"Buildings That Fill My Eye": An exhibition of architectural heritage of Yemen

Published on 20 August 2017 in Culture
Trevor Marchand (author)

Trevor Marchand


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Stone houses in the Western Highland village of Shihara. Photo by T. H. J. Marchand

Stone houses in the Western Highland village of Shihara. Photo by T. H. J. Marchand

A photographic exhibition on Yemen’s architectural heritage opened in London on 13 July at the SOAS Brunei Gallery, located on Russell Square.

The exhibition, its accompanying catalogue and a related series of public lectures explore the astonishing variety of building styles that have evolved over millennia in a country of diverse terrains, extreme climates and distinctive local histories.

Countless generations of skilled masons, woodworkers and craftspeople have employed local ingenuity and the materials-to-hand to create stunning urban settings, engineering feats, luxuriant gardens and rural landscapes.

Yemen’s traditional buildings and structures meld harmoniously with the contours and conditions of southern Arabia. Additionally, the place-making practices of Yemen's builders have played a crucial role in fostering tight-knit communities that have a strong sense of pride and cultural identity.

These dramatic features have aroused the aesthetic sensibilities of visitors for centuries, but they also speak of a requisite need for domination, defensibility, and self-sufficiency during times of attack or siege.

Tragically, a sharp escalation in violence in the country in recent years has culminated in a hydra-headed conflict that has no immediately apparent resolution.

To date, the war has left many thousands of civilians dead, millions displaced and on the brink of starvation, and an estimated 500,000 cholera cases without access to basic medical care, treatment or clean water.

Another major casualty of the conflict has been the region’s rich cultural and architectural heritage. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have damaged or destroyed archaeological sites, museums, ancient fortresses, and both historic and contemporary vernacular buildings.

Culture has become a weapon of war, and, as noted by the Antiquities Coalition, the Asia Society, and the Middle East Institute, this tactic has proliferated in the vacuum of political insecurity, not only in Yemen, but across the Middle East following the 2011 Arab Spring.

Distressingly, news of the humanitarian disaster and of the tragic loss of material culture is failing to reach Western ears.

View over the Old City of Sanaa, with the dome and minaret of the 17th-century Talha Mosque in the middle ground. The Old City of Sanaa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by T. H. J. Marchand.

View over the Old City of Sanaa, with the dome and minaret of the 17th-century Talha Mosque in the middle ground. The Old City of Sanaa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by T. H. J. Marchand.

The health and safety of Yemenis needs to be the priority of aid and development efforts, but protection of the country’s built environment is also essential for the eventual rebuilding of the economy and, more essentially, for preserving the spiritual and cultural identity of the people.

Social and cultural identity is inextricably entwined with history and place.

One of the principal aims of the exhibition is to remind the world of Yemen’s splendid material culture and the desperate need for international collaboration to protect it and its people from the ravages of war and destruction.

Buildings that Fill my Eye is curated by Trevor Marchand, Professor of Anthropology at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

The exhibition is sponsored by the MBI Al Jaber Foundation with additional support from Gingko Library and the British-Yemeni Society. It is on until 23 September.

The beautiful accompanying catalogue was edited by the curator and published by Gingko Library. It is fully illustrated and includes contributions from an international roster of scholars.

Sale of the catalogue is raising much-needed funds for the UNHCR Yemen Emergency Appeal.