Maybe I’d been spoiled by visiting Kawkaban first, but I thought Shibam was a bit of a dump, frankly. Neither the fact that it was the capital of the Yafurid dynasty in the 9th century or that it is home to one of the oldest mosques in Yemen were enough to disabuse me of this opinion. It was, however, an interesting dump.
Walking the ½ km or so through the outskirts of the village, many of the houses were concrete box jobs usually painted to match the colour of the occasional older stone buildings. There were no predefined street layouts or regimented rows of houses, but it seemed like some form of private low-income housing estate. Houses were springing up at random, and each was spawning its own adjacent pile of rotting vegetation and plastic waste. As we got closer to the centre, the older and the more dilapidated the buildings became. And as for the centre...well, it looked like it was about to fall down. On the piece of rough ground near the taxi rank, pink plastic bags by the hundreds, blown upwards by the breeze, rose into the sky to form temporary clouds before floating back down to earth. No, it’s not all spectacular mountaintop village fortresses and desert skyscrapers in Yemen you know. There’s ordinary as well.
So then it was off to the extraordinary small fortified town of Thula, about 10km north of Shibam. It is a stunning sight, nestling at the base of a steep, rocky outcrop topped by a fortress (Husn Thula). Thula is a rare example of an almost perfectly preserved mountain town. The tower houses are built entirely of stone taken from the mountain, and the decorative features of the buildings result from using different styles and patterns of stonework and walling. We drove in through one of the two impressive town gates and parked in a small, deserted square outside a row of closed "antiqks" shops and next to the Tha’ala Hotel.
After what felt like a million steps, we reached the roof of the hotel, where we enjoyed a great view over the whole village and a couple of glasses of mint tea. The two windows on the left-hand side just before you step out onto the roof are made of wafer thin alabaster, which was used in Yemen before the introduction of glass. The windows are best seen from the outside on the terrace.
A wander around the village will reveal numerous mosques and tombs, an old suq, two large water cisterns, aqueducts, and sections of the town walls. There is also a 2km stone staircase leading up to the empty fortress, which is open from sunrise to sunset and costs 500YR entrance.
Thula is a magical town, and there is something new to admire round every corner. Opposite the hotel is a small café that serves drinks and simple snacks. Shared taxi from Sana’a costs 170YR, or 0.5YR from Shibam.