Magazine article Geographical

Nectar of Allah: Honey Has a Unique Place in Islamic Culture, and Yemen Produces the Rarest and Most Extensive Honey in the World. Prized as a Delicious, All-Powerful Medicine, Beauty Product and Aphrodisiac, It's the Subject of a Thriving Trade

Magazine article Geographical

Nectar of Allah: Honey Has a Unique Place in Islamic Culture, and Yemen Produces the Rarest and Most Extensive Honey in the World. Prized as a Delicious, All-Powerful Medicine, Beauty Product and Aphrodisiac, It's the Subject of a Thriving Trade

Article excerpt

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It brings wealth to merchants; doctors consider it a universal remedy. Beekeepers speak of it as a gift from Allah. Women believe in its ability to reduce infertility and men praise its aphrodisiac qualities. Its taste, purity, rarity and medical applications all contribute to making it the world's most expensive honey.

This honey, from Wadi Do'an, a valley in the Hadramawt region of eastern Yemen, is as precious as oil. A kilogram can be sold for up to USS100 [50 [pounds sterling]] in Yemen, while prices reach US$200 in Dubai, where sheikhs feed it to their camels before a race, convinced of its energy-boosting qualities. This combination of rational explanations and mysterious beliefs make it a genuine liquid gold.

Honey has been deeply rooted in Arabic culture for centuries. Its medical applications are mentioned in the Qur'an, n a surah called An-Nahl ('The Honey Bee'), and the Prophet Mohammed is also said to have recommended its consumption to cure stomach ailments. Arabic physicians have studied its medical benefits: in the Hadramawt town of Tarim, visitors to the local library can view the Targig Al Hassal, a compilation of honey treatments written by scholars Abdallah Ibn Mohammed and Al Fairous Abadi during the 14th century. Honey also features in Yemeni poetry dating back hundreds of years, where it's praised as an embodiment of love, beauty and pleasure.

HIVES AND GUNS

Each October, thousands of semi-nomadic beekeepers converge in Wadi Do'an, birthplace of Yemeni honey, with their hives harnessed to their trucks. They move the hives five times a year across Yemen according to the flowering seasons in order to enjoy five harvests annually. In this valley in the Hadramawt desert, the thorny jujube tree grows, the flowers of which contribute to one of the most precious honey varieties out of the dozen produced locally.

Simple tents cover the valley for more than 150 kilometres. Hundreds of thousands of hives are piled up under the trees with bees buzzing furiously around them. Beekeepers look after their swarms with Kalashnikovs slung across their shoulders. Every man in Yemen carries a gun--it's ingrained in the national culture (Yemen has the second most heavily armed population in the world after the USA). And while there is no 'honey war' between rival beekeepers, competition is fierce.

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Beekeepers often come from poor and under-educated families with a tradition of apiculture passed down through the generations. The honey they produce is expensive, however, and a Yemeni beekeeper earns a good living. 'A beekeeper is a gold-seeker: I am respected and rich,' says 44-year-old Salem Shamlan. The honey rush has begun.

In mid-November, the honeycomb is extracted and sun-filtered. The liquid is packaged and escorted to the markets of Hadramawt. Merchants from the Persian Gulf rush to the souk of El Qatan, a dusty town and the local honey hub. Traders examine the amber shades of the nectar, appreciating its fluidity. They dip their index fingers into the honey and savour its unique taste. Its spicy notes remain in the throat long after being swallowed, and its thick texture delivers a delicious warm sensation.

The honey is then dispatched to the larger cities. In the 200 stores of Sana'a', the Yemeni capital, with their flashy mirrors and varnished panelling, merchants offer tastings of the different vintages, distinguishing one from the other as subtly as for French wines.

Of the 12 or so varieties of honey produced locally, the most famous and expensive are those derived solely from jujube or acacia nectar. The least expensive is a blend of nectars from several wildflowers. Both jujube and acacia honey taste and look like caramel butter: jujube honey's taste and texture are very sweet, whereas acacia honey is stronger and darker. These particular varieties are highly prized not only for their flavour but also for their purity (they are made using traditional methods and without chemicals or fertilisers) and rarity. …

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