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DESTINATION: YEMEN

Opening the Door to Sheba's Secret

The land of the queen who charmed Solomon is a sleeping princess of surprises

November 01, 1998|CHARLES LOVE

SANA, Yemen — "So you're finally coming to fairyland!"

Fairyland? In Arabia? Those words, at the top of a message from our contact in Yemen, took us by surprise.

We--my wife, Mary, and I--had read extensively about Yemen in preparation for our two-week visit last November to add it to our library of photo stock. Any number of metaphors could fit this austere country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula; "fairyland" wasn't one we'd have chosen.

Once, this land was the prosperous domain of the legendary Queen of Sheba. For more than 1,000 years, caravans of frankincense, spices and other luxuries moved from here to capitals throughout the Mediterranean, enriching every city and outpost along the way. By the 4th century, its heyday was over, and it passed the centuries in tribal warfare, foreign subjugation and feudalism. Until 1990, modern Yemen was at war with itself, the formerly British colonial half of the territory being a republic, the rest a Marxist state.

Its historic isolation has made Yemen a living museum, its dress and customs little changed over the centuries. Their traditional architecture has put two of Yemen's cities, Sana (the capital) and Shibam, on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.

We expected to find only hints of past glories: dusty ruins and a few Bedouin communities. Instead, we discovered a sleeping beauty.

We flew into Sana's no-frills airport, where the local travel agent who'd made our arrangements whisked us away. A 10-minute ride in his new 4x4 took us back centuries, and we were immediately seduced.

Behind ancient walls, old Sana's twisting cobbled alleys and spice-scented markets were straight out of "Arabian Nights." Brickwork in elaborate geometric patterns decorated the multistoried "tower houses." Intricate brush strokes of white paint outlined the houses' stained-glass windows.

But first, the desert beckoned--a 250-mile trip, much of it across unmarked dunes, to the ancient trade center of Shibam. The travel agent had booked a Bedouin as our driver, partly as insurance against kidnapping.

While crime against tourists is rare here, in recent years there have been some kidnappings by tribesmen seeking economic concessions from the government. Paradoxically, that has not deterred tourism. In fact, one local travel agent told Associated Press last year, some prospective visitors, intrigued by rumors of Bedouin hospitality, had asked if a kidnapping could be arranged.

"You are safe with me in the desert," our wild-eyed driver, Abdul Karim, assured us.

Karim was a walking arsenal, with his pistol, cartridge belts, AK-47 assault rifle and djambiya, a ceremonial curved dagger worn by most Yemeni men. Without the djambiya, he would have been (according to a local saying) like "an Oxford man without his tie."

Karim's 1980s-vintage 4x4, outfitted with spare gas tanks and oversized tires, was the modern substitute for a camel. Racing up the face of a steep dune and side-slipping down the other side, Karim maneuvered like a skier hot-dogging over moguls.

We spent our first night in Marib, a half-day drive east of Sana, so that we could start the nine-hour drive to Shibam as early as possible. On the route from Sana to Marib, we were one of a caravan of hired cars accompanied by a guard of soldiers in a pickup truck. After Marib, we were pretty much on our own.

It was sunrise when we left Marib, and the sea of dunes around us shimmered pink and gold. Gradually the terrain flattened to an endless expanse of scrub and acacia trees. Large mesas on the horizon were the only landmarks in this otherworldly region; the only sign of human presence was the occasional Bedouin tent.

By the time we were out of the desert and back on a paved road, we were dusty and exhausted; a race on camels, we decided, would have been as easy. We had a new appreciation for bottled water, which, even in Yemen, is readily available, safe and inexpensive. We made sure to carry plenty in our day packs.

As we drove into Saywun, the largest town of the Hadramawt valley, Karim offered us a pick-me-up. "Want to chew khat?" he asked, his cheek bulging with a wad of the leaves.

Khat is a mild narcotic, banned in most Arab countries. But in Yemen, afternoon khat-chewing socials are a national pastime, particularly among men. We sampled it and decided that the odd, bittersweet flavor must be an acquired taste.

We made Saywun our headquarters for three days of exploring the Hadramawt, which lies in a sandy plain beneath limestone cliffs. Along the ancient caravan route, hamlets dotted with date palms clung to the base of the cliffs like mud-dauber nests. Here and there, a white minaret broke the mud-brick roof lines.

We passed women herding goats or driving horse-drawn carts. Most of them wore the traditional Yemeni sharsaf, a long black skirt with matching scarf and face veil. Shaded by tall, pointed straw hats, they resembled fairy-tale witches.

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