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Chapter 3

Niebuhr’s Travels in Yemen


In 1760 the Danish government decided to send an expedition to Arabia and India, for the purpose of geographical exploration.  The command was given to Carsten Niebuhr, a native of Hanover, and a civil engineer.  Four other gentlemen, an artist, a botanist, a physician, and an astronomer, were associated with him in the undertaking; yet, by a singular fatality, all died during the journey, and Niebuhr returned alone, after an absence of nearly seven years, to publish the first narrative of travel based on scientific observation.

The party sailed from Copenhagen for Smyrna in January, 1761, visited Constantinople, and then proceeded to Egypt, where they remained nearly a year.  After a journey to Sinai, they finally succeeded in engaging passage on board a vessel carrying pilgrims from Suez to Jedda, and sailed from the former port in October, 1762.  They took the precaution of adopting the Oriental dress, and conformed, as far as possible, to the customs of the Mussulman passengers; thus the voyage, although very tedious and uncomfortable, was not accompanied with any other danger than that from the coral reefs along the Arabian shore.  The vessel touched at Yambo, the port of Medina, and finally reached Jedda, after a voyage of nineteen days.

The travellers entered Jedda under strong apprehensions of ill-treatment from the inhabitants, but were favorably disappointed.  The people, it seemed, were already accustomed to the sight of Christian merchants in their town, and took no particular notice of the strangers, who went freely to the coffee-houses and markets, and felt themselves safe so long as they did not attempt to pass through the gate leading to Mecca.  The Turkish Pasha of the city received them kindly, and they were allowed to hire a house for their temporary residence.

After waiting six weeks for the chance of a passage to Mocha, they learned that an Arabian vessel was about to sail for Hodeida, one of the ports of Yemen.  The craft, when they visited it, proved to be more like a hogshead than a ship; it was only seven fathoms long, by three in breadth.  It had no deck; its planks were extremely thin, and seemed to be only nailed together, but not pitched.  The captain wore nothing but a linen cloth upon his loins, and his sailors, nine in number, were black slaves from Africa or Malabar.  Nevertheless, they engaged passage, taking the entire vessel for themselves alone; but when they came to embark, it was filled with the merchandise of others.  The voyage proved to be safe and pleasant, and in sixteen days they landed at Loheia, in Yemen.

The governor of this place was a negro, who had formerly been a slave.  He received the travellers with the greatest kindness, persuaded them to leave the vessel, and gave them a residence, promising camels for the further journey by land.  Although they were somewhat annoyed by the great curiosity of the inhabitants, their residence was so agreeable, and offered the naturalists so many facilities for making collections, that they remained nearly four months.  “We had one opportunity,” says Niebuhr, “of learning their ideas of the benefits to be derived from medicine.  Mr. Cramer had given a scribe an emetic which operated with extreme violence.  The Arabs, being struck at its wonderful effects, resolved all to take the same excellent remedy, and the reputation of our friend’s skill thus became very high among them.  The Emir of the port sent one day for him; and, as he did not go immediately, the Emir soon after sent a saddled horse to our gate.  Mr. Cramer, supposing that this horse was intended to bear him to the Emir, was going to mount him, when he was told that this was the patient he was to cure.  We luckily found another physician in our party; our Swedish servant had been with the hussars in his native country, and had acquired some knowledge of the diseases of horses.  He offered to cure the Emir’s horse, and succeeded.  The cure rendered him famous, and he was afterward sent for to human patients.”

Having satisfied themselves by this time that there was no danger in travelling in Yemen, they did not wait for the departure of any large caravan, but, on February 20, 1763, set out from Loheia, mounted on asses, and made their way across the Tehama, or low country, toward the large town of Beit el-Fakih, which stands near the base of the coffee-bearing hills.  They wore dresses somewhat similar to those of the natives, a long shirt, reaching nearly to the feet, a girdle, and a mantle over the shoulders.  The country was barren, but there were many villages, and at intervals of every few miles they found coffee-houses, or, rather, huts, for the refreshment of travellers.  After having suffered no further inconvenience than from the brackish water, which is drawn from wells more than a hundred feet deep, they reached Beit el-Fakih in five days.

