Sana'a, A Sojourn In Yemen

Traversing through the fairytale medinas of the Yemeni capital, Sana'a
Sana'a, Yemen
Sana'a, YemenFlickr

Yemen is a convenient stopover on flights to Europe. And I would rate it among the ten most interesting countries of the world. I visited it on my way back from a tour of the Horn of Africa. I started off in Addis, using it as a base to tour Ethiopia with Aruna Amirthanayagam, a Sri Lankan American diplomat friend from the days when he was posted in Delhi. Then I crossed the unmanned frontier into Somalia with a visa from the non-existent country of Somaliland (the northern, former British-ruled part of Somalia, which has remained peaceful and prosperous, and would like to become independent) before traversing the Horn northwards through Djibouti and Eritrea. From those countries I tried very hard to catch a dhow crossing the Red Sea to Yemen, but it was the wrong time of the year, the monsoons.

So I ended up flying into Sana'a, the capital, in the middle of the night. Yemen is a multi-party democracy desperately trying to modernise, shake off its image as a haven for terrorists, and win back the tourists that were increasing rapidly until 9/11. They therefore check passports carefully. A German backpacker in the line in front of me was being given a hard time explaining why he had been to Pakistan. As I emerged, I was glad to spot my name held aloft by a taxi driver sent by Aruna, who had flown in from Addis that afternoon.

Marvel at Yemen's Architectural Wonders

Stunning Sana'a
Stunning Sana'aRod Waddington/Flickr

We were soon on our way to the old walled city, a World Heritage Site, one of the largest completely preserved medinas in the Arab world. What makes it so unique is Yemen's architecture, which uses stone and mud-brick to build tall, beautifully-embellished tower-houses, the skyscrapers of the medieval world. I stared up stupefied when we pulled up outside one of these mud-brick towers in the still of the night and it turned out to be our hotel. All around me, bathed in moonlight, were similar towers with crenellated roofs and arched windows framed in elaborate white plaster friezes zigzagging the façades. 'That is probably your room,' said Fuad, the driver, pointing up to the only round, stained-glass window, that still had multi-coloured light shining through the fretwork, about half way up the building. It was a steep climb, but amazingly, once inside, the decor transformed to tasteful 20th-century modern. This was a three-star hotel. Aruna was fast asleep.

Facades of Sana'a
Facades of Sana'aFlickr

The architecture continues to dazzle in Sana'a's mountainous surroundings. After exploring the vast open-air museum Sana'a, we set out on several day trips in a rented vehicle. Everywhere in a vast rocky landscape of deep valleys and escarpments, tower houses march up the ridges to nestle as tightly clustered villages on the peaks, teetering over thousand foot drops. Manakha sits strategically atop the Haraz mountains west of Sana'a and once provided security to the Ismaili minority. Today it lies in the heart of trekking country, although one of the paths, to the village of Al-Khutayb is now an asphalt road built with donations from the Indian Bohra community, who visit the shrine in large numbers during Muharram. A shorter trip was to Wadi Dahar, a five-storey summer palace rising sheer from a rock formation, whose rich plaster decoration framing the windows has been likened to icing on gingerbread. Nearby, on the edge of an escarpment overlooking a lush green valley, wedding parties pulled up in the dozens to the weekly gunfest held on Fridays. The celebrants started firing out of the windows of their land cruisers even before they could park. Outside, groups of dancers went around in circles to quickening drum-beats, weaving and dipping, their daggers flashing in the sun. Falconeers wandered around offering photo-ops. The women in their black chadors formed their own circles, taking in the purple-brown views and clean cool air. Sana'a at 2,400 m has the perfect climate.

The curved dagger, or jambiya, tied to the front of every Yemeni male, usually in a mint-green holster on a gold brocaded belt, serves the function of a necktie. Almost as ubiquitous in the countryside is another fashion statement, the Kalashnikov. There are said to be two and a half guns to every Yemeni. Revolver holsters sell on the footpath in Sana'a next to cell-phone cases. Yet, by all accounts, there is very little crime, because the whole clan is held responsible. Drivers drive very carefully - in an accident the police just lock them up till their families have come up with compensation to the injured (as in blood money).

After Aruna had exhausted his leave, I did an over-nighter, driving down to the ruins of Ma'rib, the seat of Saba, the mightiest empire of ancient Arabia, of Queen of Sheba fame. My Lonely Planet had a very helpful table, which listed 'kidnap zone' against Ma'rib. All the kidnapping stories in the edition except one ended peacefully, with the government agreeing to build a school or road or whatever the kidnappers wanted for their tribe, which however was never money. The kidnappee was treated with legendary Yemeni hospitality. The story may be apocryphal, but the kidnappers of an American diplomat are said to have stopped to pick up chocolate cookies for him as they were leaving town.

The ruins of Ma'Rib
The ruins of Ma'RibFlickr

Still, they take no chances, and we had to travel in convoy. In another car was Tariq from Raigad, in his oil company uniform with his colleagues. (Oil company employees are prime targets.) As the excellent road dropped off the central highland into the furnace of the desert to the east, I was stopped by the police and asked to pick up two soldiers as my official escorts. They looked pretty indistinguishable to me from the rest of the gun-toting populace. Negotiations followed on the price of my safety. Being Indian helped ('you are on our side,' they conceded). Unfortunately, my gunmen took their duties seriously and shadowed me closely. It would have been much nicer to admire the view alone, of the perfectly preserved sluice gates of a huge dam built in 600 BC that irrigated Ma'rib for a thousand years.

