When most people hear of the Bridge of Sighs, they automatically think of the bridge in Venice, Italy that stretches out across the Rio di Palazzo or Palace River. While their assumption is true, there is another bridge that goes by the same name located in Yemen’s ‘Amran governorate, 140 kilometers north of the capital Sana’a. The Bridge of Sighs is perhaps a fitting name as the astonishing sight will render anyone speechless.
The Bridge of Sighs also known as the Bridge of Shaharah was built in the 17th century. The footbridge constructed of limestone is located high up in the al-Ahnum mountains, named for al-Ahnum tribe, the indigenous inhabitants of these mountains. It lies at an elevation of 2600 meters (8500 feet) above sea level and connects two mountain ranges, Jabal al Emir and Jabal al Faish. The latter mountain is named after the Faish tribe who played a pivotal role in the foundation of the Sabean Kingdom. The bridge is 20 meters (65 feet) long and around 3 meters (9 feet) wide. It is suspended 200 meters (656 feet) above a gorge or canyon.
The architect of the footbridge is Salah al-Yaman who constructed the bridge at the order of a local leader, Al Usta Saleh. No one really knows exactly how the bridge was built especially at that time, but a few legends try to offer some explanations. One story goes that several bridges were built below the major bridge to help with the transfer of supplies up the rugged terrain. Remnants of the minor bridges are still present today. Another legend explains that al-Yaman is credited with building only ten meters of the bridge and the remaining ten meters were believed to have been completed by an unknown person from the adjacent mountain. It is widely known however that the bridge took over three years to construct and cost around 100,000 French Riyals, an enormous amount of money at the time.
Prior to the bridge’s construction, residents of the villages in the two separate mountain ranges could only make a long journey by foot down the mountain and hike back up to the villages of the nearby mountain. It was nearly impossible to bring back much needed supplies and the journey was treacherous. Local people had no choice than to sustain themselves for months at a time. The use of cisterns to irrigate the carefully terraced fields meant that people had enough water to grown their crops and feed their livestock simply to get by. Cisterns were constructed using the abundant limestone found in the mountains.
The bridge served as the only entry point to the town of Shaharah and is said to have been built to fight off Turkish invaders. The village was previously invaded by Ottoman Turks in the 1500s. One folktale says that the reason for the bridge is that it can be eliminated in just a few minutes in case of an imminent attack by invaders. It is no wonder then that Shaharah was surrounded by a fortified wall and included seven doors as entrances to the town. The village’s remote location left it inaccessible for centuries. Its isolation was only broken with the aid of Yemen’s air force during the country’s civil war in the 1960’s.
Shaharah, like many other Yemeni towns, made many contributions to Yemeni society. Historically, it was known as the stronghold of Imams or religious leaders notably of the Zaidi or Shi’a faith. Imam Qassim Bin Muhammad made Shaharah his capital and eventually fought off the Turkish invaders. The town became a major center for Islamic Zaidi teachings. After his death, his son built mosques and schools to spread the Zaidi faith in Yemen. For a remote town high up in the mountains, Shaharah is also known as the home of one of Yemen’s famous female poets, Zainab al-Shahariah. It is also the hometown of more recent political figures.
The sight of the stone bridge surrounded by mountain ranges as high up as the clouds is incredible. It is no wonder that its architect became disillusioned and lost his mind after the bridge was completed. Village elders have passed down the story through generations that Salah al-Yaman was simply unable to fathom the construction of such an elaborate bridge with only local supplies and traditional masonry tools. Viewing the bridge’s construction today one can certainly understand al-Yaman’s reaction to his masterpiece.
Before Yemen’s deteriorating security situation and today’s war between Houthi fighters of the Zaidi faith and a Saudi-led coalition, people from all over the globe would come to Yemen to experience the beauty of this extraordinary bridge, which has withstood the test of time. The mountainous villages are still inhabited and locals still cross the bridge today to get from one mountain range to the other as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. The Bridge of Sighs in the heart of Yemen is one of the country’s beloved treasures and arguable the most incredible landscape in the entire region.