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The late prehistoric standing stones of the Tihâma (Yemen): the domestication of space and the construction of human-landscape identity

Les pierres levées de la Préhistoire récente en Tihâma (Yémen) : domestication de l’espace et construction d’une identité à partir d’un paysage anthropisé
Lamya Khalidi
p. 17-33


Les récentes recherches menées dans la plaine côtière de la Tihâma ont apporté un éclairage nouveau sur la culture mégalithique de la fin de la Préhistoire qui se développe le long de la côte yéménite de la mer Rouge. À ce jour, sept sites comportant des structures mégalithiques y ont été recensés. Ces monuments imposants, datés de la fin du iiie – début du iie millénaire av. J.‑C., semblent consciemment implantés en des points précis le long des principaux wâdî. Étant donné l’absence de pierre dans la région, ces grands monuments en pierre ont dû être transportés sur de longues distances, impliquant probablement un rôle significatif joué tant par le monument que par son matériau. Ces stigmates culturels dans le paysage ne sont pas sans rappeler le marquage de territoires ou d’espaces sacralisés qui s’observent durant les périodes précédant l’avènement des royaumes sudarabiques. À la fin du iie et au début du ier millénaire av. J.‑C., ces mêmes mégalithes furent remployés dans les fondations de structures monumentales ou comme pierres tombales. Actuellement, ces mêmes pierres peuvent être aperçues marquant la sépulture de âwlîya musulmans ou saints, ou intégrées dans l’architecture des mosquées des environs. Le remploi de ces pierres dans des espaces sacralisés, tels que des mosquées et tombes de walî, laisse penser que ces mégalithes et l’espace qu’ils définissaient ont non seulement été porteur de sens par le passé mais aussi qu’ils continuent à l’être actuellement. En analysant la manière avec laquelle ces complexes mégalithiques servirent à marquer l’espace et le territoire durant la Préhistoire récente, ainsi que la pérennité de leur utilisation dans les espaces sacralisés islamiques, cet article aborde ainsi tout un pan de l’identité régionale de la Tihâma.

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Texte intégral


1This paper demonstrates the way that human negotiations with the landscape and the domestication of space in the Yemeni late prehistoric Tihâma reflected early expressions of community-based identity. These expressions, as can be seen in the form of stone monuments and the settlements that grew in relation to them, had in some cases, a profound influence on the way space is both perceived and organized into the modern day.

Archaeological overview

2The late prehistoric is period equivalent to what many experts term the “Bronze Age”. This period, which remains ill defined, begins in the third millennium BC and persists until the advent of the South Arabian kingdoms around the ninth c. BC. In the field of Yemeni archaeology, much emphasis has been placed on the “South Arabian” or historical period, and certain geographic regions have been more widely researched than others.

  • 1 The Canadian Archaeological Mission to the Royal Ontario Museum
  • 2 The Italian Archaeological Mission
  • 3 The British Archaeological Mission in Yemen

3Despite the work of several archaeological missions to the Tihâma, namely the CAMROM1 (Giumlia-Mair et al. 2000, Keall 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004), the IAM2 (Cattani et al. 2002, Tosi 1985, 1986) and the BAMY3 (Phillips 1997, 1998), this region has often been marginalized in the prehistoric and historical periods. This is largely due to the fact that severe erosion has rendered many sites to the level of mere scatters, and others invisible due to sedimentation. In addition, the insufferably hot and humid climate, and the windy seasons make it an extremely difficult place to work.

Framing the research

4The research that will be presented today stems from three years of systematic survey work along the Tihâma coastal plain and the western escarpment. My work in these two regions, as well as in Eritrea and in the highland central plains in Yemen (fig. 1), has brought to light the importance of the approach to and the study of the landscapes of each region. Crucial to understanding social space and identity, is the larger milieu in which the sites and the people who built them were situated. As we are dealing with the prehistoric period (before the advent of writing) it becomes even more important to understand the way the landscape affected and was affected by humans, as well as the way they may have perceived it – in order to reconstruct the way that individuals and communities identified themselves and identified with one another.

