Travelogue : Yemen
Arabia Felix

Every so often we come upon a place so extraordinary, so seperate from the rest of the world, that it seems unreal. Arabia Felix, Yemen, is such a place. It is about the oldest inhabited area on earth. Yemen isn't one of those dry and dusty desert countries, but the only green spot in that great arid sandy desert. This once was a so properous country of large incense and spice-routes, the famous empire of the Queen of Sheba and the home-land of the three wise men (the Epiphany).

Those are all reasons why it is a very pleasant destination for a holiday. At least, if you are able to give up all the luxury and costs of living and accomodation by visiting this unique place with regard to the culture, architecture and landscape. The contradiction between dirtiness and the indescribable beauty is being reflected in the coal-black eyes of its children.


September 1996. We arrive at the airport in the middle of the night. For the first time I can snuff inn the sphere of this other culture. Men with kerchiefs, veiled women, severe looking custom-house officers controlling our passports... and then, much ado to get our luggage. A real chaos! People yelling at eachother take fourniture and big cardboard boxes from the conveyor-belt. Finally, after three hours being pushed aside, I get my rucksack. Welcome to this country full of mystery, heavy veiled women, sickle-shaped daggers, kalasnikows... it seems so unreal, so threatening and yet...

At six o'clock in the morning we arrive at 'Funduq Al Gasmy' in the old city of SANA'A. We go to bed for a few hours and then, after breakfast, we'll put our first steps in this mysterious world. Sana'a, meaning 'fortified place', is the capital of a united Republic of Yemen. There's one thing we must do before walking around in this oldest inhabited city in the world. We haven't any rial yet, so we have to change money. That's something you do in a suq, a tangle of small streets, because if you go to a bank they would look rather surprised. I give the money-changer two bills of US$100 and I get 25,400 rial in return; 508 bills of 50 rial (100 rial is Bef 25). You can imagine what that looks like! A calculater would be handy. (Make sure your dollar-bills are printed in 1990 or later. Don't take travellers' cheques. The black-market dollar rate is perfectly legal and easily accesible at either the main markets or the exchange shops.)

We're entering this fairy-like city. It seems to be that life stood still in these houses, narrow streets and in the suq. It looks if we are back in the middle ages. The medieval way of life has hardly changed. A less hurried, more graceful rhythm beguiles the spirit. All of a sudden, we hear a lot of noice. It is real crowded at the market-place around Bab-al-Yaman. Everywhere on the street you see Toyota's sounding their horns. Japan has done a fantastic stroke of business. Only the taxi-cabs, recognizable by a yellow number plate, are Peugeot's. The others jeeps have a red or blue number plate. Red stands for transportation and blue points to a private vehicle.

The children greet us with the words: "khalem, khalem". After a few hours we know that khalem actually means "pen". As-salaam is the Arabic word for 'hello'. Most of the men wear a zanna with a futah, a colbert jacket with a dress-coat. This skirt is actually nothing more then a rag put around the waist. On their heads they wear a kerchief, often the Arabic chequered kefiyah. On the belly proudly dangles their green djambiya, the traditional curved dagger with a ornamented hilt. And a lot of men also carry a kalasnikow. In general the men aren't obstrusive and do not become agressive. At least if the western women don't accent their round shapes. They can better wear a loose blouse with long sleeves and wide trousers.

The Yemeni women are dressed in black djellaba's, with different layers on top of eachother, from top to toe veiled. When you're lucky, you can just see a pair of mostly beautiful dark-brown eyes, but mostly they draw black head-scarfs well down over their eyes. Underneath they often wear very sexy and colourful cloths with deep décolletés. What a pity we can't lift a corner of the veil! A lot of Arabic people stick to the opinion that women are obligated to wear a veil — in Yemen-Arabic: sharshaf or sitaara. But that's not quite what the Koran mentions...

The next day we move further on to the north with a 4 wheel drive landcruiser. (You can hire a car with driver for US$45 per day. It works out quite cheaply if you travel with four people and it also means that you could stop any time for photos.) We drive to WADI DHAHR, where the spectacularly sited Imam's palace, Dar Al Hajar, dominates the skyline. We move on to the almost unreachable city of KAWKABAN, established on top of a 2600m high cliff and an excellent base for local walks.

Extraordinary architecture

In the plain areas, we cross during the day, the houses are built with local materials like loam, bricks and reed. One mingles straw with loam to advance the strongness. When a house is raised with stones of loam, the outside will be plastered over. The settlements are completely in harmony with the environment; the colour harmonizes with the landscape because the materials used, are taken from the surroundings.

