During my first visit to Wadi Hadramaut, I was impressed by the dramatic landscape of the deep canyon defined by steep brown walls on both sides. The wadi is wide, and littered with towns largely made of mud houses. The most famous of those is Shibam with its mud skyscrapers, earning it the nickname Manhattan of the Desert. The first time around, I entered Wadi Hadramaut from the much narrower Wadi Dawan, and we explored the wadi from there. Besides Shibam, I saw Seiyun and Tarim, and the furthest I came was Husn al Urr, the ruins of an old fortress defending the wadi on the eastern side of Wadi Hadramaut. Even though the area is arid and desert-like, Wadi Hadramaut has a sufficient water supply which makes it surprisingly fertile with green vegetation. Towns are built directly under the high walls of the canyon, to protect them against floods. The inhabitants, called Hadramis, have ventured far from their origins and the diaspora can be found as far as Timor Leste.
Traditionally, buildings here are made of mud, which gives them protection against the scorching heat of summer. You often see men working to mix water, earth and straw, pour the mixture into wooden frames to then let them bake in the sun. On hillocks in the wadi, you often see small fortresses, also made of mud bricks. For centuries, they have helped to defend rich Wadi Hadramaut against attacks. Another common sight in Wadi Hadramaut are women clad in black clothes, wearing pointed straw hats called mudhallas. Sometimes, the tip of their hats are painted black as well. They are often herding flocks of sheep and are incredibly photogenic. At the same time, it makes you wonder how it must feel to be covered in black under the relentless heat of the sun. The hats are tall to have a cooling effect for their heads. One can only hope that it really cools them enough to feel comfortable.
Seventeen years after my first visit, I fly into Seiyun from Cairo, giving me the opportunity to see the landscape from above. It is a totally different view: I see a plateau with deep cracks in between. Then, as we descend, Wadi Hadramaut comes in sight, and at the end of the flight we fly into the deep canyon. The next days, we explore the wadi, and many memories of my first visit come to mind. While the mud buildings are still there in abundance, I am a little disappointed to see concrete houses being built. They are much easier and cheaper to maintain, probably last longer, but need airconditioning for cooling. At the same time, it means that towns are changing from unique and charming collections of mud structures to more universal nondescript settlements. We drive past Husn al-Urr, further east than I did before, into a side canyon. A haze hangs in the canyon as the sun heats up the land just like it has done since eternity. Meanwhile, I hope to be back in peaceful times, to continue exploring this legendary canyon.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Wadi Hadramaut. Read more about this site.