Discovering the ancient fortified city of Sana’a
Sana’a is the charming capital of Yemen, a vast city of nearly 2.000.000 inhabitants, located about 2.300 meters high in the centre of a vast plateau in the western part of the country. Among the hundreds of cities we have visited so far, Sana’a is definitely the one that impressed us the most. If we had to choose only one place to return and spend time, we would undoubtedly choose this Yemeni heritage. What makes it unique is the perfect preservation of the historic centre – the old fortified city -, a settlement inhabited for over 2.500 years and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.
The historic centre truly leaves you speechless; it was a place where time seems to have stopped. An absolutely unique and suggestive attraction. Our first impression as soon as we crossed the famous entrance door – known as Bal Al Yemen (the “door of Yemen”) and the only one left of the 8 that once supported the walls – was of incredible amazement. We could not believe our eyes. High stone walls, crenellated towers, multi-storey houses built with mud bricks and windows finely decorated, mosques and minarets, narrow alleys crowded with people dressed in traditional clothes and an endless series of shops and stalls with a large number of goods and typical local products.
The old city was also known for the Suq Al Milh, the largest souk in the entire Arabian Peninsula, and Sana’a’s beating heart, characterized by many small souks. Each souk sold specific products ranging from qat to spices, from dates to coffee, from fruit to vegetables, from shoes to clothes, from colourful silk fabrics to traditional and gleaming Jambiye – the curved daggers worn by all Yemeni men. In every alley, the atmosphere was truly fairytale, the shops overflowing with people, carts loaded with merchandise that whizzed through the crowd, shops crammed with silver, daggers, and junk, qat stalls where you could watch exciting bargaining and, above all, the intense smell of incense, myrrh and spices that inebriated the air.
A very interesting encounter was with the owner of a shop selling Jambiya, a Yemeni symbol of pride. He told us that this traditional curved dagger with a double-edged blade is worn by all men from the age of 14 and is a distinctive sign to show their wealth and social class. Basically, the more beautiful and decorated a Jambiya and its belt are, the more its owner belongs to an important and wealthy family. Showing us the dozens of daggers on display, he says that the handle is the most important part of it. In the past, the most expensive handle was made from rhino bones, while nowadays it is made from bull horns, wood or metal. The Jambiya is mostly used during important celebrations such as weddings, where men perform a traditional dance – known as Al Bara – showing their curved dagger.
In addition to the Suq, another attraction not to be missed was the Al Jami al Kabir mosque, the most important building in the fortified city, built in the 8th century AD on the remains of a pre-Islamic palace. It is said that it was the Prophet Mohammed who wanted it to be built. The thing that struck us most was the kindness and curiosity of the people who always gave us smiles and tried to chat, fascinated by the unusual presence of foreigners in the alleys of the old city. It happened very often that they asked us to take pictures all together to see them on the display of our digital camera and talk to each other amused. The few women we met were all strictly veiled and only revealed their deep and intriguing gaze, trying to avoid contact with us foreigners.
Unfortunately, Yemen has been going through a very dark period, with civil war raging around every corner for several years. The coalition of Arab countries fighting the Yemeni rebels drops bombs on government installations in San’à, obviously also causing collateral damages and irreparably destroying many buildings in the historic centre. We sincerely hope that this situation will be resolved as soon as possible and the wonderful inhabitants of Yemen can smile again and proudly show their Jambiya like when we visited this marvellous country.