Yemen Pictures, Sana’a

The walls of medieval Sana'a at Market Gate, North Yemen.

The walls of medieval Sana’a at Market Gate. Sana’a is the capital of North Yemen.

Visiting Yemen

North Yemen is an almost perfect picture of medieval Arab life. It has a long history, buildings are ancient, unique and spectacular, the people are fierce but friendly and social habits are curious. But until a few years ago tourists were not allowed to travel in this extraordinary country.

We have to thank Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait for the opening of Yemen to foreigners. When the government supported Iraq during the Gulf crisis, thousands of expatriate workers in Mid-East countries were sent home, cutting off one of the country’s main sources of foreign currency.
Tourist dollars were the easiest and fastest way to replace the lost income. So, with the end of the Gulf War came the beginning of tourism and though the infrastructure for tourism is not well developed, the attractions are clear.

panorama over Sana'a's mud-brick city, North Yemen

Sana’a’s mud-brick housing.

Sadly, just as Yemen tourism was beginning to flourish Al Quaeda emerged and the country became hazardous to the health. Then came the Arab Spring democracy movement in 2011 follwed by civil war around the Middle-East and rising terrorist threats, including Yemen.

We love Yemen but cannot recommend it for tourism at present. For up-to-date terrorist information please check the excellent Foreign Office (FO) world travel safety site.

Mud-Straw and Mud-Brick Buildings

yemen, sanaa, whitewash mudhouse

The most dramatic feature of Yemen today, especially in and around the capital of Sana’a, is the buildings. Sana’a, 2, 300m above sea level, is considered to be architecturally unique and has received hundreds of millions of dollars from UNESCO for its preservation.

A beautiful mud house and roof in North Yemen

Many houses are over 400 years old, and most are built in the style of 1, 000 years ago. Five or six floor, brown mud and brick houses grow out of the brown land, like huge square vegetables.

Yemeni People

Sana'a market crowd, North Yemen

My partner in Sana’a central market before Al Quaeda ruined the party. Maybe the leggings were not such a good idea?

Yemen people are as colourful as their homes. Large, curved, silver daggers are the Yemen equivalent of the western necktie, while Kalashnikov machine guns are carried with the same frequency as cellphones in the developed world, only with a potentially deadlier communicative purpose.

Yemen girl portrait

This girl was desperate to earn a riyal tip and suggested a photo, normally forbidden.

Since Yemen is a staunchly Islamic society the women appear in public fully covered, mostly in black like negative ghosts, and do not communicate at all with foreign travellers. Trying to take pictures of them is probably the most dangerous action a traveller can do in this country.

Yemeni typical home dinner in Sana'a, North Yemen

A cracking dinner on the top floor (the man zone) of a Yemeni house.

The weapons the men carry are not just for show but they generally keep their gunplay away from foreigners and are the perfect hosts. Inviting strangers into their homes for tea or sharing some narcotic qat leaves with a curious traveller is not unusual.


An evening Qat party, Sana'a, North Yemen

The usual afternoon or early evening Qat party.

Qat (also known as kat, khat, quat) is a another unique feature of the Yemen. A narcotic bush, cousin to the coca plant in South America from which cocaine is produced, qat is chewed in some other countries, but not to the same degree as here.
The whole country seems to be fueled by this legal drug, a euphoric stimulant, with 90% of the population chewing it for up to 5 hours a day.

Afternoon or evening qat parties are a part of daily life where groups of men, or women – but not both together – gather on the top floor of a house, or in a cafe, or their workplace; they lean on cushions, drink cola, smoke, chat and chew the qat.

Leaf by leaf, they stuff their faces until their eyes are bright, their blood pressure is up by 20%, their conversation is wild and their cheeks take on the shape of oranges.
Newspaper articles argue endlessly about the bad and occasionally about the good effects of qat on the body, but what is indisputable is that Yemen is poor country with very little rain.

A Qat farm outside Sana'a, North Yemen

A Qat farm outside Sana’a.

Most of Yemen’s countryside is barren earth or rock, with a few small plots of carefully, expensively watered land, yet 50% of this tiny land area is used to grow qat, since people would rather chew the leaf than eat.
Many families spend one third of their monthly income on this drug, but the government doesn’t dare to mess with the habits of so many fiercely independent, well-armed citizens.

a qat seller in Sana'a, North Yemen

A qat seller.

a qat buyer in Sana'a, North Yemen

And a qat buyer. The qat effect is not unlike chewing coca leaves in Peru/Bolivia, only stronger, it’s a kind of mini-amphetamine hit that makes you talkative, a bit shaky and kills hunger pains.

Yemen weather

Sana’a is at an elevation of 2, 400m (7, 200 ft) so it’s cold in winter. But it’s also extremely hot and dusty in summer so the shoulder months of spring and autumn are the best time to go to this region.
The west coast of the country is mostly hot, humid and rampant with malarial mosquitoes. The south coast is hot and dry but apart from Shibam there’s little to see. The port of Aden is hideous.

Yemen money changers chewing qat, Sana'a.

That’s just about the shiftiest group of money changers I’ve ever come across, fat-cheeked and wired on qat. But they were, in fact, quite amiable and honest and a lot better value than more sophisticated cultures (such as the unapologetic thieving bastards around Kuta beach in Bali! )


Another source of fame for old Yemen is that it is the home of coffee. Stories tell that Ali al-Shadhili, resident of the Red Sea port of Mokha, in the 15th century offered passing Portuguese travellers cups of his home-made drink. They were so impressed with its energising properties that they took the recipe and a few sacks of beans back home with them. Over the next three hundred years coffee houses opened all over the world, but the sole source of coffee for Europeans during those days was the tiny town of Mokha, north Yemen.

Modern life is moving into this medieval Islamic society, and changes will happen quickly if the promise of huge oil fields in the south of the country is fulfilled.
Pepsi and Toyota have already arrived, so Starbucks, Levis, neon signs, concrete housing and even bigger, more colourful plastic bags cannot be far behind.