Markets have always been a place of encounter and exchange. Trade has brought people together from diverse backgrounds, religions, and political affiliations for millennia. So, it’s no surprise that the disruption and occasional destruction of a marketplace are considered serious offences.
The marketplace is a public space where people benefit from commerce while ensuring their survival, and Yemeni markets are no exception. It offers a chance to express one’s identity, whether it’s a choice of clothing, perfume, or spices. It provides a sense of belonging when loved ones shop together, and a spirit of freedom and exploration through ordinary or unusual discoveries.
The relationship between buyer and seller is based on trust that both parties will respect rules of negotiation and transaction. While different vendors might vie for a buyer’s attention, they support one another the rest of the time. They share meals, discuss their troubles and joys, and keep an eye on each other’s shops.
The bustle of transactions may give markets a chaotic appearance on the surface, but they are really places of order; transgressions are quickly resolved so that the sanctity of justice and respect remains intact. The markets profiled here are witness to generations of coexistence among villages and communities where Yemenis of all backgrounds work and thrive together. They are a testament to daily perseverance and solidarity.
Market Name: Al-Hosun (after the market’s two ancient forts)
Location: Marib Governorate
Area: 2.5 km
Visitors: 300-500 per day, up to 1,000 Fridays
For sale: Grains, vegetables, clothes, local lard, other foodstuffs
The first sight for most visitors entering the ancient al-Hosun market is a camel moving in a continuous, circular motion in a space no more than four meters wide. For hours at a time, the camel’s movement rotates the crank of an old sesame press. This scene is a hallmark of the market, with sesame oil one of its most important products.
Ahmed Da’da’, 50, has operated his sesame press at the market for nearly 35 years. To see his delight in the sound of his camel’s hooves is to understand what it takes to produce pure, natural sesame oil.
Known locally as jaljal or jaljlan, sesame seeds are first cleaned of dirt and any other impurities. Then they’re ground in the press with small amounts of hot water. “The longer the camel walks, the more sesame we squeeze, and the more oil we sell,” said Da’da’. If the camel seems about to stop, Da’da’ calls out to him with a prolonged “hey!” to keep him going. “We cover his eyes to keep him from getting dizzy,” Da’da’ explained. Per day, the press produces up to 25 litres of sesame oil, which is a staple in Marib, used in different sweet and salty dishes. It’s also used to relieve joint pain.
The name al-Hosun is derived from ancient twin forts that stood close to the geographical centre of the Marib Governorate. One of the oldest popular markets in the region, it was a tax-free market for the sale of goods from southern Yemen and Saudi Arabia for nearly a century until the 1920s. Hundreds of Yemenis flocked to al-Hosun from surrounding governorates at the time.
No one should be rejected or degraded because of their nationality, profession or social background. Co-existence means refraining from violence against others.”
Fahd al-Ayal, 25, cameraman
Wandering around al-Hosun today, it’s not unusual to come across migrants from neighbouring Somalia or Ethiopia, working in various occupations for day wages. Gashmatu Cropel, one of over 2,000 Ethiopians living and working around al-Hosun, said the market has become a meeting point for migrants. Some of us go on to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Others decide to stay here and work.” Al-Hosun’s hospitable atmosphere is the reason why Cropel stayed. “People treat us well here,” he said. “They give us food and clothing.”
Since the market’s establishment in the 1930s, it has always been a safe place, according to Sheikh Mohsen bin Jalal, who’s followed al-Hosun’s development for decades. “If anyone is treated unfairly here, the wrongdoer is subject to heavy fines by the market elders,” he said.
Given the growing multiplicity of markets and their various specialities, such as sheep and produce, al-Hosun has seen a significant decline in the last twenty years. However, although there are fewer visitors today than in past decades, crowds still fill al-Hosun market every Friday, just like the good old days. For many shoppers, Ahmed Da’da’ ’s sesame press will be their first stop.
Market Name: Al-Shanini (after the old city gate at the market entrance)
Location: Taiz Governorate
Established: 17th century
Area: Along 500 meters, from Bab Musa to al-Bab al-Kabeer.
Visitors: Nearly 200 per day
For sale: Traditional agricultural tools, pottery, clay stoves and other kitchenware, straw products
The oldest and most charismatic vendor at al-Shanini market remembers how his father took him shopping at an unnamed marketplace when he was a child.
