Kawkaban sits on top of a 300-metre pile of sandstone deposited by a vast river system some 70 million years ago and subsequently uplifted and eroded to leave the prominent plateau we see today. This rock supplied the raw material for the construction of Kawkaban with its impressive gateway and wall.
It is an ancient site, with a history unraveled in detail by Smith (1982), which has ever provided a refuge for the people of Shibam in times of trouble. The narrow chasm separating Kawkaban from the plateau on the Jebel ad – Dula side known as the Qita, is actually a vertical fault.
At the entrance stands the Turkish barracks (Al Qishlah) with its gate complex including Bab al Hadid or iron gate (actually a wooden gate covered in iron plates). Built in 1895, during the second Turkish occupation of Yemen, it provided modest two – storey accommodation for troops, storerooms and private rooms for the commander.
Inside the town there are some exceptional buildings of beautiful honey-coloured sandstone, which have survived centuries of sieges by Ayyubids, Rasulids and Turks. One is the old mosque, masjid ash-Sharifah, a name acquired in the eighteenth century from Sharifah Muhsinah bint Abdullah bin Ahmed, but of much older construction, with a striking ablution pool.
Built on the centre of the plateau it was originally named after a slave called Sunbul and contains a prominent Himyaritic stone above the entrance door, testifying to the antiquity of the settlement.
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