Here they were kindly received by one of the native merchants, who hired a stone house for them.  The town is seated upon a well-cultivated plain; it is comparatively modern, but populous, and the travellers, now entirely accustomed to the Arabian mode of life, felt themselves safe.  The Emir took no particular notice of them, a neglect with which they were fully satisfied, since it left them free to range the country in all directions.  Niebuhr, therefore, determined to make the place the temporary headquarters of the expedition, and to give some time to excursions in that part of Yemen.  “I hired an ass,” says he, “and its owner agreed to follow me as my servant on foot.  A turban, a great coat wanting the sleeves, a shirt, linen drawers, and a pair of slippers, were all the dress that I wore.  It being the fashion of the country to carry arms in travelling, I had a sabre and two pistols hung by my girdle.  A piece of old carpet was my saddle, and served me likewise for a seat, a table, and various other purposes.  To cover me at night, I had the linen cloak which the Arabs wrap about their shoulders, to shelter them from the sun and rain.  A bucket of water, an article of indispensable necessity to a traveller in these arid regions, hung by my saddle.”

After a trip to the seaport of Hodeida, Niebuhr visited the old town of Zebid, built on the ruins of an older city, which is said to have once been the capital of all the low country.  Zebid is situated in a large and fertile valley, traversed during the rainy season by a considerable stream, by which a large tract of country is irrigated.  There are the remains of an aqueduct built by the Turks, but the modern town does not cover half the space of the ancient capital.  Zebid, however, is still distinguished for its academy, in which the youth of all that part of Yemen study such sciences as are now cultivated by the Mussulmans.

Niebuhr’s next trip was to the plantations of the famous Mocha coffee, whither the other members of the party had already gone, during his visit to Zebid.  After riding about twenty miles eastward from Beit el-Fakih, he reached the foot of the mountains.  He thus describes the region: “Neither asses nor mules can be used here.  The hills are to be climbed by steep and narrow paths; yet, in comparison with the parched plains of the Tehama, the scenery seemed to me charming, as it was covered with gardens and plantations of coffee-trees.

Up to this time I had seen only one small basaltic hill; but here whole mountains were composed chiefly of those columns.  Such detached rocks formed grand objects in the landscape, especially where cascades of water were seen to rush from their summits.  The cascades, in such instances, had the appearance of being supported by rows of artificial pillars.  These basalts are of great utility to the inhabitants; the columns, which are easily separated, serve as steps where the ascent is most difficult, and as materials for walls to support the plantations of coffee-trees upon the steep declivities of the mountains.



Coffee hills of Yemen


“The tree which affords the coffee is well known in Europe; so that I need not here describe it particularly.  The coffee-trees were all in flower at Bulgosa, and exhaled an exquisitely agreeable perfume.  They are planted upon terraces, in the form of an amphitheatre.  Most of them are only watered by the rains that fall, but some, indeed, from large reservoirs upon the heights, in which spring-water is collected, in order to be sprinkled upon the terraces, where the trees grow so thick together that the rays of the sun can hardly enter among their branches.  We were told that those trees, thus artificially watered, yielded ripe fruit twice in the year; but the fruit becomes not fully ripe the second time, and the coffee of this crop is always inferior to that of the first.

“Stones being more common in this part of the country than in the Tehama, the houses—as well of the villages as those which are scattered solitarily over the hills—are built of this material.  Although not to be compared to the houses of Europe for commodiousness and elegance, yet they have a good appearance; especially such of them as stand upon the heights, with amphitheatres of beautiful gardens and trees around them.

“Even at this village of Bulgosa we were greatly above the level of the plain from which we had ascended; yet we had scarcely climbed half the ascent to Kusma, where the Emir of this district dwells, upon the loftiest peak of the range of mountains.  Enchanting landscapes there meet the eye on all sides.

“We passed the night at Bulgosa.  Several of the men of the village came to see us, and after they retired we had a visit from our hostess, with some young women accompanying her, who were all very desirous to see the Europeans.  They seemed less shy than the women in the cities; their faces were unveiled, and they talked freely with us.  As the air is fresher and cooler upon these hills, the women have a finer and fairer complexion than in the plain.  Our artist drew a portrait of a young girl who was going to draw water, and was dressed in a shirt of linen, checkered blue and white.  The top and middle of the shirt, as well as the lower part of the drawers, were embroidered with needlework of different colors.”

Having met with no molestation so far, Niebuhr determined to make a longer excursion into the southern interior of Yemen, among the mountains, to the important towns of Udden and Taas.  The preparations were easily made.  The travellers hired asses, the owners accompanying them on foot as guides and servants.  As a further disguise they assumed Arabic names, and their real character was so well concealed that even the guides supposed them to be Oriental Christians—not Europeans.  Entering the mountains by an unfrequented road, they found a barren region at first, but soon reached valleys where coffee was cultivated.  The inhabitants, on account of the cooler nights, sleep in linen bags, which they draw over the head, and thus keep themselves warm by their own breathing.

