The Wonders of Yemen: At the heart of Arabia Felix

I- Introduction

“Sana’a is a must, no matter how long the journey is” – Imam al-Shafa’i

Once I entered Old Sana’a by Bab al-Yaman, I remembered these words right away.

When you enter Fatimid Cairo by Bab Zuweila, you immediately feel the grandeur of huge monuments tightly packed. San’a gives you a different feel, luring you slowly into a scene reminiscent of One Thousand & One Nights…

First, there is a huge plaza with tower-houses of breathtaking beauty at the backdrop. This is the “zabur” architecture for which Old Sana’a is famous: The zabur (fired mud-bricks) are adorned with curvilinear motifs made of white gypsum, while the “takhreem” windows are adorned with colored glass, stucco and alabaster. Usually, a house would have a “diwan” for guests, and a “mafraj” or “manzar” on the top floor, which is a flat room with only pillows for chewing or “takhzeen” of qat.

Slowly losing myself into Old Sana’a, I experienced what was once described as “stepping into the middle of a vast pop-up picture book”…It’s easy to know why Old Sana’a was declared a UNESCO World Heritage City in 1984: It has over 6,000 traditional houses (many of them over 400 years old), tens of old mosques with fancy minarets, tens of hammams, souqs, and “samsara”, a building similar in structure and function to the Wikala (Caravanserai).

So, my excursion took me from Bab al-Yaman and right into the heart of action: Suq al-Milh, where they sell not only salt but also spice, food, jambiyya daggers, silk, copper and silverware, etc.

From the alleys of al-Abhar, al-Qasimi, al-Dar al-Jadid, Bustan Shirab, al-Tawashi, Khodeir and al-Zumar to the mosques of al-Jami’ al-Kabir, ‘Aqil, Qubbat al-Baqiriyya, al-Madrasa and Salah al-Din, strolling the markets of Suq al-Milh, Suq al-Henna, Suq al-‘Enab (Grapes), Suq al-Baz (Silk), as well as Samsarat al-Nahas (Copper) and Samsarat al-Mansura. Only my stinking t-shirt reminded me that I have been strolling for 7 hours nonstop! It forced me to go back to the hotel for a shower.

II: Enter Like a Stranger

Some say it was built be Shem, son of Noah…well, we know Sana’a dates back from the Saba Civilization (around 6th century BC), and that it was once the capital of the Hymiarites and was once the capital of…Ethiopia!

The best way to explore this city is to go with no map and no wristwatch, because this place defies the norms of place and time. Every twist and turn is worth admiring. Enter like a stranger, and you will walk out with many friends!

From young kids asking for “photo, photo”, through a labyrinth of winding alleys where buyers and sellers negotiate prices with cheeks stuffed to the fullest with qat, surprisingly, you eventually find yourself in neighborhoods that are strikingly quiet.

The mosques here, just like houses, are like nothing that you’ve ever seen before. On one of the minarets, instead of the typical crescent moon finial, or even the less common ‘ushara (boat), there is a metal bird! They say it is a cock, believed to be the earliest-riser that does “azan” or call for prayer at dawn before anyone else does.

Another interesting feature here is the absence of overly high buildings, for even though there are tower-houses; the landscape is spaced out nicely, allowing the eye to glide comfortably from one jewel to the next.

So, after much walking, I went for a traditional lunch at Suq al-Bulaidi, where I chose a fresh fish called “Jahsh” that they oven-baked for me. For the afternoon, I was invited for a “qat party” at the hotel’s “mafraj” or uppermost floor, but that’s another story.

First documented by al-Biruni in the 11th century, qat (ghat) was described as “a commodity from Turkistan, sour to eat”. Well, it grew to a phenomenal socio-cultural status in Yemen, where the evergreen shrub that grows only at high altitude consumes over 40% of the country’s water supply!

At the hotel’s “mafraj” (flat room at uppermost floor with only pillows and a nice view), I was invited to join 3 Yemenis in a “magyal qat” (qat party). The view of Old Sana’a with its elegant minarets against the gray backdrop of Nuqut Mountain and the relaxed quiet room made for just the right setting as the “sa3a solaymaniya” (Solomon’s Hour) was close. This is the name that many locals use to describe the hour between 6 pm and 7 pm, where they believe jinn roam among us after sunset (Prophet Solomon had control over Jinn, so, why not call it Solomon’s Hour?)

