A Journey through Yemen's Land of Fortress-Villages
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Now we will be traveling in the real Yemen.” Our driver, Ahmad, was ecstatic when I informed him that we would be traveling from Hodeidah through the Haraz mountains to Sana`a, the country’s capital – 256 km (159 MI) away. After a day in the hot Yemeni Tihama coastline, Ahmad was eager for the cool mountain air. However, I did not blame him. I too was anxious to leave the hot humid coast behind.
We made our way from steaming Hodeidah, Yemen’s main Red Sea port, through an arid land, almost invisible due to the blowing sands. The heat playing on the road before us caused mirages to form, then disappear. A short distance after Bajil, about 50 km (31 mi) from Hodeidah, we entered the mountains and – after the heat truly another world. The rough paved road wound its way, hugging the edge of a cultivated valley until we were atop the Haraz Mountains, farmed, in places, up to their very summit.
The whole area through which we were driving was an excellent example of Yemeni terraced agriculture. At times, these mountain fields of barley, bean, lentil, millet, rye, and wheat were so impressive that we stood in awe of the handiwork of generation after generation of Yemeni farmers. When we thought that we had seen the ultimate in mountain cultivation, around a bend in the road, an even more majestic scene would greet us.
Yet, more impressive than the fields were the villages, clinging like eagle’s nests to sides of cliffs or towering peaks. Many appeared to be in the most incredible and dangerous positions. Their abodes were all built in a form of fortified housing, with the walls of the homes pressed against each other, making each village a bastion. It seemed that every mountain peak had its citadel. Built from local stone, they blended completely into the landscape. It was often difficult to determine when rocks ended and the tall houses of the towns began. Their impressive architecture atop unconquerable peaks, overlooking the green terraced fields, was a panorama of unique beauty.
As we wound our way across the fantastic landscape on a highway built by the Chinese in the late 1950s and early 1960s we were entertained by Ahmad telling us a story about this spectacular achievement of engineering. He related how the Chinese, after building the first paved road in Yemen, felt they had miscalculated the cost. When they asked the then medieval-minded ruler, Imam Ahmad for more money, he is reported to have said, “Roll up your road and take it back with you”, playing on the words of an Arab saying for unwanted guests, ‘Roll up your bed and depart’.
About two hours after leaving Hodeidah, we turned off the main road and drove for a few minutes to Manakhah, built in the saddle of the Haraz Mountains. Here, the hot steamy Tihama was forgotten as we breathed the cool invigorating mountain air – 2,200 m (7,216 ft) above sea level. Getting out of our auto, I looked around at what is said to be the most splendid scenery in Yemen. This was emphasized by the partially cloud covered surrounding mountain range which is the chief coffee growing region in the country. Floating over the picturesque villages and hugging the slopes and pinnacles, the clouds created a picture postcard of beauty.
Manakhah, the capital of the province of Haraz, is located in the heart of a spectacular massif – an Ismaili region in Yemen. The Ismailis were introduced to the Haraz mountains by the rulers of the Sulayids Dynasty, famous for Queen Arwa who became known as the second Sheba. In the subsequent years, the members of this Islamic sect which is considered heretic by the majority of Muslims had to fight for their lives. Hence, they built their unassailable villages and farmed the mountain tops.
The some 5,000 Ismailis who now live in Yemen, mostly in the Haraz Mountains, center their faith around the village of Al Houdaib, 6 km (4 mi) from Manakhah. It houses the tomb of the revered Hatem ibn Ibrahim al-Hamadani and is an important place of pilgrimage for Ismailis from the four corners of the world. Fiercely independent, Yemen’s Ismailis have, in their fortified villages, preserved their religion and way of life against all odds. Travellers have suggested that nowhere else in Yemen can the haughty spirit of mountains and mountaineers be felt so intensely as in the Manakhah region.
Back on the edge of the highway, we dined in a peoples’ restaurant for about $2. each on Salta, the main Yemeni dish, and freshly baked bread. Following this hearty meal, as is usual in the country, it was now time for qat – leaves of a non-addictive plant which are chewed for leisure by the vast majority of Yemenis. Ahmad had bought his supply in Manakhah and as he drove, he chewed on the bitter leaves. When I suggested that qat was the ‘evil of the Yemen’, he said that others had thought of me, quoting a Yemeni poet who wrote:
“Qat is only green grass in the field,
Humans do not have for it a need.
Leave them! They want to be cows.”
He cewed leisurely on as the road, filled with trucks carrying the goods of the world from Hodeidah to Sana`a, wound their way through the now barren hills. Soon we were ascending again on a newly paved section of the highway. At the Haima Pass, we stopped to survey a breathtaking scene below. The intensely cultivated terraces climbed the mountainsides as far as the eye could see. Even more than around Manakhah, it was a bewitching vista of Yemeni terrace cultivation at its best.
A short distance onward, we were at the village of Matna where to our left we were overshadowed by the 3,760 m (12, 336 ft) high Mount Nabi Shuayb, the highest mountain in the whole of the Middle East. From here, we left the high peaks behind and in half an hour were in Sana`a, located in the center of the Yemeni mountains, 2,200 m (7,216 ft) above sea level.
Here, we were in another world – in a city of beautiful architecture. The ancient towering extraordinary homes of the old city and the splendid new villas of the wealthy, incorporating many features of the old, had replaced Spartan fortified villages. Driving in the cool dry air amid these marvelous creations of man, Ahmad smiled, then turned to me, “Is this not better than Tihama’a heat and blowing sand?” I nodded my head. There was no comparison.