Figure 1: Overview satellite image of the southern coast of Eritrea (foreground), the western Tihâma coast of Yemen with the escarpment and highland plains beyond and the archaeological sites mentioned in the text.


Made using Google Earth, additions by L. Khalidi.

Geography and Climate

5The Tihâma, a narrow and flat coastal plain, makes up the western Red Sea coast of Yemen. Lying across from the coastal plain of the Horn of Africa to its west and adjacent to the western escarpment that ascends steeply to the highland central plains of Yemen to its east, the Tihâma lies at the balance of two divergent landscapes, the sea and the highlands (fig. 1). Located in a sub-tropical zone, the climate is hot and humid and there is minimal direct rainfall in the region. Most of the precipitation falls in the upper catchments along the western escarpment. The runoff in seasonal spate along most of these riverine systems is exploited for agricultural activities up-river and they are currently dry upon reaching the coastal plain.

Modern localized subsistence strategies in the Tihâma

6The Tihâma ranges from 40-60 km in width and runs the length of the western coast of Yemen as far north as the southern coastal plain of Saudi Arabia (fig. 1). A great diversity of lateral subsistence zones exist within this plain. Just as they are different today and sustain different economies, so were they in the past. For example, the littoral is home to fishing and pastoral-fishing communities who exploit the littoral as well as grazing their herds in the scrub savannah. The wâdî systems and their deltas are dominated by irrigation agriculturalists. Inland of the coast and riverbanks are sand plains wrought with large and small dunes in different stages of erosion, formation and mobility. Small pastoral communities, migration agriculturalists who seasonally plant the dunes with millet and apiculturalists, nonetheless exploit these inhospitable areas. The foothill margins are home to sayl (flood) and irrigation agriculturalists and pastoralists. Most importantly the source of stone, a resource altogether lacking in most regions of the Tihâma. The northern and southern plain vary from the central in that the foothills are in greater proximity to the coast at both ends, while in the central Tihâma the coast is at its farthest from the foothills. Many of these localized economic strategies have existed in tandem since the third millennium BC despite the growth of large towns in the late prehistoric period.

Figure 2 : Satellite map illustrating survey transects walked and sites documented in the main Tihâma survey area between the wâdîs Zabîd and Kuway‘.


Map by L. Khalidi.

Contextualizing the fieldwork

7The majority of the survey work was conducted in the central Tihâma between the wâdîs Zabîd and Kûway‘ where stone is inaccessible and mountain ranges are not visible (fig. 2). Key to understanding cultural contrast and affinity is considering the nuances of the spatial context and subsistence strategies of these cultures. In so doing, what defines many cultures (or how they define themselves) becomes much more apparent. It is thus that we can look at the landscape in the way that it was able to sustain populations of the Tihâma and in the way that it may have been perceived.

Holocene subsistence in the Tihâma

Early to mid-Holocene

8In the sixth millennium BC, the mangrove forests that characterized the deltaic littoral provided a diverse flora and fauna for foragers who inhabited its fringes. The material evidence demonstrates a dietary reliance on mangrove dwelling molluscs, namely Terebralia palustris, and to a lesser degree on fish (Khalidi 2005b). The inter-fluvial steppe offered an alternative fauna and a terrain conducive to hunting, so that the exploitation of one or both environments allowed for a multitude of strategies to co-exist either concurrently or independently. The presence of equid remains in both contexts (Ibid: 129) illustrates the presence of temporary hunting camps dispersed along the steppic plains. In contrast, the banks and fringes of the river deltas were occupied by a continuous string of ephemeral sites in the form of shell middens that bore evidence of cattle (Cattani et al. 2002: 50) and possible incipient equid domestication as well as of significant occupational sequences (Ibid: 44-5). The implication is that this area was either seasonally occupied or else provided a base from which hunting and other activities could be conducted seasonally. The spatial distribution of sites presents an exploitation of a number of resources; fishing along the littoral and rivers, foraging along the river deltas, and hunting along the lightly forested plains. Furthermore, the density of site distribution along the deltas expresses a sustainability and stability offered by these micro-niches.

