Languages: Arabic (official)
Yemen, the Arabia Felix of antiquity, had the right climate and soil to grow a variety of trees whose dried resins produce pleasant odours when burned. The best known of these products, frankinsense and myrrh had great ritual value for the ancient Egyptians and later for the Greek and the Romans.
Around 1200 BC this trade became the basis for a first kingdom (Minean) that lasted until 650 BC. Around 1000 BC irrigated agriculture and trade gave rise to the Sabaean kingdom that lasted until its great Ma'rib dam broke for the last time in 570 AD. The Sabaean Queen Biltis visited Solomon and her son Menelek I founded the Abyssinian Dynasty in the 10th century BC. Much later, a third kingdom, the Himyarites had historical importance from the 2nd to the 6th centuries AD as they alternately shared control of the Bab al Mandab strait, and thereby of the sea borne trade through the Red Sea, with the Abyssinian Sabaean Empire from the African side.
In the 6th century the Persians overran the Arabic Peninsula and when the Persian governor of Yemen converted to Islam in 628, so did the Yemenis. Several small states disputed the territory but eventually the strict Shiite Zaydi dynasty emerged in the north and the southern Hadhramawt region was stabilized by the Sunni Kathirid dynasty in the 15th century. The north was occupied by the Ottomans and the south by the British but both dynasties survived and struggled against each other until the creation of the conservative Yemen Arab Republic in the north in 1962 and of the Marxist People's Republic of South Yemen in 1967. After a series of indecisive wars in 1972, 1978 and 1979, both parties opted for unification in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a short lived revolution when the south rebelled in 1993 but the situation has been quiet since 1994 except for occasional intertribal shooting quarrels..
Yemen has been isolated and avoided by tourists because of these events but it has so much to offer that the tourist industry could become an important source of revenue if it is developed properly.
|Lonely Planet CIA|
The origin of ancient San'a is lost in time but these walls were originally built in the 2nd century AD. San'a served as capital at various times and has been the capital again since 1962. At that time the population stood at 55 000 and there was nothing but fields outside these walls. Now the Old City is but a small part of a city approaching the one million mark.
I wanted to stay in the old city but it was dark when I landed in San'a so I took a taxi to the A Salaam hotel just outside the Bab Yaman (Yaman Gate). Notice how most men wear skirts instead of pants.
The next day I went into the fabulous Old San'a to look for a room.
In this hot dry climate, the very narrow streets of Old San'a have the appreciable advantage of keeping the burning sun away from the street level.
The Yemenis invented the skyscraper centuries ago. This trademark of traditional yemeni architecture is found not only in the cities but also in the countryside where the first floor serves as shelter for domestic animals and the next floor or two will be storerooms. Then comes a floor for the public reception room or diwan, followed by two or more floors where the extended family has its living quarters and kitchen. Finally the top floor and terrace are used for intimate relaxation and the very important qat chewing ritual socializing.
The Old San'a Palace Hotel straight ahead is one of these ageless traditional extended family houses that has been converted to hotel service. It was just beautiful, the walls had shifted through the ages and nothing was plumb or right angled, it was human shaped with wrinkles and bulges and the vibrations of the multitude that had lived there through the ages.
My room on the 5th floor of the Old San'a Palace Hotel was monastically bare but that's all I needed, a bed a table and a chair.
As for the price, it cost 700 Rials which would have been very expensive had I changed dollars at the bank at the official rate of 10 to 1 or very cheap since I did it on the black market at 100 Rials to 1 dollar!
Old San'a is an ideal place to wander about and to look at the buildings, at the people and at the shops. It's unique.
The ladies squatting in the shadow on the left were making a living selling small bunches of quat wrapped in a wet burlap bag to keep them fresh. Qat peddlers are found everywhere. The qat industry feeds a lot of small peddlers like this but it is a terrible drain on the economy because of the high cost of the habit and because of the loss of productive time it causes to the employed work force. More importantly it represents a serious drain of foreign currency as most of it is flown in daily from Ethiopia and Eritrea.
I tried it but it did not do much for me, it only made my tongue numb, a waste of good money! Actually, Yemenis do not chew qat by themselves, they use it in an ancient social ritual in which the giving and accepting of qat probably initially had a peace seeking objective.
Pisa's tower is a tourist attraction because of its rarity. Here, that kind of leaning is commonplace!
This is the Al Mutwakil Mosque next to Maydan al Tahir (Tahir square) in the center of town. You can glimpse the excellent Yemen National Museum between the tower and the mosque's domes. There is also an interesting military museum on the other side of Maydan al Tahir.
The young man behind me was selling this hunting falcon on Maydan Tahir. I did not miss the chance of getting this picture with a hunting falcon.
By chance, an old friend of mine, Issam El-Zaim, was working for the UNDP in San'a when I came. Here we are having breakfast with his wife Carmen. They insisted that I move in for a couple of days which I did with pleasure for it gave me a good view of the expat's life in a country like this one.
Issam invited this ancient antique dealer to his home so that I could see his wares. I am showing the antique jambiya which I bought and still treasure while he is showing a modern one just out of the silversmith's workshop.
One fine day, Issam decided to show me the Dar al-Hajar (Rock Palace) located in fertile valley of Wadi Dhahr a short ride from San'a. This scenery, typical of the inhabited parts of northern Yemen, shows how the isolation of the various tribes in separate valleys like this one has led Yemenis to identify more with their immediate tribal relatives than with the country.
This picture with Abdul, Issam's chauffeur and bodyguard shows what the well dressed Yemeni wears today. The jambiya is more a necessary symbol of masculinity in a very macho society than a weapon. Expats holding important positions are often provided with armed bodyguards like Ahmed to reduce the incidence of kidnapping of foreigners for ransom.
The multi storied Dar al Hajar shown below was built in 1930 as a summer residence for the Imam Yahya of the Zaydi dynasty when that theocracy was predominant in northern Yemen. It is built like a fortress with shooting emplacements to defend the place from eventual attackers (one is clearly visible in the photo on the right).
I was fortunate to visit Dar al Hajar for it was closed during extensive restorations to make it a tourist attraction when I was there. It was already a great labyrinth of narrow stairways, halls and small rooms so it must be quite beautiful now.
The art of manufacturing coloured stained glass for windows like this one has been a specialty of Yemen for several centuries.
Here is a last shot of Wadi Dhahr taken from the roof terrace of Dar al Hajar. The large building far below is not an apartment house but a single family complex where a patriarch may lord it over a whole clan of his descendants.
Yemen is a bit out of the way but I can recommend it as a very unique and interesting place to visit still unspoiled by caravans of 40 passenger tourist buses and stereotyped "cultural shows". I enjoyed it and flew to Djibouti with the idea of returning someday.