The Sabaen Empire

The dam irrigated about 100 sq. km and supported a large agricultural population. Taxes collected from traders along the myrrh and frankincense incense route between Rome and India contributed further to the prosperity of the Sabaen Empire, and enabled it to provide the heavy maintenance the dam required. Another sight in Ma'rib, apart from some impressive ruins, is a structure referred to by the locals as the throne of Queen Sheba, or Queen Bilquis in Arabic. All three holy books, the Old Testament, the Quran and the Ethiopian Kebra Nagast, refer to the meeting of Queen Bilquis with King Solomon. There is no hard archeological evidence that Saba did indeed have a queen contemporaneous with King Solomon, but located as they were at the western and southern ends of the incense route (which then continued by sea to India) it is quite possible the two sovereigns met to discuss matters of traffic control, among other things. 

Further east from Ma'rib across the desert lies Hadramawt ('place of death') best known for the mud towers of Shibam, or the'Chicago of the East', another World Heritage Site, but also as the province Bin Laden's family migrated from. The Hadramis are known for their restlessness, and contribute a large part of the Yemeni diaspora, which extended to places like Java, by way of India, centuries ago.

Nothing distinguishes the convivial and easy going nature of Yemenis from their dour northern neighbours, the Saudis, more than their passion for qat, on which many of them spend a quarter to a third of their income, not to mention all of every afternoon, judging from our driver and guide, who would cleverly pack us off on a trek while they settled down to the serious business of chewing. Qat is a leaf (the size of tulsi) which has to be tucked away into the cheeks in wads the size of tennis balls, before it produces an indefinable feeling of contentment called 'kaif'. It is not harmful, but clearly addictive. Street life comes to a standstill in the afternoons, and seats empty in offices, as people settle down in dark rooms against cushions and start the session trading friendly insults, before turning to weightier matters. To give you the flavour, a man across the room started telling jokes about Indians (which are quite common across the Middle East). His wife, a French woman from Algeria, pretending to be embarrassed by his forwardness, chimed in with 'well, what can I expect, marrying my chauffeur'. I was told darkly by a manager at Taj Sheba that the President 'chews' too, although he insisted loyally that their own employees were no problem. The Yemenis do not drink.

Haraz Mountain Village
Haraz Mountain VillageFlickr

Once, at the end of a particularly strenuous day, Abdel Jalil, our moonlighting guide (his real job as a government servant is to settle disputes between tribes) said, 'You know, I don't understand why you foreigners spend so much money rushing around the world when you could be relaxing like we do, with qat.'

Getting there

Yemen Airlines has flights from some cities of India to the capital city of Sana'a. Be sure to check the visa requirements while planning your holiday.

Where to stay

There is a range of accommodation available in Sana'a. The five-star hotel the Taj Sheba is located in town. The Arabia Felix Hotel , is located in the Old Sana'a neighbourhood. The hotel websites provide more details about the packages and tariff.

What to eat

Yemeni cuisine differs markedly from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, and is a real highlight of any trip. The signature dish is salta, a meat-based stew spiced with fenugreek and generally served at the end of the main course. Yemeni honey is particularly famous throughout the region, and used in many dessert dishes of note is bint al-saf, a flat dough dish drenched in honey. Yemeni raisins are also worth a try.

What to see

There's a lot to see in Yemen depending on the amount of time you have.

Socotra Island, off the southeastern shore of Yemen, is known for beautiful beaches and is also becoming popular for its great diving.

Aden is a bustling port city which has for many hundred years been the hub of trade in the area.

The Wadi Hadramawt (valley) in the eastern desert and the ancient city of Shibam are also worth visiting.

Kawkaban, the lovely mountain village is closer to Sana'a, nestled on a sheer cliff.

When to go

The central highlands, where Sana'a is located, have a temperate climate for most of the year, though it can get hot at noon and chilly at night (particularly between October and February). Sana'a averages daytime temperatures of 25-30 degrees Celsius - but at night it can get down to freezing. If you're planning to travel to other places in Yemen, the best time to visit is between October and March - the temperatures in the Tihama (the hot and humid Red Sea coastal strip) are somewhat bearable, as are temperatures in the deserts of the east and the north.


Getting a visitor's visa for Yemen can take up to three weeks, so plan well in advance. You will need to get a 'No Objection certificate' from the Ministry of External Affairs and a letter of invitation or an itinerary from a tour operator. You will also need to get special permission if you're planning to travel outside Sana'a (your tour operator will arrange this for you). For more information contact the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen (D108, behind Mount Carmel School, Block D, Anand Niketan).

Travel agents

Moving around Yemen on your own can be difficult. You will need to have a four-wheel drive vehicle (since most roads are in poor condition) and, in places, you'll also need an armed escort. It is therefore best to plan your trip with a travel agent.

Yemen is famous for frankincense which grows in the southern part of the country. It's also famous for coffee, and at one time most of the world's coffee used to pass through the Yemeni port of Mocca (that's where Mocha comes from). The two combine delightfully in a cup of Yemeni coffee scented with frankincense.

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