9The period between the seventh and fourth millennia BC witnessed a gradual drying of the climate, a progressive decrease in sea levels and a recession of the mangrove habitats that supported the early Holocene coastal communities. This can be confirmed by the steady rearrangement of river delta and littoral site distribution further towards the coast (west) after the seventh millennium BC and the continual decrease of large monospecific T. palustris shell middens tied to an increase of more diverse marine shell species. By the fourth millennium BC sites began to disperse along the coastline and the riverbanks. The evidence points to an increase in fishing, as well as an increase in domesticated cattle remains (Khalidi 2005b: Chap. V; Tosi 1986: 407). The hunter-forager strategies of the earlier periods are still evident in the material record but at a lesser scale.

The mid-Holocene

10By the late prehistoric period, sites retained the fourth millennium BC site dispersal strategy and began to cluster into conglomerate settlements along the littoral and the riverbanks. The increased recession of the lacustrine environment and a diminution of available dietary resources pushed populations further towards the margins of shrinking eco-niches, dispersed into clusters the long string of settlements that once occupied the area, and drove communities to diversify, specialize or look for alternate economic strategies. There is evidence for this in the increased representation of domesticated cattle and ovicaprids, an increase in fish remains (Tosi 1986: 414) and a decrease in mangrove shell and wild equid (Khalidi 2005b: Chap. V). The continued exploitation of marine resources and fishing by littoral communities can be traced from the early Holocene until the present day. Similarly, sea-bound communities are indicated by the presence of obsidian with an African origin in the archaeological record from the sixth to the first millennium BC (Khalidi 2005b: Chap. VI). By the third millennium BC, increased settlement size and the introduction of a non-portable material culture point to a sedentary lifestyle.

11The transformations to the physical and cultural landscape of the Tihâma by the third millennium BC have been shown to reflect a concomitant process of climate change, intensified land-use (Cleuziou et al. 1997, Inizan et al. 1997, Lézine et al. 1998, Marcolongo et al. 1992, Sanlaville 1992, Wilkinson 1997), and increasingly larger spheres of contact between groups and individuals. The constructed landscape had more visibility and impact (physical and symbolic) as settlements became larger, and structures became more monumental in the late prehistoric period.

12While a diversity of strategies and smaller sites continued to populate the riverbanks during this period, the large stone megaliths of the third to second millennium BC are the most preserved, visible and premeditated acts of construction identified to date along the prehistoric Tihâma. The scale of these stones and their deliberate placement at crucial cultural and geographic transitions demonstrates a human demarcation of space. The stark contrast of large upright stones on a flat sandy plain is significant to the degree of monumentality and visibility such built elements provide within a landscape and within the perceptions of the populations in contact with them.

Late prehistoric cultural landscapes: expressions of verticality and monumentality

13Seven megalithic sites in total have been documented in the Tihâma. All of these are located along major wâdî systems either at the apex of the wâdî delta, or towards the wâdî delta’s tail-end, near where it reaches the Red Sea (fig. 2). The spatial distribution of these megalithic sites is most clear along the wâdîs Zabîd and Rîma‘. In both of these cases a site exists at both junctures of the wâdî system. Along the wâdî Zabîd, the site of al-Midamman lies approximately one kilometer east of the current coastline, while its sister site al-Jarâḥies at the juncture where the wâdî Zabîd currently bifurcates. Similarly, the site of Walî am-Khamsa and Am-Khamsa Banî al-Kabûs lie along a branch of the wâdî Rîma‘ approximately one kilometer east of the current coastline, while the site of al-Kashawba‘ lies at the juncture where the wâdî Rîma‘ fans into a wide delta. Finally, these megalithic components are elements of much larger extensive sites that were most probably continuously occupied for a millennium.

14Based on dates recovered by CAMROM from the site of al-Midamman it appears that the megaliths of al-Manâ/sîb date to somewhere between the end of the third millennium BC and the beginning of the second millennium BC, while other excavated buildings whose foundations are made of re-used megaliths date to between 1300 and 900 BC (Keall 2000: 722, 724-5, 2004: 51-3). The early dates coincide with the appearance of other stone monuments incorporating megalithic features in Yemen (Steimer-Herbet 2004), while the later dates coincide with later architectural features at the site of /Sabir (north of ‘Adan) that are similar in plan to the late partitioned buildings at al-Midamman (/Sabir phase II) (Buffa 2002: 177, Buffa et al. 1999: 439, Vogt et al. 1998: 265).

