Sheba’s Land [Archives:1998/30/Last Page]

July 27 1998

Just a scrawny, pint-sized pensioner he was; an animated dwarf with wrinkles as ancient as the land he lived in; yet here he was, standing 10 feet tall, skinny body aquiver, white beard bristling, glaring imperiously down his little hook nose, staring me down.
I mumbled an apology and doubled my offer – please take 100 riyals for the photograph; please sir.
This tiny old man, the self-appointed guardian of the 850-year-old Mosque of Queen Arwa in the historic town of Jiblah, mid-way between Aden and Sanaa, had me feeling half his size.
Judi and I arrived at Jiblah, the capital of Yemen in the 11th and 12th centuries when revered Queen Arwa held sway for fully 70 years, by hired taxi from Sanaa and then on foot. We had come especially to see the mosque, one of the few in Yemen reputed to allow infidels to enter.
But, as we trudged up a steep, cobbled path dodging laden donkeys, fully-veiled women, grinning, pointing youngsters and hurrying men in flowing white robes, all with ornate curved daggers at their waists and many with ugly AK47 rifles slung over their shoulders, we began to wonder: would we be allowed out again?
Not to worry; old Yousef was there. No sooner had we approached the main door of the mosque than he grabbed my arm and hustled me down the side of the massive alabaster building ignoring Judi and Mohamed, our taxi driver-guide, and cluster of children who had joined us.
I thought he must be showing me, the male visitor, the way in and leaving Judi to wait outside. But as I began to protest, Yousef rounded a corner and halted, suddenly assuming a striking pose, drawing himself up to his full five foot nothing and staring far-sightedly into the distance while pointing first at his pigeon chest and then at my camera.
It was obvious: he wanted me to take his photograph!
Once I hastily obliged, he grasped my arm again and raced me back to a bemused Judi and a more relaxed Mohamed. Then the bargaining started.
Yousef, who still had not spoken a word, held out his hand, not in greeting but in the universal ‘you pay, mister.’
I pulled out a 20 riyal note, to be taken aback by the reception. There was a frigid silence, a compelling glare, then a haughty look away to a far-distant point beyond my right shoulder. Yousef’s right foot stamped in anger.
I tried 50 riyals and a muttered ‘sorry.’ No change, not even a glance at the crumpled note. Stamp!
When the 100 riyal note appeared, Yousef’s expression softened a fraction. The note was suddenly snatched from my hand and, literally in a puff of sandy dust, the redoubtable old man was gone.
Fortunately, small boys took the role we assumed was Yousef’s of escorting us to several of the mosque’s open doors and allowing us to peer inside. Several elderly men were sitting in a corner reading a Quran; one small boy took my camera and photographed them. For some reason, Western visitors were not permitted inside today, so we had to be content with a momentary glance.
The interior we could see was sparsely furnished, prayer mats mainly,, and with evidence of several side rooms. Foot and body baths outside held fetid water but there was no rubbish or graffiti. The children were notably respectful.
If we thought we had seen the last of Yousef, we were mistaken.
Ten minutes later, after we had traipsed the narrow lanes of Jiblah’s souk (market), Mohamed stopped to buy some slices of goat cheese. While he haggled, Judi and I took respite from the 35degC noonday heat in a nearby tea shop, enjoying the scalding sweet tea that is a great refresher in such hot places.
Mohamed joined us, offering salted and unsalted cheese as a snack. As we ate and drank, who should pause outside amidst a small group of elderly men but little old Yousef. He, in an excitable state, was waving a plastic bag of qat, the mild narcotic leaves that all Yemeni men, and many women and children too, chew daily to achieve a kind of constant high.
Quite obviously, Yousef was telling the tale of a foreigner he had conned into paying for the treat he and his mates were about to share.
Mohamed called out to him. That was Yousef’s second big moment. He looked up, saw us three, spoke a brief aside and then hurried over, making an elaborate show of shaking and holding hands all round to ensure his cronies knew how well connected he was with foreign devils, and how well regarded.
We all had a great laugh, Yousef and friends included.
While Yousef’s Jiblah and Queen Arwa are icons within Yemen, it is because of another female ruler that this little-known, male-dominated Islamic nation has a far wider and more historic profile – Bilquis, the Queen of the mighty kingdom of Saba, or Sheba.
Saba, in southern Arabia to the north of Jiblah, was astride the ancient trade routes from India and Africa to the Mediterranean. For 14 centuries from about 1000 BC it was the strongest power in the region. Saba is first mentioned in the Old Testament description of the visit of its Queen Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba who controlled the southern end of the frankincense road, to King Solomon, keeper of the northern gate.
