‘The American Lawrence of Arabia’s’ life goes on show in the U.S.

“The exhibition illustrates the rich and complex history as well as the cultural heritage of Yemen,” one expert said

Walid Jawad
Walid Jawad - Special to Al Arabiya News
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“[T]ime fell asleep.… and the husks of ancient civilizations were buried in the deep sand, preserved like flowers between the leaves of a book” said Wendell Phillips about South Arabia in the late 1940s as he embarked on an archaeological adventure to Yemen. The accounts of his adventures and artifacts he and his team excavated from its desolate deserts are offered in an exhibit hosted by the Smithsonian’s Freer Sackler museums, “Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips.”


A 20-foot black and white portrait of Phillips, who has been labelled the American Lawrence of Arabia, adorns the entrance to the museum showing a young man with a buttoned up white shirt wearing a Yemeni style headdress and two overlapping belts. A young couple asks the information attendance as they walk into the museum “why is Phillips wearing two belts in the photo?” “Believe it or not,” the attendant replied, “it’s a gun holster. He ascribed to the Indiana Jones school of archeology,” she smiled.

The thrills of a Hollywood movie

Wendell Phillips’ journey to Yemen had all the thrills of a Hollywood movie; exotic land, finding and solving clues, securing permission from the king, finding a treasure trove of artifacts and nail-biting excitement escape as he and his team flee gun battles between the local tribes. Phillips wasn’t looking for that kind of heart thumping adventure per se, he was eager to discover and share with the world the hidden treasures buried under mounds of sand in South Arabia, present-day Yemen. Philips warns in his writings that archeology is mostly backbreaking monotonous work of digging and sand moving, which can breaks anyone’s spirit. Yet the reward of discovery is beyond articulation. To that end he went to South Arabia “for one thing, it was almost virgin territory… It had beckoned scholars and scientists for generations, but sand, drought, and native bullets had kept most of them away.” He was in South Arabia in the shadow of a long history of North Yemen being governed by Ottoman Turks spanning centuries while the southern part was controlled by the British since 1839, which was called the Aden Protectorate.

Most of Wendell’s archeological expedition took place in 1951 and 1952. Along with his team, Phillips excavated in Timna, Hajar bin Humeid and Awam Temple. The third location, Awam Temple, became the focus of his expedition because it cradled the largest temple of its kind in the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to its impressive size, it is suspected of being the capital of the Sabaean kingdom, which religious scripture of Jewish Antiquities, the Bible and the Holy Quran all say was ruled by Queen Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba. Even today Awam Temple is referred to as Mahram Bilqis by the locals, which can be translated loosely to the shrine of Bilqis (Mahram is literally taboo or forbidden). Philips didn’t find any reference to Queen Bilqis at this temple, but he found inscriptions referring to it as the Temple of Almaqah, the deity of Marib at the time.

Tribal tensions

Unfortunately, Philips’ team’s work was concluded prematurely as tribal tensions heated up. Wendell and his colleagues, in their haste to get out of harms way, had to leave behind an untold number of invaluable archaeological discoveries. The outlook for finding those artifacts again has since become bleak. Philips untimely death years later in 1975 made the prospect even more hopeless. Nevertheless, the allure of Middle Eastern sand dunes for what historical mysteries it may hold continues to beckon Americans.

Merilyn Phillips Hodgson, Wendell’s sister has picked up where her brother left off. After almost 50 years since Wendell’s departure from South Arabia, the government of Yemen extended an invitation to Merilyn to go back to complete her brother’s work. Merilyn writes, “I’m proud to continue my brother’s work. I went to Yemen to fulfill Wendell’s unfinished dream. After my first excavation at Marib, it became my passion.” Merilyn excavation was conducted in Marib from 1998 to 2006. She is currently the president of the American Foundation for the Study of Man, the mission of which is to preserve and build on the work Wendell started in Yemen.

Dr. Massumeh Farhad, the Curator of Unearthing Arabia exhibit, told Al Arabiya News that the “collection is the largest and most important of its kind outside of Yemen, which was donated by the Foundation for the Study of Man to the Freer|Sackler in 2013.

The collection includes a number of translucent alabaster carvings of women figures mostly funerary statues, limestone funerary plaques, amazing artistic incense burners chiseled primarily out of limestone, and a most impressive pair of bronze lions with riders.

“The exhibition illustrates the rich and complex history as well as the cultural heritage of Yemen and the rest of the Arab world. Such collections are critical to protect and preserve because they are the embodiment of the identity of the peoples who have lived in the region in the past and continue to live there now,” Farhad emphasizes

“Very few people who have lived in Yemen go away without a deep admiration for the country because of the physical beauty of the place and, more importantly, because of the very ancient culture,” Marjorie Ransom, author of the book Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba, told Al Arabiya News. “I love the ancient sculptures of South Arabia and I am an admirer of Wendell Philips as an explorer, and of his sister who continues his work.”

The sands of Yemen continue to safeguard the key to unlocking the mysteries of an ancient civilization. We can only wait for another Wendell Philips to embark on an adventurous expedition to find the key to unlock the door to our understanding of human progress, artistic expression and man’s quest to decipher life’s mysteries as he looked to the heavens for answers over two millennia ago. For now we can enjoy exploring the magnificent artifacts Philips was able to unearth in Arabia at the U.S. exhibition.

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