yemen explorer
travelling to socotra sanaa cities in yemen history of yemen

Cities in Yemen

Variety is  the country’s wealth, the Romans rightly named it Arabia Felix – prosperous Arabia. Those who look for Yemen on a map usually think of it as a purely desert landscape. Of course, a large part of the country is covered by desert, but more defining are the high mountains with their famous terrace cultivation and the fruitful valleys where it is possible to harvest anything and that up to four times each year. The coastal lowlands with endless kilometers of fine sand, the islands situated in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, where a multitude of endemic species are to be found. The widespread branching system of fruitful canyons, which have buried themselves into the high-up rock plateaus of the Djol, and the thickly vegetated massif, that at the border to Oman and the east, breaks off steeply towards the ocean.


According to legend, Sana’a was founded by Noah’s son Sam, and is considered to be the world’s oldest town. The old center of the Yemeni capital city belongs to those from the UNESCO distinguished cultural heritage of the human race, because of its unique architecture and the completely preserved town-scape. During a round trip through the old town, one is able to experience the bustle beyond the Bab al Yemen in Souq, and the peace and quite within the area of the living quarters. The visit to an artisan center leads to a restored Samsara (Caravansary) and the ascent onto the roof of one of the typical tower houses provides a wonderful view across the old town. It is here where the large mosque is to be found, one of the world’s oldest Islamic houses, which had been built during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad. During renovation work, concealed scripts were found, these belonging to the oldest and most precious Islamic documents in the world. A visit to the recently renovated museum, which is resident in one of the old Imams palaces, takes one even further back into the history of Yemen.


Wadi Dhar

The Wadi Dhar is a fruitful valley populated since early times and situated not far from Sana’a. Amidst the gardens of fruit and Qat trees; the famous rock palace is elevated on a singular rock of the Dar al-Hajjar. At one time, it was the summer residence of the last Imams Yahiya, and subsequent to careful renovation work, offers visitors from all over the world an impressive example of architecture from the Yemeni mountainous area.


Kawkaban & Shibam

At the foot of a steep sloping reddish-yellow sandstone cliff is the town of Shibam . This is the location of one of the oldest mosques in Yemen. Each week, one of the regions largest weekly markets takes place here, whereby most of the products are agricultural. In the 350-metre higher-up twin town of Kawkaban , pillar remains, frieze, and stones with script in the modern houses, point to the glamorous Sabaian and Himyarite past. Alone the location of the town is impressive. Impregnable, and situated on the steep slopes of the plateau, Kawkaban served as a former haven for the residents of lower fruitful levels. Kawkaban was a safe stronghold due to being surrounded by a high wall and being accessible through only one solid door. Up to a few years ago, no roads at all led to this location, one was only able to travel there by either walking or riding on a donkey. One of these old pathways still connects Kawkaban to Shibam, and the well-developed stairway offers a splendid view of the area whilst making the one-hour walking-tour.



The old part of the small town of Thula is still surrounded by the completely preserved wall made up of rubble. In an adventurous manner, the houses seem to grow out of the rock face, and small alleys wind around the towering houses of up to six stories in height. The richly decorated facades of the town situated at the foot of the Kawkaban plateau, display wealth based on trading and agriculture. One of Thula’s attractions is its children, who with their charm and overpowering fluency of speech, offer visitors an array of souvenirs for purchase. A conspicuous, characteristically formed rock pinnacle also dominates the location.



Manakha is situated at a height of about 1500 metres in an anticline within the more than 2000-metre high towering mountains of the Haraz range. Manakha had always served as a natural fortress town for defence ahead of Sana’a. The strategic advantageous location on the steep slopes made the construction of a town wall unnecessary. Nowadays, the main connecting road leads from the Red Sea up to Sana’a, passing the small town on its way. A visit to the wild jagged mountainous region belongs to the scenic highlights of a tour aroundYemen.

Al Hajjarah

Beginning at Manakha, a track winds along the mountain slopes up to the 2000-metre high village of Al Hajjarah whose name means “the stony one”. Large parts of the mountainous slopes are terraced; mainly millet and qat but also some coffee is cultivated. The terraces and villages in the Haraz mountains around Manakha are considered to be the most beautiful in Yemen – and Al Hajjarah as the most beautiful town in the Haraz mountains! The tower like houses of this defended village are built so close together that they – built on a steep rock face -, form a closed wall of protection. There is only one single narrow entrance to the village, which is closed off by a heavy wooden door. The up to five storey high houses in Al Hajjarahs are superimposed on the uneven rock surface – a bold accomplishment by Yemeni master-builders.

al hajjarah


Marib is by far the most well known ancient town in Yemen: The early days of the capital of the legendary empire of Saba (Kingdom of Sheba) reach as far back as 3000 years before christ. Even in those days, one started to channel the floods of rainfall from the mountains with use of an elaborate system of dams down to the Marib oasis, enabling the irrigation of vast areas of fields. Remains of the imposing structures can be viewed, such as both the temples excavated by the archaeologists. Current research is concentrated on the town, where it is possible that at one time, the palace of the queen mentioned in the Quran and Bible was to be found.


