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  • Writer's pictureBarry Hampshire

A Yemeni City Where Time Stood Still

If I had been alone, I may have believed Jesus would pass me on the street. This wasn’t a moment when my sanity was being doubted. It was a time of awe and wonder. My five companions also stared around themselves, taking in our surroundings.

I looked cautiously at two oxen heads that stared back at me. Their eyes displayed a level of acceptance, which seemed appropriate as the rest of their carcasses were being dismembered on a nearby stall. Blood trickled down the step on which the heads were placed. We stood in the midst of people as they passed through the city gates on the top of a 500’ cliff. The city’s name has been lost as our standing at its gates happened 45 years ago. Also, I never persuaded my tongue to pronounce this Yemeni city’s name correctly.

Local people viewed us as inquisitively as we eyed the oxen heads. People kept moving, to buy food for that day’s meals, to coax a stubborn donkey into pulling its owner’s cart for a few more streets, and children found more reasons to chase each other. In that ancient city, the people appeared to live as if time had not passed since the city’s ancient walls were built.

Our group had climbed the trail, as it zigzagged its way up the cliff. This entrance into the city was the one and only. The city straddled a saddle in a rocky ridge. On both sides of the city, the ridge rose dramatically. According to legends, the city suffered many sieges but never fell. The pathway up the cliff was always easily and well defended. Under the city, huge caverns were a source of fresh water and an excellent storage space for many years’ supply of locally grown food. Between the rear of the city and a sheer cliffs that dropped 500’ to a scorching expanse of desert lay a small area of open land where animals were raised. This city was well-stocked and invincible.

Looking back through the gate, I looked down on fields of crops stretching across miles of flat land on the other side of a main highway, which had been our route to the base of the trail. Our guide, Jock, parked his taxi on the berm alongside one of the irrigation channels that fed the patchwork of square fields, separated by narrow pathways.

Jock caught our attention. “Come on, you’ll cause a jam here at the city gates. There are several carts waiting to enter the city.”

Margaret stepped aside and muttered, “I would’ve thought those donkeys would appreciate a rest, having just hauled their carts up here.”

Jock smiled. “Unfortunately, the donkeys know there is always something else to do until they see the barn door close behind them every night.”

Richard asked, “How old is this place, Jock?”

“I heard a scholar once say that it is over 1,500 years old. But I have no way to prove it.” Jock scratched the stubble on his chin. “I know there are some ancient poems and songs that mention the place, so I believe it could be around that age.”

Graham looked back at the group, having surveyed the main trail for a couple of minutes. “Well, I’ll admit I cannot find a single item with an age that we could count in just decades or even centuries. Everything looks like it was made over a millennium ago.”

Margaret called, “Hold on. The woman over there on that stall. She’s selling cloth. She cuts lengths of cloth with shears. Rusty they might be, but they might be less than 100 years old.”

We all watched her for a few seconds. I commented, “You’re right but look, she doesn’t have a measuring tape, she uses a thin piece of branch. I wonder if that is a recognized length here in the market?”

Jock walked over to ask her. He returned smiling. “You’re correct, it’s a standard length that all merchants in the market use. It is the length the first Islamic inscription next to the main entrance to the mosque. Everyone ensures their sticks agree with that standard.”

We walked along the main trail and focused on finding any other examples of items that could be less than a century old. Nobody found any definite examples, several were possibilities, but they were only possibilities at best.

We explored the city, which had become no more than a village. I noticed larger residences lay around the outer edge of the village, right along the top of the cliff. Jock explained that it allowed them to have been built in the standard Yemeni manner. As they had no running water, they had no flushing toilets. Instead they used what were called “long-drop latrines.” The downspout of the toilet went into a channel that opened to the outside wall. Whatever flowed down the wall either dried up in seconds or became dehydrated excrement with no accompanying aroma by the time it stopped falling. The local population of dung beetles, that love excrement’s stench, would ignore the solid lump with contempt.

In the center of the village lay several larger houses that looked as if their architect had a change of mind halfway through construction. The first two floors comprised one large circular tower with just two doors and a couple of small windows. The upper floor was square with a flat roof. The mid-point of each of the four straight walls sat exactly on the top of the circular tower’s outer wall with the square corners of the third floor suspended out over thin air. The lower tower section was for animals and storage while the square top floor was where the family lived.

I asked Jock, “Are these style of houses common?”

“You’ll see them in most cities and villages throughout Yemen. They were once very popular. However, as you can imagine, they needed to be built extremely well as building materials were rough and the strength of timber was unreliable. Some of these houses did collapse and after a few people died, the style lost popularity.”

In the streets and open areas, children of every age played with rocks and sticks as they chased each other. None played with plastic toys or guns. Even when a dispute occurred, they didn’t fight. An older sibling or parent took them aside to talk with them. Soon, all was resolved and the afternoon continued peacefully, but filled with excited and delighted shrieks.

I found one sign of where the 19th century left its mark on this ancient city. All houses had walled courtyards in place of a front yard. A seven foot wall with an iron gate surrounded each courtyard. I suspected the gates were all ornately crafted by an iron smith within the last century or two. Every gate was painted, but time and the scorching conditions took a toll on them. Paint peeled, exposed sections of iron rusted, and some gates broke. It did not show neglect, but it demonstrated the harshness of the environment.

Apart from these gates, this village could have been the birthplace of any of Jesus’s disciples and very little was changed since they probably played with rocks and sticks.

After wandering through several blocks of individual homes with their courtyards, we reached the furthest point from the city gates. And there, we found a glaring example of our 20th century wavering in the wind. A single story home had become the city’s police station. On the roof, stood three 20 foot radio antenna. I almost screamed, seeing them. They were an affront to my impression this ancient city was still untouched by the passing of time. The city took me in and carried me back to a time I had never really thought about before. Even to this day, I can still sense the betrayal I felt in that moment. Three thin strips of metal, and they stick like thorns in my memories.

I found walking in such circumstances profoundly moving. Time became an irrelevance and change became a measure that lost its significance. To walk through the dust, the sand, and over the rocks left me wondering whose footprints could I be walking in. It may have been a rather whimsical thought, but I felt an undeniable connection to a time that most people believed to be lost.

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