The fortress and steppes of Hajjarah [Archives:2005/879/Last Page]

September 22 2005
Photo from archived article: photos/879/lastpage1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/879/lastpage1_1

Many visitors have suggested that the majestic spirit of the mountains can be felt more intensely in Haraz than anywhere else in Yemen. Certainly for me I am drawn to this region with great regularity, and find it extremely inspirational as a creative person.

The proud mountain village of Manakha stands at 2200m. At the centre of intensely cultivated, terraced countryside, and benefiting from mountain rains gathered by the western mountains, Manakha is an important market town for villages on the surrounding mountain slopes. From here one can see the small villages and hamlets that lie scattered everywhere between the terraces that extend across the steepest slopes.

This area is very famous for planting coffee, and this goes back to a long way in history. The people used to have a good income from coffee, which made them able to build such tall buildings and palaces. These days there appears to be as much qat growing here as coffee, as in contemporary Yemen, qat often competes with the vegetable and coffee crops, as it is such a money spinner.

Al-Hajjarah, a spectacular historical city five kilometres west of Manakha, has buildings that are very tall and closely related to each other, and can be easily spotted from a distance. The village dating to the 11th century AD, served as an important fortification during the Turkish occupation of Yemen. The original village was divided into two. The Al- Ba'aha quarter was inhabited by Jews until they fled to Israel in the 1950's. Above this is the “Muslim quarter” with its huge gate, ostensibly to shut out invaders and animals

The harmony of Hajjarah's architecture is splendid. A protective fortress, the city is entered through a single entrance with a long, unobstructed stairway leading to the heavy wooden gate. This allowed the only approach to the city to be guarded and defended. Hardly any mountain town in Yemen has ever been overtaken with this system.

Hajjarah was originally constructed as a safe house for dignitaries. Constructed from local sandstone and basalt, later decorated with white gypsum paint, the homes of Hajjarah were windowless on the bottom floors. The solid walls served as a protection against invasion. These lower floors were used for protecting livestock and for grain storage. The upper floors were reserved for the family living quarters. The main living room was typically situated on the top floor. These living rooms usually had many airy windows and were furnished with pillows and low couches. Yemeni homes were designed for comfort and furnished to provide maximum hospitality to friends, family and visitors.

These houses in the region, the tallest having four or five stories, having different levels for different purposes;- more specifically the first floor is for the animals, the second for the coffee, the third floor for the grains, the fourth for food, and the fifth for chewing qat and wedding ceremonies.

The region is extremely fertile, with sheep and goats grazing on the valley. Farmers plow their terraces behind oxen and children play in and around the irrigation pools.

There is only one funduq in Hajjarah, and it is not difficult to locate as the locals seem to take an active participation in its functioning, and the friendly locals will lead you there directly if you look at all unsure of your whereabouts. This beautiful respite is located atop a high summit, overlooking the green terraces and valleys below. The hotel has wonderful fare, and about a dozen spacious rooms with panoramic views, and a couple of lounges where patrons can either chew qat or listen to live traditional music, and do not be surprised if the dancers ask you to join them in the traditional dances that require grace and stamina. Yemeni dancing has simple steps that take a minute to pick up and a lifetime to master.

Hajjarah is the landscape one might expect to find in a fairy tale. These remote areas are still largely unknown to the Western world, and to mass tourism,. They are an ideal classroom for architecture, history, culture and art. This village is often described as simply “breathtaking” and is certainly one of the most striking places I have ever seen.