Yemen forever

MAEVE KELYNACK SKINNER goes to Yemen and comes away fascinated by the country’s historical and archaeological wonders
A typical Yemeni sight

Before reading any further, answer the following question: What’s the population of Yemen? 
Wrong! It’s approximately 22 million!  And increasingly annually.

Covering almost 530,000 square kilometres across the heel of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen is roughly the size of France. Its highland borders skirt Saudi Arabia and Oman and its eastern and western coastlines border the Arabian and Red Seas, with the Gulf of Aden to the south. Within its territorial waters are some 200 islands.  Yemen has seven airports located at Sana’a, Aden, Taiz, Hodaidah, Al Mukalla, Al Ghaydah and Sayun. The main arterial highways are good and mostly well maintained but minor roads can be perilous and potholed. Toyota 4x4s and Pickups are the most popular forms of transport apart from motorbikes, camels and donkeys.
This fabled land has long fascinated people ever since Balquis, the Queen of Sheba journeyed by camel train to Jerusalem where she met (and some say married) King Solomon and bore him two sons.  Yemen was the start of the frankincense and spice trail which brought great wealth to the various civilizations dating back to 9th century BC. Yemeni architecture is unique to anywhere else in the world and as the Arabian Gulf’s skyscrapers shoot ever higher each year, a mere two hours away lies a land of skyscrapers, built some 1000 years ago.
Touring the country with Yemen Universal Touring Company, we start with Sana’a, the capital, which has a population of three million and it’s no surprise that UNESCO has designated it an architectural heritage city. Soaring six or seven storeys high in the walled old quarter, Yemen’s traditional tower houses were constructed some 700 years ago from russet and ochre coloured volcanic rock and clay. Packed tightly together, each is individually decorated using gypsum mashribiya designs and gamariya coloured glass windows and latticed balconies and are still occupied by extended families. Stepping through the Bab Al Yemen into the suq, is like entering a living museum.
This shopper’s paradise sells everything from evening dresses worn beneath colourful abayas, kaftans decorated with beads and seashells,  handcrafted fabric and rope handbags, jambias (daggers) attached to decorative fabric belts, silver jewellery and necklaces of amber, coral, onyx and lapis, handmade marwaz (sarong) worn by almost all Yemeni men. Local products like honey, henna, coffee (Mokka) and halwa, vie for space between stalls selling electronic items, sandals, carpets and bunches of Qat, the crunchy green leaf that is chewed by 85 per cent of Yemeni men.  This narcotic leaf is blamed for the country’s lack of progress and high price at $5 a bunch.
Sana’a has a choice of hotels including the five-star Taj Sheba, a Sheraton, an Accor operated Mercure and locally owned funduq (guesthouse).  Businessmen may prefer a recognised name but eco-tourists and visitors opt for the cultural treat of a funduq.  Many are in the heart of old Sana’a, rooms and bathrooms are clean, food is traditional and good and quite spicy. The big plus is to wake up to the world’s most extraordinary city view.
Imam Yaha Palace, Wadi Dhar, built 200 years ago on a lone rock on the outskirts of Sana’a is the summer residence of the late Imam and arguably Yemen’s most photographed sight.
Taiz, the ancient capital located midway between Sana’a and Aden, sits 1400m on an unpolluted plateau in the western highlands beneath the soaring 3200m Jebel Sabir.  This city of 500,000 inhabitants has a delightful old suq with traditional houses and attractive modern mansions in the city’s suburbs. Huge investment into Taiz  by the local Hayel Saeed family group include two Sofitel Accor hotels and a hospital. Taiz is famous for cheese, cotton weaving, silver jewellery, coffee and qat.  Sights include the Ashrafya and Muchtabiya mosques and the old citadel atop a 450m high mountain spur above the city.  Don’t miss the extraordinary Sunday Market at Wadi Dababeq, 10 km outside the city.