Figure 3: Standing Stones of the Tihama


a) Standing stones of al-Manâ/sîb at the site of al-Midamman, b) exposed megalithic stone at the interior site of Kashawba‘, c) stones from the site of al-Midamman re-used in the steps of the nearby Daûd Ibn Am-Zayn mosque, d) alignments of standing stones at the Tihâma foothill site of al-Muhandid, e) partially exposed stone (Am-Khamsa Banî al-Kabûs) near the tomb of Walî Am-Khamsa where visitors leave offerings to ward off nightmares, f) large stones at the site of Saba‘a, exposed as a result of an illicit excavation, g) one of many large stones scattered near the Islamic cemetery at al-Jarâ/hî, h) Faza cemetery: one of many standing stones from al-Midamman re-used in Islamic funerary contexts.

Material Culture

15In addition to an early megalithic component, these large late prehistoric settlements are all characterized by a parallel material culture. The ceramic tradition is distinguished by oval cross-sectioned handles often exhibiting punctate decoration, burnished wares, fenestrated vessels, all similar to assemblages from the sites of Ma‘layba and /Sabir near ‘Adan (Buffa 2002: 180, Vogt et al. 1998: 265-9). The lithic industry is characterized by obsidian geometric microliths and pièces esquillées, both tool types evidencing an opportunist and expedient lithic technology as well as a preference for and availability of obsidian (Crassard in press, Rahimi 2001).

16The settlements that formed around these stone monuments and progressively grew larger exhibit a less monumental and more organic construction of the Tihâma landscape. These settlements sprawled through time, but continued to grow in the vicinity of the megalithic conglomerations until the end of the first millennium BC. The large public buildings that appeared in the terminal phase of the occupation of the late prehistoric site of al-Midamman, for example, are also monumental and like the megaliths centralized space on the level of settlement organization.

Tracing maritime interaction spheres: the case of obsidian procurement and production

17In addition to the organization of space on a site and landscape level, the material record and resource procurement has given us clues as to how the landscape may have been perceived at this time. From the smallest to the most gargantuan of expressions, these societies formed around and depended on the one resource that was absent in the region. Stone was the source of the material and the root of the cultural expression of both the microlithic technologies and megalithic landscapes that characterized the late prehistoric Tihâma. Furthermore, this material provides the key to understanding culture-contact on an inter- and intra-regional level. The main study area was located on the western extreme of the central Tihâma in one of the widest areas of the coastal plain. This area is entirely devoid of stone. Moreover, not a single mountain range, the awareness of which may have motivated contact or instilled a desire for travel, is visible to the eastern interior. Only the large peak on the Red Sea island of Zuqar (see fig. 1) is occasionally visible in mid-winter.

  • 4 Carried out by Dr. V. Francaviglia from the CNR - Istituto per le Technologie Applicate, Rome

18The obsidian sources in the highland central plains of Yemen, and across the Red Sea in the Horn of Africa present two possible procurement areas. In either case the procurement of this material implies inter-regional interaction. The presence of large pillars of granite and basalt likewise imply considerable maritime or overland movement and the existence of sophisticated transportation technologies. Source characterization4 of the large amounts of obsidian found in the main study area alludes to an African origin. In addition, the highest densities of obsidian were concentrated along the smaller coastal sites and the larger coastal settlements of TH8 and Midamman. High concentrations of obsidian are found in activity areas on smaller sites along the riverbanks and finally smaller amounts usually in the form of tools can be found at the large interior settlements of Kashawba‘ and Saba‘a.