2600 years ago, Baraqish – the ancient Yathill – was one of the most important towns in the empire of Ma´in. The location on the most important incense road, and the construction of an elaborate irrigation system in the area brought the town wealth, which had to be protected: A solid town wall still impressively surrounds the hill ruin. Italian archaeologists have excavated parts of the 14-metre high wall, such as a temple, which during its five hundred year use, had been reconstructed several times.


Approximately 200 kilometres east of Marib, beyond vast dunes, lie the ruins of a further ancient location: Shabwa was the capital city of the Hadramaut, which together with the empire of Saba, rivaled to dominate the region. Today it is hard to believe that this settlement lying in such a barren and solitude region, was at one time surrounded by green fields. An important factor for the choice of location was most certainly the presence of the nearby salt mines.


Seiyun is one of the most important administrative towns in Wadi Hadramaut. Such as nearly all towns within the oasis situated in the valley, it is surrounded by palm groves and irrigated fields. Red shimmering nearly vertical rock cliffs soar on both sides of the Wadis. A round trip through the old town and the Souq from Seiyun present an impression of the changes that have occurred in this remote region during the past 20 years. The regions history and traditions are illustrated in the small museums and the former Sultans Palace of Seiyun. One has a wonderful view across the centre of the up and coming provincial town from the roof of the majestic and towering palace.



Tarim lies in the “in itself” gradually constricting eastern part of the Wadi Hadramaut. For hundreds of years the town has been considered to be the centre of Islamic scholarship, but its trading families are also of nationwide importance. For hundreds of years, residents of the Hadramaut have been drawn to India , Southeast Asia , and to African commercial towns to conduct business. With age, many returned to their native country, and brought riches and their families with them from the foreign countries. Many of the rich trading dynasties have their headquarters in one of the numerous palaces of Tarim, of which the architecture shows a colourful mixture of various styles. The town’s landmark however, is the 60-metre tall minaret of the Al-Mihdhar-Mosque, which as all buildings of the Hadramaut, is made of air-dried clay bricks.


The oldest skyscraper city in the world and “the Manhattan of the desert”

The first Europeans named this fascinating place the Chicago of the desert. The up to eight storey high clay houses of the walled town are built very close together. Narrow alleys wind their way through the town, of which the oldest houses are 500 years old. Shibam was probably founded in the second century after Christ, and is supposed to have looked very much like it does today. Such as the old town area of Sana’a, Shibam belongs to the cultural heritage of the human race.


Wadi Dowan

Hadjarain lies on the ridge of a mountain above the large river-pebble filled Wadi and the periodically flooded fields. The sparse remains of the ancient settlement of Raybun (findings and reconstruction plans are at the museum in Seyun) at the north entrance to the Wadi Dowan, make one become familiar with the ancient colonisation of this tributary valley of the large Wadi Hadramaut. Particularly the south part of the valley is famous for its picturesque scenery and bold architecture. As from Hadjarain, the Wadi narrows down and is then followed partially by oasis’s thickly covered with palms. The palace like houses of many villages suggest a surprising amount of wealth – such as in ancient times, many from this area are drawn abroad as traders. In Yemen itself, the Wadi Dowan is above all famous for it excellent honey produced by its apiarists.
Hadjarain lies on the ridge of a mountain above the large river-pebble filled Wadi and the periodically flooded fields.
In Sif (25 kilometres away from Hadjarain, approximately 45 minutes journey along un-tarred roads), a few colourfully painted houses brighten the place up a little.
Buddah (23 kilometres away from Sif, approximately 40 minutes journey) is the market centre of the inner Wadi Dowan. It is here, that one track branches off towards the west, and leads across a part of the Djol Plateau within the Wadi Hajr, which is rarely visited by tourists. This journey is not always possible due to the track being flooded for a number of days after the seasonal rainfalls. From Buddah however, a further track climbs in an easterly direction up to Djol, and then carries on up to the main connection road between the Wadi Hadramaut and Al Mukalla. When travelling up out of the Wadi, a spectacular view is presented of the Wadi below.


