The capital of Yemen, Sana'a has existed for more than 2,500 years making it one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Situated at an altitude of 2,200 metres and at the narrowest point of a mountain plateau, Sana’a is known for its Islamic and political heritage which can be seen in more than 100 mosques, 14 hammams and 6,500 dwellings which were built before the 11th century. However, the most impressive characteristic of the city is found in its towering houses, built from mud and at up to nine storeys high, said to be the world’s first skyscrapers!
Sana'a has been of great importance since ancient times. It lies at the intersection of two major ancient trade routes, one of them linking the fertile upland plains, the other linking the Ma’rib (home of the Sabaean kingdom) and the Red Sea. As a natural centre for commerce, Sana’a has always been heavily populated and the city had as many as 12,000 residents during the 17th century. Today the city is home to more than 1.7 million people, and is revered as an ‘off-the-beaten-path’ destination for tourists looking to experience an Arabia untouched by time, wealth or the West.
Sana’a has numerous things to see and do, but the real beauty of the city is found in simply enjoying its incredible atmosphere. Few places in the world have remained unchanged for a millennium, but stepping into the labyrinthine streets of Sana’a feels like stepping into something out of 1,001 Arabian Nights.
Start at the walled city of Old Sana’a – virtually indistinguishable from new Sana’a and the oldest completely preserved medina in the Arab world – and marvel at the ancient tower houses. The ground and first floor are built of stone, but the upper floors are built entirely from mud, while the rooms are illuminated with arched, stained glass ‘gamariya’ windows. The exteriors of the houses are intricately decorated with a lime-coated latticework, and the combined effect is mesmerising. Old Sana’a contains more than 14,000 of these buildings and has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. Efforts are underway to preserve some of the oldest buildings, some of which, such as the Samsarh inn and the majestic Great Mosque, are more than 1,400 years old. The Palace of Ghamdan dates back 2,000 years but despite being in ruins is still worth a visit.
Old Sana’a was encircled by 14-metre-high clay walls which dates back to the 1st century. The walls had six gates but today only the Bab al-Yemen (southern gate) has survived and it is an iconic entry point to the city. Other attractions include the excellent Suq al-Milh (salt market), where it is possible to buy not only salt but bread, spices, raisins, cotton, copper, pottery, silverware and antiques.
Sana’a‘s status as the capital of one of the poorest countries in the region ensures that most of its dining options are budget. However, high-class options –including alcohol – can be found in the large hotels around al-Madina, Tahrir, and in the upscale Haddah neighbourhood where the ubiquitous Western fast food chains have also taken root.
Regardless, for the most part visitors can enjoy the opportunity to live as Yemenis do and experience the local food which differs greatly from other Middle Eastern cuisines. Saltah – the Yemeni national dish made of ground meat, rice, potatoes and vegetables – is often served for lunch, as is Sahowqa, a stew of meat, fenugreek, chillies, tomatoes, herbs and garlic.
Sana'a is a great place for people-watching and it's possible to pull up a chair in a coffee shop and watch the world go by for hours on end. Qahwa, or Arabic coffee, is a symbol of hospitality in Yemen and should you receive an invitation to drink qahwa with someone, it is impolite to refuse.
Just a 30-minute taxi ride from Sana’a is Wadi Dhahr, a valley famed for its green fields, villages and Dar al-Hajr, or the Rock Palace of Imam Yahya. The multi-storeyed palace sits on a lone rock and makes for a spectacular afternoon excursion. The Wadi is also home to a wealth of bird species, and the 45-minute trek from Shibam to Kawkaban ascends nearly 1,000 metres and allows sightings of eagles, ravens and vultures.