“It was an agricultural area,” said Qaed Hazaa, “surrounded by old dwellings of a few households.”
The inhabitants of the old city and nearby villages used to meet here twice a week until the place became a permanent market, later known as al-Shanini.
Today, the man who came here as a boy is a 77-year-old shop owner who sells spices and collectables from the community of Udayna and its rural surroundings.
I have travelled in several countries, but I’ve never had the same experience as I do at this market. I’ve been coming here for forty years. It reconnects me with my ancestral heritage and the spirit of love and harmony that prevails at this market.”
Abd al-Rahman Aoun, 55, at-Turbah City, southern Taiz Governorate
Hazaa’s neighbours say he’s the first to arrive at al-Shanini every morning. Uncovering his display of anis, dried garlic, paprika, cumin, and a variety of peppers, he greets visitors with a shy expression and takes them on a journey through time with stories of market encounters over a lifetime.
“The market was an open space for people from all regions of Taiz every week,” he says, “before it turned into a daily market.”
Al-Shanini market extends for 500 meters between Bab Musa and al-Bab al-Kabeer from east to west. It is adjacent to what was formerly known as the city’s wall from the north. From the south, it’s linked by arterial corridors to the historic fabric market.
The name al-Shanini is derived from the gate that was built at the old city wall at the eastern entrance of the market. Some attribute the name to Sheikh Mohammad Ali al-Shanini, a sage whose mosque was demolished over half a century ago and later replaced by shops.
In its heyday nearly four centuries ago, the market was the chief supply source for the city households. Today it specialises in traditional crafts that are becoming scarce: agricultural tools, pottery, clay stoves, kitchenware, and straw-woven head coverings.
The months of Sha’ban and Ramadan are peak shopping periods at al-Shanini, though not without the crippling impact of the war that has dragged on for six years. Still, the market is open every day from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m., and customers include people from surrounding villages who come to stock up on supplies.
Al-Shanini is known for its diversity of professions, variety of wares, and mutual respect. As with other old markets around Yemen, vendors honour the long tradition of their ancestors to work less in competition than in partnership with one another. No matter where in the country they come from, they are invested in each other’s well-being.
Name: Al-Thehel Market
Location: Raymah Governorate
Established: Around 1620
Area: 1 km
Visitors: 400-600 per week
For sale: Traditional crafts such as ceramic utensils, leather and frond tools, produce
Al-Thehel market sits atop the highest mountain of the Raymah governorate. This setting made it an ideal location for the Ottomans as a military base when they ruled Yemen in the 16th and 18th centuries.
The market connects three of Raymah districts, where rough roads snake through mountains, valleys, and the villages scattered along the way. Many years ago, each market in the governorate was assigned a particular day of the week according to the arrival of goods from the port of Hodeida. This tradition persists; al-Thelel is open only on Mondays, when people flock from surrounding areas to stock up on supplies. Many families participate in the qatfa, a shopping list for an entire village, especially households without men who are able to come to the market. One young man is assigned to take care of the qatfa, buying and delivering whatever these families need.
Coexistence means loving for your brother what you love for yourself and keeping others free from harm as much as you can.”
Al-Hajj Ahmed al-Nahari, 70, tool vendor
The vendors designate a “market chieftain” to run al-Thehel, someone from a family living in the nearby castle. This traditional position dates back to Ottoman rule and continued under local imam rule before the 1960s, when sheikhs and sayyids (Yemenis claiming descent from the prophet Mohammed) were assigned administrative tasks and other positions of authority in their respective regions. These tasks included estimating crop revenues, collecting zakat, or charity donations, charging duties from vendors, and sending the proceeds to regional governors.
Management of al-Thehel market also involves resolving disputes and other problems; a responsibility passed down through generations. According to Yemeni custom, any person or group accused of causing trouble in the market is fined with hajar, the practice of payment in the form of a cow, followed by a public apology. The wrongdoer is usually pardoned, and the cow is returned to its owner, but sometimes a penalty is issued. In those cases, the cow is slaughtered, and its meat distributed among everyone working in the market.
As with other rural markets, the state also exerts authority at al-Thehel. It’s represented in municipal offices, such as those in charge of duties, fees and taxes, hygiene, and safety.
