The people of Hadramaut, so they maintain, are descendant of Noah. This relationship, with the two names in Hebrew form, appears in the Old Testament of the Bible. Tribal names in Arabia tend to hark back to an eponymous and mythical ancestors so there could have been a tribe of that name settled here, although the word Hadramaut has meanings which seem more like a nickname than a proper name. Indeed, it is sometimes suggested that it signifies ‘deathbringer’, a reference to its bearer’s lethality on the battlefield, or perhaps it comes from the ancient Arabic for a place of settlement of the dead. Legends maintain that Hadramaut’s history begins with the flood and that the area was inhabited by giants. Archaeologists, who have collected flint chippings, know that it has been inhabited since the Stone Age and that, later, due to elaborate irrigation systems, the land was covered with green vegetation, groves and trees. Whatever its origins, the area, together with the south coast and Aden, constitutes one of the great and extraordinary regions of Yemen.
Although the exact boundaries of Hadramaut are still debated, it covers an extensive area of varied landscape, from the coastlands of the Indian Ocean, through a complex series of valleys, to the southern edge of the Rub Al-Khali desert. It includes a massive and magnificent wadi system, one of the largest in the Arabia Peninsula, which runs for nearly 160km from west to east with numerous tributary valleys, such as Wadi Doan, Amd, Al-’Ain, Sakr, Bin Ali, and Idm, and an easterly extension into the less fertile Wadi Masilah. The system is protected behind a mountainous plateau known locally as the Jaul. This desolate and sometimes arid plateau, through which the wadi systems have cut, has little or no dependable water- that is, until you reach the eastern regions, where sparse rain and periodic flooding have seeped into an aquifer, which can be tapped. Living in an area of little rainfall, the inhabitants of Hadramaut have developed sophisticated methods of land use since earliest times. Irrigation, both by control of the twice yearly seasonal floods and, especially, from well, is carefully managed. Largely based on oasis cultivation, vast areas of date- palm trees grow alongside basic wheats, vegetables, dates and tobacco. This is typical of the significant areas of agricultural development around Shibam- believed by many scholars to be the place to which the people of Shabwa fled when their city was destroyed- other major settlements in the Wadi include Seiyun and Tarim. Historically, Hadramis have been great travelers, journeying extensively to the east coast of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia to make their fortunes in trade and business, and Mukalla remains a busy port to this day.
It is not unusual to hear Hadramis talk of the area as if it were a distinct country in its own right. Indeed, isolated within their great wadis Hadramis have developed a unique, almost timeless culture. This is expressed in extraordinary architectural styles, accentuating sheer spaciousness and simple forms. The buildings fuse almost imperceptibly into the landscape; there is a sense of space, emptiness and a dramatic relationship of parts of buildings with the whole and of the buildings with each other.
Ancient inscriptions relating to the region’s long history are scattered across the land. We know that some of its towns are among the longest-settled in the Arab world and enjoyed a high level of culture. When the camel was domesticated in the latter part of the second millennium BC there is believed to have been a trade route between Hadramaut and Babylon, and later there were caravan and sea connections with Syria and Palestine. Archaeological evidence shows that the peoples living here were well established when Saba was flourishing and traded both with that kingdom and with Qataban and Main. The nomads in the desert areas and fishermen on the coast were in contact with other north Arabian tribes and peoples.
Incense covers a whole range of gums, resins and spices which perfume a space when burned or when they evaporate. Frankincense and myrrh are gum resins obtained by cutting and peeling several centimetres off the bark of small trees during the summer months. Frankincense comes from trees of the genus Boswellia (named after James Boswell, the biographer of Dr Samuel Johnson), which grows at an altitude of around 650m in subtropical regions. They have an ash-coloured trunk, and their lower branches are close to the ground. Cuts made into the stem during the summer months produce a green transparent gum, which hardens and is then collected in the autumn. Boswellia trees also grow in Dhofar (now in modern- day Oman), but evidence suggests that their cultivation there developed long after the trees became established in the Wadi Hadramaut’ the author of The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea says that the ‘Hadrami people alone and no other people among the Arabians behold the incense tree’. Myrrh trees (Commiphora or Balsamoderndron myrrha), grown in northern Yemen, exude a bitter and transparent aromatic gum from the bark when it is cut; this, too, hardens and is collected later.
