This weekend brought about another trip outside of Sana'a. We headed down south to the town of Jiblah, and the city of Ta'izz, Yemen's second largest city. As we sat on the bus for the five to six hour bus ride, it occured to me that Yemen has two elevations; above the clouds and below the clouds. The drive down to Jiblah (our first stop) had us zooming in and out of valleys. The Jiblah-Ta'izz-Ibb route is pretty good farm country by Yemeni standards, and the mountains were surprisingly green. It looked more like pictures I've seen of Ireland and north Italy then the rest of Yemen. Many of the mountain terrace farms were growing corn, which was interesting, and also explained where all the roasted corn on the streets of Sana'a comes from.
We made our first stop in the small town of Jiblah, which is noteworthy because of the Queen Arwa Mosque. The mosque is home to the shrine of Queen Arwa, and has some very interesting architectural details drawn from many different areas. Oddly enough, we were told that Shias were not allowed to pray at the mosque. This came about because one my classmates is a Shia and another is an Ismaili, which is a similar sect traditionally lumped in with the Shias. Both of them prayed at the mosque, but we were told after that they made an exception on account of our guest status. The oddest part of all this was that Queen Arwa, whose remains lay in the mosque, was a Shia herself. The Middle East can be a funny place.
We reached Ta'izz later that day and began exploring the city. Ta'izz was the former home of the Rashulid dynasty between the 11th and 15th centuries. The city has the feel of an unkempt European principality. The streets are narrow and built at crazy angles running up and down the hills. With its location at the bottom of a ring of mountains, and the unusually green scenery, it could almost be Andorra, nestled in between Spain and France. For dinner, we ascended (via bus) to Jabel Sabr. This mountain ridge climbs 1500 meters above the valley floor, almost straight up. So, needless to say, the drive up was pretty intense. We ate at the Jabel Sabr hotel, which overlooks the valley, and was apparently built by Sheikh Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, who was apparently fond of Ta'izz. The hotel was sufficiently posh for a the former leader of the UAE. The view at night was awesome, not the least because we were at least 2000 feet above the city. Since it was a Thursday night (the weekend is Thurs-Fri, so equivalent to Saturday in the States), you could look down on the city and see all the fireworks going off to celebrate the traditional Thursday night wedding ceremonies. And the people shooting off AK's, of course. The next day we visited Qalhat al-Qahara, an old fortress being steadily restored. It was actually quite a bit beneath the Jabel Sabr Hotel, but back in the day of the Rashulids, its perch on the mountains dominated the city. The casualty rate for the this program continued to mount on this trip also. My roommate Pat managed to step into a drain and sprain his ankle fairly badly. The bars had been pried apart in order to allow trash to be better forced down into the drain. Hopefully, the swelling will continue to go down and Pat can hobble around on crutches from the Saudi-German hospital. With the exception of Pat's injury, it was a great trip. We continued our practice of going to various places in Yemen and climbing to the highest point available, which seems to be a hallmark of all our trips given Yemen's topography. But, we also got to go visit a city with a fairly long history, and see some more of the real Yemen that we cannot usually get on our single-day trips.