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Yemen: Where time stands still…

It is like turning back the clock 100 or 200 years!

Yemen, officially known as the Republic of Yemen, is located on the southwestern to claims ownership over more than 200 islands. While large parts of Yemen are desert or semi-desert, some mountain peaks rise up to 3,700 m (12,100 ft) above sea level.

Yemen has long existed at a crossroads of cultures with a history dating back to as early as 5,000 B.C. The collection of ancient castles, fortresses and many other signs of early civilisation is all testament to the very it independence, while the Brits left earlier than expected in 1967.

With the death of Imam Ahmad bin Yahya in 1962, the North Yemen Civil War started. The truth is, this was a war with Saudi Arabia, Britain, and Jordan on the one side (supporting the Hamidaddin Royalists), and Egypt on the other side supporting the Republicans. After six years of war, the Republicans claimed victory in 1968 and formed the Yemen Arab Republic in the northwest of the country, also known as North Yemen with Sana’a as its capital. Around the same time the British rule ended in the south, so the socialistic state of South Yemen was formed. After years of fighting between the north and the south during which time many people died, they eventually came to an agreement. In 1990 North Yemen united with South Yemen, known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, to form the current Republic of Yemen. However, Yemen was still not ready for peace as fighting continued between the north and the south, and just about everywhere.

Since the suicide attack on the U.S. the few foreign tourists who ventured into Yemen have been targeted randomly.

Sana'a, Yemen

The old city of Sana’a at sunset, Yemen

The 2011 Yemeni revolution in response to the Arab Spring mass protests has not achieved much in terms of safety to tourists and locals alike.  Looking back at the history of Yemen is it clear that it never has been a safe destination for travellers. It’s been on the Black and Red travel alerts of most countries and the current U.S. …a very high threat of terrorist attacks, abductions, tribal violence and general lawlessness.”  Don’t take these warnings lightly. Better sit back and enjoy this article than attempting your own travels through Yemen.

Freya Madeline Stark

Freya Madeline Stark

One of the earliest intrepid travels through the Arabian Peninsula, including Yemen, was skillfully tells stories about her travels through Yemen, her brush with death in the desert, and how she travelled woman alone with a camel caravan through the desert filled with Arab men.

“A Winter in Arabia” (1940) is a continuation of her Yemen and other travels through the Arabian Peninsula.  Freya spent time at the Sultan’s Palace at Seiyun, Hadhramaut Valley in 1935 about which she wrote “I climbed many storeys of the palace to visit the harem, and found the women friendly and gay, dressed in the Hadhramaut fashion,  but with a touch of Indian slender in their silks.”   In conjunction with the St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, there is a lovely exhibition of Freya’s stories and her black and white photographs inside the Sultan’s Palace at Seiyun. Freya travelled through Yemen for the last time in the 1940’s before she returned some 40 years later when she was in her 80’s.  She had a total fascination with Yemen, which is well founded, and so easily rubs off on the reader of her books.  Once you have read Freya’s accounts of life in Yemen, you will be hooked on going to see this amazing country for yourself.

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Capital City of Sana’a

Your first touch point is likely to be the capital city of Sana’a, which used to be the capital of North Yemen before the reunification in 1990.   As you drive from the airport to the city, your culture shock slowly builds up and exhilarates as you enter the old part of the city. Don’t be scared. You will be perfectly fine. Check in at one of the cozy guesthouses in the historical city of Sana’a. Once you have dropped off your bag and signed the hotel register, head out the door right into the action of old Sana’a.  You are in for a real treat. It’s a time warp! While you may not know what Sana’a looked like a hundred years ago, you will be totally convinced that time has not changed here in all that time.

Almost everybody still wears their traditional clothing. Men generally wear the chadari has a fine grille over the eyes that the woman looks through.

Sana'a, Yemen

The old city of Sana’a, Yemen

Yemeni women do not hold many economic, social or cultural rights. The combination of a high level of illiteracy, traditional culture and religion Qat chewing has a history as a social custom dating back thousands of years and it is still very much alive around the Arabian Peninsula, and in particular in Yemen.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classified it as a drug of abuse in 1980 as it can produce mild-to-moderate psychological dependence though it is not considered to be seriously addictive. Many Yemeni men, including teens, chew others being Jericho, Palestine, as well as Damascus and Aleppo in Syria and Arbil in Iraq).  Sana’a is believed to have been founded by Shem, the son of Noah and as a result the city has the unlikely nickname of “Sam City.”  Bab al-Yemen is the gate leading into the old city which is surrounded by high walls.

Sana'a, Yemen

Residential buildings in the old city of Sana’a, Yemen

Once you are in the old city, where you should be staying in one of the cozy guesthouses, just walk around and explore the many old buildings, markets, and museums.  This is not a tourist city so don’t expect any tourist facilities. Even the museums are very basic. The shops are fascinating. The market area is a sight from a different era. Think back a hundred years ago. Time has stood still here, as it has all across Yemen.   The people are generally friendly and as long as you blend into your environment with both your clothing and your behaviour, you should be fine. Dress absolutely conservatively in dark clothes and be respectful in all situations.

