The historic old town of Sana has long been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not least because of the fairy-tale facade decorations of the houses
From a prosperous to a miserable Arabia
A little over a decade ago, the country on the southernmost edge of the Arabian Peninsula was one of the most interesting travel destinations for European educational tourists. Its name was associated with the stories of the legendary Queen of Sheba, with tales from the time of the incense caravans and the once flourishing coffee trade, with images of picturesque, swashbuckling male figures with scimitars in front of their stomachs and stuffed cat cheeks, with dreamy images of ornately decorated houses in ancient cityscapes and incomparable oriental flair. Reports of occasional kidnappings, which for the most part had a positive outcome, added an element of adventure for some people. People raved about a “Prosperous Arabia”, even if this image had long ago ceased to exist.
In the last eight years, the name Yemen has become an embodiment of misery, helplessness, and death at an unimaginable rate. The most innocent and defenseless victims of this tragedy are children. There are many reasons for this dramatic change, which can barely be described and have countless causes.
The city of Shibam in Wadi Hadramaut is one of the most impressive examples of architecture in Yemen with its 8-9 story residential towers, built wall to wall exclusively from mud bricks.
To the ancient Romans, the country was known as ARABIA FELIX and prosperous Arabia. Even the local Arabs themselves seem to have once believed in the good fortune of their country, as the three letters JMN that form the root of the name Yemen stand for the idea of “happiness”, “righteousness” and the like.
This reputation most likely came from the geographically determined seasonal precipitation, which – unlike Arabian desert regions – made rural and urban life possible. This also allowed for prosperity that could be increased considerably due to the favorable location on the ancient caravan network of the Incense Route.
Prosperity and wealth were not only a source of happiness but also of envy and lust for power. Therefore, the history of the country was characterized by the frequent wars between the rising, powerful, and collapsing empires and dynasties, as well as by the conflicts between greedy conquerors and foreign rulers.
Yemen’s highly diverse social structure, in which a strongly developed tribal system faced a ruling class made up of religious nobility and urban bourgeois elite, led to a limited development of national identify and patriotism. Even less so, since parts of the country developed in very different ways economically as a result of the European colonial policy.
The fact that, despite everything, world-famous evidence of a fairytale building culture has been preserved in these often castle-like, picturesque mountain villages and even more so in the ancient cities, belies the fact that the country’s problems go back a long way and today has reached catastrophic proportions in almost every respect.
Anyone who knows Yemen not only from the superficial tourist perspective, but has also been able to gain deeper insights into the cultural, economic, social, and in particular, political structures, has a sense of the overwhelming problems that the country is faced with: dramatic overpopulation, a disastrous lack of water, corruption, economic hardship, but above all the long-simmering disintegration of domestic political cohesion, which is presently reaching its peak in the current civil war.
Thus, the name “Yemen” has long since ceased to mean “Prosperous Arabia,” but rather the exact opposite. In view of the merciless siege and fierce defense of entire cities by hostile ethnic groups, the indescribable destruction caused by air raids – one thinks of places like Sa’dah in the north, Ta’izz, Al-Hudaydah or Aden, and even the bombing of the world cultural heritage site Sana’a – the only comparison that comes to mind is the fate of the biblical Job. After all, Job had friends who pitied him and gave him wise advice. The oppressed Yemenis of our time have at best only social media to tell the outside world of their suffering and of the fact that they no longer understand why their country is sinking into war and misery.
The historic old town of Sana’a has long been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not least because of its ornately decorated houses.
Traugott Wöhrlin, the author of this text and the corresponding illustrations, has known Yemen for over 25 years. In multiple trips and extended stays, he has not only been able to experience the country from a tourist’s perspective but also had the opportunity to experience the people in their daily lives alongside the culture and history of the country.
With his book “Hölzerne Haustüren im Jemen” (Wooden front doors in Yemen), he documented Arts and Crafts traditions that up until that point had gone unnoticed, in hopes of saving them from being completely lost and forgotten. He still keeps in contact with friends that he made during his time in Yemen, where this is possible and he is now a member of the Deutsch-Jemenitischen Gesellschaft as well as our organization.
Mr. Wöhrlein is a member of the association