Set against a great pillar of rock mounted by a fortress, the chameleon-camouflaged town of Thilla, about 9km north of Shibam, was once an important theological centre. Today it’s known more for its lovely architecture than books of learning. An impressive stone wall surrounds the town, making for a memorable arrival through one of its seven gates.
Perched dramatically on the top of Jebel Kawkaban and lording it over Shibam, some 350 vertical metres below, is the remarkable village and fortified citadel of Kawkaban. During the 15th century, it served as a capital to the Bani Sharaf Al-Deen dynasty and was once renowned for its school of music.
Although similar in style and architecture to Thilla (and lying 10km away), Hababah has a special feature: a large, oval water cistern, where people still come to collect water, drive their animals to drink or even have a swim (it’s not a good idea for foreigners to join in). With the old tower houses reflected in the still water, it makes for an extremely picturesque scene.
About halfway between Shibam and Al-Mahwit is the village of At-Tawila. The village, and its tumbling terraced fields, is stunningly located at the base of a series of rock needles, around which the afternoon mist and clouds play games of hide and seek. If you have the time, it’s well worth stopping off for a walk along one of the many trails that lead up behind the village.
Lying 6km south of Manakhah and perched on a solitary hilltop is the pilgrimage site of Al-Khutayb (Al-Hoteib). Dedicated to a 12th-century preacher revered by followers of the Ismaili sect, the shrine attracts pilgrims from as far afield as India, and in fact the complex has a slightly Indian look and feel to it.
The bustling market town of Al-Mahwit is the largest of the mountain towns to the west of the capital and, like Manakhah to the south, it makes a superb trekking base. Al-Mahwit lies in the centre of some of the most fertile country in Yemen and the road from Sana‘a takes you past numerous fruit, coffee, tobacco and qat fields.