Back on the main coastal highway past the Wadi Darbat turning lie the absorbing remains of the old city of SUMHURAM, now protected as the Sumhuram Archeological Park. Along with the nearby city of Zafar, this was formerly one of the major ports of Southern Arabia and an important conduit for the international frankincense trade network. There are two wildly conflicting theories about the origins of the city based on the inscription found at the gateway. According to the official handbook to the site, the city was founded in the third century BC by a local ruler named Sumhuram (or Samaram); according to Nicholas Clapp in The Road to Ubar, the inscription states that the city was founded by King Il’ad Yalut I of the Hadhramaut (in what is now Yemen) “not earlier than 20 AD”. The city survived for 500 (or possibly 800) years before being gradually abandoned in the fifth century AD, perhaps due to the formation of the sand bar across the mouth of Khor Rori, which closed the creek to shipping.
To reach Sumhuram, take the signed turning on the right off the main coastal highway 750m past the turning to Tawi Attair (and 8km beyond Taqah); follow this tarmac road for about 2km to reach the entrance to the site. There are a couple of misleadingly placed brown signs in the vicinity of Taqah which appear to be pointing you onto dirt tracks – ignore them. There’s a useful printed guide to Sumhuram available at the ticket office for 2 OR, while informative signs dotted around the site provide interesting historical and archeological background snippets.
The ruins of Sumhuram are far less extensive than those at Al Baleed, but have been much more thoroughly excavated and restored, while the lovely natural setting between coast and hills adds to the appeal. The ruins sit atop a small hill above the tranquil waters of Khor Rori: a neat rectangle of off-white buildings enclosed by impregnable walls made out of huge, roughly hewn slabs of limestone; the walls are more than 3m thick in places, and perhaps originally stood up to 10m high. Entrance to the city is via the remains of a small gateway, inside of which you’ll find two beautifully preserved inscriptions commemorating the foundation of the city, carved in the ancient South Arabic (or “Old Yemeni”) musnad alphabet.
Inside, the town is divided into residential, commercial and religious areas, with the slight remains of a maze of small buildings packed densely together. These were originally at least two storeys tall (as the remains of stone stairways attest), although not much now survives of most beyond the bases of their ground-floor walls. The city’s most impressive surviving structure is the Temple of Sin (the Mesopotamian moon god), built up against the northwest city wall – look out for the finely carved limestone basin in the ritual ablution room within. Nearby, the so-called Monumental Building is thought to have housed the city’s main freshwater reservoir and well. At the rear of the complex stands the small Sea Gate, from which goods were transported down to boats on the water below.