We at the Yemen College for Middle Eastern Studies believe that the best way to learn Arabic is to use it, and that the best way to learn about Yemen is to see it. As a result, alongside our formal courses and cultural activities, we arrange frequent trips outside Sana’a and do our best to support students who want to travel independently around the country.
YCMES Trips and Visits
This is a trip around the villages of the Harraz Mountains, a region remarkable for its deep ravines and fog-capped peaks. The beautiful terraced hillsides are famous for their coffee, qat and dancing.
The journey from Sana’a takes you past Jebal al Nabi Sha’oub, the tallest point on the Arabian Peninsula. Next, you travel through al-Heima, birthplace of the hot peppers that play such an important role in Yemeni cuisine, and the first stop of the trip is the mountain-top village of al-Hajjarah. Once the location of a great souk on the road from Hodiedah to Manakha, this village is a striking example of the Yemeni penchant for building in seemingly impossible locations. Here, too, visitors can see remnants of a time of Muslim and Jewish coexistence – the castle-like ruin on a hillside nearby is the old Jewish Quarter.
After wandering around al-Hajjarah, you are taken back down to Manakha to have a massive Yemeni lunch at the hotel, accompanied by live music and dancing. The village of Manakha is the home of the Sulayydid dynasty, of which the famous twelfth-century Queen Arwa was a member. It is also the hometown of our very own Sabri Saleem.
Last stop is the Ismaili village of al-Hotieb. Ismailis from across the world make a yearly pilgrimage to the sixth-century tomb of the scholar Hattem bin Ibrahim al-Hussein al-Hamadi. This peaceful village, perched high on a mountain peak, provides a contrast to the hustle and bustle of Sana’a, whither you return at the end of the day.
Shebam, Kowkaban, Thula
Your first stop on this trip will be to admire the view over Wadi Dhar and Dar al-Hajjar, a fifteen minute drive from Sana’a. This spot is a favorite for locals, host to countless picnics and wedding celebrations. Once sated, you will move onto the historical village of Thula, 40 miles to the northwest of Sana’a and considered one of Yemen’s major theological centers.
The city stands at the eastern foot of the ancient fort of Thula, Muttahar Bin Sharaf Addin, and is surrounded by a sold stone wall. This has always been a difficult city to conquer, as the Turks discovered in the sixteenth century. The houses are stone-built high-rise structures, their facades embellished with decorations and molded qamariyas decorated with pieces of marbles or stained glass.
Next you ride (or walk, if you like a challenge) up to the cliff-top village of Kowkaban, another exemplar of the Yemeni passion for building houses on inaccessible mountains. A classic bird watching spot that also offers an eagle’s eye view of the surrounding countryside, Kowkaban lies on top of Jabal Kowkaban. It was built to protect Shebam – large cisterns carved out of the rock collected water during the rainy season, silos were filled with grain during the (rare) years of peace, and the only door of the town is still closed and locked each night. You will have lunch here (as Rebecca did), and will then stagger down the old pathway to Shebam.
The Shebam of al-Mahweet stands on the edge of the Sana’a basin, and people have been living there since long before Islam – both Sabaean and Himyarite inscriptions can be found on stones reused in the city gate of Shebam. During the first-century it even served as the capital of a short-lived independent state, a role the city was to reprise between 845AD and 1400AD under the Bani Ya’fur dynasty.
While Hadhramawt is a historical region stretching across the south of the Arabian Peninsula, in this case we are referring to the historical Qu’aiti and Kathiri sultanates, British protectorates until their abolition upon the independence of South Yemen in 1967. The current governorate of Hadhramawt roughly incorporates their former territory, a narrow and arid coastal plain bounded by steep escarpments and scarred by a network of deep wadis.
The Hadhramis live in densely built towns centered on traditional watering stops along these wadis. They grow wheat, millet, date palms, coconut groves and coffee while the Bedouins tend their goats on the plateau above. Society remains tribal, and the venerable Seyyid aristocracy, boasting direct descent from Muhammad, are still highly respected religious and secular leaders. This is old Arabia, whence came the Qahtan Original Arabs.
You will be visiting many sites in the Hadhramawt region. Highlights include the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shebam Hadhramawt, with its high-rise mud brick houses, Tarim, an important center for Islamic learning, and Seyoun, a city of Kathiri palaces.
Hiking in Mahweet
Al-Tawila, a small town in al-Mahweet, lies fifty miles to the West of Sana’a. It was built on the south side of the al-Qarani mountain ridge, 2,400m above sea level. Majestic boulders frame the houses there, and the town is squeezed between a road and a wall of mountains. Overlooking Mahweet city to the West and the Harraz and Al-Haimatain mountains to the South, it flourished during its coffee-growing heyday. Now, however, the town is more famous for its beautiful view.
