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In the steps of Carsten Niebuhr


On 29 December 1762 the six members of the King of Denmark’s scientific expedition to Arabia were rowed ashore at the port of Luhayyah. Almost two years since leaving Copenhagen, with lengthy delays in Constantinople and Egypt, they finally set foot in Arabia Felix, the first Europeans to come in search of mere enlightenment, rather than trade or conquest.

The ill-matched party, representing a range of academic disciplines, comprised two Danes, Frederik Christian von Haven, a philologist, and Dr Carl Kramer, a physician; a Swedish botanist, Pehr Forsskal, who had been a pupil of Linnaeus; two Germans, Carsten Niebuhr, an astronomer/surveyor, and Georg Wilhelm Baurenfeind, an artist and engraver; and the party’s Swedish servant, Berggren.

The party had no designated leader, and cooperation between its members was complicated by a personality clash between the self-opinionated but phlegmatic Von Haven, and the highly energetic, if temperamental Forsskal. It had thus fallen to Niebuhr, whose quiet, self-effacing nature belied his exceptional diligence and versatility, to shoulder much of the administrative responsibility; and it was Niebuhr who made the most complete and informative record of the expedition that has become so closely linked with his name.

Little did these six young men foresee that two of them, struck down by malarial fever (then still unknown to Western medical science), would never leave Yemen; that of the four who did, two would die at sea and two would reach India; but that only Niebuhr would recover and make his long return journey home.

Old Luhayyah.
Photograph: Julian Lush.

for more photographs

This year’s ‘expedition’ to travel round Yemen in the footsteps of Niebuhr was the brain-child of Mary Morgan and Christine Heber Percy; the detailed planning was done by Bill Heber Percy. But Fate intervened at the last minute to prevent them from enjoying the fruit of their industry, and the planned party of six was reduced to a rump of three — Sarah and Julian Lush and John Shipman, accompanied by Universal’s stalwart guide, Sa’id Sharyan, and the company’s longest serving driver, Saleh. We set out from the Taj Talha hotel in the old city of Sana’a on 23 January.

We took the quickest route to Tihama via Hajjah, stopping in Wadi Mawr to see the Bait al-Sharif at Mu’taridh, one of the first places visited by Niebuhr and Forsskal from Luhayyah. Perhaps it was on this trip that Niebuhr established his distance measure: 1730 double donkey paces in 30 minutes. Using this yardstick and his astrolabe, he was able to produce an astonishingly accurate map of Yemen, which we used and showed to Yemenis whom we met along our route.

In 1762 Luhayyah was thriving as a port for trans-shipment of pilgrims en route to Mecca; today the old town is in a state of serious dilapidation. But life continues with an industry of boat building (and fishing), and we saw at least six craft under construction along the creek. We camped outside the town, just within view of the Turkish fort on the hill, and beside huge middens of terrebralia shells, gathered from the mangroves as sustenance for an unknown people long ago.

Next day, departing from Niebuhr’s tracks, we set off down the coast for Salif, past Al-Khawbah (where the tradition of splitting, salting, and smoking garfish on palm-frond skewers continues) and Ibn Abbas, with its attractive little mosque and fort on the sea shore. From Salif we embarked on the 4-mile crossing to Kamaran. We judged the island worthy of a visit because of its past importance as a quarantine station for Mecca pilgrims, and its long history of foreign occupation ending with British withdrawal in 1967.

The outward crossing, in a fibre-glass launch, took us swiftly to a pleasant little resort of beehive huts, running water and plentiful food. The island’s only taxi, a rickety Toyota truck, was duly summoned to drive us across the arid coastal plain to see some local landmarks: the mosque, the crumbling Portuguese/Arab fort, the desalination plant, and across the small bay, the decaying complex of buildings which used to house the British Commissioner and his Arab and Indian staff.

Before returning to the mainland next morning, against a drenching southerly wind, we had the opportunity to meet Shaikh Muhammad Musawa, the island’s charming headman.

