2500 years ago, frankincense and myrhh burned throughout the kingdoms of Southern Arabia. 50 years ago, Wendell Phillips unearthed the sand-covered ruins along the ancient incense trading route.
“Time fell asleep here, and the husks of ancient civilizations were buried deep in sand, preserved like flowers between the leaves of a book. The … land was rich with the spoils of time; and I wanted to unearth some of those riches, digging down through sand and centuries to a glorious past. — Wendell Phillips
With explorers club flag No. 143 flying from the first of thirteen Dodge Power Wagons weighing nearly three tons each, the newly formed American Foundation for the Study of Man (AFSN) rolled out one of the earliest expeditions intent on unearthing hidden Arabia. The calendar said April 1950, but the landscape all around the explorers spoke of places that disappeared thousands of years ago. The expedition team went not only back in time but also straight down into the sands, where layer upon layer of abandoned cities lay buried. One civilization began where an earlier one left off, their histories preserved in sand.
This was the home of the ancient incense road, where the vehicle of choice was the camel. Magical fragrances of their precious cargoes of frankincense and myrrh wafted through the air as caravan after caravan ambled its way to markets. Perhaps they would find evidence, too, of the fabled Sabaean queen—the queen of Sheba—whose legendary encounters with King Solomon are noted in the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Ethiopian holy book. The sound of gunshots in the distance—a customary desert greeting in Southern Arabia—frequently jolted the team of explorers back to the present.
At the helm of the expedition was Wendell Phillips. Three years earlier, Phillips—young, handsome, brilliant, and armed with degrees in paleontology and geology from the University of California at Berkeley—had been the leader of “From Cairo to Cape Town,” the largest expedition ever to leave from the United States. It lasted twenty-six months and included a team of more than fifty scholars, scientists, and technicians. During that expedition the Aga Khan summoned Phillips to his lavish hunting camp in Africa’s Serengeti Plain. The former president of the League of Nations Assembly and the Muslim spiritual leader of the Islamic world told the adventurer, “Africa has been traversed for centuries. Turn your eyes east, young man. The last great unexplored area is Arabia.” Those few words changed Phillips’s life forever. East it was.
The first time Phillips saw Southern Arabia by plane in the late 1940s, all he could see was the sand below him, and all he could imagine were the great cities buried beneath. “Whenever you see a high mound,” Phillips later advised his team, “go investigate because it’s probably an ancient city. The higher up you are, the easier it is to see your enemy.”
Even as a child Phillips enjoyed exploring and possessed a curiosity about things beyond his years. “Wendell had a great interest in ancient life,” remembers his sister Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, who now heads the American Foundation for the Study of Man. “Wendell was crazy about Roy Chapman Andrews, fabled explorer of Mongolia, whom he’d later meet, and Lowell Thomas, discoverer of the real Lawrence of Arabia, who became like a second father to us both.”
Phillips chose the south gate of the cemetery of Tamna, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Qataban located in the Wadi Beihan, as the site of the expedition’s first dig. It only took the removal of a few feet of sand before Tamna began to reveal itself. Each object was a story waiting to be told. The team of archaeologists found sherds, inscriptions on stone, and exquisite ibex heads carved in alabaster, plus layers of ash that proved Tamna itself was destroyed by fire nearly two thousand years ago. Further along in their dig they were startled by a frantic call. “Ya sahib!” One of the local workmen wanted them to come and see what looked like a human ear sticking out of the ground. Phillips and his team were overjoyed as they watched the workmen clear away the sand. Slowly the piece revealed itself to be what the AFSM team named “Miriam,” the startlingly beautiful alabaster head of a young woman dating from approximately the first century BCE. Remark-ably, still evident was some of the blue lapis lazuli frequently used in ancient statues to define the eyes. After two thousand years of being buried in sand, “Miriam” was brought to AFSM headquarters to be numbered, catalogued, described, and photographed. As with all objects he discovered, Phillips took detailed notes in his field book. When the team came across inscriptions carved into stones too large to move, Professor Father Albert Jamme, an epigraphist, made latex squeezes by spreading rubbery goop directly onto the stone. When it dried, he peeled it away like a bandage, and the three-dimensional inscription was captured.
One wall inscription revealed the word WBLQS. Could this be a reference to Bilqis, the traditional name of the queen of Sheba, whose kingdom was located about forty miles away in Marib? Although this area was off limits to foreigners, it was always on Phillips’s mind, and he wanted to dig there the following year. He hoped to find evidence not only of the ancient kingdom of Saba and the legendary queen but also of one of the wonders of the ancient world: the Marib dam that helped the desert to flower when the water flowed. With youth and pluck on his side—after all, he was barely thirty—Phillips decided to write a letter to H.R.H. Prince Abdullah, foreign minister of Yemen, at his palace in Sanaa. “No American explorer,” Phillips reminded himself, “no English explorer, had ever visited the city of the Queen of Sheba. No real excavation had ever taken place. Marib was a closed area within a forbidden land. So far as I knew, no one had ever been able to talk to the present king about Marib.”