“Don’t worry if you feel sick, dizzy, insomniac or get an upset stomach, it’s only your first time,” said the man who stretched his hand full of qat to me…not at all an encouraging remark for a novice like myself!

I started chewing but he stopped me, saying “tayammanu” (Use your right hand) because God loves it! (Is this guy serious?) Anyways, I started chewing the fresh tender green and reddish leaves, leaving out the big and dry ones as instructed. You chew and chew till the leaves form a paste, and you use your tongue to push it up your cheek forming a slimy ball of paste. You keep it there, and chew a new bunch of leaves making the ball bigger, and so on. This is why they call it “takhzeen al-qat” (storing qat)…because you store what you chew up your cheek.

Looking at their over-stretched cheeks, I eventually felt frustrated because, after 30 minutes of focused chewing and storing, I felt nothing!

One of them gave me a stupid smile and told me I should chew not only the leaves; but the stems as well!

The stems taste bad, but I went on chewing zealously (like a sheep chewing cud) as they engaged in conversations about everything and anything: One of them talked about the execution of Saddam Hussein, the second; about the pleasures of sex and the third about his third wife.

After 90 minutes, I started feeling a bit sick, but my senses were sharp. I still didn’t feel much effect because, as they told me mockingly, I swallowed more paste than I should.

Obviously, qat parties are social events…expensive ones! On average, an average-salaried person consumes qat that costs him 5 to 10 dollars daily. Rich people can go up to 100 – 150 dollars worth of qat a day! Walking with a ball up your cheek is a sign of well-being, being able to “afford your qat”!

Usually, people start “takhzeen” of qat after lunch and could go all night long. Qat is believed to make them more focused yet more relaxed, and some use it as an aphrodisiac. The funny part is that everyone does it, from the traffic police to the state officials. There is even a municipal market for it.

Yemen is blessed not only with rich trade, vibrant history and an abundance of resources, but also with a charm that you can experience only when you move to the valleys and mounts.

III- Day Trips to Dar al-Hagar, Shibam and Kawkaban

My trip took me to the inevitable site of Dar al-Hagar, a spectacular palace of many floors erected on top of a most peculiar rock formation dominating the landscape. The palace, built for Imam Yahia around 1942, seems like a natural extension to the rock!

From man-made wonders to the splendors of nature at the picturesque Wadi Dhahr and all the way to the medieval feel of the village of Shibam. The Great Mosque has stones with Himyarite inscriptions. This comes as no surprise since the mosque was built on the remains of a Hymiarite temple.

Shibam makes for a pleasant walk in secluded and forgotten alleys, but the “real deal” was Kawkaban on top of the mountain.

My “climb” took me 90 minutes of hard labor, but the moment I reached the top, I realized it was worth every drop of sweat and every curse I mumbled along the way!

The views of Shibam at the valley below and Thilla on a mount top nearby are unforgettable, but so are the huge deep cisterns dug in the rocks and the silos next to them: Kawkaban is a living example of what a “fortified city” means: It was built to stand sieges as long as over a year!

Faraj, my 9 years-old guide, showed me around the Mosque of al-Mansur and al-Madrasa Mosque, and almost got me killed as I slid off a slimy cliff that he pointed out as a “nice photo-spot”!

It’s tough to paint it all in words, my photos will do a better job (I hope!).

IV- The Epic of Sayf Bin dhi Yazen

There are many “celebrities” in Yemeni history, some are famous (like Badhan, the Persian ruler who converted to Islam, and Balqis, Queen of Sheba and some notorious (like Zhi Nuwas, the Jewish king who persecuted the Christians, & whose tale is mentioned in Quran).

But nothing is as impressive as the “sirah” (folkloric epic) of Sayf bin dhi Yazen ÓíÝ Èä Ðì íÒä, who is ranked among the likes of al-Zahir Baybars and Abu Zayd al-Hilali …and his sirah becomes even more impressive when you listen to it as told by a roaming storyteller in the labyrinthine back-alleys of Old Sana’a at night!

