(Heb., Ḥazermawet, probably “the court of death,”),

one of the largest wadis on the Arabian Peninsula, stretches about 465 km (288 mi.) parallel to the south coast and descends from west to southeast to the Indian Ocean. The wadi bed, about 308 m deep, cuts through the Eocene limestone tableland (the Jol), and varies in width from 15 km (9 mi.) on the west to about 92 m in Wadi Maseila. Its bed has an elevation of about 920 m above sea level. The Ḥadhramaut receives less than 200 mm of rainfall annually and is dry except during April–May when flash flooding, fed by numerous tributaries on both its north and south sides, inundates groves of date palms and fields for cereals. During the remainder of the year, wells, ranging from 15 to 20 deep, provide water for garden plots. The major section of the Ḥadhramaut boasts of three cities, built entirely of mud brick and featuring some of the world's most exotic architecture: Shibam, Seiyun, and Tarim. Although neither environment nor known historical events justifies or explains the name Ḥadhramaut, it is used for both a wadi and a pre-Islamic kingdom.

The kingdom of Ḥadhramaut was centered in the main wadi and extended eastward and southward to the ocean. Its capital, Shabwa, was located in the westernmost part of the valley. It is one of six pre-Islamic kingdoms; the others are Sheba, Ma῾in, Qataban, Ḥimyar, and Ausan. [See Sheba; Qataban; Ḥimyar.] Ḥadhramaut is the easternmost state. Names of Ḥadhrami kings are known as early as the fifth century BCE, and they, with later rulers, can be correlated in a chronological framework with kings of the other South Arabian states.

In the Table of Nations (Gn. 10:26; 1 Chr. 1:20), Ḥadhramaut belongs to the fifth generation descended from Shem via Eber and is one of the thirteen sons of Joktan. Among classical authors, Strabo (16.4.4) mentions Chatramotitis (Ḥadhramaut) as the beginning of an incense route crossing Arabia to Gerrha on the Arabian Gulf. Pliny the Elder (12.35.64) refers to Astramitica (Ḥadhramautic) as a variety of myrrh. He also notes (12.32.63–64) that Shabwa marks the beginning of the major incense route along the western fringe of the Arabian desert to the Mediterranean port of Gaza.

Theodore Bent and his wife were the first Western visitors to the Ḥadhramaut in 1893–1894, but the beginning of major exploration began in the 1930s. Daniel Van der Meulen and Hermann von Wissmann conducted research in historical geography In 1931 and 1939. A number of British political officers, notably Harold and Doreen Ingrams, published information gleaned during their extensive travels throughout the region. Freya Stark conducted explorations In 1935 and In 1937. The first excavation occurred In 1937–1938 at Ḥureidha, undertaken by Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Elinor Gardner, and Stark. [See Ḥureidha.] The following year, R. A. B. Hamilton (Master of Belhaven) undertook exploratory excavations at Shabwa. [See the biography of Caton-Thompson.]

Following World War II, G. Lankester Harding visited sites in the Ḥadhramaut and elsewhere in the Aden Protectorates (1959–1960). [See the biography of Harding.] During 1961–1962, Gus Van Beek, Glen Cole, and Albert Jamme, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, conducted an intensive archaeological survey between Tarim and Qarn Qaimah, along tributaries, and the Jol. The French Archaeological Mission, directed by Jean- François Breton, excavated Shabwa from 1975–1987. During this period, Russian scholar Mikhail Piotrovski and his colleagues conducted excavations and historical research at Raybun.

The earliest prehistoric evidence stems from the Middle Paleolithic, characterized by a Levallois technique of flake preparation. This phase continued without obvious development until tools produced by a preagriculture, desert Neolithic technology appeared. To this or the succeeding period belong numerous megalithic structures, large stone circles, and a unique complex of four dolmenlike structures whose inner surfaces are decorated with repeated rows of a pecked meander or crenellated design.

The excavation of pre-Islamic town sites shows that Ḥadhramaut culture developed with mainstream South Arabian culture, as at Qataban, Sheba, Ma῾in, and Ḥimyar, with only a few minor differences. It shared the same language, with characteristics like those at Qataban and Ma῾in. Identical methods of flash-flood and well irrigation were used. A similar religious pantheon featuring the moon god, known there as Sin, and cult paraphernalia prevailed. The architectural forms and designs are identical, except for the discovery at Shabwa of “skyscrapers,” or tall buildings. One of these, reaching six stories, preserves a post-and-beam skeleton, not unlike structural steel frameworks used today, featuring massive 'ilb (jujube) wooden beams, rigidly assembled with tongue-and-groove, pegs, and with brick curtain walls. This building, a palace, probably dates to the second century CE and was destroyed by fire in the fifth century.

[See also Shabwa.]


  • Albright, William Foxwell. “The Chronology of Ancient South Arabia in the Light of the First Campaign of Excavation in Qataban.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 119 (1950): 5–15. Useful correlation of the royal chronologies of Qataban, Ma῾in, Sheba, and Ḥadhramaut with historical events.
  • Harding, G. Lankester. Archaeology in the Aden Protectorates. London, 1964. Outdated but useful book, primarily for its photographs of sites and objects as well as pottery drawings.
  • Van Beek, Gus W. “South Arabian History and Archaeology.” In The Bible and the Ancient Near East, edited by G. Ernest Wright, pp. 229–248. New York, 1961. Succinct summary of sources, exploration, and excavation from the eighteenth century to 1958.
  • Van Beek, Gus W. et al., “An Archeological Reconnaissance in Hadhramaut, South Arabia: A Preliminary Report.” In Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution: General Appendix, pp. 521–545. Washington, D.C., 1963. Account of sites, artifacts, and pre-Islamic inscriptions discovered during a walking survey, with tentative general interpretations of the cultural history of the wadi from the prehistoric to the recent Islamic period.
  • Western Arabia and the Red Sea. Geographical Handbook Series, Great Britain Naval Intelligence Division. London, 1946. The best available description of the geography, environment, agriculture, and tribal history of southern Arabia as of 1946.

Gus W. Van Beek