Hud Tomb: Visiting Site in Hadramaut [Archives:2001/41/Culture]

October 8 2001

The scholars of old knew Yemen as Al-Yemen as-saida, or fortunate Yemen, although the reason is matter of contention. Maybe it had something to do with its location to the “right” (Yemen is derived from the Arabic root for right) of Mocca. Or perhaps it was because Yemen occupied a strategic position in the spice trade between India and the Arab world, or maybe it was due to its reputation as a producer of frankincense, a rare aromatic resin prized as highly as gold by the ancients. Or perhaps it was simply the sanctifying presence of a Prophet. It is a forgotten fact about this forgotten land, but according to tradition, Yemen is home to one of God’s earliest Prophets, Hud, who is buried here. The Prophet’s tomb, which lies in a town of his name in the valley of Hadhramawt, has always been a destination for the devout. In the past the people who ventured out of the wilderness were mainly Hadhramis. These locals claim the ancestry of the people of As, to whom Hud preached. Their Ziyarah or religious visit persists; the difference being that now it is a more international affair, a festival. The Ziyarah appears to have been established as a public event in the 15th century, like the Meccan satellite town of Mina, Nabi Hud is deserted for most of the year. Then, once a year in the Islamic month of Sha’ban, when the fair was originally held, it comes to life as pilgrims start to flood in. Last year the four day Ziyarah Nabi Hud attracted some 160,000 people from as far away as Egypt, Britain, the US and even Indonesia.
While they are here, most will stay in Sa’yun, the regional capital, served by an airport and several hotels. Here they can marvel at the towering buildings which provide some of the best examples of Hadramawt’s day brick architecture. Some of the most beautiful mosques and minarets in Yemen can be found in Say’un.
But it’s the town of Nabi Hud and its festival that is the main attraction. As with much else in this highly tribalized society, proceedings here are dominated by the leading Sufi families of Hadhrmawt. One family, the Ba’Abbads, whose ancestors performed the Ziyarah in the 13th century, has enjoyed the privilege of leading it every year since.
Then it’s on to the stone of a famous 15th century saint, followed by prayers at the Well of Greeting, where it is believed souls of the pious are gathered. The prayer is always led by a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessing be upon him), and takes in all the Prophets back to Adam. Only after these preparatory steps are complete is the visitor ready to meet the prophet Hud. A 1950s traveler described the tomb as being very long, attesting to the Islamic belief in the greater physical stature of early man.
The tomb lies at the foot of a mountain and faces inside a mosque which was first built in the 9th century. As with most of Yemen’s architecture, it displays an amazingly unique harmony with its surroundings. Dwarfed by the dark mountain wall to its rear, the unimposing white-walled mosque sets a tone of humility and tranquillity amid greater forces, echoing the nature of the Ziyarah itself.
Next to the tomb, Nabi Hud’s most famous landmark is the she-camel. In reality, this is very out of the ordinary, but legend has it that this is what remains of Hud’s camel, which God turned into stone. One of the Ziyarah’s highlights is the visit of the family of Abu Bakr bin Salim on the third day. This saint is credited with restoring the Ziyarah to the Islamic lunar calendar. His descendant’s entrance to the tomb is accompanied by a tumultuous beating of drums, much loud chanting and the flying of family banners. With the arrival of the bin Salim clan, the fun and games begin in earnest. On the final day at the visit it’s time to relax and to be entertained. Goats are butchered and favorite Yemeni dishes are prepared, especially harisa, a porridge made of sorghum and dates. Yemeni tribesmen, identifiable by their distinctive jambiya, or dagger, compete in camel races and dance accompanied by the (singing) ululation of their watching womenfolk.
Visitors compare the atmosphere of Ziyarah Nabi Hud to what the Hajj must have been like before affordable air travel turned it into a huge international gathering. Still unspoiled and regarded as a backwater in Yemen, Hadhramawt is probably the closest modern travelers will come to the Arabia of the Arabian Nights. The holy Qur’an describes the civilization that once occupied this area as coming to a violent end in a sandstorm that raged for eight days and seven nights. Prospective visitors will be relieved to know that these days the Nabil Hud empties rather less dramatically, with their spirits the only thing likely to be lifted off the ground !