Tour 5: The classic Yemen tour

This route is the classic cultural tour of Yemen; it includes the principal historic buildings and sites of cultural and artistic interest – from the Sabaean dams dating from the first millennium AD, through early mosques, up to the outstanding multi-storey clay-built houses in Sana'a, Shibam and the Wadi Dawan.

Sightseeing will alternate with short walking tours and a day's bathing in the Arabian Sea.

1. Day | Arrival Sana’a

Accommodation in an old town hotel, a traditional house.

2. Day | Sana’a – Wadi Dhahr

Visit to the recently re-opened National Museum in Sana'a, which displays treasures from all epochs of Arabian cultural history. After lunch, we drive to the Wadi Dahr, a popular day-trip destination with the residents of Sana'a.

Every Friday, on a plateau above the valley, wedding ceremonies are held, in which the men dance the bara, a traditional dance with the djambia (curved dagger). Drive down to through fertile orchards to the valley, and visit to the "Dar Imam Yahya" or "Dar-al-Hajjar", the most popular photo motif in Yemen. This fantastic rock palace, built for the Imam Yahya, is of special interest for its sophisticated cooling and ventilation system, and all storeys are open for viewing. Return to Sana'a, walk through the old quarter and overnight stay in hotel.

3. Day | Sana’a – Marib

We take the north route and drive over passes at an altitude of 2,000 metres, through fertile highlands with qat planatations watched over from towers, to Marib, which lies at the edge of the Rub-al Khali desert, the "Empty Quarter". We visit the main cultural sites, including the dam which, since it was built in the first millennium BC, irrigated several hundred hectares until it broke in the 5th century AD, and thanks to which Marib was such a flourishing town.

The north and south sluice-gates are well preserved. One can also visit the moon (sun?) temple of Bilqis, the Almaqa temple with 8m-high monoliths, and Old Marib, the capital city of the legendary Bilqis, Queen of Sheba, which lies outside the town and is now almost deserted; of the former splendour, only a few vaults remain. Overnight stay in hotel.

4. Day | Marib – Shibam/Hadramaut – Sayun

A drive of six hours takes us through the "Ramlat al Sabatayn" desert, a branch of the great Arabian desert Rhub Al-Khali (the Empty Quarter). The desert landscape is full of variety, with interesting stone, sand, dune and mountain formations. Via Al-Qatn we reach the Hadramaut with its three main towns Shibam, Seyun and Tarim, and walk round Shibam, with its clay-built "skyscrapers" of up to ten storeys.

In order to save valuable arable land, the inhabitants of the Hadramaut built these multi-storey houses, the finest of which are in Shibam and in the side valley of Wadi Dawan. After Shabwah, Shibam was the capital town of the old Hadramaut kingdom. The finely crafted wooden doors and windows are impressive. On to Sayun, where we spend the night.

5. Day | Sayun – Tarim – Sayun

We spend the day in the two main towns of the Hadramaut, the largest valley in Yemen, stretching across the middle of the country from west to east and ending in the Wadi Massilah, which after a 400km detour flows south into the Arabian Sea. In ancient times, the Hadramaut was called the "holy land".

Today the wadi is a fertile river oasis, surrounded by miles of date-palm plantations and bounded by imposing table-mountains. Since ancient times it has been a busy trade centre, the main towns being Shibam, Sayun and Tarim. Sayun, in the centre of the Wadi Hadramaut, is the former residence of the Kathiri sultans. The palace on the main square now houses a museum of cultural history. Note the carved windows of the palace, which provide ventilation, cooling and protection from the sun, all at the same time.

The typical maharajah style of the palaces in Sayun und Tarim is evidence of the Hadramaut's former strong ties with the Indian sub-continent. Tarim has been a centre of Islamic scholarship since the 10th century, and is still considered conservative. In the middle of the town are the highest minarets (50 m) in Arabia and many palaces, including that of the Sultan Kaf, the rooms of which are impressive even without the museum collection. In the Ahgaf library there is a collection of rare and valuable manuscripts. Overnight stay in Sayun.

