Al-Maraw’ah:A matchless historic town [Archives:2006/964/Culture]

July 17 2006
The Grand Mosques roof loaded with many domes.
The Grand Mosques roof loaded with many domes.
By: Mazen Al-Saqqaf
It's a historic town whose name is associated with the house of Ali bin Omar bin Mohammed bin Suleiman, known as Al-Ahdal, the first to live in it and the forefather of Tihama's Al-Ahdals. It's the town of Al-Maraw'ah, which enjoys an elevated scholastic status as one of Yemen's scholarly locales, especially during the reigns of the Rasulid and Tahiri states.

This town is located 25 kilometers from Hodeidah city on the Hodeidah-Sana'a road. Many outstanding families have dwelled in Al-Maraw'ah in recent times, exerting themselves to preserve its local traditions and customs. Among them is Khairawah, still living in the town; their history there dates back 130 years ago. Their house still bears witness to the town's architectural heritage, with decorations forming an extremely magnificent picture.

Landmarks: a 15-dome mosque

Upon visiting this town, we couldn't hide our fascination with it. Our tour began at the Grand Mosque, one of the town's most striking landmarks, dating back to the seventh century after Hijra. At the beginning, it was built of straw by Sheikh Ali bin Omar Al-Ahdal, and then rebuilt of mud bricks by his son Ahmed, who also ornamented it with 15 domes which still can be seen at the present day.

At the beginning of the 20th century, during World War I, the mosque sustained a hit from a British shell that demolished part of it. Pursuant to directives from Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid bin Mahmoud, the mosque was revamped in 1916 with an area of 30 meters by 40 meters.

Quite recently, the southern part of the mosque was built in a modern style along with a Qur'anic school. Al-Maraw'ah's Grand Mosque is among the town's oldest places of worship and scholarly pursuit and can be described as an Islamic university with a long history, as many scholars, clerics, judges and writers were educated at it.

It was so important, it became the focal point for students and Al-Maraw'ah attained a position among such knowledge-famed cities as Sana'a, Zabid and Jibla. Because of this high status, Imam Ahmed Yahya Hamid Al-Din issued a royal decree providing payment of education costs for those heading to Maraw'ah for religious studies.

Milk and mud: architecture and creativity

When visiting Al-Maraw'ah, one first is surprised by its lofty minarets, but another stunning fact is that despite the town's hot climate most of the year, the indoor climate is mild. Searching for reasons, it was understood that traditional construction materials used in building mosques and other dwellings were the reason for the mild climate on hot days.

When building, workers used to mix mud with milk and spread the mixture on the roofs of mosques and houses. The substance allowed the roofs to absorb water easily without affecting the structure's integrity over hundreds of years and provided a mild indoor atmosphere.

It was a creative method based on cheap materials that would protect them from high summer temperatures at times when modern amenities like air conditioners weren't available. Actually, it's a marvelous method with architectural and stylistic value, requiring further investigation by experts concerned with shedding more light on this town's singularity.

Ancient scripts, a handwritten Qur'an

Looking around the Grand Mosque, one will see numerous 1 meter by two meter columns. Examining the mosque's mihrab (niche), one can find beside it a dais modeled after the old Islamic style in the early ages of Islam, as it consists of only two stairs without a barrier. The preacher would step with a stick to lean on. Notwithstanding new maintenance and restoration efforts at the mosque, the dais remains in its original state without change.

Exploring such a place, one can't ignore the bookcase taking up a considerable area on the mosque's wall. Among the bookcase's rare scripts are a handwritten edition of the Qur'an with a length of 1.5 meters and “Al-Burhan fi I'rab Al-Qur'an,” written in the hand of its author, Al-Maiqari Shumailah Al-Ahdal. The latter is one of the main books taught at Islamic universities worldwide. There also are other manuscripts with much Islamic, intellectual and scholarly significance.

The only person with the keys to this rare book collection, Endowments Director Sheikh Abdul-Rahman leaves the bookcase only very rarely and refuses to reveal all of the secrets of its contents for fear of burglary or acts of vandalism. His dutifulness has increased since a trader offered to buy the manuscripts, but the sheikh believes that to think merely of selling the manuscripts is a betrayal of their priceless heritage.

Old Government Building

Strolling down the streets and lanes of Al-Maraw'ah, one surely will be struck by one particular old building with distinctive architectural features. Locals call it the “Old Government Building.” The town's affairs were managed from this building, which became a complex containing everything related to the town and its residents.

The building included a court hall, prison cells, tax and zakat offices, judges' offices and rooms for military personnel stationed at the building. It also had corridors and underground storage to keep grains and foodstuffs.

This government building is surrounded by a high, thick and stout wall built in the traditional way (milk and mud), which made it difficult to destroy or infiltrate when the government came under attacks.

The building has two gates, one of which is used by police, military and judges' vehicles, while the other is a large wooden gate used by locals. The building has been abandoned, but the wooden gate still is withstanding time, testifying to the building's originality with the date 1115 A.D. engraved upon it.

Historical crime: murder in court hall

As noted, Al-Maraw'ah is a town that birthed a good number of judges, clerics and scholars. Along with its religious and scholarly merits, the town has the added ability to cause justice to prevail, with locals retelling the “justice” story that took place at the government building.

According to them, despite the fact that the crime involved influential parties who could twist facts, justice was achieved. The story is about a judge's heinous murder by an individual's pistol. The perpetrator was the son of a Member of Parliament and the reason was a dispute between the judge and the murderer's father in a court hall meeting between the court and area administration.

Bullets riddled the judge's head and his blood splashed all over the place and on the hall's window, where this blood still testifies to the judge's murder on his bench. However atrocious, as locals recall, the crime didn't go unpunished because, despite much mediation and the lure of millions of riyals, the murderer was executed by gunfire and the power of law prevailed. Following this incident, the court hall was closed permanently.

Al-Maraw'ah souk (market)

One would be lucky to visit the town on a Monday because the day has its own rituals. Al-Maraw'ah is distinguished for its market observed every Monday; therefore, it's called, “Monday Market.”

Traders from various parts of Yemen come to it, trading their wares, both selling and buying. Traders from remote areas arrive the previous night with a variety of goods and articles, while other traders arrive before dawn. At dawn, the market becomes a beehive swarming with people. Locals from Al-Maraw'ah and nearby villages and districts come to the market to buy and sell. Most are farmers raising cattle, so they have an opportunity to sell their cattle and make money at the market.

The market is divided into different sections: fruits and vegetables, meat, blacksmiths, sweets and confectionary, plastic, furniture, clothes, earthenware, indigenous honey, etc. The market is distinguished for providing the best types of honey and meat. People come from various corners of Yemen to buy honey and meat from cattle raised in the wilderness.

At the edge of the marketplace, one can see a large number of trucks gathering in the cattle section to transport cattle to many provinces nationwide and to the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia. Such trade gives locals a chance to raise the price of their commodities.

One of the oldest markets, Al-Maraw'ah's Monday Market has gained popularity and many customers throughout the town's long history. Today, the market proves the economic unity and joint market of Yemenis.