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The Palaces of Mukalla and Seiyun in Hadhramaut



Palast Al Mukalla Vorderansicht

Palast Al Mukalla Seitenansicht

Palast Al Mukalla Rückseite

Palast Seiyun Eingang außen

Palast Seiyun

Palast Seiyun Eingang innen



Traditionelle Kleider


Hadhramaut has attracted many famous travelers, scientists and writers, among them being Carsten Niebuhr, Freya Stark, Sir Wilfred Thesiger … to name only three. Two palaces impressed them all: The Al Qu’aiti Palace in Al Mukalla and the Al Kathiri Palace in Seiyun. Both families played an important role in Hadhramaut. The Al Kathiris ruled from Seiyun for about five hundred years - from 1400 to 1967; and the Al Qu’aitis ruled from Al Mukalla - from 1882 to 1967 as well. Like all sultans, the two dynasties built palaces.

Palace in Al Mukalla

The founder of the Qu’aiti dynasty Umar bin Awadh bin AbdAllah had migrated to India in search of fortune in 1813 after performing the Hajj. The younger brother of Sultan Ghalib’s great-grandfather was Sultan Omar Bin Awadh Al-Quaiti. He built the Mae’en Palace Al Mukalla in the 1920s. It took several years to build it; some walls were rebuilt many times, because - as they say - Sultan Omar was a perfectionist. The west wing and the top floor of the west wing were added later with the help of builders from Tarim. The palace has three floors, two towers and several balconies and verandas with excellent, traditional woodwork. There was a large fountain in the inner courtyard and until the 1960s; the State band would play around it on public occasions. The inner courtyard has seen many events and gatherings from coronation celebrations to welcoming VIP visitors and Eid celebrations, as one can see on the historic photographs on the website of the Al Qu’aiti family (www. http://alquaiti.com/home/). Part of the palace was turned into a museum after 1967.


I was standing in front of the entrance several times after my first visit in Hadhramaut in 1995, but never was it open. Therefore, I had to believe my local guide, describing the inside of the palace. He said that on the ground floor there were documents about the family’s history, historic photographs in one room and archaeological findings of the antique city of Shabwa in a second room. He told me that he liked most the “Red Saloon” in the first floor, the official meeting room of the Al Qu’aiti Government - with furniture coming from India and a room next door with the Sultan’s throne, a fine work made by Indian craftspeople as well. In the remaining rooms, you could see paintings and many private belongings of the Sultans. The room next to the Red Saloon houses a documentation of the Al Qu’aiti Sultans’ history, there are large paintings of all six Al Qu’aiti Sultans (1888-1967) and many original documents. This makes the museum special, because not only archaeological and ethnographical items are on display but documents about the history of the government as well.


In 2005, the palace was renovated and the outside painted all white and the wooden balconies green. I admired the Indian influenced architecture. Later Sultan Ghalib told me that traditionally there are long lasting relations between the Al Qu’aitis and India in general and Hyderabad in particular. I will never forget an old man who asked me in English if I would know who once lived in this building.  When I answered “yes - the Al-Qu’aiti Sultans”, he smiled and said: “I remember these good old times, as I was born in Al Mukalla and have never left the city”. 

A very nice description of the palace I read in Freya Stark’s book: The Southern Gates of Arabia – A journey in the Hadramaut. The third chapter of the book is called Bedouin Camps in Al Mukalla. The author describes the bedu caravans and the camels she saw from the window during the five days she spent in the Guesthouse of the Sultan’s Palace. She writes: “The palace is situated at the city’s west end, near the gate through which all the traffic passes. It is near the sea, all white and new with colorful glass windows and looks like a beach pavilion in Brighton. It looks best at night with full moon”. She had a very good time in the guesthouse; there were many servants who took care of her. Obviously, the best time was at night, it was quiet and she felt safe and was thinking about her location: the Indian Ocean in front of her, the desert behind her. 300 miles was the distance to Aden to the west and a much greater distance to Muscat (Oman) in the east and she was here as the only European being around – and that made her feel extremely happy.  In Al Mukalla the author attended a wedding and writes about this in chapter No 4 which is called “Life in the city”.  The description of the exotic ceremonies and the traditional dresses, hairstyles and movements of the women shows how impressed she was.

Freya Stark was the first Lady who travelled alone in this area and this was in 1934. When I did a similar trip 60 years later I thought about her many times and until today I am convinced that there is nothing more exciting (but safe) than travelling as a European woman alone in the Arab world in general and in a peaceful Yemen in particular.

You drive about 360 km to the North through the incredible landscape of Wadi Do’an, passing high rocks with small villages, like Al Garn on top and Sif in the  green oasis, Al Hajarei, Hawra (with snow white Ali’s tomb), Ibna Aifan, some with wonderful several stories high houses built of mud and stone in traditional Hadhramaut architecture and reach …



The most wonderful and monumental building in Seiyun is a white fort, which was built on a hill in the 18th century. After many modifications, in 1873 it became the official residence and palace for the Al Kathiri Sultans. They say that it is the biggest palace in Yemen. The palace dates back in its present state to the late 1920s. It consists of several buildings; the highest building has five floors, is 34 meters high and has 110 rooms. Today the palace houses two museums and a library.


The building material is mud bricks. They are not visible, as white paint covers the walls - only the round columns are made of stone. There are altogether 300 windows, decorated with black wooden window shutters surrounded by clear blue wall frames. The Sultan and his family used the palace until 1967. In 1985, the Soviet Joint Mission established the museums. When I was there in 2005, I was lucky: the entrance was open and in the ethnological museum, I saw a wonderful collection of black and white photographs taken by Freya Stark in the years 1935 until 1938, this exhibition was sponsored by Dr. Abdulaziz bin Ali Al Quaiti.  In addition, there was an unforgettable collection of historic photographs taken by the Dutch Daniel van der Meulen between 1930 and 1940. He had been Konsul in Jeddah and was travelling at that time together with the German geographer Hermann von Wissman in Yemen and Aden. What was very special concerning this photo-exhibition was the fact that there were not only photographs from Yemen and Aden, but photographs from Mecca as well. This was for the first time that I saw so many historic photographs of Mecca. The beauty of the traditional architecture style houses made of the local stones in the old city of Mecca and the mosque with the Kaaba, surrounded by several small buildings that no longer exist today, impressed me very much. Later I met this famous collection again in Jeddah and in Abu Dhabi. In the museum, I saw a rich exhibition of traditional items and one special room was dedicated to the topic of a traditional marriage with many precious dresses and unique pieces of silver jewelry. In the inner courtyard of the palace, there were more examples of famous traditional Yemeni handicraft and a huge collection of female traditional Hadhramaut dresses for special occasions, usually in black, decorated with design of silver threads. The second museum is an archaeological museum with items from sabaean and himyarite times.  


I remember all these things until today. I will never forget the incredible, beautiful view over the surrounding rocks, the city of Seiyun and the colorful and lively market - depending on the location of the terrace of your choice near the top of the round columns of the palace.


Summary: Both palaces are not only fine pieces of architecture but also witnesses of history and they should be kept in excellent condition for the future generations in Hadhramaut, Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula and the world.


Text and Photographs: Barbara Schumacher, Member of the Advisory Board of the the German-Arab Association (DAG)                    


Jemen-Hadhramaut-Vortrag_01.pdf713 K


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