6. Day | Sayun – Wadi Dawan - Al-Hajarain – Al-Mukalla

A long trip lies before us today. Near the Al-Qatn junction we turn southwards into the Wadi Dawan, the best-known side valley of the Hadramaut. The beauty of this long north-south wadi is its almost pink sandstone cliffs, which come closer together in the upper reaches. The valley floor is densely covered with tropical vegetation, and intensive farming is carried on.

In order to save valuable arable land, the towns and villages consist of multi-storey buildings close to the rock. The two ancient clay-built towns of Khoreibah and Al-Hajjarein are the most impressive in the whole wadi. We cross the stone desert of the Djol plateau, with its almost geometrical formations, and reach Al-Mukalla, where we spend the night.

7. Day | Al-Mukalla – Vulkansee - Bir Ali

Al-Mukalla is the capital town of Hadramaut Province, and its harbour on the Arabian Sea. The old quarter is crammed into the small space between sea and cliff. In recent years, Mukalla has experienced an enormous building boom, and is extending along the coast and with splendid boulevards to the east and west.

We take the west road and drive through a strange and lonely coastal landscape, with black lava rock and white sand dunes. Directly by the sea is a crater to which we climb to marvel at the green freshwater lake against the blue sea. We drive through the fishing village of Bir Ali and camp for the night on the sandy beach in front of the sunken ruins of the ancient town of Qana, in a bay formed by the Husn-al Ghurab (raven's nest), site of a stone-age settlement

8. Day | Bir Ali – Aden

A travel day along the south coast, with a detour into the interior, past the ancient town of Habban with its cuboid clay buildings, and through strange sandstone formations and table mountains.

We arrive in Aden and end the day with a tour through the ancient quarters of Krater, Mualla and Al-Tawilah, and make a brief stop at Steamers Point, where the passengers from the big steamships used to check in during the British colonial period. Overnight stay in Aden.

9. Day | Aden – Taiz

Three-hour drive to Taiz, the third-largest town, at the foot of the 3,000m Jabel Saber mountain. The town has several mosques dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. We visit the Al-Ashrafiah mosque, which stands on ancient, recently discovered foundations and has a sophisticated ablution fountain for ritual washing. We look around the curious museum, which has an incredible collection taken from a wealthy colonial house of the 1930s. Excursion to half-way up the Jabel Saber, with a view over the town, and a visit to the souq in Taiz, where we spend the night.

10. Day | Taiz – Al-Janad – Jiblah – Ibb – Sana’a

Morning departure for the "green Yemen", a varied hilly landscape richly fertile during the travel months, past Taiz to the north, with three stops before Sana'a. Visit to the courtyard mosque at Al-Janad, whose minaret towers above the building and the landscape. Like the great mosque in Sana'a, it is one of the oldest; both were modelled on the Kaaba mosque in Mecca.

In Jiblah we walk through the almost completely preserved old town to the building complex (burial mosque, palace, courtyard) of Queen Arwa bint Ahmed, who reigned in the 11th century. We stroll through the narrow, winding lanes of the busy old town of Ibb, with its typical façades, and arrive in Sana'a in the evening. Overnight stay in a hotel in the old quarter.

11. Day | Sana’a – Thula – Kaukaban – Shibam – Sana’a

The day's excursion takes us into the mountains north-west of Sana'a. Good roads take us through several mediaeval villages nesting on the ridges and summits, and visit three Himyarite 7th/8th-century towns – Shibam/Kaukaban und Thula. Kaukaban lies on a rocky ridge high above Shibam, and offers a wide view over the fertile land.

A steep but walkable path leads down to Shibam, which has one of the oldest mosques and a town gate with fragments of Sabaean sculpture. Thula is a fortified town high in the mountains, built against a rock formation, and rocks jut out from the alleys in the old town. On our way through the steep alleyways to the artisans' souq in the main square, we pass well-preserved town gates, a recently restored water reservoir and impressive stone façades.

12. Day | Sana’a, departure

A last walk through the old quarter. In the oldest souq in Arabia, you can buy presents typical of the region – frankincense and myrrh, a wonderful selection of spices and beauty products, all kinds of raisins, old silver and coral jewellery, or a djambia (traditional curved knife of the north Yemenis).
Transfer to the airport.