The mission was successful, the presents exchanged drawing excited comment in the Bible. Solomon and Sheba married, tradition having it that their son, Menelik becoming the ruler of Aksum, today’s Ethiopia. Menelik’s ancestry was subsequently claimed by all Ethiopian leaders up to the 20th century’s Haile Selassie.
Saba’a strategic value was matched by its great agricultural wealth, based on what could have been considered the eighth wonder of the world, the famous dam at Marib, built in the 8th century BC and which stood for more than 1000 years.
Marib sits on the edge of the Ar-Ruba Al-Khali desert, the Empty Quarter. The land of the Bedouin, it is hot, dry, dusty, sandy, rocky, virtually a wasteland. It surrounds today offer 20th century companies valuable oil and archaeologists hidden treasures; but 10,000 years ago this desert was the fruit and vegetable bowl of Arabia.
The metamorphosis then followed the building of a 680m long dam of sand, mud and gravel, strengthened by lava rocks and limestone, that eventually grew 16m high. This remarkable feat of early engineering resulted in the gradual creation of a huge lake behind the dam, which then channeled the waters over 10,000 hectares of valley and terraces stretched below.
For 10 centuries, the irrigation system sustained a population of 30,000-50,000 people. Even palm plantations flourished. Agriculture and taxes collected from caravans on the incense route caused Saba to boom.
The dam was finally washed away in 570 AD and the region, by then ruled from Ethiopia, reverted to obscurity for almost 1400 years. Today, oil exploration is on the rise, and the Yemeni government has just completed a new dam a few kilometers from the still-visible remains of the old, allowing agricultural development to resume.
Old Marib is now a collection of tumble-down mud-brick ‘skyscrapers’ of ancient vintage, some still inhabited, some with Sabean ornamentation faintly visible on basement stones. Nearby are the remains of the throne of Bilquis, or the Queen of Sheba’s seat, also known as the Temple of the Moon.
The remains include six stone pillars, one broken off, which are said to remind believers of the five undisputed pillars of Islam – the creed, performance of prayer, giving of alms, observance of fasting and the performance of pilgrimage. The sixth disputed pillar, jihad, means both ‘holy war’ and ‘striving in the way of God,’ depending on the believers fanaticism.
Archaeologists disagree, claiming the pillars once belonged to a temple consecrated to the moon god.
Other temples and sites of great archeological interest abound around Marib, but encroaching desert sands and the hostility of local tribes people are hindering the investigations. Nevertheless, the region of Saba makes for a fascinating, if long and tiring, soldier-escorted, four-wheel-drive side trip from Sanaa.
If Marib is old, Sanaa, the mountain-city base for our 10-day holiday in Yemen, is truly ancient. Yemeni folklore has it the city was founded by Shem, the son of Noah, on one of the first sites of human settlement in the world. Shem had come to Yemen from the north, seeking somewhere to settle, and choose the place shown to him by a bird. His name is reflected still in Sanaa’s nickname ‘Sam City.’
Judi and I quickly discovered that midwinter temperatures in this biblical city are not the comfortable mid-20 highs our Lonely Planet guidebook suggested, but 10-15 degrees hotter. Credit cards are unheard of, except in the up market Sheraton and Taj Sheba hotels, which we only visited once (for the decadence of an ice-cream sundae), and life moves still at the comforting speed of a donkey cart.
The people, as we have found in all Muslim countries, are delightful. Huge grins, hearty handshakes and welcoming gestures would follow our smiles, alaykums (hellos) and shukruns (thank yous) in halting Arabic; shai (tea) would be produced incessantly; veiled women would peer shyly from their chadors (veils); children would wave and shout in greetings but rarely in cheekiness.
Our accommodation was interesting. The Al-Ikhwa Hotel, of the ‘two-sheet’ variety (so named because both sheets are changed daily; ‘one-sheets’ get weekly treatment, ‘no-sheets’ speaks for themselves), provided a clean, basic room, rather smelly bathroom facilities and, wonder of wonders, ample hot water. We even had a tiny sunporch with a view of the street four floors below, and all for about YR 3900 a night for the two of us.
This was an up market local hotel, old but clean. Its lift groaned frighteningly when in use; through the night the lift would keep us awake, sometimes causing us to burst into laughter as its groans rumbled away like a rolling fart in a bathtub.