Despite the modern expansion and diversity of al-Thehel, the market retains its original character by upholding long-held traditions and featuring authentic local products such as ceramic utensils, leather and frond tools, and produce. Even with the presence of four-wheel-drive vehicles, it’s not unusual to see an older form of transport: colourfully decorated donkeys ambling along on the old, rough roads.
Village elders, trustees, and religious affairs authorities gather at public market spaces such as al-Thelel to discuss issues of public concern. From the old mill to the medieval stalls, the legacy of al-Thehel market is full of stories of coexistence. In this spirit, the market resembles a giant dwelling, where everyone is welcome.
Name: Shibam Market, Halwah Market
Location: Al-Shihr, Hadhramaut Governorate
Established: 17th century (Shibam Market), early 1900s (Halwah Market)
Area: 200 m (Halvah Market), roughly 1 km (Shibam Market)
Visitors: Dozens per day
For sale: Garments, cosmetics, perfume (Shibam market); as-Shihri candy (Halwah market)
For nearly four centuries, whiffs of frankincense, myrrh, aloe, amber have wafted through the air at the Shibam market. This centre of commerce is the pride of al-Shihr, one of the oldest ports on the Arabian Peninsula.
Also known as Souad, al-Shihr lies roughly 70 kilometres east of Mukalla, capital of Hadhramaut Governorate. It’s another hub of coexistence where Yemeni traders gather from all over the country.
Since then, this historical landmark, which also specialises in the sale of linens, had been evolving – until it was decisively altered amid the creep of commercial urbanisation amid the ancient cityscape.
Coexistence means adapting to any living conditions, whether decent or poor.”
Zainab, 29, Ghil Bawazir
Not far from the Shibam market is Halwah Market, the most prominent place to buy Hadrami sweets. It was established in the early 20th century to sell fish and produce but later became a hub of the confectionery trade.
Shoppers are drawn to the shiny black, white and red al-Shihri candies spread over dukkak, the display platforms vendors use to hawk their traditional wares from every stall. Speakers of the Shehri dialect are known for their sense of humour, lust for life and overall optimism – often in defiance of adversity.
That optimism was severely tested on February 24, 2013, when the market was destroyed in an arson attack. The fires were set as a response to Yemen’s political transition following the 2011 uprising and the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh the following year. The flames forced the Halwah market to close for one year. It reopened after the local authorities finished restoration work.
After six years of war that have since ravaged the country and its economic resources, the Halwah market, like so many others, has been hit by economic stagnation, with visitor numbers dropping, except for special occasions such as official holidays.
Name: Al-Mulah Market
Location: Old city centre, Sana’a
Area: 62,000 m
Established: About 980 BCE
Visitors: About 2,000 per day
For sale: Spices, grains, coffee, dry produce and other foodstuffs, silver and Yemeni agate, clothing, traditional daggers
Al-Mulah is derived from al-Badai’e al-Maleha, or “beautiful goods.” It’s a fitting name; amid the dizzying array of merchandise for sale – from ceremonial daggers to coffee, cosmetics, spices, gold, silver, pottery, fabrics and honey – there’s nothing that isn’t pleasing to the eye.
The world of commerce within al-Mulah, one of the oldest markets in the Arabian Peninsula, enjoyed such high regard that in the early 1960s, no merchant was granted permission to open a shop until he (yes, men only) had studied transaction jurisprudence and passed a test on the subject.
This requirement was later dropped. But al-Mulah’s image as the vibrant heart of coexistence in the old city of Sana’a goes back almost 3,000 years.
Since its early days, the market has been governed by several regulatory systems, both before and after the advent of Islam. One legislative document concerning al-Mulah, according to Umm al-Razzaq Jahaf, Deputy of the General Authority for the Preservation of Historic Cities, is over 300 years old.
Al-Mulah is a bustling place of harmonious interaction that embodies the essence of coexistence that most Yemenis cherish.
“Merchants help one another by sending customers to neighbouring stalls once they’re satisfied with their own sales,” said Abdulrahman al-Ddubab, a blacksmith shop merchant. “This is to help them make a living as well.”
I greet visitors with a handful of nut snacks and then chat with them.”