We took up Niebuhr’s tracks again at Bait al-Faqih, the 1763 expedition’s base for many weeks and hub of their radial sorties to survey and botanise. The town is probably less salubrious today than it was then. We had an introduction to the resident historian, Abdulla Khadim al-’Umri, and called on him at his crowded, qat-strewn majlis to ask if there was any folk memory of Niebuhr’s local travels. It appeared not, and although al-’Umri had heard of the Danish expedition, his historical focus was confined to Tihama personalities, notably the Faqih himself, Shaikh Ahmad bin Musa al-’Ujaili, whose much venerated shrine across the main road we later visited, as Niebuhr had surely also done. Thence we followed one of Niebuhr’s radial journeys to Jebel Qahmah, where we camped in a dusty patch below the crystalline basalt hill, pock-marked with numerous working quarries. Niebuhr had recorded an early tomb in the vicinity but all trace of this has disappeared.

Our historian had wanted to accompany us to Al-Ghulaifiqa, a once thriving but now vestigial port some distance west of Bait al-Faqih, but when we arrived to make the trip, he was absent in Zabid. So we changed tack and made for AlDuraihimi, a village halfway to the coast, to see the elegant, triple-domed mosque of Abdullah bin Ali, drawn by John Nankivell during the Tihamah Expedition of 1982. In the heat and dust we failed to find it among the several fine mosques which we did see. Near the coast, we turned north to Hodaida, skirting pools of rainwater, and soft mud, until we reached the tarmac. Invigorated by the comforts of the Ambassador Hotel, we visited the imposing 19th-century merchant’s house which is being carefully restored, using traditional materials and techniques, to serve as a museum; it already houses a large basalt Sabaean altar block.

Next day we proceeded south again in quest of Niebuhr’s ‘Bulgosa’, which Tim Mackintosh-Smith, in discussion with us in Sana’a, believed was a garble of 'Bani al-Ghuzzi’ in Jebel Raimah. Finding someone who had heard of the village and could direct us there proved difficult until we were lucky enough to encounter a truck-driver, a native of Bani al-Ghuzzi, who told us that it lay on the slopes of Jebel Raimah above Hadiyyah. After bumping across the rich agricultural plain east of Bait al-Faqih we climbed through wooded foothills into a wadi green with terraced cultivation. Spring water piped down the rockside filled a pool beside a little mosque; hornbills flapped among banana groves; and the sweet scent of coffee blossom lifted on the breeze. The road, now hardly more than a hairpin track of levelled rock, rose steeply to its end at Hadiyyah. School was just finishing, so we were mobbed by excited children until a figure of some authority emerged, the young English teacher, Daoud Muhammad Mahdi, who instantly befriended us and pressed us to spend the night in his apartment, an invitation which we accepted gratefully.

This left us the afternoon to climb on foot to the hamlet of Bani al-Ghuzzi. The ancient paving wound up through the same crystalline basalt that we had seen at Jebel Qahmah, past coffee terraces and scattered homesteads until it gave way to a steep boulder-strewn gully. Our knot of merry young companions, homeward bound, did this walk daily to and from school; but it took us three hours just to reach Bani al-Ghuzzi, although this did include pauses for breath and chats with other wayfarers. The hamlet is typically perched on a precipitous slope, while far above we could see others wreathed in cloud. We pictured Niebuhr also standing here to marvel at the landscape and the ingenuity of its inhabitants.

It was now time to retrace Niebuhr’s route from Tihama to the central highlands. Just as he had done, we followed Wadi Annah, finding an idyllic spot to camp above the grassy bank of a perennial stream. We walked whenever possible: first through crop fields and banana groves, then ankle-deep through flowing water, and, later, through a tunnel of green formed by dense thickets of overhanging cane: a path to Paradise! At the head of a tributary wadi we came to hot-water springs: a veritable spa, with a complex of bath houses, and a tented camp where many families had assembled to take the waters. It was ladies’ hour, and Sarah was ushered inside the hammam where she found her Yemeni sisters happily immersed, in an uncustomary state of nature.

