Yemen & Eritrea - Jan 2007
Yemen and Eritrea
Claiming to be the oldest inhabited city in the world, Sana’a is
thought to have been founded by Shem, the son of Noah. The
old city, with its extraordinary ornate mud brick houses, often
four or five stories tall, is definitely the highlight of any visit to
Yemen. Some of the buildings are believed to be more than
400 years old. Coloured glass windows and intricate
gingerbread facades embellished or covered with brilliant white
gypsum provide a whimsical wedding cake appearance to the
With its unique architecture it appears as if much of Yemen's
capital is frozen in time, especially in the old city, now protected
as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main Tahrir Square is
a focal point of the old city, with a bus terminus and several
government buildings, but it is the Bab al-Yaman, to the east,
which was traditionally the most important part of town under
the Turks. The bustling Souk al-Milh, largest market in the
country, borders the gate. There are many smaller souks, as
well as beautifully ornate houses, mosques and hammams
(bathhouses) in the narrow alleys of the old city.
You can buy most things in the souks - the spice market is
undoubtedly the most fragrant. There is a souk which sells
nothing but jambiyas, the traditional curved Yemeni dagger
worn by all men. Another souk that offers a great insight into
Yemeni culture is the Qat souk. More modern than the others,
this is where you obtain the vital ingredients for the serious
business of qat chewing - the small bush with a mildly narcotic
effect which every Yemeni chews.
Population 500,000, elevation 2347m.
With a perfect climate, remarkable architecture and spotless,
safe streets, Asmara ranks among the most pleasant capitals
on the African continent. Perched on the eastern edge of the
highland plateau, some 2356m above sea level, Asmara boasts
a climate classed as ‘tropical highland’ – in other words, balmy
and temperate, with cloudless blue skies for about eight months
of the year.
Asmara has generally been spared the litter strewn, sprawling
ghettos of many developing-world cities and the bleak, Western-
style high-rise office and apartment buildings of post-colonial
The town has long evoked clichéd comparisons to ‘southern
Italian towns’. In many ways, Asmara is very Italian, not just in
the tangible remnants of colonial days, but also in the way of
life – the morning cup of coffee, the evening stroll around town
and the relaxed, unhurried pace of life.
MASSAWA [Red Sea coast]
Though only about 100km to the east of Asmara, Massawa
could not be more different from the capital. The history,
climate, architecture and atmosphere of the town seem to come
from another world. With its low, whitewashed buildings,
porticoes and arcades, Massawa has more of an Arab feel to it.
Massawa’s natural deep harbour and its position close to the
mouth of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean have long made it
the target of foreign powers.
The journey from Asmara to Massawa is is a dizzying downhill
trip, and one of the most dramatic in Eritrea. In just 115km, the
road descends nearly 2500m, plummeting through mountains
often clad in mist, around hairpin bends, past wild baboons and
over old Italian bridges. It is hard to fully comprehend, but the
old Italian railway line also follows a very similar route!
DEBRE BIZEN MONASTERY [Northern Eritrea]
The monastery of Debre Bizen, near Nefasit, lies 2400m above
sea level. Abuna Philippos founded it in 1368. From Nefasit to
the monastery is a 2-hour steep walk, but well worth the effort.
KEREN [Northern Eritrea]
Set on a small plateau and surrounded by mountains, Keren is
one of Eritrea’s most attractive towns. It boasts an enticing
mishmash of architectural styles – mosques, churches, colonial
buildings from the Italian era – and has a vibrant feel that one
won’t experience anywhere else in the country bar Asmara.
Other options available:
Take the train from Asmara to Nefasit (charter groups can take
the train as far as Massawa) or visit the Dahlak Islands and do
some scuba diving.