When Phillips received a reply in the mail, it contained an invitation for an audience with the king of Yemen. “My dream had come true,” Phillips later wrote. For the first time in history, the king granted a foreign team permission to dig in Marib.
“—Here we were on our way to the Queen of Sheba’s city! We were going to see it with our own eyes. plan the work of excavation we would do there. Unless you have had a deep dream of several years come true you cannot possibly imagine my feelings.” —Wendell Phillips
As they approached Marib for the first time, riding over the dunes, the eight giant columns sticking out of the landscape in the distance must have seemed like a mirage. Phillips and the team, including Dr. Frank Albright, field director and chief archaeologist, and Professor Jamme, jumped out of their vehicles for a closer look. Could this be the remains of the Temple of Bilqis? When they arrived in town, their enthusiasm soon turned to fear as they were greeted by angry tribesmen and soldiers, some with their faces menacingly painted indigo. Despite reassurances that the king himself had given permission for the excavation, Phillips and his colleagues were kept under guard for the night. In the morning they were set free.
Within a few days the team was able to get to work. Local workmen, boys, and dozens of teams of oxen cleared the sand that had blown over the ancient city for more than two millennia. The sand soon gave way to what appeared to be a grand hall lined with tall pillars, stairways that led to now-vanished upper stories, as well as bronze and alabaster sculptures. Inscriptions found on an exterior masonry wall and, “squeezed” by Professor Jamme revealed that a series of kings and priests had constructed various parts of the sanctuary and that this pre-Islamic culture worshiped the ancient Sabaean moon god Almaqah. The entry hall, known also as the Peristyle Hall, yielded hundreds of fragmentary bronze statues, the largest and most complete of which depicted Madakarib, the seventh-century BCE ruler. Phillips and his team dug down into the sands and found an archaeologist’s version of heaven: they were ecstatic. Unfortunately, the political climate worsened in Yemen to the point that the team abandoned its work, equipment, and recovered artifacts and was forced to flee to neighboring Oman. The last twenty-four hours of their stay was a harrowing experience. Phillips even sent a telegraph to President Harry Truman back in the United States to alert him of the team’s dire situation.
“I’m proud to continue my brother’s work. Wendell was like a guardian angel to me. It wasn’t my life plan, but after my first excavation at Marib, it became my passion.” – Merilyn Phillips Hodgson
Once out of Yemen, Phillips and the Team worked in Oman for 10 more years. Phillips was named Mustashar Sultan of Muscat and Oman by Sultan Said bin Taimur, sultan of Muscat and Oman. Sadly, Phillips was never able to return to the city of Marib to complete the work he loved best. While the shifting sands reburied everything they had unearthed, including all but the tops of the columns of the Peristyle Hall, he set out to write about his experiences—the good, the bad, and the unexpected—and in 1955 published the book Qataban and Sheba, which hit the New York Times bestseller list. Decades later, on November 12, 1974, Phillips received a gold medal from the Explorers Club “in recognition of his outstanding contributions to exploration.” Lowell Thomas, celebrated explorer and family friend, delivered the plaque to him in the hospital. Phillips had long been ill and died shortly thereafter. With his death, the American Foundation for the Study of Man lost its founder, leader, and direction. The hour-glass seemed to have run out of sand.
In 1980, Phillips’s sister Merilyn revived AFSM, with Professor Jamme serving as vice president. During the next decade, in 1997, the government of Yemen contacted her and asked her to continue the work her brother was forced to abandon. The following year she signed a formal concession agreement in the ancient city of Sanaa and set foot on the site of the Moon Temple near Marib, the capital of Saba, just as Wendell had. It did not look much different from the way it had appeared to him nearly fifty years earlier. The sands had done their job of covering the archaeologists’ work. Eight giant pillars sticking out of the sand greeted the new members of the American Foundation for the Study of Man, the same greeting the original members received. When excavation work began again, Professor Jamme’s inscriptions revealed themselves once more. In 2004, the team uncovered most of the Peristyle Hall, plus added many new inscriptions to the squeezes made by Professor Jamme in the 195os. The more they uncover, it seems, the more there is to find. Doors lead to more doors, stairs to more stairs. The team is still on the lookout for signs of Bilqis. The legendary queen of Sheba remains as elusive as ever.
Contributing Source: Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art
Header Image Source: Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art