The Road to Kawkaban

The fortified Yemeni town of Kawkaban in 1978.
Photo courtesy Daniel Martin Varisco

Reposted from Anthropology News

In the spring of 1978 my wife, Najwa Adra, and myself traveled to various locations in Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic at the time) looking for the appropriate place to conduct our ethnographic research.  On our way to the valley where we eventually settled in, we stopped at a breathtaking mountain-top town called Kawkaban, a historic fortress town in the history of Yemen’s north.  In the past, it was virtually impregnable from the bottom of the mountain, where an old and important market town named Shibam was located.  There was only one entrance across a deep gorge and it was a defensible gate. We walked up the rugged trail to the top and spent the night in a old house turned into a simple hotel.  Touring the town, we saw the well preserved stone houses and water cisterns, as well as the ruins of what had been a thriving Jewish quarter before the emigration to Israel in the 1950s.  That night the hotel’s owner, who lived in the capital, was visiting and invited us for tea.  When we told him we were anthropologists on our way to the nearby Wadi al-Ahjur, he offered us a ride the next day to his family home there.  I have the fondest memories of this first trip to Kawkaban, although there were many more.

The fortress of Kawkaban figures prominently in the history of north Yemen, even before Islam. It was especially significant during the era of the Zaydi imams over the past millennium.  It was the stronghold of the sayyid Sharaf al-Din family, who were the Zaydi rulers during the 17th and 18th centuries.  The Ayyubid and Rasulid overlords from the 12th through the 15th centuries attacked the fortress repeatedly with rock throwers, but were seldom successful.  An accomplished Yemeni poet named Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Kawkabani (died 1601) is credited with over 116 poems and several of the old houses contain important Yemeni manuscripts. The town is also known for its musicians, including the renowned singer Muhammad al-Harithi. The musical group Thalatha Kawkabani was known throughout the Arab world.

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