Shabwa is north of present day Ataq on the edge of the Ramlat As-Sabatayn. It stands on two hills near the town of Irma, the Principal ruined city and religious centre of the ancient state of Hadramaut. Today, the remains of palaces, walls, streets and steps suggest a sophisticated past; a French archaeological team has been working there for many years. Shabwa has been identified with Sabota- the place pliny describes as having 60 temples, an important stopping- place on the incense road- although evidence of the early salt mines suggests this was a trading route long before the heyday of the incense trade. The buildings in the region are made of stone and lime, and much of the ruins have been reused for local building.
Nearby, the major town of the Shabwa Governorate, Ataq, lies on a broad sandy plain flanked on the west by hills of granite, to the east by a sandstone escarpment and to the north by there low volcanic hills of very recent origin. The main road runs through Al-Mahfid where traditional mud buildings have taken on a new elegance with brightly coloured windows and shutters. Further westwards along the uplands towards Lawdar there are some interesting buildings on which external decoration using stone set into cement has produced a creative and contemporary vernacular style. From Lawdar one road leads up the magnificent Kaur Al-Audhilah escarpment, which offers some outstanding views down to the Gulf of Aden. It passes through Al-Bayda and Rada to Dhamar where it joins the main route from Taiz to Sana’a.
South and east of here stretched the discontinuous coastal Lawdar Plain, which is of variable width and is bordered by a coastal mountain belt. The plain itself is composed largely of gravel flats and alluvium interrupted by cliffs of older rock and some tracts of recent lavas, as well as Pliocene and recent raised beaches, terraces and areas. Many of the wadis fade out in sand dunes within a couple of kilometers or so of the sea, although a flow of water continues underground in channels which can be roughly traced from the alignments of trees and shrubs.
Other sites at Timna, by Byhan, Raybun and Zafar and Qana at Bir Ali are all worth seeing, although little is known about their origins and development.
Salt deposits found in domes near Shabwa are still mined for local consumption using simple tools, much as they have been for centuries. The rock salt was formed about 150 million years ago but has only recently flowed to the surface due to the density difference between the salt and the overlying rocks. There are at least ten of these deposits in the vicinity of the Ramlat As-Sabatayn, and most of them were mined in antiquity; they include Shabwa, Safir, Bayhan, Iyadh(Haid Al-Milh), Ayadim, Layadin(Jebel Al-Milh), Al-An-Nuqu and Milh Kharwah. Their presence is thought to be the principal reason behind the siting of the ancient city of Shabwa, and even before then- in Neolithic times, when the climate was wetter- these deposits would anyway have influenced the movements of game and attracted Neolithic hunter populations to the region.
From Mukalla the main road to Aden runs along the coast for 140km to Bir Ali, famous for its sandy beaches and craggy black basaltic lava fields dotted with small extinct volcanoes. One of these, the Husn Al-Ghurab (‘Crows’ Fortrees), called Urr Mawiyat in ancient times, guards the entrance to a shallow harbour suitable only for small vessels.
On its landward side, at the foot of the volcano, basalt blocks mark all that remains of the streets and houses of the ancient port of Qana (most of which has been cannibalized to provide building material for modern Bir Ali on the other side of the bay).
On the spit connecting Husn Al-Ghurab to the mainland, and on quiet beaches all along the coast, sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Burrowing ghost crabs, Ocypode sp., also leave their mark in the form of regimented lines of mounds strung out along the strand line as on Bir Ali beach. These mounds built be the male ghost crabs are spaced with almost mathematical precision on or above high tide mark. The male stand on the mounds to make a display, which attracts females. By contract, the females simply dig their burrows at forty-five degrees into the shore, scattering the sand over the beach. They emerge to feed on insects, sea turtle eggs and hatchlings, which are abundant along these shores. The crabs actually run an efficient mining operation probing and excavating the beach for its treasure of turtle eggs. Although they are always on the lookout, their daytime sorties indicate that the threat to their lives from predators is not extreme. The greatest potential danger to them would come from black kites, but these are generally absent along the coast between Aden and Oman. In their efforts to escape back to the burrow they are able to run forwards, backwards or sideways across the sand at speeds of up to 16 kilometres an hour. It is hardly surprising the family name Ocypodidae in Greek means ‘swift- footed’
West of Bir Ali, the main road continues along the coast for a while but then turns north and climbs inland. Eventually it reaches Habban, a magnificent town on the edge of the Wadi Habban, with its massive clay housing complexes, traditional mosques and clumps of acaias and fruit trees. The town is home to a religious aristocracy and was well known for the work of some of its population of 300 Jewish silversmiths, in its day the best in southern Yemen. Habban was severly affected when Yemeni Jews left for Israel after 1948; the craft is now lost and today many of its houses are deserted.
South Arabian belongs to the southern Semitic group of languages- which includes Arabic, the Ethiopian Semitic languages and more recent and contemporary Southern Arabian languages- the remnants of which are still current in such Yemeni survivals as Mahri, Shuhuri and Socotri, which are spoken in Yemen and Oman. Little research has been done into the relationship between these and other ancient languages, but it is known that they have connections with modern Arabic and Geiz, the liturgical language of Ethiopia. Thousands of inscriptions in ancient South Arabian, made on stone or bronze, have been discovered, and many have now been interpreted. The texts tend to have religious significance or else document the history of a people, their leaders, events and the building of significant structures. They mention many gods, but there is no poetry nor literature, nor even numbers to be found.
The origins of the South Arabian alphabet are unknown. Some suggest that, like the Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew alphabets, it has its roots in the Phoenician alphabet, which was made up of 29 consonants- vowels were not inscribed. What is perhaps most astonishing is its stability, for between its emergence in the sixth century BC and its disappearance in the seventh century BC only two rather infrequent letters changed shape. The ancient languages of the six major kingdoms of south Arabia were probably rather similar and, like Arabic, were read from right to left- although some inscriptions before 500 BC are written in boustrophedon(lines that read from right to left and left to right alternately). The earliest examples of Sabaean inscriptions are probably those found on smooth rocks throughout southern Arabia, some of the best being from around Marib, where ancient scripted lintels are also seen above doors. Other ancient inscriptions can be seen recycled in more recent buildings, such as the gateways of the highland towns of Amran and Thula.
Many copies and impressions of early inscriptions were collected by early travelers to Yemen. Joseph Arnaud, a French pharmacist working in the 1830s and 1840s was one of them; he visited the Sabaean centres of Marib and Sirwah in disguise accompanied by a Bedouin guide, probably being the first European to see them since antiquity. His copies of 56 Sabaean inscriptions, along with those copies in 1834-5 by Lieutenant J R Wellsted at Husn Al-Ghurab, the rocky outcrop of Bir Ali, and at Nakab Al-Hajar some distance inland, eventually laid the foundations for interpretation of South Arabian Semitic script un 1841 by Emil Rodiger and Wilhelm Gesenius.
Anyone who takes the short cut from Marib into the Hadramaut across the Ramlat As-Sabatayn, can see the profusion of Bedouin settlements, sustained through animal husbandry, so evident after the rains. Camels- essential to life in the desert, can be seen in abundance and provide not just transport but thirst-quenching milk, food and clothing. There are also goats, whose thicker milk is processed and dried. Today, the men are more likely to be seen in a four-wheel drive vehicle than riding their camels.