After reaching Udden, which Niebuhr found to be a town of only three hundred houses, the hill-country became more thickly settled.  Beside the roads, which had formerly been paved with stones, there were frequent tanks of water for the use of travellers, and, in exposed places, houses for their shelter in case of storms.  The next important place was Djobla, a place of some importance in the annals of Yemen, but with no antiquities, except some ruined mosques.  A further march of two days brought the party to the fortified city of Taas, but they did not venture within its walls, not having applied to the Emir for permission.  They returned to their quarters at Beit el-Fakih, by way of Haas, another large town at the base of the mountains, having made themselves acquainted with a large portion of the hill-country of Arabia Felix.

The journey to Mocha lasted three days, over a hot, barren plain, with no inhabitants except in the wadys or valleys, which are well watered during the rainy season.  Their arrival at Mocha was followed by a series of annoyances, first from the custom-house officials, and then from the Emir, who conceived a sudden prejudice against the travellers, so that they were in danger of being driven out of the city.  An English merchant, however, came to their assistance, a present of fifty ducats mollified the Emir, and at the end of a very disagreeable week they received permission to stay in the city.  From heat and privation they had all become ill, and in a short time one of the party died.

Niebuhr now requested permission to proceed to Sana, the capital of Yemen.  This the Emir refused, until he could send word to the Imâm; but, after a delay of a month, he allowed the party to go as far as Taas, which they reached in four days, and where they were well received.  The refreshing rains every evening purified the air, and all gradually recovered their health, except the botanist, who died before reaching Sana.

Taas stands at the foot of the fertile mountain of Sabber, upon which, the Arabs say, grow all varieties of plants and trees to be found in the world.  Nevertheless they did not allow the travellers to ascend or even approach it.  The city is surrounded with a wall, between sixteen and thirty feet high, and flanked with towers.  The patron saint of the place is a former king, Ismael Melek, who is buried in a mosque bearing his name.  No person is allowed to visit the tomb since the occurrence of a miracle, which Niebuhr thus relates: “Two beggars had asked charity of the Emir of Taas, but only one of them had tasted of his bounty.  Upon this the other went to the tomb of Ismael Melek to implore his aid.  The saint, who, when alive, had been very charitable, stretched his hand out of the tomb and gave the beggar a letter containing an order on the Emir to pay him a hundred crowns.  Upon examining this order with the greatest care it was found that Ismael Melek had written it with his own hand and sealed it with his own seal.  The governor could not refuse payment; but to avoid all subsequent trouble from such bills of exchange, he had a wall built, inclosing the tomb.”

The Emir of Taas so changed in his behavior toward the travellers, after a few days, that he ordered them to return to Mocha.  Finding all their arguments and protests in vain, they were about to comply, when a messenger arrived from Mocha, bringing the permission of the Imâm of Yemen for them to continue their journey to Sana.  They set out on June 28th, and, after crossing the mountain ranges of Mharras and Samara, by well-paved and graded roads, reached, in a week, the town of Jerim, near the ruins of the ancient Himyaritic city of Taphar, which, however, they were unable to visit on account of the illness of Mr. Forskal, the botanist of the expedition.  This gentleman died in a few days; and they were obliged to bury him by night, with the greatest precaution.

From Jerim it is a day’s journey to Damar, the capital of a province.  The city, which is seated in the midst of a fertile plain, and is without walls, contains five thousand well-built houses.  It has a famous university, which is usually attended by five hundred students.  The travellers were here very much annoyed by the curiosity of the people, who threw stones at their windows in order to force them to show themselves.  There is a mine of native sulphur near the place, and a mountain where cornelians are found, which are highly esteemed throughout the East.

Beyond Damar the country is hilly, but every village is surrounded with gardens, orchards, and vineyards, which are irrigated from large artificial reservoirs built at the foot of the hills.  On reaching Sana the travellers were not allowed to enter the city, but conducted to an unfurnished house without the walls, where they were ordered to wait two days in entire seclusion, until they could be received by the Imâm.  During this time they were not allowed to be visited by anyone.  Niebuhr thus describes their interview, which took place on the third day:

“The hall of audience was a spacious square chamber, having an arched roof.  In the middle was a large basin, with some jets d’eau, rising fourteen feet in height.  Behind the basin, and near the throne, were two large benches, each a foot and a half high; upon the throne was a space covered with silken stuff, on which, as well as on both sides of it, lay large cushions.  The Imâm sat between the cushions, with his legs crossed in the Eastern fashion; his gown was of a bright green color, and had large sleeves.  Upon each side of his breast was a rich filleting of gold lace, and on his head he wore a great white turban.  His sons sat on his right hand, and his brothers on the left.  Opposite to them, on the highest of the two benches, sat the Vizier, and our place was on the lower bench.

