An introduction to travelling in Yemen

One of the least developed Arab states, Yemen retains a dusty yet colourful sense of history, and needs to be seen before it becomes modernised

3 mins

There are certain places in the world that always seem to be remote. Mongolia, Tibet and Easter Island are on a list of places which most people have heard of, but few have visited. One thing is certain, though: almost all of the visitors come back with a burning enthusiasm for the place. So it is with the Yemen. I cannot think of one person who has visited the area who does not want to spread the word about this ‘hidden gem’.

 The Republic of Yemen is a geographical region located at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula. It would seem unlikely that there should be any reason for Europeans knowing anything of this mountainous desert region, but certain words trigger recognition. The Queen of Sheba, Mocha coffee and, more recently, British influence in Aden, all help to create an impression.

The Republic of Yemen is about the size of France, bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Along the Red Sea coast runs the Tihama, a hot and humid strip of sand roughly 30kms wide, which slowly rises eastwards into the dramatic mountains. As the air masses are pushed up and over the mountains, tremendous rainclouds are formed which dump masses of water on the terraced hillsides. Most of the major towns are situated on high altitude plateaus surrounded by these well-watered, cultivated mountains. On the leeward side the land drops down towards the desert wastes of the Rub-al-Khali, the Empty Quarter.

The region was first noted as being the source of precious goods traded along the Gold and Incense Road. South Arabia not only produced frankincense and myrrh, but imported gold, skins and wood from India and East Africa. Great kingdoms grew along this secure inland route from Qana, through Mecca and Petra to the civilisations of ancient Egypt.

By far the greatest was Saba (Sheba of the Bible) with its capital at Marib on the edge of the Rub al-Khali. It was from here that Queen Bilqis (as she is known to the Arabs) made her famous trade mission to King Solomon in Jerusalem, almost 3000 years ago. Today the visitor to Marib will see a few ancient pillars poking out of the sand, a ruined ghost town and remnants of the old dam, but few concessions are made to tourists. This is a tribal land where all men are armed with a jambia dagger, and more often a hand gun or a Kalashnikov.

Like so much of Yemen, the thrill and enjoyment is in the travel to a particular place; dramatic countryside, strange architecture and unexpected encounters. Also the feeling that there is still so much to be learned about the past... and present.

Sana'a to Shahara and beyond

After the demise of the desert trade route about 1,500 years ago, goods were carried through the mountains. Lofty Sana’a at almost 7000 feet above sea level became the new capital, as it still is today.

The old town does not disappoint: it's a tightly packed collection of multistoried, multicoloured stone houses, threaded by narrow alleys, interrupted by towering minarets and populated by craftsmen, traders and schoolkids. Every aspect of Arab life is found here, from religion to trade, education to family life. At sunset the muezzin calls, the smell of incense permeates every street as house lights cast a bright array of colours through the takhreem windows. Over recent years some of these tower houses have been converted into small hotels and private guest houses – a must for real travellers.

Day excursions from Sana’a can be made to Kawkaban and Thulla, fortified mountain villages. Nearby is the spectacular Dar al-Hajar in Wadi Dhahr, a former imam's palace balanced on a rock – as good a symbol as any for the unique Yemeni architecture. To the north is the mountain stronghold of Shahara, where a slender ancient bridge spans a deep ravine to connect two remote villages. The spectacular sunset and morning mist views make up for a rather uncomfortable night at the local fonduq guest house.

Further north towards the Saudi border is the walled town of Sadah, base for the Zaidi imams who ruled highland Yemen for over 1,000 years until the revolution in 1962.

Midway from Sana’a to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah is the market village of Manakha, high in the Heraz mountains. Perched on the edge of tumbling cliff faces, this has recently become the unofficial trekking centre, only limited by the villages offering accommodation. Within an hour’s walk are the amazing fortified villages of Kahail, Hajjarah and the Ismaili pilgrimage site of al-Koteib. Further along the coast is Mocha, the port from which coffee grown in the Yemeni highlands was exported to a nervous, chain-smoking world.

Due south of Sana’a, a modern road crosses several high passes towards Ta’iz, the capital from 1948 to 1962. En route are three former capitals (Dhamar, Dhafar and Jibla) encompassing 2,000 years. Special note should be made of Jibla, the capital of Queen Arwa who ruled most of Yemen almost 900 years ago following the death of her husband. The town is a delightful mishmash of styles from this period, and another good region for small-scale trekking.

Ta’iz is a bustling industrial town, where everyone seems to be an entrepreneur. The pace of change here seems more apparent than elsewhere, the town having burst way beyond its old walls. Capital of the region for two centuries, it was founded by Saladin’s brother Turan Shah, towards the end of the 12th century. The alleys of the spice souq creep up the hillside to the two gems of Rasulid architecture, the mosques of al-Ashrafiya and al-Mudhafar. It is possible to enter the former as it is being reconstructed. The last of the ruling imams, Ahmed lived in the Ta’iz palace until his death in 1962. This is now a museum and has been left exactly as it was – a wonderful jumble of a period piece – well worth an hour of any visitors valuable time.

Yemen: a rocky reunion

Not far south of Ta’iz is the old border between the Yemen Arab Republic (North) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South). These countries reunited at the same time and for much the same reasons as West and East Germany. However, the North was not so strong to be able to support the collapsed economy of its former Soviet-backed neighbour and integration was always a problem.

During 1994 this internal unrest developed into a battle for control between the two rival governments and their separate armies. The more powerful northern forces laid siege to the southern stronghold of Aden until the resistance was crushed.

Even six months on, the infrastructure is still fragile in Aden itself, but the airport is open, as are some hotels for visitors. Even before the fighting, some group itineraries missed out a visit to Aden, claiming that there was little of interest with so much British influence up to 1967. However. I have always enjoyed Aden and recommend a visit to the ancient tanks, al-Airdrus tomb, Sira island and a climb to Jebel Shamsan – the highest point above Crater – with spectacular views across to Little Aden.

It is a long way to travel east to Mukalla, at least a 12 hour road journey, with possibly an overnight stop at Bir Ali, the modern village overlooking the site of Qana.

Mukalla is the main port and centre for the oil industry, and an important point for those heading north to get to Wadi Hadramaut. The wadi is the largest on the peninsula and runs roughly west to east for about 300kms. It is a strange primaeval place with reference to Genesis of the Bible, and a race of giants called the Ad tribe, witnessed by huge graves some of which are over 20 metres long. The eastern end is remote and seldom visited, but the wider western section contains three unique towns.

Shibam is known as the ‘Chicago of the desert’ due to its incredible high rise buildings. Made completely from mud some are as high as nine storeys, but many need urgent attention and the town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Nearby is the main town of Seiyun, surrounded by the crumbling walls of the 300 metre deep wadi. The Sultan’s palace dominates the town centre and is now the regional museum.

Further east is the religious town of Tarim, a centre for Shafi’i teaching of the Sunni branch of Islam. The impressive mosque of al-Muhdhar has a minaret said to be the tallest in South Arabia. Nearby are the crumbling palaces of former rulers who made their money in the colonies of Java, Singapore and Indonesia. The styles of these palaces are a unique blend of South East Asian/Arabesque/Baroque, but little is being done to stop them falling into ruin.

 Yemenis changing quickly. Oil and gas exploitation will get it more on an equal footing with its Arab neighbours, but there are still internal problems to be sorted out. Get there.

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