While employed in the survey of the southern coast of Arabia in the spring of 1835, Lieutenant Wellsted was occupied for a time near the cape called Ras el-Aseïda, in Hadramaut, about one hundred miles east of Aden. On this cape there is a watch-tower, with the guardian of which, an officer named Hamed, he became acquainted; and on learning from the Bedouins of the neighborhood that extensive ruins, which they described as having been built by infidels, and of great antiquity, were to be found at some distance inland, he prevailed upon the officer to procure him camels and guides.
One day, having landed with a midshipman in order to visit some inscriptions at a few hours’ distance, the Bedouins who brought the camels refused to go to the place, but expressed their willingness to convey the two Europeans to the ruined city. Hamed declined to accompany them, on the plea of sickness, and they were unsupplied with provisions or presents for the Shekhs of the villages on the way. Still the chance was too tempting to be lost. Wellsted decided to trust himself to the uncertain protection of the Bedouins, sent his boat to the surveying vessel with a message that it should meet him at a point farther to the westward at the end of three days, and set out for the ruins late in the afternoon.
Leaving the sea-shore at sunset, they struck northward into the interior, and travelled until after midnight, passing several villages of the Diyabi Bedouins, a very fierce and powerful tribe, who are dreaded by all their neighbors. Scraping for themselves beds in the sand, the travellers slept until daybreak without being disturbed. The path soon after mounted a ledge about four hundred feet in height, from the summit of which they obtained an extensive but dreary view of the surrounding country. Their route lay along a broad valley, skirted on each side by a lofty range of mountains. By eight o’clock the sun became so oppressive that the Bedouins halted under the shade of some stunted tamarisk trees. “Within these burning hollows,” says Wellsted, “the sun’s rays are concentrated and thrown off as from a mirror; the herbs around were scorched to a cindery blackness; not a cloud obscured the firmament, and the breeze which moaned past us was of a glowing heat, like that escaping from the mouth of a furnace. Our guides dug hollows in the sand, and thrust their blistered feet within them. Although we were not long in availing ourselves of the practical lesson they had taught us, I began to be far from pleased with their churlish demeanor.”
During the day they travelled over sandy and stony ridges, and late in the afternoon entered the Wady Meifah, where they found wells of good water and scanty vegetation. “The country now began to assume a far different aspect. Numerous hamlets, interspersed amid extensive date groves, verdant fields of grain, and herds of sleek cattle, showed themselves in every direction, and we now fell in with parties of inhabitants for the first time since leaving the sea-shore. Astonishment was depicted on their countenances, but as we did not halt they had no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity by gazing at us for any length of time.”
One of the Bedouins, however, in spite of Wellsted’s remonstrances, told the people that the travellers were in search of buried treasure. When the latter attempted to encamp near a village, the inhabitants requested them to remove; the guides proved to be ignorant of the road in the night, and they would have been suffered to wander about without shelter but for the kindness of an old woman, who conducted them to her house. This proved to be a kind of khan for travellers, and was already so crowded that the travellers were obliged to sleep in an open courtyard.
They were hardly prepared for the scene which daylight disclosed to them. “The dark verdure of fields of millet, sorghum, tobacco, etc., extended as far as the eye could reach. Mingled with these we had the soft acacia and the stately but more sombre foliage of the date palm; while the creaking of numerous wheels with which the grounds were irrigated, and in the distance several rude ploughs drawn by oxen, the ruddy and lively appearance of the people, who now flocked toward us from all quarters, and the delightful and refreshing coolness of the morning air, combined to form a scene which he who gazes on the barren aspect of the coast could never anticipate.”
After three hours’ travel through this bright and populous region, they came in sight of the ruins, which the inhabitants call Nakab el-Hadjar (meaning “The Excavation from the Rock”). According to Wellsted’s estimate, they are about fifty miles from the coast.
The following is Wellsted’s description of the place: “The hill upon which these ruins are situated stands out in the centre of the valley, and divides a stream which passes, during floods, on either side of it. It is nearly eight hundred yards in length, and about three hundred and fifty yards at its extreme breadth. About a third of the height from its base a massive wall, averaging from thirty to forty feet in height, is carried completely around the eminence, and flanked by square towers, erected at equal distances. There are but two entrances, north and south; a hollow, square tower, measuring fourteen feet, stands on both sides of these. Their bases extend to the plain below, and are carried out considerably beyond the rest of the building. Between the towers, at an elevation of twenty feet from the plain, there is an oblong platform which projects about eighteen feet without and within the walls. A flight of steps was apparently once attached to either extremity of the building.
“Within the entrance, at an elevation of ten feet from the platform, we found inscriptions. They are executed with extreme care, in two horizontal lines, on the smooth face of the stones, the letters being about eight inches long. Attempts have been made, though without success, to obliterate them. From the conspicuous situation which they occupy, there can be but little doubt but that, when deciphered, they will be found to contain the name of the founder of the building, as well as the date and purport of its erection.* The whole of the walls and towers, and some of the edifices within, are built of the same material—a compact grayish-colored marble, hewn to the required shape with the utmost nicety. The dimensions of the slabs at the base were from five to seven feet in length, two to three in height, and three to four in breadth.
*The inscription, which is copied in Lieutenant Wellsted’s work, appears to be in the Himyaritic character. If any translation of it has ever been made, the compiler is unable to say where it can be found.
“Let us now visit the interior, where the most conspicuous object is an oblong square building, the walls of which face the cardinal points: its dimensions are twenty-seven by seventeen yards. The walls are fronted with a kind of freestone, each slab being cut of the same size, and the whole so beautifully put together that I endeavored in vain to insert the blade of a small penknife between them. The outer, unpolished surface is covered with small chisel-marks, which the Bedouins have mistaken for writing. From the extreme care displayed in the construction of this building, I have no doubt that it is a temple, and my disappointment at finding the interior filled up with the ruins of the fallen roof was very great. Had it remained entire, we might have obtained some clew to guide us in our researches respecting the form of religion professed by the earlier Arabs. Above and beyond this building there are several other edifices, with nothing peculiar in their form or appearance.
“In no portion of the ruins did we succeed in tracing any remains of arches or columns, nor could we discover on their surface any of those fragments of pottery, colored glass, or metals, which are always found in old Egyptian towns, and which I also saw in those we discovered on the northwest coast of Arabia. Except the attempts to deface the inscriptions, there is no other appearance of the buildings having suffered from any ravages besides those of time; and owing to the dryness of the climate, as well as the hardness of the material, every stone, even to the marking of the chisel, remains as perfect as the day it was hewn. We were anxious to ascertain if the Arabs had preserved any tradition concerning the building, but they refer them, like other Arabs, to their pagan ancestors. ‘Do you believe,’ said one of the Bedouins to me upon my telling him that his ancestors were then capable of greater works than themselves, ‘that these stones were raised by the unassisted hands of the Kafirs? No! no! They had devils, legions of devils (God preserve us from them!), to aid them.’”
On his return to the sea, which occupied a day and a half, Wellsted was kindly treated by the natives, and suffered only from the intense heat. The vessel was fortunately waiting at the appointed place. Since the journey was made (in 1836) Baron von Wrede, a German traveller, has succeeded in exploring a portion of Hadramaut, penetrating as far as Wady Doan, a large and populous valley, more than a hundred miles from the coast. But a thorough exploration of both Yemen and Hadramaut is still wanting, and when made, it will undoubtedly result in many important discoveries.