Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dam That Was Great

As the road from Wadi Hadramawt runs westwards and the mountains fall away and the landscape gets progressively more arid until all you can see is desert in all directions with occasional dust-devils appearing and disappearing in the distance. It had taken a bit of running around in Sayun (the major town close to Shibam) to get on the bus. Not because the bus company was hard to find - it was right next door to my hotel - but because of the tasireh (travel permit) that I needed to get from the police. Upon arriving at Ma'rib, my destination, I was bundled into a police car and carted off to a hotel which was out of my budget and I refused to stay there. This had the police completely stumped as, theoretically, I wasn't even supposed to have been allowed to travel by bus there. Foreigners are only allowed to visit Ma'rib by tour. This is apparently for their own protection as this area of Yemen is notorious for foreigner kidnappings. Not that anything bad usually happens, generally it is seen as a quick way by locals of getting money and expressing grievances with the government and the victims are usually released unharmed, and often well treated, once the ransom is paid. (Regarding ransoms I heard a funny story, possibly apocryphal, about how a couple of years ago a Chinese deputy ambassador was kidnapped. Neither the Yemeni nor Chinese government seemed to care and after 40 days of being pampered by his hosts the man was released. However he had enjoyed himself so much with his captors that the man returned to them and they had to forcibly remove him, twice, before leaving an advert in the papers saying that they would never kidnap Chinese people again.) Eventually the tourist liaison department was called and I crashed at their office for free.

So why come to Ma'rib if it is such a dodgy place where you're not even allowed to walk the streets after dark? Well the area around Ma'rib used to be the capital of the Sabaean empire some 3000 years ago and home to the legendary Queen of Sheba. The Sabaean empire grew wealthy on the spice trade and the commerce in frankincense and myrrh. Now we've all learnt about frankincense, but what about myrrh? Brian's mum thought it was "a dangerous animal" and although that's blatantly not true, very few of us know what it really is. In fact it is very much like myrrh: a resin from a tree used to make ointments and also burned as incense. But anyway, not much is left from the Sabaeans except for a few ruined temples and palaces, innumerable shops called Saba something or other or Bilqis that (Bilqis was apparently the name of the Queen of Sheba) and the remains of one of the ancient world's greatest engineering feats: the Great Dam of Ma'rib. At its peak the dam was over half a kilometre wide and 7m high and allowed for the irrigation of a vast area. Unfortunately in the 6th century the dam was destroyed by a flood and poor upkeep. It is still possible though to see the sluice gate and the edges of the formidable dam on either side of the wide valley. It's just a pity that modernday Ma'rib doesn't live up to its pedigree.

1 comment:

Ex-Shammickite said...

That's an interesting comment about foreigner kidnappings. Have you experienced any threatening moments? Perhaps you don't look like you're worth kidnapping, I assume you're just another scruffy traveller with a backpack? (No offence intended!)