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Middle East

Yemen's splendid isolation

A little-known Arabic country labelled the 'new crucible of terror' is, behind the headlines, a place of contemporary beauty and rich history, argues Nick Redmayne

For a country proud of its Roman epithet, Arabia Felix (Fortunate Arabia), of late Yemen has found its historic reputation difficult to live up to. A steadfastly McDonald's-free zone at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman, headlines describe Yemen as "a crucible of global terror" and "the world's next failed state in waiting". A grumbling al-Houthi insurgency in the north combines with ferment by dissatisfied secessionists in the south and a catalogue of al-Qa'ida outrages elsewhere. However, Yemen's complex history and contemporary reality defies sound bites and is the country is the definitive example of seeing once being worth more than a thousand words of news reporting.

These days visitors to Sana'a wake early. Competing mwazin play to their audience in the style of stadium rockers turned up to 11 – "Come to pray, come to pray. Prayer is better than sleep," – a highly subjective viewpoint at 4.30am. Certainly the cityscape seen in morning light from atop an Old Sana'a tower house is worth a prompt start. Originally designed to comprise 48 quarters, 48 mosques and 48 gardens, Sana'a to this day maintains its unmistakable multistorey skyline of uniquely decorated brick towers, its architectural wealth recognised by Unesco in 1986. Delving deeper into the intestinal convolutions of Sana'a's Souk al-Milh is as much a journey in time as in distance. Blacksmiths beat out hot metal, sending out showers of sparks. A little further, purveyors of the world's most extensive range of kettles and cooking pots sit cross-legged, justifiably proud, amongst their wares. Vendors weave past balancing colourful pyramids of mangoes. Venturing further, an innocuous side alley opens into a busy courtyard emporium trading myriad raisin varieties. Elsewhere, dates, tea, herbs and spices too; all have their designated pitches, unchanged possibly for centuries, alongside sellers of Yemen's equally timeless fragrances of myrrh and frankincense. Hire a donkey, hire a boy with a barrow, drink Yemeni coffee in a still-functioning caravanserai – the global high street ain't coming to Old Sana'a any time soon.

A brief history of Yemen sees Ottoman forces take control of the country's north from the mid-19th century, returning after an earlier 16th century sojourn. However, this occupation was hardly manifest by peaceful subjugation of the Yemeni tribes and conflict was continuous right through to 1911, when a division of authority was agreed between the Ottomans and supporters of the indigenous Zaydi imamate. Even when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 the power vacuum resulted in more conflict, this time during a scrabble for land with neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

The 1,000-year imamate finally ended following the assassination of Imam Yayah in 1962, an event that precipitated eight years of civil war between royalist and republican forces resulting in the establishment of the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1970. During this time Britain controlled Aden and through a skilful Pax Britannica exerted powerful influence over much of the south and east. However, the ferment of revolt was growing in the south too. From 1963 the Aden Emergency evolved into fierce fighting with Marxist guerrillas leading to Britain's withdrawal towards the end of 1967. The Soviet-backed People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the Arab world's first and only Marxist state, was formed.

Preliminary efforts towards unification started as early as 1972 but the collapse of another empire, this time that of the Soviets, predicated further conflict. Several false starts and backward steps saw the emergence of a unified Yemen in 1990 with one-time northern leader Ali Abdallah Saleh as President. Despite open north-south hostility and a renewed attempt at secession by the south in 1994, President Saleh remains in power.

After such a tumultuous recent history perhaps it's not surprising that Yemenis need to take time out. In Sana'a early afternoon reveals this other side of Yemen – "Qat time". This countrywide phenomenon sees the rustling of plastic bags of privet-like leaves and a sweeping epidemic of hamster cheek amongst Yemeni men. From pious beginnings – qat's stimulant effect allowing earnest Sufis to forgo sleep and worship longer – the fondness for mastication has spread to become a national obsession. The World Health Organisation estimates that the average Yemeni qat addict spends almost 1,500 hours a year just chewing, and in some households 50 per cent of income is spent on the habit. Despite lyrical claims for qat's efficacy in releasing the spirit and focusing the mind, the reality appears a glassy-eyed torpor.

Venturing by road beyond the capital's ring of security checkpoints, neatly maintained terraces mark out wheat and maize cultivation, precipitous villages clinging to the cliff tops. Poplar-like qat plantations are guarded by stone towers and mostly unseen automatic weapons. In the fortified village of Thula, evidence of Yemen's Jewish artisan population can be seen: on building facades the Star of David is picked out in stone relief. Almost 45,000 Jews left Yemen via Operation Magic Carpet, airlifted to the Israeli state over 12 months from 1949. A hard-pressed vestigial Jewish population still exists in Yemen though their future is uncertain.

Heading east to the province of Hadhramawt, foreigners are unable to visit the insecure region around Marib, so the ancient engineering masterpiece of the Marib Dam and temples of the Queen of Sheba's kingdom go unexplored. However, from Seyoun, with a police escort in tow, the desert city of Shibam is more than adequate recompense. Characterised as a "Manahattan of the Desert" by Freya Stark, Shibam's mud-brick tower houses stand up to nine storeys, the old city remaining unchanged for over 500 years. Mud brick is everything in Hadhramawt, and the vernacular style is to build upwards. The nearby Wadi Doan village of Al Ribaat in particular became known for skilled builders, and one family, the Bin Ladens, helped their son to travel and make his fortune. Osama's father didn't forget his roots and funded the village's road and water supply. Ironic that one Bin Laden hails from a place of desert skyscrapers and another made his name in plotting the destruction of their glass and steel cousins. Despite being characterised as his ancestral home, Osama has never visited Al Ribaat.

Most remote and most surprising of Yemen's attributes lies – 350km from the coast at the Arabian Peninsula, at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden and closer to Africa than Arabia – the Socotra Archipelago. Over six million years of splendid isolation, protected by sea currents and monsoon winds, has proved a catalyst for natural selection and species innovation. Socotra is "the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean"; 35 per cent of flora is unique along with 90 per cent of reptiles and many birds – there are no native mammals. Unesco acknowledged Socotra's importance in 2008, designating the islands Yemen's fourth World Heritage site – more than any other Arabian country.

In terms of GDP Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world but in its landscape, architecture and cultural heritage lies a reserve of untapped wealth beyond that of its petrochemically dependent neighbours. Yemen's internal security is far from perfect but the country's reality lies some distance from the headlines.