19The occurrence of geometric microlithic and bipolar flaking technologies that are restricted to obsidian on late prehistoric sites throughout the Red Sea region of the Horn (Arkell 1954, Blanc 1955: 355-7, Callow et al. 1981: 36, 276, Fattovich 1985, 1997: 276, Joussaume 1995: 33-6, Paribeni 1907, Zarins 1989: 359, Zarins et al. 1986) and the Arabian Tihâma (Crassard in press, Khalidi 2005a, 2005b, 2006, Rahimi 2001, Zarins 1989: 359, Zarins et al. 1986: 48) removes all doubt that this is a phenomenon linked to Red Sea coastal societies (fig. 4). While an African influence can be suggested for coastal Arabia, it is quite evident that the situation had much less to do with a diffusion of material and tool technology and more to do with an existing network of contacts and relations on the Red Sea, its islands and its coastal plains. Given the fact that the earliest evidence for geometric microliths in Yemen happens to be along the Tihâma coastal plain (Rahimi 2001), while in Africa the history is much longer and can be traced throughout the continent, it cannot be denied that the concept is African. Its introduction in the Yemeni and Saudi Tihâma, however, is neither diffusion nor influence; it is rather part of the continuum that is the Red Sea World.

20The fact that obsidian geometric microliths are contemporary on both coasts demonstrates that the Red Sea was but an extension of the two coasts. In contrast, the later occurrence of the same tradition in the Yemeni desert fringe and /Ha/dramawt in the mid first millennium BC (Caton Thompson 1938, 1944, 1953, Caton Thompson et al. 1939, De Maigret et al. 2005: 20, Pl. 34a, Inizan et al. 2002, Sedov 1991) is one example of the time lag that can occur across geographic transitions.

Figure 4: Satellite image demonstrating the distribution of obsidian geometric microliths and obsidian source areas in the greater Arabia/African Horn Red Sea region.


Map by L. Khalidi

Tracing terrestrial interaction: the case of architectural hybridity

21Having defined the way that material-culture reflects the sea-bound perception of the littoral Tihâma communities, it is interesting to look at how those perceptions change where sites are adjacent or in visibility of the mountains as opposed to the coast. The megalithic sites of Saba‘a and Muhandid for example, which lie in the southern Tihâma are near the foothills and had greater access to the highland interior and to stone resources.

22The site of al-Muhandid is made up of alignments (fig. 3d) of large standing stones linked to eroded stone circular structures. Located adjacent to a natural dyke from which the megaliths were taken, this site incorporates the standing stone element that is typical of Tihâma sites of the period. However aerial views of the site bring to light plans of structures reminiscent of the tailed turret tombs of the desert fringe.

23Further into the highland escarpment, near the source of the wâdî Zabîd is a similar site, al-Sûq, consisting of a meter high circular tomb and at least one alignment of upright megaliths, again reminiscent of the turret tombs of the desert fringe in plan. Both of these sites lie at geographic and cultural interfaces and both are hybrids composed of elements pertaining to the different regions they lie between.

Territorial identity or the identification of geographic territories?

24Discussion of the excavated Tihâma sites and their contemporaries in other regions has demonstrated that these massive stone monuments, be they stelae, dolmens, or tumuli and tomb features, had a funerary function (Steimer-Herbet 2004). Whether the act of remembrance or exaltation of the deceased was a result of sedentism or whether sedentism was partially motivated by the presence of these monuments is still unclear. What is clear, however, is that a certain level of social complexity had to have existed in order for there to have been a need to remember and to venerate certain individuals in a certain way. The creation of prominent monuments and proper graves is in essence a “construction of ancestorhood” (Parker Pearson 1999: 158), one that reflects an increased organization in society and induces memory, which in turn ties humans to a space or to a land.

25Leaving the mark of a person in the form of a megalithic or other monument can be a form of passive territoriality. To mark the place of the dead can be just that, however in so doing, one is marking space. Furthermore by marking a space a population is symbolically tied to it. In many ways the duality of a physically prominent landmark and its representation of an ancestorhood, is binding. It physically and symbolically recreates the landscape, etching it into the memory of the population of the region.

26 The physical prominence and meaning given to such monuments may have influenced the natural or planned growth of settlements around them. In the Tihâma, all of the megalithic sites appear to be centrally located within the larger settlement. This demonstrates that such monuments can be key to understanding the organization of space, not just on a macro landscape level, but on a micro town planning level.

