Sana’a’s Old City: Prospects grim for cultural preservation

Published on 8 January 2015 in Culture
Ali Aboluhom (author), Ali Aboluhom (photographer)

Ali Aboluhom


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Ali Aboluhom


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Walking through the streets of the Gezali neighborhood within Sana’a’s historic old city, Lutf Al-Mahdi, a local resident and reporter, stopped in front a home and looked at it with a mixture of perplexity and annoyance. Built in a noticeably more modern style than those around it, it stood out like a sore thumb. Its neatly plastered walls built using dark bricks were an unwelcome change to the traditional, lighter-colored bricks used to construct the buildings next door.

“I don’t know why no one’s done anything about this,” Al-Mahdi said. “The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the government shouldn’t allow structures like this to be built.” UNESCO first named Sana’a’s old city a world heritage site in 1986, two years after it launched a campaign to spread awareness worldwide about the need to safeguard the site.

Al-Mahdi says things were different when he was a child. “People used to work hard to preserve this area,” he said. “Locals wouldn’t have allowed anyone to damage or alter buildings, or build additions and new structures that didn’t match the style of the old city.”

A rapidly growing population, combined with an economy in shambles, means families adding annexes to their homes—often resorting to using cheaper construction materials.

With so many conflicts plaguing the country, preserving traditions has taken a backseat to practicality and affordability. “We’ve gone through crisis after crisis,” Al-Mahdi said. “People are apathetic.”

According to the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities of Yemen, (GOPHCY)—an office within Yemen’s Ministry of Culture that is tasked with preserving the architectural style of the old city and other areas throughout Yemen—the use of certain materials in the construction or renovation of buildings is regarded as a major violation.

Naji Thawabeh, the chairman of GOPHCY, says that violations range from the minor to the major.  

“Minor violations would be if someone altered a window or a door, while moderate violations would be an addition to a building constructed out of modern materials,” he said. “Major violations include the construction of entirely new building in any style other than that of traditional old Sana’a. These [major violations] are rare.”

According to Thawabeh, roughly 80 percent of infringements registered by the organization are minor, 15 percent are moderate and the remaining five percent are considered major.  

Home in Sana’a’s Old City built in violation of the neighborhood’s traditional architectural style.

Home in Sana’a’s Old City built in violation of the neighborhood’s traditional architectural style.

Saeed Al-Shami, the head of the GOPHCY inspection department, told the Yemen Times that all registered cases are referred to the old city’s Local Administrative Council. “The inspection department visits sites that we’ve received tips about from locals. We then write up reports that we forward to the council,” he said.

Mohammad Hizam, the public relations officer for old Sana’a’s Local Administrative Council, claims the council sends its own inspection team to the site after receiving a report from GOPHCY, and gives violators deadlines to correct the violations. Otherwise, the case goes to court. But most cases, he says, go unnoticed.

“We do the best we can with the reports given to us by GOPHCY, however citizens don’t cooperate the way they used to,” Hizam said. “Neither we nor the organization have enough man power to detect new cases on our own.”

Thawabeh told the Yemen Times that GOPHCY has tried to work with citizens who would like to make renovations to their homes, by offering to oversee and pay for part of the costs, as a means of bringing the practice out from out of the shadows, and allowing it to be done by trained professionals.

“This way, professionals affiliated with GOPHCY can undertake the renovations, in a way that won’t damage the building,” he said.

Livadiotti Marco, an Italian architect who has lived and worked in Sana’a’ for the last 30 years, has spent much of his life chronicling, studying and helping to preserve the old city, along with other historical sites in Yemen. He says that GOPHCY is doing too little too late.

“We don’t need money to preserve our history, we need legislation,” he said. “What is happening is tragic.”

According to the UNESCO, the protection of old Sana’a is mandated by the Antiquities Law of 1997 and the Building Law of 2002.

GOPHCY and the Local Administrative Council, working hand in hand with the public prosecutor, have the authority to issue warnings for those who commit violations based on GOPHCY’s standards.

The bricks used to construct the first story on each of these buildings violate the traditional Old City style architecture.

The bricks used to construct the first story on each of these buildings violate the traditional Old City style architecture.

However according to Al-Shami, “If someone had gone as far as to commit a major violation—building an entirely new building that violated our regulations, there was nothing we could do,” he said.

“We couldn’t tear such buildings down, because of collateral damage that could be caused to surrounding buildings. We ended up punishing small time violators while letting the big fish get away.”

In 2013, GOPHCY proposed legislation that would grant the prosecutor the power to issue court orders to have buildings that violated GOPHCY regulations torn down. According to Al-Shami, it would provide the organization with a larger budget that would enable it to reconstruct buildings, as well as repair surrounding buildings that are damaged in the process.  

The law has been before the Parliament since 2013. Al-Shami speculates that it will be passed in 2015.

Marco is skeptical that the law could have much effect—if it is even passed.

“There’s no political will regarding this issue, and the government is not treating this as a priority,” he said. “In 2004, the government forced all old city residents to paint their doors white, in line with traditional Sana’ani style architecture, and it was done, because there was an incentive.”

In 2004, Sana’a was declared the cultural capital of the Arab World by the United Nations, and the Yemeni government undertook a massive renovation and beautification program of the old city.

“Furthermore, the unchecked expansion of the ‘souk’ must be stopped,” Marco said, in reference to the outdoor market that stretches throughout old Sana’a.

Although a part of the old city’s heritage, construction of new shops and the overcrowding this causes often results in a spillover of shops into residential areas, damaging buildings and infrastructure in the process. The problem gets compounded with time as unchecked construction soon becomes the norm.

“The more the souk spreads, the more people feel comfortable flouting the law, and building annexes to their own homes, which they use to open up small businesses,” said Marco.

Mohammad Hizam agrees. “We do our best to stop the spread of the souk,” he said. “Since 2011, however, we’ve barely had enough resources. People set up shops in places without proper authorization. However it happens so often, we can’t possibly stop them all.”

Saleh Matari, 35, owns a cart to sell various goods, including candy, cigarettes and soda. He mostly operates in the old city’s Al-Abhar neighborhood, and often faces harassment from the authorities.

“I started working here two years ago,” he said. “I don’t have a permit to operate the cart, and sometimes the police harass me and try to run me out of the neighborhood. But I always come back.”

For Matari, the reason is simple. “Everybody knows the souk, this is where customers come. I can make three times more here than I can anywhere else. In the end, it’s still worth it.”