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A time warp in Yemen

For more of Yemen's Shibam Hadhramaut, see the July 2014 issue of Globerovers Magazine

Yemen, officially known as the Republic of Yemen, is located the southwestern to southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, south of Saudi Arabia and west of the Sultanate of Oman.  Being the second largest country in the Arabian Peninsula it has a long coastline and claims ownership over more than 200 islands. While large parts of Yemen is desert or semi-desert, some mountain peaks rise up to 3,700 m (12,100 ft) above sea level. 

Yemen has long existed at a crossroads of cultures with a history dating back to as early as 5,000 B.C. The collection of ancient castles, fortresses and many other signs of early civilisation is all testament to the very rich but tumultuous history of this part of the world. Over the centuries Yemen and its peoples have lived through several kingdoms, dynasties, the Zaydis and Ottomans, and even the British. The Ottoman Empire lost their grip on Yemen in 1918 and granted it independence, while the Brits left earlier than expected in 1967. 

Since the suicide attack on the U.S. naval vessel USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000, blame was pointed at al-Qaeda. Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the danger of al-Qaeda in Yemen became evident. The Shia insurgency in Yemen began in 2004 and they focused on an uprise against the Yemeni government. Since then there has been a series of bomb attacks on police, officials, diplomats, foreign businesses and tourism.  Bombings outside the American embassy in Sana’a killed several people while the few foreign tourists who ventured into Yemen have been targeted randomly. The 2011 Yemeni revolution in response to the Arab Spring mass protests has not achieved much in terms of safety to tourists and locals alike.  

Looking back at the history of Yemen is it clear that it never has been a safe destination for travellers. Its been on the Black and Red travel alerts of most countries and the current U.S. Department of State has the following travel warning on their website: “The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. The Department urges U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart”. Another website spells out the threat in more detail as “a very high threat of terrorist attacks, abductions, tribal violence and general lawlessness”.  Don’t take these warnings lightly. Better sit back and enjoy this article than attempting your own travels through Yemen.  

One of the earliest intrepid travels through the Arabian Peninsula, including Yemen, was British explorer, photographer, and travel writer Dame Freya Madeline Stark (31 January 1893 – 9 May 1993). Though born in Paris, France and died in Asolo, Italy, Freya Stark was fluent in several languages, including Arabic, which came in handy as she travelled solo around Yemen. She made her first journey to Yemen’s central Hadhramaut valley in 1935. Her main aim was to trace ancient frankincense routes and to visit the pre-Islamic ruins of Shabwa. She then crossed the desert to the port town of Aden at the end of 1934. She gave a very detailed account of these travels in her book “The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut” (1935). Her second visit to the Hadhramaut Valley was in 1937/8 that she described in her book  “Seen in the Hadhramaut” (1938) and she so skillfully tells stories about her travels through Yemen, her brush with death in the desert, and how she travelled woman alone with a camel caravan through the desert filled with Arab men.  “A Winter in Arabia” (1940) is a continuation of her Yemen and other travels through the Arabian Peninsula.  

Freya spent time at the Sultan’s Palace at Seiyun, Hadhramaut Valley in 1935 about which she wrote “I climbed many storeys of the palace to visit the harem, and found the women friendly and gay, dressed in the Hadhramaut fashion, but with a touch of Indian slender in their silks”. In conjunction with the St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, there is a lovely exhibition of Freya’s stories and her black and white photographs inside the Sultan’s Palace at Seiyun.  Freya travelled through Yemen for the last time in the 1940’s before she returned some 40 years later when she was in her 80’s. She had a total fascination with Yemen, which is well founded, and so easily rubs off on the reader of her books. Once you have read Freya’s accounts of life in Yemen, you will be hooked on going to see this amazing country for yourself.  

Your first touch point is likely to be the capital city of Sana’a, which used to be the capital of North Yemen before the reunification in 1990. As you drive from the airport to the city, your culture shock slowly builds up and exhilarates as you enter the old part of the city. Don’t be scared. You will be perfectly fine. Check in at one of the cozy guesthouses in the historical city of Sana’a. Once you dropped off your bag, sign the hotel register, head out of the door right into the action of old Sana’a. You are in for a real treat. It’s a time warp! While you may not know what Sana’a looked like a hundred years ago, you will be totally convinced that time has not changed here in all that time.  

Most everybody still wears their traditional clothing. Men generally wear the thawb, or thobe, an ankle-length garment similar to a robe and usually have long sleeves. An izaar, a lower garment, is typically donned underneath. As a symbolic decoration, the jambiya, a short curved blade dagger is typically worn by men above the age of 14 as an accessory on a belt. While you may think time has been standing still here for 100 years - think again. These men are very brand conscious. The jambiya comes in many brands which, depending on the brand, vary from 1000 Yemeni rials (US$5) up to 30 million Yemeni rials (US$140) or even more.

All women have to cover up every part of their body. The majority of local women wear the black niqaab, which is a headscarf that only allows their eyes to be seen. The niqaab face covering forms part of the sartorial hijab, the head covering. However, some women prefer to wear the chadari rather than the niqaab. A chadari has a fine grille over the eyes that the woman looks through. Yemeni women do not hold many economic, social or cultural rights. Combined with illiteracy and economic issues mean that few women are seen in public. When they leave home, they are chaperoned by a family member and enter and exit the bazaar very quickly.  

