Yemen—A Country Full of Surprises
THE Arabian Peninsula! When people think of this exotic part of the world, they often envision sand dunes, camels, and caravans. But while desert dunes and sizzling temperatures do characterize much of this region, it also has other features that might very well surprise you.
Consider, for example, the country of Yemen, the elbow of land facing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Far from being a barren expanse of sand, Yemen is a land of mountains and canyons; a land of grapes, apricots, and other tantalizing fruits; a land of fascinating architecture. Although searing desert heat does scorch Yemen’s coastal strips, it may surprise you to know that in its highlands a pleasant temperate climate prevails. Of particular interest to Christians, though, is its rich history—a history that goes back to Bible times.
The Frankincense Route
In ancient times great wealth came to this part of the world by means of a quirk of nature—the trade winds of the Indian Ocean that carried dew to the southern coastline of Arabia. These moisture-laden winds helped create ideal growing conditions for the resinous trees whose bark yielded the gum resin called frankincense.* When burned, frankincense produces a sweet-smelling odor, making it much in demand for use in religious ceremonies. The land now called Yemen became prominent in the frankincense trade.
Yemen may also have been the location of ancient Ophir—once the source of the very finest gold. (Job 22:24; 28:15, 16; Psalm 45:9) Whatever the case, Yemen was the crossroads for ancient camel caravans carrying gold, frankincense, and spices to far-off places, such as ancient Palestine and Tyre. (Ezekiel 27:2, 22-25) This brought great wealth not only to the traders themselves but also to various kingdoms along the road that exacted tribute from the caravans.
The kingdom of Sheba, believed to have been located in what is now the eastern portion of Yemen, came to dominate the caravan route. It became renowned for trading in frankincense, myrrh, gold, precious stones, and ivory. (Isaiah 60:6) In Solomon’s day, the queen of Sheba traveled from “the ends of the earth” to hear that king’s wisdom firsthand. (Matthew 12:42) According to the historical Bible account, she went to Jerusalem with “a very impressive train, camels carrying balsam oil and very much gold and precious stones.” (1 Kings 10:1, 2) The memory of this ancient queen is still alive among Yemenis today. Although she is unnamed in the Koran, Islamic tradition calls her Bilqīs—a name appearing on many commercial products in Yemen.
Centuries of Decline
For centuries Yemen enjoyed great wealth, so much so that the Romans gave it the Latin name Arabia felix, or “Happy Arabia.” But when the Romans made apostate Christianity the State religion, the demand for frankincense diminished. Further accelerating Yemen’s decline was the catastrophic collapse of the great dam at Marib—the focal point of a huge irrigation system that had watered this region since the eighth century B.C.E.
Yemen was briefly brought back into the limelight by the rising popularity of yet another commodity—coffee. About 1610 the Europeans discovered the appealing aroma and taste of these exotic beans from Yemen’s highlands. The city of Mocha at the southern end of the Red Sea became the main port for coffee export. “Mocha” thus became synonymous with Arabian coffee and a household word in the Northern Hemisphere.
It wasn’t long, though, before coffee plants were exported and successfully grown in other countries. The city of Mocha, as a result, entered a decline. While coffee is still a major export of Yemen, the city of Mocha today is little more than a sleepy fishing port.
A Look at Yemen’s Capital
While its former glory has faded, Yemen still has many fascinating—and surprising—features. The capital city, San‘a, is situated on a lofty plateau over 7,000 feet [2,000 m] high, enjoying a pleasant temperate climate. Most of Yemen’s 12 million people—making up about a third of the population of all Arabia—live, not in the torrid desert, but on this plateau and on the many mountains that dot this land.
San‘a is thousands of years old, its antiquity being quite apparent in its architecture. Buildings of stone are adorned with whitewashed tracery along the windows, latticed arches, and multicolored glass mosaics. In some sections of town, old and new buildings stand side by side, virtually indistinguishable from one another. But in the labyrinth of the old section of San‘a, buildings—some standing eight or more stories high—that have clearly been around for centuries can be seen.
Leaving San‘a’s old section, one passes through the massive medieval gate and circles the mountainous countryside. With round dwelling towers that stand four or more stories high and having protective walls that were built without cement or mortar, each village looks like a huge castle built into the mountainside. Indeed, some villages blend so well into their surroundings that they can be perceived only up close.
A person may be surprised that people could live at such lofty heights. But looking even further up, one sees another string of citadellike settlements nestling at an even higher altitude. Walled terraces on the steep slopes surround these mountain villages.
The People of Yemen
Western visitors do expect the Yemeni people to be exotic. But the reality may even exceed expectations. Mountain tribesmen can seem quite threatening in appearance at first. They wear the fuuta, a skirtlike wraparound garment, and a wide belt into which is tucked a very conspicuous dagger. In the villages many even carry big machine guns on their shoulders.
Yes, Yemeni men take pride in their weaponry. Entire sections of the marketplace are devoted to selling the jambiyya, a curved dagger. Generally it is worn by boys from age 14 onward as a sign of manhood. However, even little boys can be seen wearing them. The dagger handle may be made of plastic, wood, or very expensive rhinoceros horn, and the sheath is often adorned with beautiful silverwork. The blade is quite sharp. Fortunately, the knives serve mainly as decoration. Yemeni men are actually quite hospitable and appreciate any attempt by visitors to converse.
To the Western eye, Yemeni women are no less exotic in appearance. They dress in dark colors and are completely veiled, not showing even their eyes. They do not have an easy life. In the mountain villages, the women labor long and hard carrying water, food for the animals, and fuel. Large families are traditional.
A visit to the markets provides another chance to observe how these fascinating people live. The spice shops have delightful smells. The mouth waters at the sight of pomegranates, peaches, apricots, grapes, and almonds. Artisans are busy working with leather, gold, silver, and other metals.
In the marketplace, one can also find numerous suqs, or markets, that sell khat leaves. When chewed or sucked, khat acts as a mild stimulant; some say it is habit-forming. Nevertheless, chewing khat is a big part of Yemeni life. Large sections of the mountainsides are devoted to growing khat. Groups of men will spend hours chewing the leaves while they enjoy conversation. Some also chew khat while working—or even while driving.
However, chewing khat is a very expensive habit, costing up to a third of a Yemeni family’s income. And some point out health dangers, including deformed cheeks, sleep and appetite disturbances, and intestinal illness. Certain government officials have therefore spoken out against this drug. But thus far there are few signs that khat is losing its hold on the Yemeni people.
There is evidence, though, that the traditional way of life is beginning to give way to Western modernization. Numerous men have left to work abroad. Some families have moved to the cities, exposing youths to the influence of imported music and foreign videos. Understandably, not all are eager to see their country make a transition into the modern world.
It will therefore be interesting to see what the future holds for this land. Relatively little has been done to explore the country’s archaeological ruins, and perhaps future excavations will yield some fascinating secrets of Yemen’s renowned past. In the meantime, Yemen offers ample reason for the adventurous traveler to visit this land of surprises.—Contributed.
These trees belong to the genus Boswellia, a family of trees related to the turpentine, or terebinth, trees.
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Bab-el-Yemen, San‘a’s gate to the old section of town
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Right: A dagger market in San‘a
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Below: Small towns blend into their surroundings