In the mountains stand above all the tower-blocks made of stoan, bricks or loam. People believe that the conception "skycraper" was invented in Yemen. Most of the tower-blocks are six-storeyed houses. The lower floors are made of stoan while the upper floors are made of mud bricks. The ground-floor serves as stable for cattle or as a shop. The first floor serves as store for goods. The second floor is to receive guests. The top floor (mafraj) is the domain of the men. Here, they chew qat, the favourite soft-drug in Arabia Felix, and discuss their problems with eachother. Also on this floor you can sleep if you are staying in a funduq, a kind of inn. You have to take off your shoes before entering this room. On the ground lie mats and carpets and there are put pillows against the walls. The floors in between serve as kitchen, sleeping and praying room. The façades are decorated with colourful glazed windows with limestone frames (takhrim). Most of the houses are over 400 years old. They are made by a style of building that came in existence 1000 years ago.

In the morning we leave early, on foot this time. This is the perfect place for people who like walking and mountaineering. To travel about in Yemen you need some kind of travel experience. You've to tolerate a lot concerning accomodation because there aren't any luxe-hotels. The beautiful nature and the extraordinary architecture emerge from the variable landscape. You can't find the culture within museums and monuments. You have to feel it! That's what makes Yemen so unique and mysterious. We walk on a plateau so we have an excellent view over the valley; mountain-slopes with terraces, shadows on a rock-face, an eagle who flies by. Withon this rough level we also see a lot of bright blue lizards and even vultures. It's a beautiful walk. We pass the little villages Zakatien and Habbaba spectacularly perched atop a rocky outcrop. Its narrow houses have grown upwards rather than outwards, six or seven storeys of sun-baked mud bricks. Pausing to see these remarkable hilltop towns, we finally reach the rampart of THULLA, after 8 hours of walking. That's where I meet Jasmin, a thirteen year old girl who is a speaking likeness of Jasmin from the Walt Disney movie 'Aladdin'. She tries to sell shawls and garments to the tourists. She speaks English better than the rest, but she did not want me to have her photo taken. She's a stubborn girl but it's fun. The reincarnation of the Queen of Sheba... When it starts to dusk we drive back to our nightstop at Kawkaban.

In SAADA, the houses are built in the 'zabur'-style. This contains that different layers of loam are used and the corners of the house go up a little bit. The walls of each house are slidely slanting. The first layer must be dry before the next one will be put on top of it.

About 12km north of Saada we visit Suq Al Talh, a very big market. The most products offered on sale, are being smuggled out of Saoedi-Arabia. You can find almost everything here. Soap, watches, sun-glasses, t-shirts, batteries, cooking-utensils, etc. But what intrigues us most is the special part for arm dealers, where all kinds of weapons are on sale; kalasnikows, rifles, pistols, grenades, land-mines, ammunition and as they say even tanks. Around here, Bedu men are rarely seen without their rifles, which are a symbol of their manhood and independence and I would advise not to shoot photos unless they say you may. They danse with guns, they eat with their weapon, they do business with their kalasnikow: it's a tension that's physically sensible, feeded by the centuries old oppression by Egyptians and Ethiopians, Turks and Englishmen; by martial tribe tradition, by the inaccessibility of the country and the unapproachableness of the villages on mountain-ridges.

Again 50km further to the north we reach the mountain, Jebel Um Laila. If you have acrophobia this is going to be a tough climb. The rocks are made of sandstone. There are a lot of loose stones so we've to be careful nobody slips. On top of the mountain are ruins, a hammam (bath-house), a mosque and wells. Because this area is close to the border with Saoedi-Arabia, it isn't safe to go walking around on your own. Make sure a bedouin is accompanying you. In this part of Yemen, the nomads are lord and master.

The next day we drive through an oasis with palm-trees and overgrown hills. We move on to Shihara, the most famous fort of Yemen. The city lies on top of a 2600m high mountain, while the rest of the hills are not higher than 1500m. It costs the pick-ups a lot of labour to take all those sharply hair-pin bends on this steep stone path. The views are incredible beautiful and grand. After one hour we finally reach the top. For many years, Shihara was a safe refuge for several Imams. From this settlement they fought against their waylayers, especially against the Turks. Unfortunately, in the sixties, the city has been partly distroyed by an air-attack of the Egyptians, but the Imam wasn't there. Nevertheless, the city has kept her beauty...

