I stumbled upon Bayt Bows by chance. It was one of the my most intriguing journeys into the history of Yemen. Mohammed, my guide explained Bayt Bows’ literal translation as “kissing houses” and although, it seemed to be a titillating title, Bayt Bows history was more fascinating. For a starter, it was hard to imagine an orthodox Islamic nation to have a prominent Jewish history and along with that, the combination of a mass exodus, which could be best described as sensationally dramatic, was absolutely mind blowing. According to history, Jews flourished in Yemen since the 10th century BC and the community came into existence when the famous queen of Sheba, the beautiful and wise Bilqis paid King Solomon a visit in Jerusalem. They had a son by the name of Menelik and after the destruction of King Solomon’s temple, many Jews followed the Queen back to her country. Yemeni Jews always proudly proclaimed themselves as descendant of the real Jews, arguing that their ancestry dated back from the Torah (Jewish Scriptures) where both the ancient cities of Sanaa and Sa’ada have been mentioned by their old names.

haima tribes of bayt bowsThe history of the Yemeni Jews

Although, their claim was never authenticated, Yemeni history could never separate the two and Bayt Bows was the last remnant of this heritage. For centuries, the Jewish and Muslim communities lived, worked and prospered in peace. Yemeni Jews were very famous as skilled craftsmen and silversmith and their services were in much demand throughout the country. Even today many places in Yemen, including the historic houses of old Sanaa, proudly bear the Jewish star stained glass patterns on the decorative qamariyas (windows) and many Yemeni archaeological sites clearly display remnants of overlapping of world’s two warring religions. Modern Yemeni history was generous to the coexistence and until 1948, Yemen was the proud home to 55,000 Jews. Another staggering 8,000 Jews lived in the British colony of Aden, when the daring late 1940’s “Operation Magical Carpet” changed everything for good.

a local man at bayt bowsOperation Magical Carpet

“Operation Magical Carpet” was an astounding historical feat and in a series of secret operations which took place between June 1949-September 1950, nearly 380 flights by British and American transport planes successfully airlifted as many as 50,000 Jews to Israel. The mass exodus was one of the best kept secrets of that time and it was not made public even after several months of its completion. Although, severely criticized by many, the highly successful “Operation Magical Carpet” changed Yemen’s culturescape forever and it left behind a string of empty shells of Jewish heritage scattered across the country. Bayt Bows was one such empty shell of a heritage village and I happened to visit there a politically stormy Yemeni day.

bayt bows overlooks sanaaA day trip to Bayt Bows

Sanaa was in utter chaos that morning and people all over the city angrily protested against an acid attack on a honest, government official. The attack was supposedly sponsored by his corrupt colleagues and Sanaa erupted in a volcanic pent up rage. A rain splashed previous night made matters worse and the city’s main thoroughfare turned into a water duct. Cars, buses and all kinds of vehicular traffic was cordoned off to let the rain water run clean into a storage area and frayed tempers rose above cantankerous horns. Tension was very tangible that day and even the clear rain washed blue sky spelled doom. People, who had already been walking on a political tightrope for a long time, burst out in frustration and enraged political protesters angrily run amok on the city streets. Armed with angry placards and loud chants, they presented a formidable picture and needless to say, it was a very scary start of the day. Mohammed and I were already been on our way to the outskirts of Sanaa, when the tensed situation made us change our plan. We sped from the scene before it turned violent and drove uphill, past posh new Sanaa villas until Bayt Bows arrived.

bayt bows is near sanaaRocks and stones of Yemen

Bayt Bows looked very different from the chaotic, beautiful Sanaa and apart from the usual litter, the landscape seemed devoid of any signs of life. Thorny flowering cactus shrubs dotted the brown stony hills and across a shallow chasm, crumbling fortifications circled on olive green rock face. It was an awe inspiring sight and the entire composition of the ancient tawny structure perched atop a vivid green mountain, against the backdrop of a stretched blue sky, looked extremely beautiful. Although my trips to Kawkaban and other places made me see a bit of Yemen’s beauty, I never got used to the country’s spectacular rock formations. They came in various interesting shapes and colours and from spindly, top heavy, gnarled and bulbous, Yemeni mountains were truly magnificent. The most fascinating part of the landscape was the way, ancient Yemenis integrated architecture into the mountains and Bayt Bows presented more than that.

The “kissing houses” a.k.a Bayt Bows

One of the four villages that topped a rocky ring in the southern outskirts of Sanaa, Bayt Bows was an eye opening example of Yemen’s harmonious communal past. The village once housed both the Jews and the Muslims and they co existed in peace as a secular united community. While the Muslim dwellers resided within the walls of the main village, the Jewish community settled outside it and both the communities shared responsibilities of co habitation equally. According to a popular legend, this peaceful co habitation was introduced by one Sheikh Ali Mohsen al-Hawlani, an ancestor of a Bayt Bows family. At that time, a neighbouring  village often complained of  the Bayt Bows Jewish community pastoral animals to be illegally grazing on their lands, thus damaging their crops. In order to avoid a full blown tribal conflict, Sheikh al-Hawlani settled the issue by offering compensation in cash or kind. That was more than 200 years ago when money was a rare commodity and the Jewish villagers struggled to arrange in the amount.

A Qamariya of Bayt Bows

A Qamariya of Bayt Bows

The Jewish Muslim communal harmony

The crafty Sheikh, taking advantage of the situation, cemented communal brotherhood by asking both the communities to donate for the cause, with an understanding that the offer had to be reciprocated. Thus Bayt Bows got united and the entire village always stood by each other for centuries until the mass exodus of 1949-50 emptied it out. The drying up of their water source, the Kamaram Dam put the final nail in Bayt Bows coffin and presently only an empty, crumbling shell of a village remained atop the green stony ridge. I found the old Jewish village to be hauntingly desolate and apart from a small group of smiling children, only tawny resident cats  roamed free. Most buildings were a in dangerous state of disrepair and light streamed in eerily through abandoned wooden beams. Here and there, remnants of Yemen’s Jewish past stood defiantly intact and Hebrew script on neglected walls peeped behind flowering cactus bushes.

The last of the Yemeni Jewish history

In spite of the nearly 50 years time gap, everything seemed alive and it looked as if the well organized village was abandoned in a hurry. Kitchens, souks, granaries, living quarters, cemetery and even a synagogue stood in neat crumbling blocks and stone pathways faintly resembled the marked streets, they had once been. In spite of its neglect, shadowy ghosts of the old village lurked underneath the desolation and it was not too hard to imagine Bayt Bows in its full glory. A small mosque stood in the middle of the square and after the abandonment, it  catered to the Haima tribal people who made Bayt Bows, their home. I liked Bayt Bows very much and while, my first love in Yemen will always be Sanaa, that day, the strangely alive ghost town of Bayt Bows seemed like the perfect oasis of tranquility.

Follow the rest of the Yemen series here