27 The way a monument and/or what it represents can tie a population to the land in a number of ways has been touched upon above. However, the space itself can be significant and inspire the building of a monument. The location of these monuments in the Tihâma reflects, in each case, geographically meaningful areas. Furthermore the location is in each case doubly significant as it relates both to altitudinal and fluvial transitions such as at the source of a river (al-Sûq), the branching of a delta (Kashawba‘, Jarâ/hî, al-Saba‘a, al-Muhandid), the point where a delta meets the sea (Midamman, Am-Khamsa), the transition between coastal plain and foothills (al-Saba‘a, al-Muhandid) or the transition between the end of the mid-altitude foothills and the beginning of the highland scarp (al-Sûq) (see fig. 1). These transitions are geographic, territorial, strategic, and symbolic. Whether marking these transitions is a result of an active or a passive territoriality is irrelevant, as in either case the presence of monuments in these locations represents the natural boundaries of territory that are imposed by the land, and thus the natural boundaries of human adaptation to that land.

28These monuments may be the product of an affirmation of territoriality (marking space), a domestication of the landscape (controlling space), or purely one of many manifestations of increasingly organized societies and denser demographics (dedicatory or funerary monuments, public spaces, ideology).

Identifying sacred space through time: the formation of human-landscape identity

29Either way, it is apparent that these stones and their presence at such a distance from their origin remained a source of admiration among the populations that directly superseded the megalith builders and one that continued into the Islamic period. The re-use of the megaliths and pillars continued to be commemorative, first as funerary stele and in the foundations of public buildings that may have been temples in the proceeding phases of late prehistoric occupation of the Tihâma (Keall 2005: 93), and finally in Islamic saint’s tombs and mosques (fig. 3c, 3e, 3h). These monumental stones have never strayed far from their primary resting places, not only because they are difficult to move but also because the presence of the stone in that particular place renders both the size of the stone and its context evocative.

  • 5 The most prominent of these are Walî al-Hindî and the Faza cemetery.
  • 6 The Daûd Ibn Am-Zayn mosque, located near the site, incorporates stone pillars from al-Midamman in (...)

30Several megaliths have been re-used as funerary stelae in later Islamic saints’ tombs around the greater site of al-Midamman5 (fig. 3h). Finally two mosques6 (fig. 3c) near the site have incorporated the stones in the architecture. The site of TH8 lies near a saint’s tomb, Walî Am-Khamsa where large stones are said to have been present (fig. 3e).

31The re-use of sacred space and the elements that commemorated it such as the megaliths, is profound in a number of ways. Even after the megaliths lose their original meaning, their colossal presence in that particular place identifies that space as sacred and thus indirectly ties the populations of the Tihâma to it, and not to the ancestry that it may evoke. There exists temporal continuum to the way populations of the Tihâma identify with their landscape by marking its transitions and identifying with their past through the re-use of elements once sacred in a sacred way.

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1 The Canadian Archaeological Mission to the Royal Ontario Museum

2 The Italian Archaeological Mission

3 The British Archaeological Mission in Yemen

4 Carried out by Dr. V. Francaviglia from the CNR - Istituto per le Technologie Applicate, Rome

5 The most prominent of these are Walî al-Hindî and the Faza cemetery.

6 The Daûd Ibn Am-Zayn mosque, located near the site, incorporates stone pillars from al-Midamman in the steps while two fragmentary standing pillars are partially exposed outside of the mosque. A mosque in the town of Tu/hayta, just beyond al-Midamman, similarly incorporates a large stone pillar in the interior courtyard steps of the mosque, while two fragmentary pillars stand exposed outside of the mosque itself.

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Référence électronique

Lamya Khalidi, « The late prehistoric standing stones of the Tihâma (Yemen): the domestication of space and the construction of human-landscape identity », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 121-122 | avril 2008, mis en ligne le 14 décembre 2011, consulté le 30 avril 2017. URL :

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Lamya Khalidi

Chercheur post-doctoral, CEPAM-UMR 6130/CNRS-UNSA, Ṣan‘â’

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