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+ "The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers"

From Martin Smith

click here for a larger map Pictures in guidebooks are often misleading, showing you a few extraordinary views that fool you into believing that a place is as breathtaking beyond the borders of the pictures you're looking at as it appears within. It is not hard be fooled. Arriving travelers are a breed of optimists anyway, a willing group of believers. Given this, I've been fooled many times. But, now I've learned to be skeptical. That's how I arrived in Sana'a. I was sure no place could really look as stunning as these Lonely Planet pictures were telling me.

I can't write here accurately of the history of these houses. The reader will have to do their own research. I'm in the last days of a long trip and desperate to get a few key scenes in the can and fly home to begin a month-long edit. But, these eight to 10 story mud brick houses with white painted trim dcor are somewhere between 800 and 1200 years old and they are among the most stunning sight I have ever seen. Yemen is known for them and I knew a few would still be standing. But they are everywhere. The skeptic in me dies. I have been a few places in this world, but none like this.

These are the world's first and now, most ancient skyscrapers. My guide, Khaled, explains a few things. That the first couple of floors were built to house a family and their livestock and that when succeeding generations came along additional stories were added. Usually, grandparents and great grandparents occupied the lower floors, parents above them and children and their families above them, and so on.

Ancient "skyscrapers" in Sana'a.
"You mean so that when your legs are shot you don't have to climb so far?" I ask.

"Something like that."

Khaled shows me one house and asks me to step to the opening and squint into the darkness of the ground floor. When my eyes adjust, I see what looks like a very tired camel walking tight circles around the outside a rutted granite track filled with sesame seeds. A millstone rotates in the track and a trickle of sesame oil is collected by a man in a turban with a large jabiya, the knife worn by every Yemeni over puberty. The scene is magical and obscene. The air stinks of dung and the dust beneath the camel hoofs billows up into the nostrils of the man collecting the oil. He looks at us for a moment and continues his tasks. It is very dark inside and I can't figure out to take a picture.

I walk up a narrow lane between the tall mud houses past stall of spices and knives and cooking pots. The air is cool. I am enchanted. I turn around and there is Marcela coming after me with a file folder. She reminds me that we're here to track Al Qaeda and hands me a raft of notes. I find a place to sit down while Scott shoots a few pictures and I start reading. I promise I will return here as a tourist someday.

< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

+ The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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