Saturday, January 14, 2012

Yemen failing to protect historic buildings in Sanaa

Iona Craig

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."

Germany grants $1 mln to Yemen's upcoming presidential election

SANA'A, Jan. 14 (Saba) - German ambassador to Yemen announced Saturday $1 million aid to the Supreme Commission for Election and Referendum (SCER) for the upcoming early presidential election.

During his meeting with Vice President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Holger Green said that Germany provides Euro 60 million for projects under implementation in Yemen, adding "We will announce soon a grant of Euro 21.5 million for the general food program".

He emphasized that the Yemen-European relationship, especially with Germany, would witness remarkable development, wishing a safe end to the crisis in Yemen and to carry out the required reforms.

He stressed that the Gulf initiative is the perfect solution for the current crisis, saying that it is a whole should be implemented.

He asserted the importance of the parliament to pass the immunity law as soon as possible, pointing the law is part of the initiative's terms.

The approval of the law would refute some newspapers reports in this regard, the German ambassador said, demanding the newspapers to seek accuracy and credibility.

The Vice President indicated to the urgent needs and great challenges Yemen faces in economic and development areas.

Hadi pointed that the implementation of the Gulf initiative is moving positively as scheduled in the roadmap of the political settlement in Yemen.

He said that Germany played a distinct role in this regard, valuing highly the assistance Germany presents to Yemen in different areas.

Residents returning to restive south Yemen city

(AFP) January 14, 2012

ADEN — Residents of Yemen's restive south who fled nearly eight months of fighting between the army and Islamists began returning home on Saturday, escorted by Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

"We were finally allowed into the city after three previously failed attempts," said Nayef Jabari, a resident of Zinjibar, capital of the southern Abyan province.

Gunmen from the Al-Qaeda-linked Partisans of Sharia (Islamic law) group, which controls large parts of Zinjibar, "accompanied us as we entered the city," said Jabari.

He said the city was "almost destroyed" due to months of fierce fighting but added that the extremists have promised to provide residents with water and electricity.

Qais Mohammamed, another resident, said the extremists "welcomed us."

But, according to one military official who has fought against the Islamist group, people need "to drive out the Partisans of Sharia from their city if they want to live in peace."

Islamist militants overran much of Zinjibar last May and have retained their positions in the city and nearby towns despite repeated efforts by the army to dislodge them that have left hundreds dead.

The latest fighting, which took place on Friday, left three militants dead, among them an Algerian, a local official in the adjacent town of Jaar told AFP.

Separately, Friday gunfights between police and southern separatists in Aden, the capital of the formerly independent South Yemen, killed six and wounded 30, medics said.