I was so lucky to encounter one such storyteller at Suq al-Gumruk, and like everyone else, I joined the masses of people that gathered ’round, listening to his tale while sipping my hot “mfawwar” (Milk and tea brewed with cardamom):

Oh Sayf, son of a jinn mother
Your wife was taken by the Habash (Ethiopians)
Those sons of a whore…

Sayf was of a Hymiarite origin. He lived in the 6th century, and managed to free Yemen of the Ethiopians (al-Ahbash) who gave the Yemenis hell! His “sirah” portrays him as a legendary super-being whose mother is Jinn and whose religion is Islam. According to the sirah, al-Ahbash kidnapped Sayf’s wife, Minyat al-Nofous, and he managed to free her from al-Ahbash, who are described as pagans (but were Christians in reality).

In reality (even though it is debatable still), he seeked help from the Romans against the Ethiopians, but they wouldn’t help him because they were Christians, just like the Ethiopians. Sayf then seeked help from the Persians, who –initially- showed no interest in this “barren land” called Yemen. Their ruler gives him some golden coins and asks him to leave, but Sayf throws the coins on the ground, saying he needs no gold because the mountains of Yemen are made of silver and gold (in an attempt to motivate the Persians).

His trick works, and they send with him an army of ex-cons (so as to get rid of them in case of defeat), and Sayf manages to beat the Ethiopians with this army, and he frees Yemen from them once and for all.

V- Sana’a Again

One last night stroll in Old San’a…
The city reveals even more charms at night as lights shine through a million coloured glass windows, and yet, as you walk towards the outskirts, you can enjoy a starry night unheard of in our beloved Cairo…

Every once in a while, you come across a big plaza that is dead calm; yet safe and warm. It’s as if the city gives you one chance after another to take a break, take a deep breath, and absorb all the beauty that you’ve seen…

Going up to the rooftop of a 4 story samsara (wikala), I watch as the city sighs its last breath for the day before sleep takes over its souqs and streets.

These are the last sights of Old Sana’a…kids joyously chasing after a ball…old men collecting their commodities…the lively movement of people against the imposing stillness of countless splendid houses and tens of minarets…man and stone…present and history…simplicity and splendour…Old Sana’a.

VI- Ta’izz, Jewel of the Rasulids

Ibn Battutah visited Ta’izz in the 14th century; and described it as one of the largest and most beautiful cities of Yemen.
Today, following the footsteps of Ibn Battutah, after a 5 hour drive, I came face to face with the Rasulid architecture in the charming mountain city of Ta’izz, once the capital of the Rasulid Dynasty.

The Ayyubids invaded Yemen in 1173 under Turan Shah, brother of Saladin, and ruled till the Rasulids took over (1229 – 1454). Rasulids trace their origins to a Turkmen who served as “rasool” (messenger) for the Abbasid Caliph in Yemen, and hence the name Rasulids.

The city’s old souq is such an interesting place to stroll. A walk between Bab Musa and Bab al-Kabir helps you experience the feel of a mountain village souq, with the mountain itself at the background. But the Rasulid mosques here are the main attraction.

First came the al-Muzaffariyya Mosque, commissioned by Sultan al-Muzaffar Yusuf (1250 – 1295), then came the breathtakingly charming Mosque-Madrasa of al-Ashrafiyya, commissioned by Sultan al-Ashraf Umar (1295 – 1296).

Apart from its two elegant minarets rising high against a beautiful background formed by Qal’at al-Qahira on top of a mount, this mosque’s whitewashed walls and shallow cupolas are characteristic of Rasulid architecture. I walked into the mosque only to find my lips gaping in disbelief as I admired the carved stucco, the mashrabiyya screens at the mausoleums, and the colors used in ceiling designs. The carved wood door panels are another wonder.

Then came the Mu’tabiyya Mosque, built in 1392 (al-Mu’tab was the wife of al-Ashraf II). The recessed mihrab and the shell motif employed is reminiscent of Fatimid architecture, but the colored motifs adorning the arches and the ceiling are more reminiscent of Aya Sofia in Istanbul. Only two piers support the whole structure of this monumental mosque!