The frankincense trade was dominated by various states controlling the trade routes and areas of cultivation. Incense, brought from abroad or gathered in Hadramaut, Dhofar or even Somalia, was taken by camel caravans to northern Arabia, the Gulf and the Mediterranean. There was great demand from ancient Egypt for frankincense, myrrh and spices, which were needed for burials, and almost all the other ancient civilizations used incense in their ceremonies. Today, incense, like myrrh, are still used as a base for perfumes and also in medicinal applications. In many households in the Arabian Peninsula visitors are invited to waft the smoke from an incense-burner over and under their clothes after a meal and then to sprinkle themselves with perfume.
Across the Jaul to the south of the Wadi Hadramaut lie the Gulf of Aden and its two main historic ports of Mukalla and Shihr. In his travels Marco Polo wrote of Shihr in the thirteenth century as one of the most barren places in the world. He describes it as a huge city with a good harbour, where heavily laden ships from India docked. It was renowned for the quality of its incense, and ships from here carried vast numbers of Arabian chargers and saddle horses to India, where they were sold to the king and his brothers- although no specific ruler’s name is mentioned- at a great profit. Arabian merchants from Shihr, Aden, Dhofar and Hormuz all participated in this trade and sold thousands of horses every year. But by the year end only about a hundred or so were left, as no farriers lived in India and none were allowed to go there so that the export trade would continue year-on-year.
Hans Helfeitz wrote in the 1930s of ‘Mukalla, a city of glistening whiteness, of extraordinary beauty, with its countless palaces and lofty towers, lies in a delightful bay close under the dark cliffs of the Jebel El Kara. It is the gateway to the province of Hadramaut’. Crammed between one of Yemen’s great volcanic mountain regions and the sea, it is approached either by the coast road from Aden or from Seiyun in the Wadi Hadramaut. This road passes through a succession of wadis and interesting towns and crosses the Jaul, a semi-desert mountain plateau. In the past, most non-Hadramis would have approached it by sea. Mukalla has been of great importance for many centuries, with its trade extending to India and South East Asia as the many Indian influences in its architecture show. Locals will tell you that the town was founded in 1625 by a Yafa’I Sultan, Ahmed bin Madyam al-Kasadi. In 1914 it took over from shihr, some 50km to the east, as capital of the Hadramaut when the Qu’aitis (originally a tribe of the Yafa’) transferred their capital. Now, as Yemen’s third most important port (after Hodeidah and Aden), it is a centre for fishing and commerce along the country’s vast south coast, and waterfront activities are still paramount.
The town is roughly divided into two areas, the old town around the coastline, and the new town to the east, along the road to Riyan. In the busy modern harbour, traditional fishing boats bob at anchor in the swell; the waterfront along the coast from the old town is lined with white houses. Traders and businessmen from all over the Hadramaut congregate here, sitting in the alleyways and tea houses, and the busy lively centre of the main square is full of cafes bustling with workers and fishermen playing cards and dominoes. Everywhere in the narrow streets, India influence is betrayed by the design and carving of the beautiful old doors.
The town’s architecture makes considerable creative use of gypsum and, in general, is distinctive for its South East Asian overtones and India inspiration, the latter evident everywhere in the narrow back streets where intricately carved doors and magnificent window screens can be found. The sultan’s palace, which sits on the edge of the beach next to the town, was built in the late 1920s by Sultan Umar bin Awadh Al-Qu’aiti and draws on the Indian and neoclassical styles.
On its landward side, at the foot of the volcano, basalt blocks mark all that remains of the streets and houses of the ancient port of Qana (most of which has been cannibalised to provide building material for modern Bir Ali on the other side of the bay).
Hadramaut honey, known for its rich, srong flavour, is famous throughout Arabia and is claimed to be the best (and is certainly the most expensive) honey in the world. It is used medicinally, as well as for food.
Beekeeping is probably one of the oldest forms of food gathering in the region, as evidenced by rock engravings in the area, and at one time practically every house in Wadi Doan had a beehive(many village still have at least one beekeeper). There are various types of hive, including bored-out logs with removable wooden ends. These are usually made from the sukam (Cordia abyssinica), a broadleaved evergreen tree which grows around the edges of fields along the wadi floors (and is also used as a shade tree in highland coffee plantations).
There are two honey crops a year- November to March and June to August- with the honey harvested on the comb to ensure purity. The climate and the type of flora are crucial to the quality of the honey. Many beekeepers are nomadic, moving into areas where there are flowers for the bees to live off. The highest- quality honey comes from bees fed on natural flora such as desert bushes and the blossom of the “ilb and sibr trees’, rather than in cultivated vegetation areas.