I’ve long been fascinated by Sana’a (صنعاء), the ancient capital of Yemen; its unique style of architecture is pleasing to my eye, and its Great Mosque is one of the oldest in the Islamic world. I just discovered an article, “The Secret Gardens of Sana’a,” by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who’s lived in Sana‘a for more than 20 years and whose Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land I definitely want to read. It’s interesting not only from an urban-history standpoint but because it discusses the local vocabulary of gardening in some depth:

Down on al-Zumur, one of the busiest market streets in the old city of Sana‘a, my neighbor Maryam the qashshamah sits behind a heap of greenery: deep green alfalfa, fodder for animals; gray-green ‘ansif (Astragalus abyssinicus) to give a zing to tea or to shafut, sorghum pancakes drenched in herby yogurt; parsley, rocket and fennel; and chives, lettuce and mint… All this I must climb over to get to my favorite breakfast place along the road, for Maryam’s shop is my doorstep. But the pile of vegetation—usually interspersed with small children—is a pleasing inconvenience. And in any case Maryam always disarms potential objections. “Here,” she says, holding out a bunch of basil and marigolds, “have a mushquri.”
You will look in vain for that word in the standard Arabic reference books. Its origin goes back further—to Sabaic, one of the ancient South Arabian languages. Shqr (the vowels are anyone’s guess) is the cresting on a building, and 2000 years of semantic vagaries have turned it to mean a posy to decorate your turban—a crest for the head. Similarly, qashshamah, Maryam’s job title, and that of her male equivalent, the qashsham, as well as miqshamah (plural: maqaashim), the garden where they grow their produce, all have an origin just as old but better preserved: qshmt, the Sabaic word for a vegetable plot…

Other great Islamic cities, such as Damascus and Bukhara, are famous for the gardens that surround them, but in Sana‘a, they are all on the inside, walled gardens wrapped in a walled city, doubly hidden.
Altogether there are 43 of them. They range in area from nearly three hectares (7.4 acres) down to less than 1000 square meters (10,500 sq ft), all within the ring of mud wall and bastions that protects the historic core of Sana‘a. Only a handful are visible at all from street level, and of these, one alone, Miqshamat al-Qasimi, can be seen in its entirety. The unsuspecting visitor would never guess that these urban oases occupy 13 percent of the space within the city wall. Most of them bear that ancient name, miqshamah, and most are also attached to nearby mosques as waqf, property of a foundation and inalienable under Islamic law. A few, known by the more usual Arabic name bustan, are held by individual families. None are public parks (except for the fortunate eyes of neighboring householders). Whether stadium- or backyard-sized, miqshamah or bustan, they were all founded as working market gardens…

The idea of a city full of hidden gardens is appealing to this city boy who’s learned to appreciate the virtues of greenery.


  1. The American edition of Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land is, I believe, Yemen: The Unknown Arabia. This isn’t clear from the Front Matter, but is mentioned in one of the reviews on Amazon, and the Introduction (which unfortunately isn’t the Excerpt offered by Look Inside — it’s much more amusing that what is) is full of images of “Dictionary Land” as the author sits in his Oxbridge study proposing to go there. (A Yemeni girl told him that her dialect was closer to Classical Arabic than any other, which his tutor characterized as silly. I haven’t read it all yet myself, but that was enough for me to put it on “the list”.) Of course, you may be unable to resist having another book with “Dictionary” in the title, but that is easier to find at the public library or used online. (i.e., book is less than shipping — don’t you feel silly when that happens?)

  2. aldiboronti says

    I lived in Aden as a boy in the 1950s (my father was in the British Army). We had an apartment in Crater, just by the spectacular pass which led from the Maala district into the town, which nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano (at least, I hope it was extinct, although it’s a little late to worry about it now.)
    It was a wonderful place to be at that age; I remember the sights and sounds of the bazaar in the centre of Crater, the Sultan’s palace, shopping at Steamer Point, driving through the desert to the oil wells at Little Aden, playing with the Arab kids I befriended. And always the heat. The dry, stifling heat. It’s one of the hottest places on the planet.
    The Yemen to me at that time, and Sana’a, were mysterious places mentioned in connection with the troubles which my father and his colleagues were faced with, troubles which involved portraits of Nasser sprouting on cafe walls, hostile looks, and sometimes stones, as we took the bus to school (eventually with an armoured-car escort) and finally standing on the roof of our building in Khusaf Valley watching the centre of Crater in flames as riots became commonplace. Shortly after that married familes were moved back to the UK, but I’ll always remember Aden.
    (The Russians moved in a little later and I always used to think of the Russian kid who was perhaps being taught in our classroom at Khormaksar and living in our apartment in Deboo Buildings.)

  3. *aldiboronti, you should make it into a script. It will sell like hot bagels pita, I tell’ya.

  4. [“bagels” was supposed to be striked out…oh well]

  5. I agree with Tatyana — write it down! What a story!

  6. Going Dotty in Kansas says

    I agree — what a great story by aldiboronti! As it happens, that portion of the planet is still rather tectonically active (the Arabian sub-plate is being temporarily squashed by the African plate and the Eurasian plate). And interestingly enough, Saudi Aramco World has an article about Arabian plate tectonics in the issue that follows the one where Tim M-S’s article was found:

  7. S’ana and Aden, two worlds, one of Commerce, fueling the Fleet, and tax free haven [goodies] that cost one third of those in Blighty and S’ana, the images of ‘aurence of Akaba. The Rift Valley be the path way of genetics to populate the rest of the orb.
    aldiboronti, seek out some of the old Tommy Atkins that did their duty in the Middle East, their bit for Rex, Regina et patria.
    There be plenty of sand bucket stories .
    Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori
    Wilfred Owens et al.

  8. Hello Language Hat — what a pleasure to follow you back to your own site – and to discover it. Thanks for all this marvellous work and see you again either here or there
    Sir G

  9. Likewise — I just clicked on your name and found the best discussion I’ve seen of why art declines when dictatorships fall. (I tried to leave a comment but got a 404.)

  10. My worlds are colliding, again. I mean separate pockets on the blogs’ cloth. Gawain, haven’t you left the last comment, #28, on departed GodOfTheMachine?

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