Sanaa, Yemen

I don’t think there are too many places left in the world that would make God smile, but Yemen is one of them. Yemen has been inhabited forever and in many ways it is the birthplace of all our lives. In the days of yore, Noah’s sons knew it as the land of milk and honey, Gilgamesh came here to search for the secret of eternal life and most famously, a woman simply known as Sheba called this land of Yemen her home. However, since the book of mythology has closed, Yemen had been locked away in a hidden corner of the peninsula-until now. Yemen is coming of age and showing itself to the world and let me tell you: Yemen sits at the crossroads of two continents, with flavors of Africa, reflections of Morocco and reminders of Arabia and to travel in this most traditional of all islamic countries is a priviledge that I won’t soon forget.
Sanaa Yemen
Sana’a is the capital of Yemen and perhaps the oldest city on Earth and very possibly the most beautiful city I have ever visited. The Old City of Sana’a is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and quite simply the best preserved and most stunning old city I have seen. The moment I walked through the gates of the Bab al-Yaman I was taken aback by the incredible and unique architecture. The topsy-turvy icing-cake houses and dreamy mosques make walking through the labyrinth old city a true delight. The spice souq is every oriental fantasy brought to life and the small cellars where blinkered camels walk round and round in circles crushing sesame seeds to make oil is a glimpse into a bygone age.
old sanaa, yemen
Perhaps one of the best and most amazingly poetic experiences I have ever had occurred today in the Old City. With my two 12 year old guides, they took me to the roof top of one of the typical tower houses in the old city for amazing views of the old city. I can’t even describe how great it was standing on top of this gorgeous city looking over it with such admiration. Then something happened that I wish everyone could experience once in their lives to understand just how powerfully poetic and exotic this experience was.
sanaa yemen minarets
The Muslim call to prayer went off from the loud speakers atop the minarets of the many mosques towering over the old city. The sound was piercing and haunting and the city came to a screeching halt to pray and the echoes of the prayer loomed throughout and over the city like it was drawn up in a movie. There was utter silence except for the prayer and I am not religious at all and don’t even care to really discuss religion, but this was powerful and the perfect event to happen at the perfect time in the perfect seeting. That being the amazing Arabian Nights city of Old Sana’a.

I was literally floored by how cool it was to be there and to experience those few moments in that way. It was very special and an experience I will never forget.
view of old sanaa, yemen
After, I was extremely hungry and told the boys that I wanted to try the Yemeni specialty of Salta. Salta is a piping hot stew containing meat, lentils, beans, fenugreek-which gives it its distinctive aroma and coriander or other exotic spices. It is made in the old city and mixed by a man hovering above the restaurant and serves it in a scorching stone dish that is every bit as hot as its contents.

You eat the Salta with a special chapati like flat bread that tastes unbelievable and you buy that outside the restaurant from these little old ladies selling them on the street. It’s not for the faint hearted-like most real restaurants in the old Middle East, you eat with your hands and share with others who may or may not have washed their hands-most likely not. The restaurant is also a term I use lightly because they aren’t restaurants like you are imagining-they are little alleyways that haven’t been cleaned in years, if ever and nothing is washed and you sit at rusted old tables with nails sticking out of them and it is truly wonderful. I ate at a long table with my two little guides and several older Yemeni men who couldn’t stop staring at me. They kept saying welcome to Yemen and I kept replying ‘Choukran’, which is thank you in Arabic. One of them spoke a little English and asked where I was from and the boys answered before I could and said Brazil.
this way to mecca
In the wake of the recent killing of 4 Belgian tourists for no reason in Yemen like two weeks ago I chose not to bring up anything American as I was sitting alone with 20 Yemenis and had told the boys I was Brazilian because one of the them was wearing a Real Madrid ‘Robinho’ jersey who is a Brazilian star player. They loved it and kept asking me football questions and it’s not often enough I get to talk Brazilian football with people so I enjoyed that a lot.
sanaa yemen
Anyway, the older men said ‘Pele’ and I smiled, laughed and gave the thumbs up and everyone smiled. They kept handing me more of their bread and I was so full that I couldn’t eat anymore. I didn’t want to insult them so I kept eating until I literally almost puked. However, a good time was had by all and Salta and that bread may be two of the all time favorite foods and I am going to go back and have some more for dinner in a bit. It really was a lot of fun.