We reached Al-Udayn, half way up the great escarpment; this was on Niebuhr’s route to find relief from the humidity and debilitating fever that had claimed Von Haven’s life in Mocha. The road, now asphalt, takes one up to Al-Mashwara and a splendid panorama which attracts Yemeni tourists from far afield and is a favoured venue for wedding parties. Thence to Ibb, vastly expanded from the austere citadel which Niebuhr’s sick and weary party will have seen in 1763; and on to Yarim, where Forsskal finally succumbed to malaria and, as a non-Muslim, was buried in an unmarked grave at a site unknown. In Yarim, Niebuhr sketched a view of the Muslim cemetery, mosque and distant mountain ridge; and we spent an hour or so trying to align his published drawing with today’s landscape, concluding that he had exercised a degree of artistic licence.

A kind offer from the Yemeni Ambassador, Dr Mutahar Al-Saeede, of hospitality in his village, Ribat AI-Saeede, 30 km from Yarim, was too tempting to decline. He had delegated to Qadhi Muhammad AI-Saeede, his uncle and father-in-law, the responsibility of looking after us. Although changes in our itinerary brought forward the date of our arrival by several days, and he only received a few hours’ notice of this, the Qadhi could not have done more for our comfort: we were welcomed like members of the family, accommodated in the Ambassador’s spacious new house, and fed sumptuously from the Qadhi’s nearby kitchen. The next day Dr Mutahar’s younger brother, Qais, arrived from Sana’a, and we toured the village with him, Qadhi Muhammad, and Mahmoud, headmaster of Ribat’s mixed school of boys and girls. Above the village lies Husn al-Iryan, dramatically situated on the lip of the escarpment, and here we saw the now derelict family home of Qadhi Abdul Rahman al-Iryani, President of republican Yemen from 1967—74. The following morning we left for Sana’a, accompanied by Qais and our indefatigable host. On the way we stopped to see the cave reputed to be the burial chamber of the last Himyari king, As’ad Al-Kamil; later, on the pass overlooking Yarim, we visited ancient Sarhah, whose historic mosque boasts a richly painted wooden ceiling which cries out for restoration; the Awqaf is, however, restoring the domed shrine nearby of Muhi-al-Din Abu Sa’ud.

Imagining Niebuhr and his three companions in audience with Imam al-Mahdi Abbas, we had a two day stopover in Sana’a before embarking on the last stage of our trip — back to Tihama via Mafhaq and Hajjarah. Niebuhr, in a race against time to catch a boat from Mocha, had taken the shortest route from Mafhaq via Wadi Siham and Bait al-Faqih. We, however, took a more northerly route, through the more populous region of Jebel Haraz.

We walked up from Manakha to Hajjarah, where Sa’id Sharyan handed us into the care of a young local guide, No’man al-Arassi, for our walk down to Tihama. No’man, who appeared in Western trekking gear acquired in France, proved not only a pleasant and lively companion but a highly professional guide, familiar with every track and village, and on terms with every passer-by. We were in supremely spectacular surroundings: on every pinnacle perched a fort; fields fanned and shelved in a cataract of terraces; a spring-fed waterfall plunged over a cliff face; and, as a means of locomotion, the donkey still reigned supreme. We spent the night at Attarah, being surrounded on arrival by eager and curious school children, and we remained a focus of their attention until long after nightfall. We pitched our tents on the only flat piece of ground, a short distance from the school, but it was too close to the local cemetery for comfort — as a young man who came to pray at his father’s grave the following morning, pointed out to us.

Our last day was long and exhausting for we covered over 20 km on foot, and were still five km from Ubal when, shortly before sunset, Saleh came out to look for us. The day had begun with the expert massage of a twisted ankle by a kindly matriarch collecting firewood, who recommended aloe juice as further treatment. We had a late breakfast of millet cakes, eggs and Yemeni coffee in Wusil with friends of No’man, before dropping down through acres of spreading prickly-pear to the sultry wilderness of Wadi Hijan, haunt of baboon, and, in its lower reaches, of hamerkop and a diversity of other birdlife. Then followed a long, hot walk to Hajaylah, a village at the junction with Wadi Siham, which Niebuhr had probably passed through on his way to Mocha. And it was here that we finally took our leave of Niemuhr, for this, sadly, was our last evening in Tihama; our last supper of tuna and tomato cooked by the faithful Saleh; our last night under the stars.

July 2002