Recommended Travel Destinations in Yemen
This is a collection of recommended cities, towns, villages, and other locations to travel to in Yemen, as well as suggested attractions and activities.
According to a Yemenite legend, this city, founded by Sem, Noah’s son, was one of the first human settlements ever. Until 1962 the city was all included into its ancient walls, and surrounded by green fields. Today San’a ‘is a huge city with more than one million inhabitants, but the walls still stand: many houses in the city are more than 400 years old, and the area within the walls is the largest “medina” in the Arab world. Wherever you go, you will see walls decorated with elaborate drawings, and beautiful windows with complex arabesques and colored glass, while Mosques and minarets are rising above tower houses.
The central souk, Souq al-Milh, is a merger of about 40 small markets. Each of them is specialized in a particular product: there are vegetables, spices, qat (a kind of grass that everybody chews constantly in the country), fruits, pottery, clothing, woodwork, copper and silver.
In Suq Jambiya you can watch craftsmen producing complex ceremonial weapons. If you are Muslim, visit Al-Jami ‘al-Kabir, the great mosque on the western side of Souq al-Milh, built around 630 AD, when Mohammed was still alive. The entrance is usually not allowed to non-Muslims. The city’s National Museum is located inside the so-called “House of Good Fortune”, a former royal palace built in the 30s. Its five floors bring the visitors back to ancient Yemenite kingdoms (including the legendary Saba), and show to the visitors both the country’s Islamic history and its modern popular culture. The Museum of Arts and Crafts hosts exhibitions of everyday objects, while the Military Museum illustrates with text and photos the military history of Yemen.
It won’t be difficult to find a cheap hotel in this city, but consider that they are all far below any Western standard. If you are willing to spend a little more money, you can try one of the tower houses of the city, converted into hotels. There are many small restaurants scattered around the city, especially in the area of Bab al-Yaman.
Once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba, Ma’rib is the most famous archaeological site in Yemen. In the eighth century BC a very high dam was built here, and for over a millennium, the water of this artificial lake has irrigated all surrounding lands, bringing to about 50,000 people the possibility to live. But when the empire fell, in the second century A. D., the dam collapsed and the settlement lost its importance. Only when oil was discovered the city was brought back to life.
Time hasn’t been particularly kind with the ruins of Ma’rib, but there’s still much to be seen. Although most of the old village has been destroyed, you can still visit some incredible buildings entirely made with mud, with small window. Around them you will also be able to admire the ruins of some remarkable temples, including the Temple of Bilqis, built around 400 BC.
You can see the remains of the Great Dam of Ma’rib, and if you walk a few kilometers upstream you’ll reach the new Ma’rib Dam, more than twice as high as the old one.
How to get to Ma’rib
Ma’rib is located about 100 miles eastern of San’a. There are two buses leaving from the capital each day. It is not easy to find food or accommodation at the site.
Yemenis love to build their own houses in inaccessible places, and Shihara is one of the finest examples of this art. This fortified village was built on top of a mountain. Almost inaccessible from below, it has been was a base for those resisting to Ottomans in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the headquarters of the ‘loyalist’ in the civil war of the 60s.
Whereas its location is amazing, the architecture is quite simple. The stone houses of the city, generally with five floors, have fewer decoration than the ones in the capital: they are excellent examples of a very traditional and archaic architecture of Yemen mountain people. The village is formed by two parts located on two neighboring peaks, and connected by a stone bridge built in the seventeenth century (a remarkable feature of engineering).
There are few places to sleep in Shihara and the prices are definitely inflated. It’s more convenient to stay in the city of Huth, which is quite close. Almost all visitors to Shihara come with guided tours departing from Sanaa’a, but if you are willing to experience a small adventure, get yourself a car and prepare to spend a whole day driving.
Hadhramawt is the largest wadi (seasonal river) of the Arabian Peninsula. It runs for 160 km through a stony desert, along a deep valley. This is one of the greenest areas of Yemen, and the contrasts with the landscape of the desert is quite evident.
The first settlements in the area dates back to the third century AD. The city of Shibam, known as the ‘Manhattan of the desert’, is worth a visit for its spectacular location. Its 500 traditional-style buildings are crammed into an area of half a square kilometer and suddenly emerge from the desert, as there are no suburbs around the city. Although this urban settlement is about 1800 years old, most of its houses date back to the sixteenth century. Many of them have beautifully carved wooden doors with elaborate wooden door locks.
Some of the most beautiful mosques in Yemen are located in this city. The Sultan’s Palace hosts an archaeological museum and a souvenir shop. Its blue windows are well worth the visit.
For what is concerning mosques, Say’un wins in quality but Tarim is definitely first for quantity. This city, surrounded by palms, is a major center of Sunni Islamic teaching, and counts 365 registered mosques. The most famous is al-Muhdar, named after important religious leader. Its minaret, built with mud, is the tallest of southern Arabia and is also the symbol of the city. Al-Ahqaf Library, with its wonderful collection of ancient manuscripts and fine examples of Arabic calligraphy, is also worth a visit.
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