The country’s most important harbor, which has been extended to a large free trade area, is situated near the former capital city of South Yemen. Plans for the future are very ambitious: It is here that the regions largest container port is to be developed. Of interest to tourists, is the residential quarter “crater”, which has been set up within an extinct volcano. Enormous cisterns – Saharidj – can be found here, which in earlier days, ensured Aden’s water supplies. Nowadays, water is channeled from the Wadi Tuban into the towns. Above the cisterns stand the remains of the “tower of silence”, which was used during British occupation by the Parsee stationed here, to bury their dead. The remains of an old fortress wall are situated around the perimeter of the old part of town; a fortress is situated above the small fishing port. The town’s oldest mosque is devoted to their patron saint, Al-Aidarus. His mausoleum, which is situated directly next to the lord’s house, can be visited outside time of prayer and festive seasons, that is providing one is wearing the appropriate clothing. The Gold Mohur Beach, at which several hotels have been built, is considered to be the town’s most beautiful beach. An emblem of former British occupation towers above the old harbor: the Little Big Ben.


Al Mukalla

During its period of prosperity, Al Mukalla was named the “white town”. Traces of this past era can still be found within some of the buildings in the older part of the town, which is situated on a small peninsular in front of the current town centre. Well worth taking a look at are the wooden doors decorated with numerous cuttings. The former Sultans-Palace, in which a museum can be found, lies at the end of the waterside promenade. The small exhibition displays interesting exhibits from old South Arabian and Prehistoric times. For a few hundred years, Mukalla was the junction between the 300 kilometre distant Wadi Hadramaut and the trading branch offices ofAsia. For this reason, the decorations on the houses of Mukalla have a definite Indian influence. Even the residents of the Hadramaut are affected by multi-ethnic influence. Arabs, Africans, and Asians are all at home here. Nowadays, Al Mukalla is Yemen’s boomtown. On the mountains and hills within a distance of 30 – 50 kilometres of the town, building is taking place without tire. Within a period of five years, the town’s area has increased to more than 20 times its size.



Taiz is one of the countries most lively towns, which before the reunion of the two Yemeni countries, was because of its economical importance for a long time seen as the secret capital city of the north. Taiz still remains one of the important economical centres, which amongst other things has led to an immense building boom during the past few years. The Mosques within the old town, which lies below the Al-Qahira citadel, belong to the most magnificent in the country. A trip up the local mountain Djabal, which rises steeply above the town, offers an impressive view across Taiz.



The small picturesque town of Jibblah became famous as the place of location of queen Arwa bint Ahmed. The town is situated on a basalt-cone in the middle of the greenest and most fruitful provinces of Yemen. The locations landmarks are the two minarets of the Arwa-Mosque that had been built by order of the queen, who in fact reigned for over 50 years.


Zabid, situated in the coastal lowlands of the Tihama, had already been a university town around 800 years AD, and at that point in time was one of the most important centres of Islamic and scientific scholarship. It was here that one of the first schoolbooks for algebra was written. Not much is to be seen of the former radiance of the town, only those who view the town with wide-open eyes will be able to recognise why Zabid was declared a town of World Cultural Heritage and therefore registered with the UNESCO:

The well-preserved fantastic ornamental plasterwork on some of the house are a clear sign of this. Also interesting is a short visit to the citadel, which was built in times of the Ottoman Empire. Modern development, such as within the whole of the Tihama, has up to now just passed by – the whole region belongs to the poorest and economically most underdeveloped in the whole country.


Bait al Faqih

Once a week, the normally colourless town of Bait al Faqih transforms into a lively centre of trade. Not only agricultural products are on offer, but also for the Tihama, typical braided beds, pumpkins, and household equipment are to be found. A short distance outside the Souqs, a few of the original weavers have their workshops and produce the characteristic bright and colourful striped cotton cloths.


Hodeidah at the Red Sea is Yemen’s largest seaport town. A visit during the morning to the fish market is an impressive experience – dozens of sharks of various sizes, mantas, swordfish, and numerous other inhabitants of the Red Sea are delivered.


Hajjah impresses with its unusual location on and in between numerous mountain peaks. The citadel thrones on the highest elevation, whereas completely preserved Imams palace were built further down the slope. The surrounding area of the provinces capital city belongs to mountainous Yemen’s most impressive landscapes – a winding road provides visitors with access to this region, which up to a few decades ago was very difficult to reach.


Sabaian  stones in gateways and houses point to a wealthy town history. The town wall of the province capital city is made of clay bricks and is still near to complete. It surrounds the whole of the old core in which you are also able to visit the old souq.