Meals were basic, but good: roast and grilled chicken and ‘steak’, fish, rice, fresh bread, eggs any which way . . . A grubby menu in English gave some assistance, with interesting offerings such as ‘sicramen (scrambled) eggs; mashroom omlette; boild eggs, chicken allocan (?) filet minyon, rum steak, tibon steak’ . . . dining was fun and cheap, about YR 800 in total for both of us, much the same as at local restaurants.
Meat, eggs, milk, bread, both leavened and unleavened, and fruit are staples for most Yemenis, with kebabs and salta, a stew of meat with lentils, beans, spices, etc and served over rice, a national dish. There was less evidence of hunger and begging than in many other Eastern countries, although the national economy and standard if living are still low.
The heart of Sanaa is the walled portion of the old city, in reality an open-air museum preserving an age-old way of living. Well off the beaten track for 1500 years, this part of Sanaa, itself described as the Pearl of Arabia Felix, is still the Middle East (almost) the way the Bible told it.
Of course, there are motor cars, electricity and television today, but deep in the heart of the wonderful souk, and in the traditional high-rise, fretwork-windowed houses around, life goes on little changed.
There are more swarthy, hawk-nosed men swaggering about with old .303 rifles and bandoleers of bullets than we would like; more young boys with .22 rifles and piercing eyes; more soldiers, scruffily-uniformed, with menacing AK47s and a swagger in their step: but this is Yemen today. Relations with neighboring Saudia Arabia are only lukewarm and in the country, the tribes people are still warry and wary of each other and of strangers.
Even so, the faces of these hoicking, spitting, beady-eyed bandits will suddenly break into the widest of warm grins as friends and strangers are greeted. Hugs will be exchanged, kisses swapped cheek to cheek; hands stay grasped as lovers as male friends walk together.
The souk is chock-full of such people, smells, shouts, clangs, touts, beggars, cripples, hooded women, running children. spices, potions, jewelry, carpets . . . it could be Kashgar, Karimibad, Peshawar, Marrakesh or Xian, except that Sanaa boasts the smell of burning frankincense. Granules of this ancient aromatic, obtained from the resin of Boswellia trees, and its companion myrrh, known collectively and with gold as the Gift of Kings, are on sale everywhere, usually from small sacks and offered by hooded women in chadors and shawls whose knowledge of English, unlike that of many of their men folk, seems non-existent.
Money changers are common, despite Yemen having a state-controlled currency at present. They offer perhaps 129-130 riyals to the US dollar when the banks give 125-128, so there is little incentive for the tourist to risk being ripped off.
The souk stalls display the usual array of spices, condiments, foodstuffs, silverware, tinware, brass, leatherware, huge metal safes, motor parts, tinsel decorations, electrical goods, shoes: a real hotch-potch of commerce.
Local handicrafts are relatively rare, but once found, silver bracelets, earrings and necklaces are good buys, while the obligatory curved jambiyas, or daggers, are on sale for enormously varying prices. They like a laugh in the souk. One market tout with a wheel barrow would not have been out of place in Petticoat Lane. Holding up monstrous pair of wide, white bloomers of the kind Arab men wear under their flowing dishdashes (robes), he called out with a grin, “Mister and Missus,” indicating Judi and I would fit inside together.
The alleys of the souk are narrow and twisting, not long ago just tramped dirt, but today featuring tarsealed strips just wide enough for the ubiquitous Toyota utilities to squeeze through. Yemen is indeed Toyota territory; eight out of 10 vehicles are Toyotas, the ninth is an old Mercedes taxi; the tenth could be anything from a Plymouth to a Mini. This is a huge widespread country and transport is vital.
Our Mercedes taxi, a 1969 vintage, which we hired together with friendly English-speaking Mohamed for US $50 a day all up after strenuous bargaining, carried us almost 500km on our trip to Jiblah.
Mohamed was a real find. His usual beat was outside the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel with a dozen other taxis, waiting for rich passengers. He latched on to us as we passed one day, then kept a fatherly eye on his new Western friends.
A father of 10 himself, he proudly showed us testimonials from other foreign passengers to his skill and attention. He kept them in a bound folder wrapped in an old checked head scarf.
Like Yousef at the Queen Arwa mosque, Mohamed was a character.
On the afternoon of our Jiblah trip, he excused himself for half an hour in the back street of an unnamed village while he went to pray, somewhat casually leaving us in the care of a handful of local children. He gave them a stern command to look after us, but did not seek our opinion on the matter.
“All OK?” he inquired on eventually returning. “Should be fine. I pray to Allah in there and tell him to look after you. Even if you Christian, he OK. Allah be God over all.”
Biblical King Solomon and his Queen of Sheba could not have put it better.
By Robin Charteris,
form a New Zealand newspaper