Monday, 24 December 2007

Yemen 5: Ma'rib, a trip into the wild heart of Yemen

Today we went out to Ma’rib which is about 215km from Sana’a and its been like a trip to the Wild West. Back in the dim past Ma’rib was the capital of the Sabean empire, the kingdom of the legendary Queen of Sheba who’s known in Yemen as Bilqis. The Sabeans controlled the frankincense trade in the area for many hundreds of years and were very rich and powerful. The photos are here.

Nowadays foreigners are only allowed to travel to Ma’rib if they have an armed military escort. As recently as July this year, six tourists were killed there when a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into their minibus. The Marib region is home to four powerful Yemeni tribes and is thought to be a hotbed of support for Al Qaeda.

Our guide Ali picked us up from the hotel in Sana’a and we drove about half an hour out of town to meet up with the rest of the convoy of 4x4s, about 50 in total which were mostly from various tour companies. We had a police escort for the first hour of the trip but then we stopped at another checkpoint and where we picked up the army escort. The escort was made up of half a dozen soldiers, all armed with AK47s, in a LandCruiser ute with a sub-machine gun mounted on the back. With the Army in the lead, we headed for Ma’rib. As we drove along we passed many army positions some with tanks in place and others with artillary pieces. We stopped at Army checkpoints every couple of kilometres along the way, and each time the procedure was the same: the soldiers would ask Ali where we were from, he’d tell them then they’d look at us, see Colin’s jambia (the dagger) and either give him the thumbs up or smile and say “tammam” (ok) and wave us through. At each checkpoint Ali had to pass over a photocopy of the government authority which allowed us to travel to Ma’rib. He had a pile of copies when we started out but there were none left by the end of the day.

At Mar’ib the local Police took over from the Army guys so we had a Police escort to visit the ruins and other sights we’d come to see. First stop was the village of Old Ma’rib, which dates from 1BC. The village was heavily bombed during the 1962 Civil War. After the '62 war, the residents moved to what is now the new town of Ma’rib. Many of the buildings in Old Ma'rib have gaping holes caused by artillery shells. Mud brick -v- mortars wasn’t a fair fight.

From there we drove to the Great Ma’rib Dam which was built in about 700 BC though recent archaeological work has found remains of primitive dams dated back to 2000 BC. The Great Dam took several hundred years to complete and is believed to have been 700m long and 35m high. It ran between two groups of rocks on either side of what was then a river. Water from the dam irrigated about 70 sq km of desert and supported a population of around 50,000. The final destruction of the dam is noted in the Koran (Chapter of the Saba, v.15-16). Close by is a large new dam which was built with funds from the late Sheikh Zayed of the UAE whose family lines trace back to Yemen.

Next stop was the ‘Arsh Bilqis which the locals called Bilqis’ Palace but researchers think was a temple dedicated to worship of the moon. Either way, there are five magnificent 10m high columns there. Last stop for the morning was Mahram Bilqis which was built prior to 800BC and is believed to have been dedicated to the sun god. It was fenced off so I couldn’t get close enough to see much. We stopped in the new part of Ma’rib for lunch at a hotel which had a swimming pool, something I didn't expect to see out in the backblocks. After lunch we got back into the LandCruiser to wait for the Police escort but we struck a snag, our Police escort was supposed to meet us at the hotel and do the trip back to the checkpoint where we’d pick up the Army boys, but they failed to turn up. There were two 4x4s waiting for an escort, us and an Italian couple (the majority of tourists to Yemen are Italian not sure why). Both the other driver and our guide Ali rang “people who know people” and shortly afterwards a police car pulled into the hotel driveway. In an entertaining diversion, an overweight police sergeant got out, waved his arms in the air while ranting and raving in Arabic (no translation was required, it was a hizzy fit in anyone’s language) he then squeezed himself back into the car, slammed the door and drove off in a flurry leaving even the Arabic speakers bemused. (If you’ve seen “Snatch” it was reminiscent of the scene where Tyrone is ‘pouring’ himself into a car.) Ten minutes later another police car arrived this time full of police with their stereo blasting out the latest Lebanese hits, and we all headed out to meet the military escort. Our armed military escort this time was a lone soldier who looked about 12 years old though still armed with an AK47. The soldier sat in the front passenger seat of our LandCruiser chatting happily to Ali. What can I say? Anyone who feels uncomfortable about travelling at speed in a car with loaded guns shouldn’t travel in Yemen. Even so, it was a bit of a concern to us when the soldier was resting his gun across his knees and the barrel was pointing directly at Colin in the back seat. A while later Colin told me that the soldier was resting his chin on the barrel of his gun, my only comment was, “Well, I’m not cleaning the roof.” All joking aside, its obvious from past events that there is the potential for serious stuff to happen at any time - I’d noticed earlier in the day that our guide was also carrying a pistol tucked into the back of his futa (mens’ skirt) and he seemed to me to be a man who'd have no hesitation in using it.

We dropped the soldier off at the last checkpoint and headed back to Sana'a. Our long day ended back at the hotel and saying goodbye to Ali. We have a day to ourselves tomorrow, our last day in Yemen. The plan at the moment is to see the National Museum.

At no point have either of us thought about hiring a car - not now we've seen how they drive here. The Lonely Planet guide to Yemen says something like "...maniacal drivers with a complete disregard for the few existing road rules...." All I can say is "You're kidding? There's a rule?"