Taking photos of kids and men without prior permission is acceptable, but be humble and thankful to your subjects. Avoid taking photos of women, or at least do it extremely discreetly.  Venturing outside the old walled city is rewarding too, in particular the markets where, once again, you need to blend in with your local environment as much as possible.  As the culture shock flares up from time to time, just stand still and take it in until you feel comfortable again to continue walking.

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Hadhramaut Valley – Shibam

When done with Sana’a, head over to the amazing Hadhramaut Valley in central Yemen.  Either drive or fly. Hiring a car and driver for the 2-day exhilarating but it is not recommended due to safety concerns. This road is often closed to foreigners and even when open, several permits need to be acquired before leaving Sana’a.  Leave the thrills to the Hadhramaut Valley so better get on the next Yemenia Airways flight from Sana’a to the town of Seiyun. Within an hour the plane will touch down in Seiyun, just 20 km to the east of Shibam.

While Seiyun is well known for the famous Sultan’s Palace in its historical core, the place to get to is Shibam.   Also referred to as Shibam Hadhramaut it should not be confused with another town called Shibam Hadhramaut is justifiably described as “the oldest skyscraper city in the world” or “the Manhattan of the desert”, and is one of the oldest examples of city planning based on the principle of vertical construction. The city has some of the tallest mud buildings in the world, with some of them over 30 m (100 ft) high.

Shibam, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

Shibam, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

and the city itself has been in existence for about 1,700 years.  Most of the buildings that still stand today were built between the 16th and 19th century.  In 2008 the city suffered major damages from flooding which resulted in the collapse of some buildings.  An Al Qaeda terrorist attack in 2009 added to the misery when several tourists were killed in a blast.

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Hadhramaut Valley – Seiyun and Tarim

From Shibam head back to Seiyun and continue on to the town of Tarim, about 40 km past Seiyun.  Tarim has the highest concentration of descendants of the Islamic prophet Muhammad anywhere in the world and is widely acknowledged as the theological, juridical, and academic centre of the Hadhramaut Valley.  Hard to miss is the minaret of the Al Muhdar Mosque, which at 53 m (175 ft) high, is one of the tallest earth structures, made from soil, in the world.

Another interesting feature of Tarim is the flamboyant Al-Kaf Palace, built by Sayed Omar bin Sheikh al-Kaf. This is just one of about thirty mansions that were constructed by wealthy merchant families in Tarim between the 1870s and 1930s. The al-Kaf family, who made much of their fortune in Singapore, was considered the most influential.  As you travel around the Hadhramaut Valley watch out for the women herding goats or working in the fields dressed in black abayas and traditional conical straw hats known as madhalla.  Walk around inside the old walled city to adore its architecture and meet the fascinating locals.  Overlooking the walled city is a high mountain which can be climbed with some great effort from where the views over the city are stunning.

Road from Tarim to Sayun, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

Along the road from Tarim to Sayun, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

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Thula | Kawkaban | Al Mahwit

Departing Sana’a in a northwestern direction leads to the villages of Thula, Kawkaban, At Tawilan, and Al Mahwit. These villages are interesting and offer some of the most amazing architecture in Yemen.  They have tourist accommodation which makes a very interesting overnight stay. Dating back to the Himyarite period, which flourished 110 B.C. is the mountain village of Kawkaban. While the village itself is historic and photogenic, the next part of visiting the village is the stunning view over the valley down below, in particular the views over the small town of Shibam.  This is the other town of Shibam mentioned earlier. Here one can stand for hours just staring down over the valley.

Sana'a to Al-Mahwit, Yemen

Along the road from Sana’a to Al-Mahwit, Yemen

Al-Mahwit, Yemen

The dirty men of Al-Mahwit, Yemen

Al-Mahwit, Yemen

Al-Mahwit, Yemen

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Dar al-Hajar

Closer to Sana’a in the Wadi Dhahr Valley is an iconic symbol of Yemen: the Dar al-Hajar, also known as the Imam’s Rock Palace.  What makes this little palace so incredible is that it is perched atop a rock pinnacle and is exemplary of Yemeni architecture. It just seems to grow out of the rocks on which it is constructed. Yahya Muhammad Hamid with his grandson in 1948.”  The palace was later restored for visitors and turned into a museum.

Wadi Dhahr (Rock Palace), Yemen

The Dar al-Hajar, also known as the Imam’s Rock Palace in the Wadi Dhahr Valley, Yemen

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A few more photos of YEMEN

Sana'a, Yemen

Qat chomping men in Sana’a, Yemen

Sana'a, Yemen

Dates salesman in Sana’a, Yemen

Old Souk (Bazaar), Damascus, SYRIA

View of Sayun from a nearby hill, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

Sultan's palace, Sayun, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

Sultan’s palace, Sayun, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

Shibam, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

Just another sand storm in Shibam, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

Shibam, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

Shibam, Hadramawt Valley, Yemen

Al-Mahwit, northern Yemen

Al-Mahwit, northern Yemen

Thula, Yemen

Thula, Yemen

Thula, northern Yemen

Thula, northern Yemen

Shibam view from Kowkaban, Yemen

Shibam (not the Shibam in the Hadramawt Valley) viewed from Kowkaban up in the hills, Yemen


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