North Yemen

North Yemen in the late 70's

An ancient and mystical place

North Yemen is the name of the former country that existed in the Arabian Peninsula from 1918 to 1990 in the northern part of what is now Yemen. The photographs in this collection were taken in North Yemen in the late 70's. Ref: Map is reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia.

I frequently visited North Yemen during the late '70's. Sana'a is the capital city. It's situated in a valley at an altitude of approximately 2,200 m. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years. The ancient trading routes for frankincense and myrrh passed through Yemen and no doubt Sana'a. In the 7th and 8th centuries it was a major centre for the propagation of Islam. The city had dozens of ancient mosques, gardens and thousands of multi-story houses, all built before the 11th century. The buildings were still inhabited in the 70's.

The beauty and quality of the multi-story buildings in Sana'a never failed to amaze.

A description of Sana'a should make reference to: antiquity; the feeling of stepping back in time; the throngs of people, animals, cars, carts, pickup-trucks and motorbikes; the noise; the silence; the ubiquitous khat; the stunningly beautiful multi-story buildings; the calls to prayer ringing across the city; the crowds; the deserted streets; the peacefulness; the sophistication; the extraordinary colourful windows; the dust; the cleanliness; the fragrance of spices; the artistry and creativity; the mini tornados; and the friendly and welcoming people. It's difficult to know where to start.

It was a joy to visit. Sana'a was safe, and you could walk around the city at any time. I spend hours with merchants in the Souq al-Milh, discussing business, negotiating, bargaining or just talking and passing the time. The Yemenis were always curious, friendly, courteous and respectful.

Communication was difficult. News travelled slowly. There were no mobile phones or faxes. The internet didn’t exist. In a hotel you might have to book a line to make an international telephone call. Most business communication was by telex.

Life was tough for the average Yemeni. The country was recovering from conflict. There was instability. Unemployment was high and it would have been difficult for the average Yemeni to make a living. Khat, a mild narcotic, was ever present and would have had a significant impact on the economy.

Dar al-Hajar (The Rock Palace).

Yemen has suffered a catastrophic war since 2017. It is still going on to this day. Archaeological sites, ancient libraries, museums, mosques, tombs, monuments, the old city of Sana'a and many of the beautiful buildings depicted in a number of these photographs have been the subject to air strikes. In an Irish Times article published in November 2022, Michael Jansen, Middle East correspondent, wrote about the deliberate destruction of archaeological sites caused by war in Yemen. Buildings have been effected by floods and neglect. The cost of maintenance would have been astronomic. The city is running our of water. It is probable that many of the buildings depicted in these photographs no longer exist.

In 1986, the old city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Wikipedia entry for Yemen can be found here.

March 2021

Email: Dr Peter Bennett