Having these kids as guides was great and they took me to the stores where they sold all the traditional Yemeni garb on. It looks something like out of Indiana Jones. They wear the shawls around their waists and their heads and they wear this massive knitted belt with a holder for a gigantic curved knife in the front. It sounds scary and perhaps it is as I didn’t feel all that comfortable at first but everyone had it and it was really pretty cool. The boys convinced me to try the whole getup on and I did. I took some great pictures. The guys at store of course tried to get me to buy the knife and belt and I am like, what am I gonna do with this so I gave him 1000 Yemeni thingies ($5) for his time and then headed out.
yemeni knives
All in all I had one of the best days travelling I’ve had in a while and certainlly along with Oman, Yemen is my favorite stop on this trip. I look forward to tonight and unfortunately leaving here in the morning to head back to Dubai which I am not thrilled about. However, thats where I catch my flight home as I am hoping to catch an earlier flight–we’ll see how that goes.

Comments

  1. Wow, sounds like Sana’a is a place to check out. I want to do a ME trip later this year. I will have to include Yemen and Oman based upon what you have said about them.

  2. Put Pictures Up!
    PS-did i hear a mention of gargamel in there? :)

  3. Alix, u didnt even read it-u just scanned the front page, saw it was a long post and there were no pictures. I know you.

  4. I skimmed! and it does sound pretty…and for your information, I am very busy and important at my job. ;)

  5. Hi Lee. I love reading about your travels. You make all of the places that you visit sound wonderful (as they are). We just got back from Egypt. We never got as good a picture of the pyramids as you did. Keep up the great times!

  6. Hey Mona, glad to hear you’re back safely and your Egypt trip was good and thanks for that nice comment. The Pyramids are my favorite thing on Earth and one of my favorite quotes is “Man fears time but time fears the Pyramids”. Hope to see you soon.

  7. Hy Lee,
    I don’t know who you are but I want to tell you and every one else that what you wrote about Sana’a -Yemen is very just and exact. In fact, I have never read such great and just comments on Yemen until I checked this website by chance. Furthermore, I want every body to know that Lee didn’t try to make it sound wonderful as Yemen is way more splendid than what words could ever describe. You don’t know me..I don’t know you, but trust me, you can never imagine how magnificent this place is, and how welcoming its people are until you visit it and try it yourselves. How do I know all of this? Well, I know that Yemen is a so gorgeous place that visitors, who appreciate real beauty, simplicity and charm, put it at the top of their ‘places to go’ lists…I simply know this and even more for the reason that I am Yemeni who is recently living in France. Best regards
    (VIVRE LE YEMEN)

  8. Thanks Yousri, I did love Yemen and the food there, especially the salta, and would recommend anyone to visit.

  9. Lee, I just saw Yousri’s comment so I went and read the post and I’ve never even considered Yemen but now I want to go-it sounds incredible.

  10. You are welcome Lee. Yes, salta is really nice; and please tell me that you tried fahsa which is like salta except that fahsa is plenty of soft meat (not ground beef as in salta) and is a little saltier.
    Let me tell others about ‘lahm sougar’ for maybe you have heard about it.
    ‘Lahm sougar’ which means -small pieces of meat- is cooked in a special way with very tiny pieces of potato, cut longitudinally, with some browned onions and some chili peppers. It is served with ‘molawah’ or ‘rateb’- different kinds of bread or chabati. It’s really mmmm.
    One day I wrote to one of my American friends – who is still living in Yemen- about how good French food is, but this is what he wrote me back: “Wow, dude. You can’t say that French food is better than lahm sugar or fahsa.”
    Some other dishes I recommend are: ‘bint el-sahn’, ‘shafout’, ‘assid’…

    Regarding your powerfully poetic, exotic experience you had, Lee, I want you to know that not only does it occur to visitors, but also to inhabitants who appreciate such incredible and magical moments. I admit that despite the many times I have experienced these moments throughout most of my life, I don’t think I would be able to describe them the way you did. You did make me feel as if living that awesome experience and took me back to some of my very special moments. Well, I congratulate you on your special talent, and I just want to add that the best timing to go through the same experience is by sunset – ‘Magreb prayer.’ However, should anyone want to triple the marvelous sensation, I recommend trying it by dawn- ‘Fajr prayer’ for you won’t believe that such moments still exists.
    ;-)

  11. Wow I’m so surprised you guys love Yemen. I’ve been there twice for 4 weeks each time and think it is the bottom of hell. The city stinks and is dirty, the people are not kind or hospitable, but will rob you any chance given. Wow you need to spend more than a day to say what a city is really like. Yemen is “zeh herra.”

  12. Hi Virgina, I had a great Yemen experience although it was short-I dont see that being a place that you would want to spend a ton of time in so I understand how being there for a while could get annoying but it is still an amazing place to see, at least the old city.

  13. Sounds great. I haven’t been to Yemen, but might have to add it to the list.

  14. Just returned from a few days in Yemen and Socotra. Yemen really is an amazing destination and super friendly locals.. can’t count the number of times we were stopped to have our photos taken. Socotra isn’t on the TCC list but it definitely was a gorgeous place to visit.

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