Once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba, Ma'rib is the most stunning archaeological site in Yemen. In the 8th century BC a 16m (52ft) high dam was built here, and for over 1000 years the lake it created irrigated fields which sustained around 50,000 people. In the 2nd century AD the empire fell, and over the next few hundred years the dam collapsed and Ma'rib became an inconsequential village. When oil was discoverd here in 1986 the town was revitalised, and it's now a bustling place.Time has not been particularly charitable to the ruins of Ma'rib, but there's still plenty to see. Although most of the old village has been destroyed, you can still see some impressive small-windowed mud buildings, and occasionally you'll find one with ancient Sabaean inscriptions in its stone cellar. Nearby are the remnants of some remarkable temples, including the Temple of Bilqis, built around 400BC. There's not a lot left, but you can still see the remnants of the Great Dam of Ma'rib, and if you walk a few miles upstream you'll reach the imaginatively-titled New Dam of Ma'rib, more than twice as high as the old one.Ma'rib is about 100km (60mi) east of San'a - buses travel there twice a day from the capital. There are very few places to stay or eat in Ma'rib.
If you believe the Yemenis, San'a is one of the first sites of human settlement, founded by Noah's son, Shem. Other sources suggest the city has been around since at least the 2nd century AD, and up until 1962 the city still nestled within its ancient walls, surrounded by green fields. These days, San'a is a sprawling city of over a million people, but the walls still stand - many houses in the Old City are over 400 years old, and the area within the walls is the largest preserved medina in the Arab world. Everywhere you go you'll see facades ornamented with elaborate friezes, and beautiful takhrim windows with their delicate fretworking and coloured panes. Mosque minarets rise above the tower houses, and the city is sprinkled with bathhouses, some dating from the Ottoman occupation of Yemen.The central market, Souq al-Milh, is a collection of around 40 small souqs, each specialising in one product - you'll find vegetables, spices, qat, raisins, pottery, clothes, woodwork, copper and silver. In the Jambiya Souq you can watch craftsmen making complex ceremonial weapons. If you're a Muslim, you should visit Al-Jami' al-Kabir, the great mosque on the western side of Souq al-Milh. The mosque, which is closed to non-Muslims, was built around 630AD, when Mohammed was still alive.The city's National Museum lives in the House of Good Luck, a former royal palace built in the 1930s. Its five floors have displays on the ancient kingdoms of Yemen (including Saba), the country's Islamic history and its modern folk culture. The Museum for Arts & Crafts, also in an old palace, specialises in artefacts from everyday Yemeni life, while the surprisingly good Military Museum has the low-down on the country's many wars.You'll have no trouble finding a cheap hotel in San'a, but you may have trouble finding one you want to stay in. If you're prepared to pay a bit, you can stay in one of the city's converted tower houses. There are plenty of small restaurants scattered around the city, with the best conglomeration around Bab al-Yaman.
Yemenis love to build their houses in difficult places, and Shihara is one of the finest examples of the art. This fortress village squats on top of a 2600m (8528ft) mountain, almost inaccessible from below. It has been a base for resistance to the Ottomans during the 16th and 17th centuries, and was also the Royalist headquarters during the 1960s civil war.Although its location is stunning, Shihara's architecture is simple. The town's stone houses rise up to five storeys, but are decorated only with dented friezes and white plastering - they are good examples of a very traditional, archaic form of Yemeni mountain architecture.The village is actually in two parts, each taking up a mountain peak of its own. A deep gorge separates them, spanned by a stone bridge built in the 17th century, a remarkable feat of engineering. There are very few places to stay in Shihara, and wherever you stay you will most likely be overcharged - it might be worth making the trib to nearby Huth. Most visitors take an organised tour from San'a to Shihara (mainly because this used to be the only way you could get there), but if you choose to make the 163km (101mi) journey by yourself you will need your own car - be prepared to spend the whole day getting there.
Hadhramawt is the biggest wadi (seasonal river) in the Arabian Peninsula - it runs for 160km (99mi) through stony desert, along a valley about 300m (980ft) deep. This is one of the most fertile areas of Yemen, brilliantly green against the starkness of the desert, and the area has been settled since at least the 3rd century AD. The city of Shibam, known as the Manhattan of the desert, is one of the highlights of the valley. Its 500 traditional-style skyscrapers are crammed into half a sqare km, and rise abrubtly from the flat plane of the desert, without a sprawling suburb in sight. Although the city has been around for about 1800 years, most of the houses in the walled city date from the 16th century. Many of them feature finely engraved wooden doors with fancy wooden locks; the windows are latticed with elaborately carved wooden screens.Say'un, the largest town in the valley, has some of Yemen's most beautiful mosques. The Sultan's Palace here is perhaps the most pompous in southern Yemen, a towering white colossus with light blue window decorations built in the 1930s. The palace holds a museum with archaeological artefacts, folklore displays and knick knacks belonging to former sultans. The souvenir shop here is also pretty nifty.Although Say'un might top the mosque stakes as far as quality goes, Tarim is definitely winning on quantity. This town, overshadowed by rock cliffs on one side and surrounded by palm groves on the other, is an important centre of Sunni Islamic teaching, and (officially, at least) is home to 365 mosques. The most famous of these is the al-Muhdar, named after an important religious teacher. Its minaret is 50m (164ft) high, solid, square and built of mud brick - it's the highest minaret in southern Arabia and the symbol of the town. If you prefer understatement to ostentation, visit the Al-Ahqaf Library, with its gorgeous collection of antique manuscripts and beautiful Arabic calligraphy.The wadi is in the eastern part of Yemen, about 800km (500mi) east of San'a. Say'un, in the centre of the valley, has an airport with flights from San'a and Aden. If you travel by bus or taxi from San'a, expect the trip to take two to three days.
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