A Castle in the Air: Trekking the Secret Mountain Paths of Yemen

The celebrated author recounts a trip he made 30 years ago, to a place in Yemen that may never have existed

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A Castle in the Air: Trekking the Secret Mountain Paths of Yemen
Many mountains have undiscovered treasures/Yemen/Getty Images

This is the story of a journey I made in Yemen about 30 years ago. I put it into words nine years ago, early in 2012, when everything in the country was changing. Like much of the Arab world, we’d had a year of protests, fighting, massacres. The ruler of a third of a century, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was about to abdicate (or so he said, signing his power away with a smile that was … smug? Vulpine?).

Things were in thrilling, frightening flux. I suppose that in setting down the journey, I wanted to hold on to something from the past: from the country’s ancient continuity, and from my own history of rambles in Arabia Felix. This tale of a city in the sky seemed to catch something of the felicity of the land called, in Arabic, al-Yaman al-Sa’id, Yemen the Happy.

For some reason or other, the collection I wrote the story for never appeared. And then, in September 2014, it all ceased to matter. A new power took over in Yemen by force of arms, and all those pasts were swallowed up in a nightmarish present. The airy castles dissolved as suddenly as Prospero’s cloud-capped towers. I rambled no more and sat it out in Sanaa amid the missiles and the funerals. More than six years on, the nightmare shows no sign of ending.

As in all nightmares, everything is a negative of its usual self; light turns to dark, darkness grows visible. Visiting a neighbor wounded in the war, a quiet, polite young man, I heard (and saw) how the sniper’s shot had entered his wrist and exited his elbow. The arm was a mess, but I congratulated him on his escape from a worse injury. “At least he didn’t escape,” he said. “I killed him.” I looked at the boy: deadpan. I looked at his AK-47 hanging above him with its “Death to America” sticker on the stock. The people of Yemen have the softest, gentlest hearts of all; so said the Prophet.

It’s not only the Kalashnikov, the long-range ālī (the “mechanical”), that gives a physical — maybe a moral — distance to death. The Houthi fighters’ drones and the Coalition’s missiles do so at much longer range, and in far deadlier fashion. All the same, Gen. Kalashnikov has a lot to answer for. He knew it, too: He spent the end of his life, by his own admission, in “spiritual pain.”

So, what of the story below? If nothing else, it shows how the AK-47 was always there, hanging over Yemen the Happy; how it can kill one’s countrymen across time as well as space; albeit the death here is a second one, of identity.

As for the castle in the air, it may be no more than that: A tale told by mountain men, a mirage on my mind map of Yemen. But to try and get there once again … Like peace, it seemed solid enough at the time.

–TMS

It must have been 20 years ago or more. I was bouncing along a mountain track in a battered Toyota Land Cruiser packed with wiry tribesmen. The shrill sound of a mizmār, a double reed pipe, screeched from the car’s loudspeakers. The inside of the vehicle was fetid after several hours of travel. Outside, the sun was hot but the air cold and sparkling.

The mountain range of Raymah in north-western Yemen overlooks Tihāmah, the long narrow coastal plain fringing the Red Sea. That day, as every day, Tihāmah was invisible, 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) below us and shrouded in the billows of vapor that boiled off the sea as the sun climbed into the sky. Above us rose some of the highest peaks of Raymah, another 500 meters (1,650 feet) and more, terraced almost to their tops with fields that grew a scanty crop of grain. Villages glittered all around, clinging on to the flanks of the mountains — and, just, to life. The rains had not been good that year.

We rounded a corner, and a curious peak came into view. It was the shape, I remember, of the old-fashioned sugar loaves that you can still buy, wrapped in violet paper, in the souks of Yemen. Even by the standards of Yemeni mountains it was precipitous, and it seemed to be made even more so by a pair of gentler slopes that framed it in the foreground. It was bare of terraces, of everything, a brooding monolith.

“That’s Jabal Balq,” said the old Raymi man sitting next to me. He’d been feeding me topographical titbits all along the way. The name, like so many place-names in Yemen, brought associations to mind: The cognate balaq is a white and fine-grained limestone; Jabal Balq is a double mountain near Ma’rib, site of the great ruined dam of antiquity and capital city of the pre-Islamic state of Saba, or Sheba. The old man tapped my elbow. “There’s an ancient city on top of Jabal Balq, you know, like a castle.”

I smiled. Yemen abounds with tales of Sabaean and Himyaritic ruins, an archaeology of the imagination far greater than the actual extent of the country’s antiquities. Some of these spectral remains go back — they say — to Ād, a proto-Arab people whose destruction is recorded in the Quran. In the most inaccessible spots, one is told from time to time (usually with a sly look that speaks of loot), are caverns and catacombs bursting with the treasures of Sheba that — if one only knew the way in — would make Tutankhamun and Ali Baba look like rag-and-bone men.

