This is the first view one gets of Jibla when approaching the city:
The city sprawls over a hill and so to move around the city, one is almost always moving up or down a slope:
Since the entrance to the city is at the bottom, one starts out by working their way up:
At the heart of Jibla is a mosque named after Jibla’s most famous resident – Queen Arwa…
Queen Arwa, born in 1048, was orphaned at an early age, but had the good fortune of being the niece of the then ruler of Yemen, Ali al Sulayhi. And perhaps even more fortunate for Arwa was whom her uncle had chosen to marry – Queen Asma binte Shihaab al Sulayhiyya…
Her aunt and uncle adopted her and brought her to the palace in what is now Sana’a’s Old City. Queen Asma served as an influential mentor to Arwa and made sure that she received a quality education. Arwa was said to be most keen on reading, history and poetry.
Arwa grew up to be quite attractive and at the age of 17, she married her cousin, Ahmad al Mukarram, the son of Queen Asma and King Ali. Her mahr, essentially a dowry for women, is said to have been the city of Aden.
They had four children together, but Arwa outlived all of them.
Not long after the marriage, in 1067, King Ali was murdered by the Najahids, a rival dynasty that ruled from Zabid, bringing her husband, Ahmad al Mukarram, to the throne. However, he had a weak personality and is also said to have been in such poor health that he was bedridden. Either way, he passed the reins of power to Arwa – a somewhat unique event in an Islamic world without many strong female leaders in its ranks.
One of the first things Arwa did as ruler was to move the capital from Sana’a to Jibla in order to be in a better position to seek her revenge against the Najahids (Jibla is closer to Zabid), but she also seems to have preferred the more simple, rural life of Jibla over the court intrigues of Sana’a.
After seeing to it that those who had murdered her uncle and father-in-law, King Ali, were killed, Arwa would go on to gain the deserved reputation as one of the best queens in history before eventually passing away in 1138.
Tina Zorman describes Queen Arwa’s impact on Jibla in greater detail:
Extremely intelligent herself, she believed in equality of the sexes and it was during the time of her rule that several schools and mosques for the girls were established in Jibla. She took care of agriculture and ordered the construction of terraces. In the time of her rule, several aqueducts were built that brought water to Jibla, the surrounding villages, and also to the Islamic center Yifrus, which lies 50 km south of Jibla. Water and water distribution were important tasks for her and she also wrote 2 books, one on irrigation and one on aquatic plants. Being educated and a poet, she was also a supporter of the arts.
In her spare time, Arwa also became the first woman in the history of Ismailism to obtain the high rank of hujja, the leader of the religious community (da’wa) in a particular region.
The mosque that bears her name used to be a palace, but was converted into its present form on her orders after a new palace was built on the highest point in Jibla.
The boy below is inviting us into the mosque to look around:
We accepted his invitation. This blindingly white view of one of the minarets was taken from inside the courtyard of the Queen Arwa Mosque:
This little girl was inside the courtyard of the mosque as well and was quite curious about us. Many girls in Jibla are still named “Arwa” after the beloved queen:
Another corner of the courtyard… Supposedly water has been piped into that pool for over 1,000 years now:
The interior of the Queen Arwa Mosque:
One of the men that welcomed us inside the mosque:
In one corner of the Queen Arwa Mosque is the tomb of Queen Arwa herself… On several occasions, fanatics have tried to damage or destroy the tomb as some view the Ismaili faith as heretical, but they have fortunately not succeeded yet:
Observant readers may have noticed a small doorway to the left of Queen Arwa’s tomb in the picture above. That doorway leads to a library of ancient manuscripts ranging in age from several hundred to almost a thousand years old.
One of the old boys at the mosque unlocked the library and retrieved some of the books inside to show us the artistry and craftsmanship that went into creating them:
Showing us another one of the books… Each page is covered in gold leaf and, obviously, these were all written and illustrated by hand – no printing presses for these books:
Back out on the streets and winding our way up to the highest point in Jibla:
The city has something of an upside down “U” shape and the highest point in the city is off of one of the legs of the upside down “U” and so the higher one ascends the leg of the “U”, the better views one gets of the heart of the city as it spills down the hillside:
When we visited, the main streets would sometimes be fairly empty, but every alleyway seemed to be bursting with activity:
One of the characters we became acquainted with in Jibla:
A view across the ravine to the other leg of the “U” formation of Jibla:
More views of Jibla:
The highest point in Jibla is occupied, understandably, by the palace of Queen Arwa, which still stands in remarkably good shape today.
This is a side view of her palace:
And this is how Queen Arwa’s Palace looks when viewed directly from the front… In Queen Arwa’s time, it was a luxurious palace and even had running water, supplied via an aqueduct in the back – an aqueduct which continues to function even today:
Some of the more contemporary homes occupying the prime location next to the palace of Queen Arwa:
As I mentioned earlier, everything in Jibla requires moving uphill or downhill and shortly after Queen Arwa’s Palace, the leg of the “U” that is the city of Jibla starts descending to the floor of the ravine:
Our driver was waiting for us at the bottom of this hill… Seconds after I took this picture, a large convoy of Houthis, overflowing from pickup trucks and sporting so many RPGs that the Toyotas looked vaguely like hedgehogs, surged up the hill:
I very much wanted a picture of the convoy of RPG-heavy Houthis, but the looks I received convinced me that this was not a group that would have fully appreciated the importance of generating interesting and exciting content for the dear readers of The Velvet Rocket.
Ibb is only a few kilometers away from Jibla and the Houthi rebels had just pushed into Ibb a few hours previously. As we learned later, the convoy we saw was the first group of Houthi rebels to enter Jibla. And, just as with Ibb, the residents of Jibla could not have been more indifferent to the arrival of the Houthis.
At the time the Houthi convoy moved through Jibla, the main Houthi force was encountering heavy resistance from fighters linked to al Qaeda in the nearby province of Al Bayda. I suspect the fierce expressions and jittery mood of the Houthi convoy passing through Jibla had a lot more to do with them moving on into battle in Al Bayda as reinforcements than with them trying to make a hostile first impression in Jibla.