Friday, July 2, 2010
Then I landed at Sana’a Airport after a pleasant five-and-a-half-hour flight from Istanbul to the Yemen capital, I was once again confronted by the fact that if you want to know a place you have to go there. My first reminder was Sana’a’s cool evening air. I had thought the heat was going to give me trouble on my trip, which coincided with the first days of summer, but it wasn’t that way. Apart from the coastal strip on the west and south, the altitude is around 2,400 meters in Yemen, which is home to some of the highest peaks on the Arabian peninsula. In other words, the elevation ensures comfortable weather for a trip at the height of summer. In areas like Aden, Hudaydah and Mukalla on the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, in contrast, a hot climate reigns in every season. Yemen is a land where you can experience different seasons and climates all at once.
Impressive History And Architecture
The country’s quintessential towns, Sana’a, Aden, Mayeen and Ma’rib, have been inhabited without interruption for 2,500 years. Its name frequently mentioned in the holy books of the monotheistic religions, Yemen was the capital of the Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms in antiquity. Its cities are known for their legendary gardens of Shaddad bin Ad, built in emulation of the garden of paradise, and their unique architecture, which has survived to our day. Besides monuments of the early Islamic period, vestiges of the Ottoman Empire, which arrived in the region in the 16th century, are visible all over Yemen. Buildings reflecting 19th century British influence stand out in Aden. And the 12 and 13-story houses in the town of Shibam, which are regarded as the world’s first skyscrapers, have been declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage.
Sana’a, City Of Dreams
The capital Sana’a is the first must-see place in Yemen. The Ali Abdullah es-Salih Mosque on the way into the city is its pride and joy. This magnificent temple, construction of which got underway in 2001 and was completed in 2008, exhibits traces of the world’s masterpieces of Islamic architecture. References to the mosques of Istanbul, Cairo, Baghdad, Andalusia and Isfahan render this splendid monument even more significant. Leaving the universities, and the business and government districts behind, we delve now into Bab al-Yemen to meet the real Sana’a.
Arabia Felix Yemen
Greek geographers of antiquity called it ‘Arabia Felix’ or ‘Happy Yemen’, the land Herodotus had praised in 400 B.C. as ‘the richest country in the world’. Lying on the southwest coast of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen is full of surprises just waiting to be discovered.
The main gateway to Old Sana’a is called ‘Bab al-Yemen’, which means ‘Yemen Gate’ in Turkish. Like a castle entrance, it opens onto a square teeming with itinerant vendors. In me the gate awakened a sense of stepping into a time capsule. Peddlers in local costume, exotic eastern spices, textiles, fabrics and incense envelop you immediately. Hundreds of labyrinthine streets open onto a dizzying variety of markets and bazaars. But don’t panic. It is almost impossible to get lost here because the Yemeni people are eminently helpful. Quickly realizing that you have lost your way, they will escort you right back to Bab al-Yemen’s main entrance. You can stroll about safely night and day, mingling with the locals, in this city where the crime rate is extremely low. The bazaar merchants will invite you for coffee, even offer you food, and they mean it too. You don’t have to buy anything either. All you have to do is smile! It’s a good idea to do a little bargaining when you shop in Bab al-Yemen. But the merchants here definitely don’t try to gouge the tourists. There is no difference between the price quoted to you and the price quoted to a native. The Turkish TV series recently broadcast on Arab television have made an impact here as well. People start reeling off the names of the characters the minute they realize you’re a Turk! Bab al-Yemen is also the place in Sana’a where you can see traditional Yemen architecture, and the area has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site accordingly. Among the monuments from the Ottoman period, Bekriye Mosque is also located here. And the Great Mosque with its towering minaret is just another of the sights you can visit here.
A tropical climate reigns at Aden on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The air here is extremely humid, which is why the streets are deserted at midday and only begin to liven up again at dusk. Aden’s harbor has ensured that the city is a center of trade, and the number of people of Indian and African origin is quite high here. Fisheries are also highly developed since Aden is a coastal town, and the city’s fish market brims over daily with a widely varied catch. The cuisine here is highly spiced, as it is throughout Yemen. Meanwhile, in the city’s architecture it is possible to see buildings bearing traces of the period of British rule. Aden’s beaches are convenient for those who want to swim in the Indian Ocean’s clear, warm waters. The historic dams and weirs built in Aden in antiquity and repaired by the British are still in use. Along with them, the desert where legendary lovers Leila and Majnun were separated from each other is another sight worth seeing just outside Aden on the road to Taiz.
Like almost every settlement in Yemen, Taiz is a town that dates far back in history. Yemen’s cultural capital, Taiz lies in the foothills of Mount Sabir at some
3 thousand meters in altitude. Harboring monuments from the Ottoman, Mamluk and Ayyubid periods, Taiz is also Yemen’s industrial and manufacturing hub.
One Land, Many Aspects
That is how Yemenis sum up their country. And this phrase really says it all about a land like Yemen which has desert, mountains and the sea and is suitable for both diving and cultural tourism. Everything you see in Yemen is real. Nothing has been created for touristic purposes, nothing is artificial. Yemen is awaiting you now with its rooted past and its natural and cultural riches.
Write:Hasan Mert Kaya - Photo: Fethi İzan