Helping Ham's Hammams

Ann Hills explores the Yemen Arab Republic's unique historic capital.

North Yemen – the land of the Queen of Sheba, the centre of Arabia Felix – was closed to Europeans until a generation ago when the last Imam was defeated and a republic was born through a civil war from 1962 to 1969. In twenty years since then North Yemen has rushed into the modern world – which is obvious when flying into the dry heat of Sana'a, the capital.

There are Japanese vehicles and modern office blocks, but the real surprise lies in the old walled city of Sana'a – 250 acres with 7,000 houses built of mud, brick and stone, up to nine storeys high. There are four dozen mosques, mostly with their own vegetable gardens, minarets, a dozen steaming hot public baths – some up to 1,000 years old – and a swarming suq (market). According to legend, this social and architectural inheritance was founded by Ham, son of Noah. It was flourishing when Mohammed was born in AD 570, and became a key point on the incense trail. In the tenth century Ibn Rustah wrote that no city 'greater or more populous, nor with finer properties, nor any nobler of origin' was to be found in Yemen.

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