Yemen’s landscape and history are both colorful

Taiz, Yemen — My Yemeni driver took me on a six-hour, 256 km trek from Yemen’s capital of San’a to the southern city of Taiz, zigzagging up and down mountainsides, allowing me to see some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere in the world.

With my camera shutter clicking almost constantly, I tried to store as much imagery as possible in my human and electronic memory, capturing myriad pictures of Yemen’s natural wonders and beautiful people. Among my most memorable scenes was that of uniformed school children, boys and girls, walking up and down steep mountain paths on their daily two-hour return trip between home and school.

Despite the long journey, they were chatting and giggling. As they approached our parked car, they used their few words of English to greet me, but after discovering that I speak Arabic, they relaxed into friendly conversation. I had no trouble persuading the Yemeni boys to pose for pictures, but the girls were more camera-shy.

By mid-afternoon we reached Taiz — the country’s former national capital – located in the southwestern Yemen Highlands. Situated among mountains, valleys and plains ranging up to 3,000 metres above sea-level, it is endowed with a natural beauty unmatched among cities of its size (about one million).

It was Turan Shah, brother of the famous Saladin, who in 1173 AD made Taiz his capital. Later, the Ayyubid rulers were succeeded by the Rasoollis (1229-1454); and after them came the Tahirids (1454-1516), who moved the capital to San’a.

Yet Taiz was not forgotten: in modern times Imam Ahmed ruled Yemen from there, beginning in 1948 and continuing until September 26, 1962 when the Yemeni revolution toppled him from power.

The best place to see all of Taiz is from the Al-Qahirah Fortress. (Al-Qahirah is also the Arabic name of the Egyptian city of Cairo.) This ancient fortress was built between 1045 and 1138 AD on the northern end of a rocky hilltop called Jabal Sabir.

The 360-degree panoramic view of Taiz is a picture well worth the 45 minutes it takes to climb on foot to the top of Al-Qahirah Fortress. From here, you can see white domes and minarets of mosques dotting the landscape of Taiz between open spaces of park-like greenery and neatly arranged houses. Here, there are no high rises, no cement buildings.

One unique aspect of Yemeni mosques – and I sincerely wish the entire Muslim world would follow their example — is that mosques belonging to Sunni or Shi’a sects are used interchangeably by both groups.

Islam came to Yemen very early, during the lifetime of the Prophet. Today, a large minority of Yemenis (some 40%) is Zaydi — a movement which split away from the main Shi’a group during the 9th century AD; this happened after the death of Ali Zain al-‘Abidin, the fourth Shi’a Imam. The Zayidia are considered to be closer to Sunni Muslims in their practices of Theology and Law; Zaydi Imams also ruled Yemen until the 1962 revolution.

In 1536 AD, the Ottomans came to Yemen. But Zaydi Imam Qasim the Great (1597 to 1620) fought them. Under his son, Muhammad, the Zaydis finally expelled the Ottomans from Yemen in 1635, almost a century after their arrival.

During the 17th century, Yemen’s capital was moved from the northern city of Sa’da (near the Saudi border) to the more centrally located San’a.

Imam Yahya (1904-48) continued the country’s long defensive war against the Ottomans and under his rule Yemen acquired its independence in 1918. He also succeeded in pacifying the Yemenis by punishing dissident tribes, and forbidding political marriages and hostage-taking.

Over time, growing opposition to Imam Yahya’s rule led to the formation of the Free Yemenis, a nationalist movement in exile. In 1948 the Free Yemenis assassinated Yahya, but their uprising was defeated by his son Ahmad (1948-62), who also crushed another uprising in 1955.

On the death of Imam Ahmad in 1962, a group of military officers seized power in San’a and proclaimed the new Yemen Arab Republic. But royalists rallied around the late Ahmad’s son, Imam al-Badr, and civil war broke out between the Republicans, backed by Egypt, and the Royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia.

In 1979 the current president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, became head of state and in 1990 he succeeded in uniting the people of North Yemen with those of South Yemen (formerly a British colony, which had became independent in 1967) into today’s Republic of Yemen. Saleh brought in political and economic reforms and is loved by Yemenis for championing the unification of their country and bringing peace and stability to the region.