Al-Hajj Abu al-Arabi, 70, nut vendor
Until the end of the 19th century, over 40 specialised markets flourished in the al-Mulah complex. Twenty-eight remain today. For Yemenis, they serve not only as centres of commerce but as refuges of sectarian diversity. Long ago, Muslims and Jews worked side by side in various professions such as silversmithing and fabric dyeing.
Some of the most popular markets within al-Mulah sell Esswab and Janabi, the decorative Yemeni daggers and sheaths worn by men below the belt or at waist level. The traditional dagger underwent a gradual transformation from a weapon of war to regalia for indicating one’s class or tribe; it ultimately became a symbol of cultural pride. Some of them sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on their age or previous owners.
Other shops dazzle the senses in myriad ways: at al-Fetla Market, where sewing notions are sold, brightly coloured woollen threads used in beading catch a visitor’s eye, followed by the glittering sights of al-Mekhlas Market, whose once-dominant silver shops have given way to gold dealers. A few steps away at al-Najjarin, the carpenters’ market, the ears buzz with the sounds of saws and other machines used for crafting doors and windows in the classic Yemeni architectural style.
Nearby are tool repair shops, cobblers, boot sellers, ghee stands, a butchery, and al-Luqma, where hungry shoppers can stop for al-ganam, a local shish-kebab, or al-bir’i, a stewy legume and vegetable soup served with al-zalabiya, a fried dough, or bread.
All these markets give the old city of Sana’a its unique character that links Yemenis to their heritage in a place that has been a stage of cooperative coexistence over millennia.
Name: Al-Bohra (Gujarati for merchant)
Location: Old city of Crater in Aden Governorate
Area: About 1.5 km
Visitors: 500-1,000 per day
For sale: Incense, oud perfume, pastry, spices, kitchenware, electric tools, metalware
The calls of vendors rise from every aisle of the al-Bohra market. Holding out samples of their wares, traders stand by their wooden carts to lure customers.
The air is heavy with the aroma of local pastry, blended with incense and spices. These scents veil dark reminders of conflict when the smell of blood, and not oud perfume, wafted from countless corners of Aden during recent fighting. Yet, the city’s resilient nature and vibrant signs of life help many overcome the sorrow of loss or displacement.
Al-Bohra has shoppers and vendors from different Yemeni governorates. This is not strange in Aden, the city of coexistence. Politics and wars have divided the country, but the market brings us together. It’s more suitable for families with modest incomes.”
Dina al-Khidr, home-maker, 36
Spread through several streets and alleys, al-Bohra market is always crowded, especially when temperatures cool down after hot Aden afternoons. The air is refreshing, and voices become louder as they mix with the hum of generators.
A salient impression for visitors is the atmosphere of mutual assistance and cooperation among merchants. “We all support each other here,” said Abdullah al-Kabir, 60, who sells kitchenware. He looks back fondly on the market’s more traditional appearance in the past; today’s touches of modernity mingle with old trading styles as shoppers’ needs and consumption habits change. Old incense and spice vendors share the market space with modern blacksmith shops and electronics stores.
The name of the market is borrowed from a district in the old city of Crater in the Aden governorate, where most merchants and other residents belong to the minority Ismaili Muslim sect known as Bohra. Despite the departure of most of al-Bohra families from Yemen, the name of the market stuck, a reflection of the coexistence among various religious communities throughout the city’s history.
A large number of modern commercial centres have recently opened. Still, al-Bohra market maintains its authentic heritage as a city landmark, even as it houses banks, travel agencies, and electrical and cyber shops. Images of the market in old photographs bear proof of the dramatic changes at al-Bohra, due to urban development and building renovation after the damage caused by fighting in 2015.
Most of the merchants of the Bohra sect, along with those of Indian and Persian origin, have since sold their properties and left the city. Mohammad Hussein, 43, a Bohra incense vendor, has witnessed the many changes of the market. “Now there are Yemeni vendors from different regions in the market,” he said, “especially after the war drove some of the Bohra community to leave.” But Hussein decided to stay.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t find better opportunities somewhere else,” he said. “I’m already settled in my trade – it’s a safe bet for me.”
By evening, al-Bohra market takes on a poetic air, pulsing with the voices of vendors and shoppers in a cadence of continuation of life. In a place that represents Yemeni unity, anyone who comes here is bound to find whatever they need, no matter what time of year.