Between here and Mahweet the hiking is superb. Bring a good pair of boots!
Lunch at Bayt Bowz
Bayt Bowz is a mountain-top village of ancient origin just outside the city of Sana’a. Sabaean inscriptions near the only door to the village attest to its antiquity. Largely in ruins, the village is still home to a few families, and just below it is a large canopied tree surrounded by a cobblestone square – this is where you will have your picnic lunch.
A Morning at Dar al-Hajjar
Imam Yahya (1911-48) built this five-storey palace in the 1930s as a summer residence. The extraordinary location on top of a pillar of rock, however, was not his idea – there were already ruins of a prehistoric building here, and the well penetrating the rocks next to the palace is said to date from that period. Dar al-Hajjar stands over Wadi Dhahr, a fertile and pleasant valley of small villages and clay-walled orchards (mostly qat orchards these days, if ‘orchard’ is the right word). Pictured in many books about Yemen, it has become a symbol of the country itself, and makes a great morning trip.
On Fridays, there are normally wedding parties at Dar al-Hajjar, which adds to it, and from 9am until noon there is a near continuous traditional bara’ dance happening in the courtyard. Here is a video of some cute children dancing the bara’.
YCMES offers assistance in arranging flights, transportation and accommodation for independent trips throughout Yemen and to several destinations outside the country.
If you plan to travel in Yemen you need to give the travel office advance notice and complete an independent student travel form. For international travel, notice of at least two weeks must be given to the travel office so that we can organize the required visas.
Make sure to check with the college before bookings flights as the college has special arrangements with Yemenia Airways and may be able to offer you discounted prices.
Yemen is in the throes of great change and, as a result, restrictions for foreign travelers will vary depending on the security situation in different parts of the country. For the most up-to-date information, students should check with the YCMES Travel Office.
Destinations not requiring permits
- Wadi Dhahr: As mentioned above, this beautiful wadi is a short drive to the northwest of Sana’a and contains Dar al-Hajjar.
- Aden: Yemen’s commercial capital, Aden was an ancient seasonal market, a stop on the famous Asaad incense trade route that ran through the plateau northwards to Mecca and Yathrib. With the opening of the Suez Canal, Aden then became an important world port – the third busiest in the world at one point. The city was a British protectorate for over a hundred years, and its unique architecture is a product of this, a mixture of Yemeni, Indian, and Victorian elements overlooked by Yemen’s very own Big Ben. Students should fly to Aden.
- Al-Hodeidah: Another of Yemen’s major ports, this city is known as ‘the Bride of the Red Sea’. Al-Hodeidah has a beautiful Old City, its architecture heavily influenced by the Ottomans. The nearby beaches of Al-Katheeb and Irj are a major draw, as is the famous Beit Faqih market, a favorite of many students. Students should fly to Al-Hodeidah.
- Taiz: The third largest city in Yemen, the country’s cultural capital, has a character all its own: beautiful old houses, distinctive white mosques, and a world-famous Jewish Quarter. The Cairo Castle, located on a hilltop on the outskirts of the city, offers beautiful views, and the nearby Sabir Mountains are a popular picnic and hiking destination. Students should fly to Taiz.
- Mukhala: A port city with an impressive canal system. Most flights to Socotra will go through Mukhala. Students should fly to Mukhala.
- Socotra:It’s not surprise that a place whose name means ‘island of bliss’ should be a popular tourist destination. A picturesque island in the Indian Ocean, the Galapagos of Yemen is famous for its biodiversity – witness the iconic dragonblood tree. Come to Socotra for the interesting plant and animal life; stay for the peaceful island atmosphere. Students should fly to Socotra.
Destinations requiring permits
- Ibb and Jiblah:< These towns are located in the Baadan Mountains, 150 miles south of Sana’a. The Ibb governorate, known as the ‘green province’, gets the most rain of any place in Yemen, and in addition to its lush greenery is famous for its mountain-style homes and old mosques. Jiblah was the center of a number of important dynasties, including a ruler affectionately called the Little Queen of Sheba.
- Hadramaut, Shibam, Say’un and Tarim: Hadramaut, as mentioned above, is a province in the eastern part of Yemen. Shibam is home to the famous eleven-storey mud-brick skyscrapers, and visitors to the town fly into the airport in Say’un, which also has a beautiful old palace. Tarim is a major center of Islamic learning and home to nearly 400 mosques and Islamic schools, as well as the tallest minaret in Yemen.
- Kawkaban and Shibam: This Shibam is different than the one in Hadramaut, and is rather closer to Sana’a. We have already talked about them above – this itinerary works as a weekend or even day trip.
- Hajjah and Manakha: Both cities are located in the beautiful Haraz mountains, roughly 80 miles north of Sana’a. Manakha is home to the famous terraced agriculture of Yemen, and Hajjah has a hilltop fortress.