Sana'a, capital of Yemen, is a city whose ancient core seems to leap out of the Arabian Nights. The "Pearl of Arabia Felix" easily seduces unsuspecting visitors. Inside its ancient walls, one no longer dreams of the fabulous cities from long ago. In this land where skyscrapers were invented, travellers behold the legendary past unfold before their eyes.
Hiding behind its modern facade and designated as a World Heritage City, Sana'a is one of the largest open-air living museums in the world. The words of an old Yemeni proverb: 'Sana'a must be seen' is true today as it was in the bygone ages.
Until this century, few in the West ever visited. Suddenly, in the 1960s, after the overthrow of the centuries-old
Imamate, Sana'a was catapulted into the modern world consciousness and in the process, its population dramatically mushroomed from 60,000 to 1,500,000.
The original city, dominated by the 3,194 m (10,476 ft) high Ayban Mountain, is one of the world's largest completely preserved medieval urban centres. Within its deteriorating walls, 7,000 homes and palaces, covering nearly 36.5 ha (90 ac) are built in unique and sophisticated traditional Yemeni style, some more than 500 years old. Erected from basalt, mud-brick and sandstone in a 1,000-year old technique, homes are packed side by side and usually rise from four to six stories.
Unlike Arab homes in the north, constructed around a courtyard, Yemeni houses look outward. The outside walls of these structures are covered with elaborate zigzag patterns of white gypsum and roofs crowned with towers and cornices. Their windows with top arches are a complex fretwork of superimposed types and shapes with traditionally made alabaster panes of different hues. It's a display of elaborate architectural unity, a style developed during the past 2,000 years.
Intertwined with these fascinating skyscrapers, are bathhouses, caravanserais, souks and ancient mosques, a number that are well over 1,000 years old. Their attractiveness adds substance to the old section of town and, along with the imposing architecture of the homes, distinctly different than anywhere else, makes old Sana'a a splendid city.
In the past, remoteness, isolation and medieval rulers kept Sana'a obscure. Today, this has changed. Sana'a has become accessible to even budget-minded globetrotters.
When one reaches the city, there are 5 and 4-star hotels for the opulent and budget abodes within walking distance from the only remaining gate: Bab al-Yaman (Yemen Gate). It leads to Souk al-Milh, the most important market place in ancient Sana'a where everything needed in a home can be found. With the linking souks, each specializing in a trade, this market street is the heart of the old city, always crowded.
A modern urban centre has grown outside the walls of the old city. The choice spot to cross from ancient section to the new town is by way of Mayden at-Tahrir, the main square that joins the two parts of the city. Around its edges are the higher and moderately priced restaurants and hotels. In adjoining modern streets, there are airline and travel agencies galore and shops selling everything tourists may need.
In this square one can stroll for hours, watching the colourful movements of a mixture of humanity clad in modern and medieval clothing and, at dusk, observe the last rays of the sun playing on the majestic towering structures of the old city.
Sites to See:
- Entrance visas to Yemen are available from all Yemeni embassies or consulates and for some countries at the airport. Travellers to Yemen require a passport that is valid for at least six months.
- Currency in the Yemen is the riyal - current value about 202 riyals to one US dollar. Foreign currencies can be exchanged at banks, exchanges offices and hotels. Only upscale hotels and restaurants will accept credit cards.
- Drink only bottled water found in all parts of the country and eat only well-cooked meat, and peel all fruit. Try the local dish, Saltah.
- Bring warm clothing if travelling in the cold mountainous areas; light clothing for the desert and coastal areas. Travelling to the Yemen is fine in all seasons, but the coastal and desert areas are quite hot in summer.
- Lady travellers should dress modestly in public places. Visitors should not take photos of people at prayer, women, military places, police personnel and installations without permission. With few exceptions, non-Muslims cannot enter most mosques.
- For information regarding Yemen's hotels see website:
- To travel around the country, it is best to book a tour through a travel agency that can arrange for government permits, plane tickets, a guide and driver, and hotels.
Habeeb Salloum has authored numerous books, his latest: Arab Cooking On A Saskatchewan Homestead: Recipes And Recollections - winner of the Cuisine Canada and The University of Guelph's Silver Canadian Culinary Book Awards in Winnipeg in 2006. He contributes to Forever Young (Oakville), Contemporary Review (Oxford, UK), Canadian World Traveller (Quebec) and the Toronto Star.
- Bab al-Yaman, the last remaining gate in the ancient Sana'a's walls: provides a focal point for the trading activity of the old town.
- Dar al-Hajjar (The Palace on the Rock), built just outside Sana'a for the last imam, Yahya, in 1935; the palace is one of Yemen's landmarks.
- The Great Mosque: First erected in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad.
- The Museum of Traditional Arts & Crafts, housed in the former residence of an Imam, it features displays of traditional art and craft.
- National Museum: features huge wealth of antiquities from Yemen's past civilizations.
- Quabbat al-Bakiliya: An imposing mosque with Turkish style cupolas, easy to inspect from a distance.
- Salah al-Din Mosque: Built in pure Yemeni style.
Yemen Ministry of Tourism
If you go
Tourism Yemen: http://www.yementourism.com/
Embassy of the Republic of Yemen,
54 Chamberlain Avenue Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1S 1V9.
Tel: (613) 729 6627. Fax: (613) 729 8915.
Embassy E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Consular/Visa E-mail: email@example.com; or
Embassy of the Republic of Yemen,
2600 Virginia Avenue, NW, Suite 705, Washington, DC 20037, USA.
Tel: (202) 965 4760/1. Fax: (202) 337 2017.
Ministry of Tourism - Tourism Promotion Board:
Al-Hassabah, P.O. Box: 5607, Sana'a, Yemen.
Tel: (967-1)251-033/5 /6 /7. Fax: (967-1) 251-034.
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