The real antiquities of Yemen are stupendous: the Ma’rib Dam, the walled Ma’inian city of Baraqish, the tunnel of Baynun. And the country’s minor monuments can be no less fascinating. I once explored a gorge riddled with pre-Islamic, rock-cut tombs, many of them still containing their semi-mummified occupants. One of the local villagers discreetly inquired if I wanted to make an offer … “Shame!” I said. “It might be your grandmother!” (“Grandmother” and “ancestress” are the same word in Arabic.)

Yemen is replete with archaeological wonders. But an ancient city here in Raymah, among these secluded peaks?

It had to be another fable. Raymah rears almost inaccessibly out of the coastal plain, far from the inland centers of pre-Islamic civilization. I had never heard reports of ancient remains here, not in all this jagged rampart of mountains. And yet, as the saying goes, ahl makkah adra bi-shi’abiha, “The people of Mecca know best its mountain paths.” I was an outsider here. Who was I to dismiss the claim of a man who had always known this range as home? Moreover, it might have been home to his ancestors since the days of Sheba. Like his fellow Raymis, the speech of my elderly, fellow traveler preserved the –k endings in the past tense of verbs (jalask, for example, “I sat,” for the standard Arabic jalast) — a fossilized feature from the pre-Arabic, South Arabian languages. Why should he not also preserve genuine, inherited memories of physical, pre-Islamic remains? There was only one way to find out.

A few days later, I stood at the foot of Jabal Balq with a group of villagers whose houses stood in its all-consuming shadow. They confirmed the rumor of ruins on its summit that dated from the jahiliyyah, the time of “ignorance” before Islam. “There’s a sort of castle, with a room cut in the rock,” said one.

“And there’s a tunnel through the middle of the mountain that comes out in the wadi (valley), way down behind it,” said another.

A tunnel cut through hundreds of meters of living rock. No doubt, I thought, it would be sealed with a door that opened at the uttering of a magic password. Then again, there was that irrefutable, pre-Islamic tunnel in the interior at Baynun — 150 meters (165 yards) long, and big enough to drive a car through. “So how do you get up there?” I asked.

“Do you see that path?” said one of the villagers, pointing. I could just make out a tiny fault line, little more than a crack, curving upwards round the near-vertical side of the mountain before it disappeared from view. “It’s not too hard there at the bottom. There are some steps cut in the rock. But higher up it gets more difficult. At festival time the young men climb it, for a sort of dare.”

“Yes,” said another man, “and a few years ago, one of them fell and was killed.”

My intended antiquarian jaunt up Jabal Balq suddenly looked a lot less fun. Then I remembered there was another way up. “What about the tunnel? Why not go up that way?”

“Only one of the young men has ever been brave enough to enter the tunnel,” said another of my informants. “He started at the top, and when he came out down in the wadi his hair had turned white from terror.”

I looked round the faces of the men. If the story was a tall one, it didn’t show. Rather, judging by their looks, they thought of it as a salutary tale. No Indiana Jones, I mentally added Jabal Balq to my list of discoveries that might have been, or more probably, never was in the first place.

The men dispersed, but one of the younger villagers hung back. “I can show you something else from the jahiliyyah,” he said. “It’s near the top of Jabal Yaman. It’s not far. And it’s a really easy climb.”

“Easy,” when applied to climbs in Yemen, is a relative term. What is “really easy” for a mountain-bred Raymi, brought up in a world with hardly a horizontal surface, can be torture for an outsider. A couple of almost vertical hours later, drenched in sweat, I was wondering what the “ancient chamber” my companion said lay at the top would prove to be. A shepherd’s shelter, probably, or — if I was lucky — some lookout post from the Ottoman occupation.

But no; it was a square hole in the cliff face that became more and more intriguing the closer we got to it — and revealed itself as the entrance to a pre-Islamic, rock-cut tomb. It would have been a fascinating find in the central highlands. But here, in Raymah, when it was hewn out of the mountaintop, the surrounding slopes would have been jungled with dense cloud-forest.

Almost as surprising, it was a tomb of grand dimensions. Steps led down into an interior that measured 4 meters by 5 meters (4.5 yards by 5.5 yards) and was high enough to stand in with ease. Cut into the longer interior wall that faced the door was the raised burial niche itself, as long as a man and — my eyes were adjusting to the gloom — empty. I wondered what Sabaean or Himyari notable had ended up here; and why, so far from the rich plateau of the interior uplands. If only —

“Can you read this inscription?” asked my companion, standing outside and pointing above the entrance.

I bounded out, and there it was: a plain but elegant, epigraphic South Arabian Ḥ, carved into the rock; and then a Y, perhaps; and then the characters became indecipherable. There was, maybe, another Ḥ at the end of the line of letters. The rest of them had been erased, smashed off with what I guessed to have been blows from a small pickax.

I was wrong. “The trouble is, sometimes stupid people sit on that other mountain,” my friend said, indicating a lower peak directly opposite, “and use this doorway for target practice with their ālīs.” I cursed the accuracy of the AK-47 assault rifle. Fishermen speak of the one that got away; this was the one that was shot away. Still, it was pre-Islamic, without a doubt. It was worth every drop of sweat.

And it begs the question: What is really at the top of Jabal Balq? To this day I don’t know. Perhaps it’s good that there are still some castles in the air.

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