Old Sana’a: A city moving toward extinction
When one passes through its imposing gate, Bab Al-Yemen, one feels that they are entering another world and a different age, an open museum containing Yemen’s long history.
A national survey conducted in 2008 indicated the city is inhabited by about 90,000 people and has 8,000 ancient houses distributed among 40 quarters, some with their own park, mosque and orchard.
City buildings are distinguished by their similar designs, the common design of their internal partitions and the name and function of the buildings’ units. They are also known for building foundations as well as the first and second floors from stone so that they can shoulder the immense pressure exerted by upper floors and resist floods from heavy rainfall. The facades of the houses were designed according to the movement of the sun to absorb light.
Ali Al-Muqri, a Yemeni writer, said the architecture of Sana’a is one of a kind.
“Ancient Yemenis intended for the buildings to be defensive to protect the city from attacks from neighboring areas or from outside Yemen.
“They also meant for these edifices to provide a space for comfort and relaxation. Most of the buildings were built up horizontally so that they don’t take up a large area, thereby saving space for gardens and farms.”
Al-Muqri said each part of Old Sana’a—gardens, mosques, houses and palaces—is integral to the other. “Visitors to Old Sana’a cannot help but notice the buildings, which reflect the creativity of ancient Yemenis. They use natural materials in an eye-catching manner,” he said.
The city is known for its markets and souqs, including several named after the handicraft they specialize in. There are 30 specialized souqs, named after goods like salt, jenabi (men’s traditional daggers) and silver. Some examples of outstanding architecture are represented in the city’s mosques, which boast elaborate arabesque ornamentation.
The mosques serve all matters of religious as well as daily life; mosque-goers perform their daily prayers there, recite or memorize the Holy Quran and receive lessons in hadith, sayings from the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, and tefseer, interpretations of the Quran.
Sana’a’s Grand Mosque is said to be the first mosque ever built in Sana’a. It was founded in 6 A.H. by Ali Ben Abi Taleb, who was sent by the prophet to call Yemenis to Islam, and who later became the fourth Muslim caliph. The mosque’s extensive library holds rare manuscripts, which include a copy of the Holy Quran written during the reign of Othman Ben Affan, the third caliph.
The city has a protective wall that dates back to the era of the ancient Sabean civilization. It once had seven gates, but they have all disappeared, save for Bab Al-Yemen.
According to Al-Muqri, the Ottoman occupation, tribal attacks on Old Sana’a and a rapidly expanding population have all played a role in the disintegration of the gates.
Efforts to preserve the city
Jameel Shamsan, director of the Public Authority for the Preservation of Antiquities at the Ministry of Culture, spoke about a number of problems facing Old Sana’a, including cars, which jam the city’s narrow streets, and the spread of street vendors, who also make movement difficult.
According to Shamsan, the Ministry of Endowment uses cheap materials when restoring the city’s mosques, warping their historical features. “Another snag,” continues Shamsan, “is that construction permits are granted to some of the building’s owners for building additions which use materials that are different from those used in the original building. These include cement and gravel blocks instead of traditional clay bricks, which affect the houses’ appearance and destroys their historical character.”
Moreover, inhabitants have problems with the sanitation system; the sewers are on the brink of overflowing, leaving a potential disaster in the city ever-lurking.
“Old Sana’a,” adds Shamsan, “needs serious attention from everyone to preserve it and keep it a tourist attraction. I believe that tourist landmarks and facilities need special attention to stop violations, and special personnel should be trained to preserve the city’s monuments. We also need an intensive media campaign to raise awareness of the urgency of preserving the Old City, as it is part of our heritage and timeless civilization.”
Sana’a has long been in the global spotlight. On Oct. 14, 1970, Italian director Paulo Bozzolini called upon UNESCO and other world organizations to help stop destruction of Sana’a’s protective wall. Beginning in 1980, UNESCO carried out a number of studies and led campaigns to protect the city. In 1986, Sana’a was put on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
However, if more is not done to preserve Old Sana’a, appreciated by tourists and visitors from all over the world, slow destruction of the city will continue.