Men staff all stores, including those that sell women’s clothing. Men who chew qat non-stop. Qat, or khatis a flowering plant native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Qat chewing has a history as a social custom dating back thousands of years and it is still very much alive around the Arabian Peninsula, and in particular in Yemen. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classified it as a drug of abuse in 1980 as it can produce mild-to-moderate psychological dependence though it is not considered to be seriously addictive. Many Yemeni men, including teens, chew qat non-stop. They can easily be spotted with a big bulge in one cheek and a small plastic bag with green leaves in hand. 

The old city core of Sana’a is ancient. In fact, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (others being Jericho, Palestine, as well as Damascus and Aleppo in Syria and Arbil in Iraq).  Sana’a is believed to have been founded by Shem, the son of Noah and as a result the city has the unlikely nickname of “Sam City".  Bab al-Yemen is the gate leading into the old city which is surrounded by high walls. Once you are in the old city, where you should be staying in one of the cozy guesthouses, just walk around and explore the many old buildings, markets, and museums. This is not a tourist city so don’t expect any tourist facilities. Even the museums are very basic. The shops are fascinating. The market area is a sight from a different era. Think back a hundred years ago. Time has stood still here, as it has all across Yemen. The people are generally friendly and as long as you blend into your environment with both your clothing and your behaviour, you should be fine. Dress absolutely conservative in dark clothes and be respectful in all situations. Taking photos of kids and men without prior permission is acceptable, but be humble and thankful to your subjects. Avoid taking photos of women, or at least do it extremely discreet. Venturing outside the old walled city is rewarding too, in particular the markets where, once again, you need to blend in with your local environment as much as possible. As the culture shock flares up from time to time, just stand still and take it in until you feel comfortable again to continue walking.

When done with Sana’a, head over to the amazing Hadhramaut Valley in central Yemen. Either drive or fly. Hiring a car and driver for the 2-day drive would be nothing short of being totally exhilarating but it is not recommended due to safety concerns. 

This road is often closed to foreigners and even when open, several permits need to be acquired before leaving Sana’a. Leave the thrills to the Hadhramaut Valley so better get on the next Yemenia Airways flight from Sana’a to the town of Seiyun. Within an hour the plane will touch down in Seiyun, just 20 km to the east of Shibam. While Seiyun is well known for the famous Sultan’s Palace in its historical core, the place to get to is Shibam. Also referred to as Shibam Hadhramaut it should not be confused with another town called Shibam directly north of Sana’a. Shibam Hadhramaut is justifiably described as “the oldest skyscraper city in the world” or “the Manhattan of the desert”, and is one of the oldest examples of city planning based on the principle of vertical construction. Shibam is nothing less than an incredible sight. The first known inscription about the city dates from the 3rd century A.D. and the city itself has been in existence for about 1,700 years.  The city has some of the tallest mud buildings in the world, with some of them over 30 m (100 ft) high. Most of the buildings that still stand today were built between the 16th and 19th century. In 2008 the city suffered major damages from flooding which resulted in the collapse of some buildings. An Al Qaeda terrorist attack in 2009 added to the misery when several tourists were killed in a blast.  Walk around inside the old walled city to adore its architecture and meet the fascinating locals. Overlooking the walled city is a high mountain which can be climbed with some great effort from where the views over the city are stunning. 

From Shibam head back to Seiyun and continue on to the town of Tarim, about 40 km past Seiyun. Tarim has the highest concentration of descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad anywhere in the world and is widely acknowledged as the theological, juridical, and academic centre of the Hadhramaut Valley. Hard to miss is the minaret of the Al Muhdar Mosque, which at 53 m (175 ft) high, is one of the tallest earth structures, made from soil, in the world. Another interesting feature of Tarim is the flamboyant Al-Kaf Palace, built

by Sayed Omar bin Sheikh al-Kaf. This is just one of about thirty mansions that were constructed by wealthy merchant families in Tarim between the 1870s and 1930s. The al-Kaf family, who made much of their fortune in Singapore, was considered the most influential. As you travel around the Hadhramaut Valley watch out for the women herding goats or working in the fields dressed in black abayas and traditional conical straw hats known as madhalla

Back in the capital city Sana’a a northwestern road leads to the villages of Thula, At Tawilan, and Al Mahwit. These villages are interesting and offer some of the most amazing architecture in Yemen. They have tourist accommodation which makes a very interesting
overnight stay. Dating back to the Himyarite period, which flourished 110 B.C. to 520, the mountain village of Thula is well preserved and has many traditional houses and mosques. Al-Mahwit is situated around a mountain fortress and is quite isolated. The town lies in the centre of some of the most fertile parts of Yemen and the road from Sana’a goes past numerous fruit, coffee, tobacco and qat fields cultivated on large terraces up and around the hills.

About halfway between Al-Mahwit and Sana’s is the mountain village of Kawkaban. While the village itself is historic and photogenic, the next part of the visiting the village is the stunning view over the valley down below in particular the views over the small town of Shibam.  This is the other town of Shibam mentioned earlier. Here one can stand for hours just staring down over the valley.

Closer to Sana’a in the Wadi Dhahr Valley is an iconic symbol of Yemen: the Dar al-Hajar, also known as the Imam’s Rock Palace. What makes this little palace so incredible is that it is perched atop a rock pinnacle and is exemplary of Yemeni architecture. It just seems to grow out of the rocks on which it is constructed. Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din (or Imam Yahya) (18 June 1869 — 17 February 1948) became the Islamic spiritual leader, Imam, of the Zaydis in 1904 and then the Imam of Yemen in 1918. The Rock Palace was built in the 1930s by Imam Yahya as his summer residence which he used until he was assassinated with his grandson in 1948. The palace was later restored for visitors turned into a museum.