“We were first led up to the Imâm, and were permitted to kiss both the back and the palm of his hand, as well as the hem of his robe.  It is an extraordinary favor when the Mohammedan princes permit any person to kiss the palm of the hand.  There was a solemn silence through the whole hall.  As each of us touched the Imâm’s hand a herald still proclaimed, ‘God preserve the Imâm!’ and all who were present repeated these words after him.  I was thinking at the time how I should pay my compliments in Arabic, and was not a little disturbed by this noisy ceremony.

“We did not think it proper to mention the true reason of our expedition through Arabia; but told the Imâm that, wishing to travel by the shortest ways to the Danish colonies, in the East Indies, we had heard so much of the plenty and security which prevailed through his dominions, that we had resolved to see them with our own eyes, so that we might describe them to our countrymen.  The Imâm told us we were welcome to his dominions, and might stay as long as we pleased.  After our return home he sent to each of us a small purse containing ninety-nine komassis, two and thirty of which make a crown.  This piece of civility might, perhaps, appear no compliment to a traveller’s delicacy.  But, when it is considered that a stranger, unacquainted with the value of the money of the country, obliged to pay every day for his provisions, is in danger of being imposed upon by the money-changers, this care of providing us with small money will appear to have been sufficiently obliging.”

“The city of Sana,” says Niebuhr, “is situated at the foot of Mount Nikkum, on which are still to be seen the ruins of a castle, which the Arabs suppose to have been built by Shem.  Near this mountain stands the citadel; a rivulet rises upon the other side, and near it is the Bostan el-Metwokkel, a spacious garden, which was laid out by the Imâm of that name, and has been greatly embellished by the reigning Imâm.  The walls of the city, which are built of bricks, exclude this garden, which is inclosed within a wall of its own.  The city, properly so called, is not very extensive; one may walk around it in an hour.  There are a number of mosques, some of which have been built by Turkish Pashas.  In Sana are only twelve public baths, but many noble palaces, three of the most splendid of which have been built by the reigning Imâm.  The materials of these palaces are burnt bricks, and sometimes even hewn stones; but the houses of the common people are of bricks which have been dried in the sun.

“The suburb of Bir el-Arsab is nearly adjoining the city on the east side.  The houses of this village are scattered through the gardens, along the banks of a small river.  Fruits are very plenteous; there are more than twenty kinds of grapes, which, as they do not all ripen at the same time, continue to afford a delicious refreshment for several months.  The Arabs likewise preserve grapes by hanging them up in their cellars, and eat them almost through the whole year.  Two leagues northward from Sana is a plain named Rodda, which is overspread with gardens and watered by a number of rivulets.  This place bears a great resemblance to the neighborhood of Damascus.  But Sana, which some ancient authors compare to Damascus, stands on a rising ground, with nothing like florid vegetation about it.  After long rains, indeed, a small rivulet runs through the city; but all the ground is dry through the rest of the year.  However, by aqueducts from Mount Nikkum the town and castle of Sana are, at all times, supplied with abundance of excellent fresh water.”

After a stay of a week the travellers obtained an audience of leave, fearing that a longer delay might subject them to suspicions and embarrassments.  Two days afterward the Imâm sent each of them a complete suit of clothes, with a letter to the Emir of Mocha, ordering him to pay them two hundred crowns as a farewell present.  He also furnished them with camels for the journey.  Instead of returning by the same road they determined to descend from the hill-country to their old headquarters at Beit el-Fakih, and thence cross the lowland to Mocha.

For two days they travelled over high, rocky mountains, by the worst roads they found in Yemen.  The country was poor and thinly inhabited, and the declivities only began to be clothed with trees and terraced into coffee plantations as they approached the plains.  The poorer regions are not considered entirely safe by the Arabs, as the people frequently plunder defenceless travellers; but the party passed safely through this region, and reached Beit el-Fakih after a week’s journey from Sana.

Niebuhr and his companions reached Mocha early in August, and toward the end of that month sailed in an English vessel for Bombay, after a stay of ten months in Yemen.  The artist of the expedition and the Swedish servant died on the Indian Ocean, and the physician in India, a few months afterward, leaving Niebuhr the sole survivor of the six persons who left Copenhagen three years before.  After having sent home the journals and collections of the expedition he continued his travels through the Persian Gulf, Bagdad, Armenia, and Asia Minor, finally reaching Denmark in 1767.  The era of intelligent, scientific exploration, which is now rapidly opening all parts of the world to our knowledge, may be said to have been inaugurated by his travels.

Bayard Taylor

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