Jan 15, 2012
Sanaa // The Old City of Sanaa is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, but its spectacular centuries-old rammed earth and burnt brick buildings are disappearing.
Ancient tower houses in need of restoration are falling into disrepair, being pulled down and replaced by modern red brick structures, while modern extensions are being added to existing multi-storey dwellings dating back more than 1,000 years.
Up to 35 per cent of the ancient city has been lost since 1990, 10 per cent in the past 12 months, according to estimates by one local cultural heritage adviser.
Despite being designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1986, regulations for construction and restoration work in the part-walled city have yet to be formalised.
A draft conservation document was created in 2006 but in its current form is not enforceable by law, leaving the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY) powerless to prevent building violations within the Old City, said Dr Abdullah Zaid Ayssa, the GOPHCY chairman.
The outline of the Conservation Plan was expected to be completed in full last year, he said, but due to Yemen's political violence, which broke out in January 2011, and the collapse of government control, the plans were not completed.
Inhabited for more than 2,500 years, the highland-city in the 7th and 8th centuries became a major centre for the propagation of Islam. The remains of the pre-Islamic period were largely destroyed as a result of changes in the city from AD 628.
The Great Mosque, built by order of the Prophet Mohammed, in the heart of the city, was the first constructed outside Mecca and Medina. With more than 100 mosques, 14 hammams (baths), 43 largely hidden bustans (gardens) and more than 6,000 houses built before the 11th century the Old City is one of the most spectacular examples of Yemen's rich cultural heritage.
"When Venice was in danger everyone in Europe cared," says cultural heritage adviser, Marco Livadiotti. "Sanaa is the most beautiful Arab city, intact, in the region, but nobody in the Arab world is doing anything to help preserve it."
Italian writer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, once described Sanaa as the "Venice of dust." Since then the streets have been paved with stone. Now, years after the dirt pathways were covered over, the effects of that upgrade are also taking their toll.
"The street level used to be at least a metre lower," said Mr Livadiotti, as he pats the watermarked brick at the base of an old house where livestock where once kept. "Now the damp is going through the bottom of the walls and damaging the whole structure."
The myth of the city's origins goes back to Shem, son of Noah. Legend has it he crossed the precipitous mountain ranges of Yemen's northern highlands before discovering a plain cocooned on three sides by arid peaks. There he laid a thread to mark the foundations for building, but a bird swooped down and stole it. Shem chased the bird until the thread was dropped. Believing this was God's chosen site, the city, originally known as Azal, was born.
In the labyrinth of narrow streets, where strips of sunlight slice between the baked bricks of nine-storey-high tower blocks, the evidence of the decay and modernisation are widespread. Crumbling buildings lie derelict, while recent construction blots the landscape of the white washed mini-skyscrapers.
In the finest examples of the original architecture, wooden shutters shade rooms from the harsh sunlight and, in winter, insulate the occupants form the cold, sometimes subzero, night-time temperatures. Additional stained glass, or qamariyas, decorative windows, named for their half-moon shape are in almost every room. At night, as the inside of houses light up, the uniform blue, red, green and yellow patterns of the glass, outlined in distinctive white alabaster gypsum, filter into the night sky.
With the new transition government facing a huge budget deficit following a year of mass protests, street battles and mounting economic problems, the preservation of the country's historical sites appears an insignificant problem.
But with Yemen's main income from oil due to run out in five years, tourism and the conservation of these sites is increasingly crucial to Yemen's future, in addition to their significance as some of the regions last remaining examples of more than 2,000 years of civilisation. "It's our wealth. It's better than oil," said Dr Ayssa.
Educating people about the importance of its preservation is also central said Mr Livadiotti.
"Deep inside ourselves we all think that living in an earth building means you are poor. So people want to replace these houses with modern things: stone, wood, marble. But people have to understand that the beauty is the earth … we all come from dirt, from the earth, and when we die we will all go back to earth."