Kalashnikovs, Souqs and Qat

by ChessBase
5/28/2004 – The Arab Countries Chess League was held in Ta'izz, which is an adventurous six-hour drive from San'a, one of the oldest cities in the world. GM Sergey Tiviakov undertook the trip to Yemen and has returned with stories of colorful market places, armed guards and chewing the local intoxicating weed. Here is Sergey's pictorial travelogue..

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Ta'izz is a small town about 200 km from San'a (Sanaa), the capital of the country. It lies 1700m above sea level in the mountains. San'a (2400 meters above the sea level) is one of the oldest cities in the world, more than 2000 years old. It is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

A typical view of San'a, as seen on lots of pictures and calendars

I spent three days in San'a, two days before and one day after the end of the tournament. I spent eight days in Ta'izz and one day in Dubai on my way back to Moscow together with Ehsan Ghaem Maghami from Iran on May 24.

Bab al-Yaman - "Gate of Yemen" the central square in San'a

If you believe the Yemenis, San'a is one of the first sites of human settlement, founded by Noah's son, Shem. Other sources suggest the city has been around since at least the 2nd century AD, and up until 1962 the city still nestled within its ancient walls, surrounded by green fields.

Vendors on the main streets, many houses are made of mud bricks

These days, San'a is a sprawling city of over a million people, but the walls still stand – many houses in the Old City are over 400 years old, and the area within the walls is the largest preserved medina in the Arab world.

A fine example of the Yemeni architecture

Everywhere you go you'll see facades ornamented with elaborate friezes, and beautiful takhrim windows with their delicate fretworking and coloured panes. Mosque minarets rise above the tower houses, and the city is sprinkled with bathhouses, some dating from the Ottoman occupation of Yemen.

Spices being sold at the Yemeni markets – here the Souq al-Milh

The central market, Souq al-Milh, is a collection of around 40 small souqs, each specialising in one product – you'll find vegetables, spices, qat, raisins, pottery, clothes, woodwork, copper and silver. In the Jambiya Souq you can watch craftsmen making complex ceremonial weapons. If you're a Muslim, you should visit Al-Jami' al-Kabir, the great mosque on the western side of Souq al-Milh. The mosque, which is closed to non-Muslims, was built around 630 AD, when Mohammed was still alive.

GM Sergey Tiviakov in the old town of San'a

The city's National Museum lives in the House of Good Luck, a former royal palace built in the 1930s. Its five floors have displays on the ancient kingdoms of Yemen (including Saba), the country's Islamic history and its modern folk culture. The Museum for Arts & Crafts, also in an old palace, specialises in artifacts from everyday Yemeni life, while the surprisingly good Military Museum has the low-down on the country's many wars.

Shopping street in the old town

You'll have no trouble finding a cheap hotel in San'a, but you may have trouble finding one you want to stay in. If you're prepared to pay a bit, you can stay in one of the city's converted tower houses. There are plenty of small restaurants scattered around the city, with the best conglomeration around Bab al-Yaman.

Pictures from San'a

Picturesque ornamental houses, luxurious cars

In a Souq al-Milh workshop we actually saw a camel

A Mirra (or ladan) vendor on the street

The old town is surrounded by the city walls. Until 1965 the whole city was inside these walls.

A tower in the walls of the old town

From San'a to Ta'izz

Our bus has just been prepared for the ride from San'a to Ta'izz, one of the most spectacular drives I have ever taken in my life. It took 6.5 hours for a 200 km journey.

Typical views of the Yemeni country side, shot out of the bus window

A typical Yemeni village the road San'a to Ta'izz

Terrace agriculture is very important. Every piece of land in the desert or in the mountains is being used to grow plants

View of the Yemeni village from the mountain pass (3100m above sea level)

Yemeni family in traditional clothing. They are holding twigs of "qat", a soft drug which I tried after the tournament in Ta'izz. Here's full information on qat.

Trying out a slightly antiquated mode of transport in Yemen

Traditional mud house in a Yemeni village

The tournament in Ta'izz

Arrival in Ta'izz, after a six-hour bus journey

That's our five-star Sofitel Hotel, which is situated on top of the mountain

The view from hotel, looking down on the town of Ta'izz

Hotel security. There are reputedly 30 million Kalashnikovs in a country with the population of 15 million

A view of the playing hall, with women in "purdah" playing. Chess in Yemen is incredibly popular not only among men.

Our "Eastern Company" chess club easily won the Arab countries league

Photography was not permitted in the playing hall or during the games, only at the prize-giving afterwards.


Dubai (or Dubayy, in Arabic: دبي) is both one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates on the Arabian Peninsula. The main city of the emirate is "Dubai City" if necessary to distinguish. I spent a day there on the way back to Moscow.

What a contrast: Dubai City, the Hong Kong of the of the Middle East

No mud brick houses in Dubai

My colleague GM Ehsan Ghaem Maghami from Iran

A monument to the World Chess Olympiad held in Dubai in 1986.

All pictures by Sergey Tiviakov


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