Sana’a is probably the most remarkable capital city I have ever visited. Having travelled the world for over 35 adult years, I fondly remember it as one of the most welcoming of cities. The fact that the city is in the news for the worst possible reasons at the moment makes me shudder at the impact on the local Yemeni and on their charming Old City.
The continuing impact of civil war has, this week, seen the ousting of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, as Houthis rebels force their way into the capital under a maelstrom of bullets, bazookas and bombs. With such a strategic position between the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the Yemen of today continues to have an impact on the world at large. Sadly it is no longer due to its position on the ancient spice routes, but more to do with its fractious collection of traditional tribal cultures that have caused so many regions to take up arms against each other. The presence of al-Qaeda in Abyan province, and the recent breakdown in UN-brokered peace between President Hadi’s government and Iranian backed Houthis forces, has led to an escalation in international involvement. That in turn keeps international tourists well away.
In the past couple of days Egypt has declared its readiness to put army boots on the ground, as the Saudi-led coalition launches air strikes against Houthis. Additional focus and involvement from the US, Gulf States and Turkey mean that there is little chance of stability, let alone an increase in local tourism income.
How damaged and desolate Sana’a will become as the violence escalates, only time will tell.
Located at 2,300m, Old Sana’a is one of the world’s most continuously inhabited cities, stretching back 2,500 years. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site mainly because of the extraordinary multi-storeyed tower-houses so startlingly built using local rammed-earth and patched stone. Dominated by twisting alleys, narrow horse-and-cart roads and biblical scenes around almost every corner, the traffic-free Old City is as spellbinding as it is ancient.
Although I have not returned since the late 1990s, and we at Nomadic Thoughts have not arranged client travel to anywhere in the Yemen for fifteen years, I distinctly remember the city’s infectious spirit. The characterful houses seem to spring out from the earth itself, fitting together across the Old City like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. At night there is an almost total absence of light: most houses do not have mains electricity. What light there is comes from the sky at night, or dimly lit light bulbs, powered by car batteries. These in turn give the alabaster windows an almost advent calendar ambiance.
I remember feeling my way through the maze of dark alleys with only a torch for guidance. Rounding corners, I saw local doorways open up to nativity scenes and blinkered camels walking in circles, driving smooth mill stones over wheat seeds, as their masters leant over small fires. Shooting the breeze with friends, they chewed ghat with Janbiya daggers tucked into broad beamed belts.
I took this photo of a man peacefully reading under the rays of a dim 40w light bulb well after sundown, as I walked back to my electricity-free seven story guest house hotel in the heart of the Old City.
As a country the Yemen also remains one of the most magnificent that I have visited, offering as it does a kaleidoscope of memories from across the most extraordinary variety of differing landscapes. The people, although often veiled or distant, had a serenity unlike anywhere else I had visited, which was strange for a country that boasts a higher percentage of firearms per person than anywhere else in the world. Indeed you could buy a revolver from a street hawker as easily as pack of cigarettes.
In 2009 The Guardian newspaper quoted me when I listed travelling across Yemen’s Empty Quarter as one of the ‘50 Ultimate Travel Experiences’.
I travelled with Nicki, my wife, who was treated as an honorary man everywhere. She joined in the ghat chewing sessions and discussions of the day, as well as visiting the female sections of the house. Walking along the remoter Hadramaut valley streets in Mokha (birthplace of mocha – coffee) she was the only female in sight, among tens of thousands of men. We felt at all times safe, well-respected and welcome.
Indeed we experienced the diversity of tribal traditions from pistol-shooting wedding celebrations and desert living under ink-black night skies, to ancient Saibham city craftsmen among the Manhattan-style mud brick skyscrapers. Equally our exclusive Bedouin-led navigation across the vast, open and unforgiving Empty Quarter will forever be one of the most daunting journeys of my life.
My hope is that when stability is restored to Sana’a, and across the Yemen, these images of the ancient capital – which I took in 1997 – will remain true to reality.