Early in the morning we start the descent on foot. We leave Shihara over a foot-bridge dated 1672. It spans a ravine between two mountain-tops. While making this bridge the people didn't use any cement, so it's quite a wonder. We return back to Sana'a and the next morning we climb high up into the wild interior, to the strategically located village of MANAKHA. During our explorations here we'll experience the traditional lifestyle of the Yemeni mountain people. We visit the villages Al Hajjarah, Al Kahel and Al Jebel. These small towns are a perfect example of the Yemeni settling architecture. They're built on top of a rock and the tower-buildings form a fortification-wall. There're only a few tower-blocks, small streets and a well. The houses are made of stone and the lower floors don't have windows to keep the enemies outside. The only way to enter a village is through a town-gate. On our walk through this rough nature we see a lot of qat and coffee plants and little girls who herd sheeps and goats. The mountain terraces around Manakha are surprisingly green for a country that is about 75 percent desert. Yemen's terraces date back thousand of years and were once covered with coffee plants. Now they are mainly used to grow qat, a green plant whose leaves and flowering heads have a stimulant effect when chewed. The views are breath-taking.

Then, continuing via a magnificent river-cleft, we descend on to the Red Sea. We're entering the northern part of Tihama, the coastal fringe beside the coast of Yemen. When we cross this area it's just like we're landed in Africa; negroid people, reed huts, a lot of sand and waving palm-trees. In the afternoon, we reach the seaport town AL HUDAYDA. This modern city once was the most important port on the Red Sea. It is very hot and there aren't any curiosities.

Before we drive on to the fishing village of AL-KHAWKHA on the palm-fringed Red Sea coast, we first visit the fish-port of Suq Al Zamek near Al Hudayda and the market at BAYT AL FAQIH, the biggest and most famous market of Yemen. The market is divided in several sections where they sell the same products; camels, goats, baskets, herbs, food and of course qat. The women aren't veiled and wear beautifully coloured cloths with décolletés and enormous hats. In one of the sheds sits a weired medicine-man sucking dirty blood out of old men with a cow's horn. Filthy!
At the beach of Al-Khawkha, we sleep on weaved beds in reed huts. This is a very pleasant place for people who like to swim, but be careful for sharks... There're a lot of coral-reefs and you can find beautiful shells.

On our way to Taiz, we stop at the old coffee port of AL MOCHA. In 1610, Al Mocha had a monopoly concerning coffee. They exported it to England, France, The Netherlands and America. In the 17th century the French and the Dutchmen took coffee plants and planted them in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. From that moment on Al Mocha was finished. Only the ruins of the villa's, built by the coffee handlers in the years of welfare, are left behind. Nowadays, the harvest of qat makes a lot more money than those of coffee.

In TAIZ we visit the Salah Palace, the old residence of the Imam. In this dusty museum lie the many collections like they were found after the Imam's death. Room after room are filled with hundreds of watches, perfumes, silver juwels, djambiya's, cloths, shoes, pens, coins, compasses, weapons, etc. You can even find a 'Philips' radio or an electric blanket.

On our way back to Sana'a we visit the small village of JIBLA, once the capital of the kingdom of Queen Arwa Bint Ahmed, who, together with Queen Sheba, was one of the few women who had leadership over a tribe. She gave cause for the lay-out of terraces and connective roads round Jibla. In Jibla stands one of the oldest mosques of Yemen. Within this mosque, Queen Arwa has been buried. Jibla is a perfect example of town-planning as it was meant to be in the Islamitic world.

A little further to the north we arrive at the old city of IBB. Because it rains a lot around here, one can harvest three to four times a year. Once again you can find the traditional built houses. In the late afternoon, we end our trip back in Sana'a. Before we go to sleep, we visit once more the cosy corners within the suq. Our plane leaves at three o'clock in the morning...

All that has brought me to this mysterious country, where timeless villages like eagle's nests, rest elusive on mountain-ridges, where the magnificence of Sana'a is as alluring as the legendary beauty of the Queen of Sheba? The time saunters behind the people, history doesn't exist like we know it in this Yemen, as progress and change, not yet...

Interesting links :
Yemen Explorer Tours — Discover with us the beauty and mystery of Arabia Felix
Yemen, General information — By Koenraad De Boeck
Copyright notes:
This is a non-profit web page. This travelogue is written by / most of the photographs are taken by Joël Neelen. I would like to thank Marit, who joined me on this trip. © September 1996. All Rights Reserved.