyed Zabid and its surrounding area. All of the sites found were Islamic, with the exception of the one north of Zabid and another found in a range of dunes close to the coast. Imported Chinese wares furnish vital dates from the tenth to nineteenth centuries. Apart from them, almost all of the pottery is unique to the project: it appears to have little in common with the ceramic finds from the Saudi littoral or the Egyptian Red Sea coast. Petrographic analysis has characterized local production and confirmed the identity of the Islamic imports (mostly from Iraq and Iran).

In 1987, the Canadian mission designed an excavation program to define the development of the city (see Keall, 1989, 1991). The strata were found to have been badly disturbed by intrusive pits. Extensive damage had been caused by brick robbers who had trenched along wall lines to remove baked bricks. Traces of the original walls were positively revealed by the cobblestone footings that, lacking recyclable value for the robbers, had been left. It has been possible to identify occupation from the ninth century CE to the present. The perimeter wall of the Zabid citadel is a makeshift arrangement from around 1904. A fort was first built there during the sixteenth-century Ottoman occupation.

Outside the citadel, traces of copperworking have been tentatively associated with coin production. The implication is that the area was always a government quarter. At a site farther south, the remnants of fourteenth–fifteenth-century domestic buildings were buried beneath the berm of a moat—a clear indication that the last surviving city wall was a moderately recent one. East of Zabid, a ninth–tenth-century workshop produced pottery greatly influenced by contemporaneous Iraqi styles. The clay source was wadi alluvium, which the potter had collected by diverting flood water onto the site in settling ponds.

North of the city, excavations unearthed a sequence of buildings, though only sparse floors and foundation trenches survived the brick robbers. Fragments of carved and painted plaster reflect the quality of the structures, which may have been suburban villas set among watered gardens. The sandy conditions prevalent at all stages reflect an environment little different from today's. Provisions for watering the gardens are indicated by the kind of underground pipes the project unearthed. Two sets of glazed earthenware pipes were found outside of Zabid, as well as a covered conduit that comes from the direction of the mountains (see Hehmeyer, 1995).


  • Chelhod, Joseph. “Introduction à l'histoire sociale et urbaine de Zabīd.” Arabica 25.1 (1978): 48–88.
    Reliable use of the main medieval sources but undue emphasis on possible cultural influence from Ethiopia
  • Hehmeyer, I. “Physical Evidence of Engineered Water Systems in Medieval Zabid.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 25 (1995):
  • Keall, E. J. “The Dynamics of Zabid and Its Hinterland: The Survey of a Town on the Tihamah Plain of North Yemen.” World Archaeology 14 (1983): 378–392.
  • Keall, E. J. “A Preliminary Report on the Architecture of Zabid.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 14 (1984): 51–65.
  • Keall, E. J. “A Few Facts about Zabid.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 19 (1989): 61–69.
  • Keall, E. J. “Drastic Changes in Sixteenth-Century Zabid.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 21 (1991): 79–96. This, along with Keall, 1983 and 1989, represent the only systematic archaeological investigations of Zabid, sponsored by the Canadian Archaeological Mission. The 1983 report provides the best project overview, though the ceramic typology given has now been modified as a result of the excavations.
  • Mason, Robert B., and E. J. Keall. “Provenance of Local Ceramic Industry and the Characterization of Imports: Petrography of Pottery from Medieval Yemen.” Antiquity 62 (1988): 452–463.
    Interesting insights into Yemeni ceramic production
  • Sadek, Noha. “Rasūlid Women: Power and Patronage.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 19 (1989): 121–136.
    Discussion of the royal monuments of Yemen, which appear in more modest form in Zabid
  • Wissmann, Hermann von. “Zabida.” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Supplement 11, cols. 1312–1322. Stuttgart, 1968.
    The geography of Zabid, based on literary references, by a distinguished Arabist

E. J. Keall