Aden, once the world’s second largest port (after New York) is a former British protectorate. Now the country’s business centre with supermarkets and a modern mall, apart from several beaches, a notable attraction is a reservoir system built in 1AD which collected fresh water from the surrounding mountains.
Shibam, which means ‘height’ in ancient Himyar, is another UNESCO heritage site. Nowhere else in the world will take your breath away as the first sight of Shibam, the lost city of the Hadramaut. Englishwoman Freya Stark who discovered the city in 1936 best describes the experience: “It looked as if a lower cliff had wandered out into the middle valley; the top of it splashed with white as by a giant paintbrush; an old and wrinkled city made of the earth that made the hills around it, built on a mound wherein no doubt lie buried its ancestor cities of the past.  This was Shibam.”
Mukalla, an ancient port on Yemen’s eastern coast is a mix of Arabian, Victorian and Indian architecture. Famous for deep sea fishing, breeding turtles, dancing dolphins and a pristine shoreline.  The fortress of Husn al-Ghuwayzi built in 1884, typifies the beauty of Yemeni architecture.
Marib, former capital of the Sabean Kingdom of one of history’s most tantalising women, Balquis, Queen of Sheba. The area abounds in ancient ruins dating from 8th century BC, standing like sentinels guarding a barren desert. Once the site of an ancient dam that watered 25,000 acres, in 1986, a new dam was funded by the late Shaikh Zayed, President of the UAE, in honour of his ancestors who came from the region.
Yemen’s largest island, Socotra, some 340km off Yemen’s east coast and 250m off Somalia, is also a UNESCO protectorate. At 120km long by 40km wide with a population of 35,000 who have their own language and culture, Socotra has 800 botanical species, 250 of them unknown elsewhere. It is one of the world’s most unique natural habitats for rare species of birds, flora and fauna, many ranked as endangered. Its isolation makes Socotra a virtual ‘Land Before Time’, Its cloud draped mountains rise 1500 metres above  dense wooded valleys, high ravines, lakes and mountain streams, all surrounded by pristine, sparkling beaches and crystal clear seas. During the monsoon season from April to June when heavy cloud and high seas make it impossible to reach, Socotra is cut off from the world, which is why it manages to retain its rare beauty. Together with Oman, Socotra is the world’s only other source of frankincense and myrrh. Once produced in abundance on the mainland, centuries of overharvesting.have depleted its reserves. Socotra has seven different species of frankincense and four of myrrh. 
Yemenia Airways operates five weekly flights to Bahrain, one via Muscat. Yemenia has offices in the Gulf States, Lebanon, Austria, Belgium, Bangladesh, Malaysia, China and Canada. Gulf based airlines serving Yemen include Emirates, Qatar, Saudia and Gulf Air, which recently set up a code sharing agreement with Yemenia. Regional and international airlines include Egypt Air, Syrian Air, Royal Jordanian, Turkish and Lufthansa.  A $250 weekend package from Bahrain to Sana’a has been introduced.
In 2006, Yemen’s fledgling tourism industry attracted 382,332 visitors (Arabs and foreigners) who stayed an average of six nights; income derived, totalled about US$309 million.
“The government is concentrating on tourism as a major source of income,” explained Abdullah Al Muttareb, deputy commercial director of Yemenia Airways. Yemen is so rich in diversity, our mountain regions and desert landscapes offer wonderful panoramic vistas, untouched beaches and islands, unusual architecture and insights into Yemen’s nine thousand-year-old history. We are trying to encourage people to visit us to experience a unique holiday experience with emphasis on eco-tourism, heritage, challenging terrain, friendly, hospitable people and unusual handmade souvenirs.
Part of the government’s overall plan is to train our ambassadors to be tourism orientated and to create cultural awareness internationally and let people know that that terrorism is not exclusive to Yemen, it’s a worldwide threat.  It is quite safe in the major cities but if people want to travel, it’s advisable to use a reputable travel company,” said Al Muttareb.