Taiz’s ancient structures under threat

Published on 30 October 2014 in Culture
Mohammad Al-Khayat (author), Mohammad Al-Khayat (photographer)

Mohammad Al-Khayat


Mohammad Al-Khayat

Al-Mudhafar Mosque, one of the few distinctive old architectural structures in Taiz, has not been well maintained by the government.

Al-Mudhafar Mosque, one of the few distinctive old architectural structures in Taiz, has not been well maintained by the government.

Laying within the old quarters of Taiz are beautifully designed houses with brown bricks and impeccable white mosques. Once hailed as the culture capital of Yemen during the Rasulid dynasty (1229—1454), Taiz is currently struggling to maintain its architectural heritage.

Located in the Yemeni highlands, Taiz remained a walled city until 1948, after which Imam Ahmed made it the second capital of Yemen and allowed for it’s expansion beyond its historical core.

Sana’a-based historian Nebras Anam recounts, “old Taiz city had two gates, Al-Bab Al-Kabir [the Great Gate] and Bab Musa [Moses’ Gate]. The city started and ended between those two gates. As night descended it’s gates closed and no one could enter anymore.”

Over the past decades, Taiz has spread far beyond it’s two ancient gates. New houses were built, while old ones increasingly degenerated.

While unprecedented urbanization processes led to the mushrooming of new buildings in Taiz, the city center has maintained some of its cultural trademarks. Next to a small number of ancient houses, the city prides itself on some renowned mosques, including Al-Ashrafiyya and Al-Mudhafar mosques, as well as the Qubat Al-Husainiyya (Al-Husainiyya dome, which is a shrine).

Comparing the old center of Taiz with the ancient buildings in Sana’a, Anam points out that the buildings in Taiz are not as well preserved. Many houses have collapsed, forcing the occupants to demolish what was left and build modern houses in their place. What many find regrettable is that these new buildings lack the distinctive architectural design of traditional Taizi houses.

For many families, their homes are reminiscent of shared memories and much more than a functional shelter. While many residents do not want to leave or replace their old homes, they struggle to maintain the traditional houses they live in. “This house has been passed down from generation to generation,” said Mohammad Al-Aghwani, a resident in Taiz’s old city center. However, “it was built of clay, which risks falling down during rainy periods.”  

“I had to renovate this house so that I could live in it with my kids,” Al-Aghwani explained, adding that he replaced the clay with cement and bricks to keep the costs low.

Al-Aghwani is not the only resident in old Taiz who has rebuilt and renovated his home by using cement bricks. In fact, architect Marco Livadiotti, who lives and works in Sana’a, said only around 50 old houses remain in Taiz’s old city to this day.

While people’s choice of material is driven by their wish to save money, Livadiotti denies any notable price difference between cement and clay. “If you compare the prices between earth and cement, there isn’t much of a difference. In fact, the use of clay makes the house aesthetically appealing, and unlike houses built with cement and concrete they last longer.”

Comparing basic restoration costs of a three-story house with eight rooms in clay and cement, he explained that “the former will cost $15,000 to 20,000, while the latter would cost $30,000.”

Another advantage of clay, Livadiotti said, is the durability of a clay house, which can last up to 1,000 years if maintained regularly, unlike cement and concrete which lasts only about 100 years.  

“Unfortunately, people are not aware of these differences,” Livadiotti regrets.

Mustafa Al-Hamadi, a contractor who demolishes old houses for a living, contradicts Livadiotti, calling “a modern style” renovation more affordable. Most people who are using cement and bricks, he says, are from a relatively poor background and own nothing other than their homes. “They rush to rebuild them, using affordable material,” Al-Hamadi says.  

He explained that the reason building or restoring an old house with traditional clay is that few people know how to properly construct clay houses and thus the cost of labor is much higher than modern brick houses.

Rather than keeping and restoring old houses and their unique architectural characteristics, Al-Hamadi says, it is only “logical for people to tear down those homes and rebuild new ones before any untoward events occur. Or do you want the owners of ancient houses to wait until the house falls down on their heads?”

Lacking restoration programs

Disappointed with the government’s attitude towards restoration of old buildings, Mohammad Al-Rufai, a resident in Taiz’s old center, recounted the collapse of the city’s architectural heritage.

“We thought the country would take care of these buildings,” he says. “We were ready to sell them to the government so that it could turn them into museums or at least renovate them to preserve the history of this city which could become a tourist attraction like old Sana’a.”

“However when we discovered the government’s negligence towards preserving ancient buildings, including Al-Mudhafar Mosque and Qubat Al-Husainiyya, we realized the state is not interested in preserving landmarks and we became frustrated,” he added.

Livadiotti agrees, saying that contrary to Sana’a, there are no protection laws implemented in Taiz.

The General Organization for the Protection of the Historical Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY) never concentrated on Taiz, he said, because there is very little left to protect. “So they do not care. In Taiz they only care about the mosques,” he explained.

GOPHCY is a governmental body which belongs to the Ministry of Culture and is responsible for developing and enforcing regulations regarding the protection of historical buildings in Yemen.

According to Al-Rufai, the disappearance of old Taiz began slowly and went unnoticed for a long time. Even Qubat Al-Husainiyya, a shrine dating back to AD 1581, was neglected, he complained. Since 2011 it is serving as a storage area, used to stockpile wheat sacks.

Ali Al-Qumairy, who is the one using Qubat Al-Husainiyya as a storage space, finds what he is doing “better than leaving the place abandoned.”

Despite the fact he occupies it now, Al-Qumairy assured that if the government wanted to renovate the shrine and use it as a museum or anything similar, he would be more than happy to evacuate it.

Aous Matura, a youth activist in Taiz, added “the youth are more than willing to help [preserve Taiz’s old city], but they have no support. The state and all its institutions have completely ignored Taiz.”

Sheikh Abdallah Ameer, the under-secretary of Taiz’s governor, admits “there is a major lack in efforts to restore ancient landmarks in Taiz. This lack of effort needs to be attributed to the budget deficit.”

“While old Sana’a is a UN world heritage, old Taiz is not. Hence old Sana’a has benefitted from the budgets given to maintain the city’s historical appearance,” Ameer added.