Yemen Engraved: Illustrations by foreign travellers 1680–1903

Yemen Engraved: Illustrations by foreign travellers 1680–1903 

by Leila Ingrams (with Foreword by Professor Saleh Ali Ba Surrah, and Preface by Professor Richard Pankhurst)

Stacey International, 2006. Pp.188. Glossary. Key. Map. Hb. £27.50. ISBN 1900988-704.

One of the most revealing aspects of Leila Ingrams’ Yemen Engraved is to compare it with the earlier Ethiopia Engraved which Ms Ingrams published with Richard Pankhurst in 1988. Christian Ethiopia attracted far more sketching travellers, drawn by its religious heritage as well as, initially, by legends of Prester John. Perhaps more important they could and did sketch. In Yemen, by contrast, a sketching or even note-taking non-Muslim traveller was often reduced to subterfuge: you crouched down shrouded in your abbaya as if to relieve yourself and quick – out with pencil and paper for a rapid sketch or note before your Muslim companions became suspicious. The coin and inscription collector Thomas Arnaud used this ruse in 1843. So there is far less material available on Yemen than there is on Ethiopia.

Richard Pankhurst’s assistance with this new volume is gratefully acknowledged by Ms Ingrams, and his Ethiopian influence is also recognised in several of the initial engravings; early on there is one of the Sabaean temple at Yeha for instance, though none of the Sabaean buildings or inscriptions at Marib, Baraqish or elsewhere in Yemen are included. This omission highlights another difference between Ethiopia and Yemen, often still relevant today: despite periodic upheavals in the former it was easier to reach Sabaean Yeha and on to Aksum, capital of the Aksumite kingdom, than to venture to the eastern desert rim of Yemen with the more prolific and outstanding remains of ancient cities enriched by careful agriculture and the incense route. These are some of the oldest remains in the country but tribal disagreements can, now as then, still be a hindrance to travel.

While the selection is therefore more restricted especially in the depiction of northern Yemen, there are some marvellous images of Yemeni landscape and architecture. Tribal troubles may have restricted travel to the far north with its remarkable mud zabur architecture but architectural sketches elsewhere usefully depict buildings which have since disappeared, particularly in the case of Hodeidah and Luhayyah.

Another area barely frequented until very recently is Mahra, represented here by some unusual engravings by B. A. R. Nicholson from an unpublished manuscript in the Royal Geographical Society. Socotra is also well represented partly because of its remarkable flora but also because its position in the Indian Ocean led to its being considered as a possible coaling station in the early days of steam (though there is rather too much repetition of Captain Head’s view of Hadibu – reproduced three times!). Steam was also the stimulus for the presence along the South Arabian coast and up into the Red Sea of those indefatigable marine surveyors, Captains Haines and Moresby, Wellsted and Lieutenant Cruttenden; we have Wellsted’s sketch of Naqab al-Hajr but sadly not the famous one of Husn al-Ghurab where the first Himyarite inscription was found. More could perhaps have been made of Mocha and Aden including some of the early Portuguese charts or, later, some Dutch material on Mocha. And maybe a few more of Baurenfeind’s sketches from the Danish expedition, especially that of Yarim where poor Peter Forsskal died and was with great difficulty buried. Local hostility to having the grave of a Christian in their midst highlights the conservative Islam that made sketching so difficult in the Zaidi highlands.

The reproductions are sometimes unkind to the originals – muddy and indistinct in several cases. But the chapter on fauna and flora is superbly illustrated, the engravings sharp and clear. Neither Yemen nor Ethiopia Engraved has an index, a sad omission for reader as well as reviewer. But the map at either end is excellent and really does include all the places mentioned in the text. That is a real treat! And so is the overall impression left by Yemen Engraved of this extraordinarily beautiful and historic country.

Sarah Searight

Leila Ingrams