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The distinctive traditions and features of Yemeni architecture date back more than 2,000 years, when the ancient kingdom of Sheba, Main and Qataban flourished, as did the temples and dam at Marib. Throughout its long history, Yemen has hosted waves of Jewish, Christian and Islamic immigrants and interacted with Persians, Ethiopians and the civilizations of Eastern Mediterranean, all of whom left their mark on the country’s skyline.
For almost three millennia, Yemeni architects and master builders developed their own unique techniques and styles, adapted to the local topography, climate and available building materials. For example, cut and uncut stone is the main material in mountainous areas in northern Yemen, whereas clay suitable for making fired and sun-dried bricks is the dominant material in Wadi Hadramout in the south-east. This article focuses on the capital Sanaa as an example of Yemeni architecture, which is under threat from the civil war, now in its fourth year.
The architecture of Sanaa
Sanaa is among the largest ancient cities that still exists. It has been classified as one of the most distinctive capitals thanks to its unique architectural character, which has made it a gem of human and world heritage. Sanaa is located in a mountain valley at an altitude of 2,200 metres and has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years. Its many multi-storey houses are built mainly from bricks.
The total population is around 3 million, 87,000 of whom live in the Old City. The Old City covers an area of about 1.8 square kilometres, encompassing more than 9,000 detached and terraced houses plus orchards, mosques, public bathhouses and markets. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed the Old City as a World Heritage site in 1986.
The typical house consists of three to six floors, depending on the owner’s socio-economic status, and usually accommodates three generations of an extended family. A largely standard layout combines comfort and luxury. The ground floor is for storing supplies and housing animals. The first floor has rooms for children and a large hall for events (diwan). The second floor is dedicated to married couples whereas the higher floors are for reserved men and their guests (mafarag).
Possibly the houses’ most distinctive feature is their decorative qamariya or ‘moon’ windows, circular or semi-circular patterned panes usually set above the main window. Translucent alabaster was used until the 1930s, when clear and stained glass began to appear. At dusk, when the house lights are turned on, hundreds of these illuminated windows cast dots of multicoloured light across the streets.
The city is largely made up of neighbourhoods. Although the buildings seem from a distance to be randomly constructed, the alleys running between them are quite orderly, and each neighbourhood has a mosque and an orchard (magshama) to provide fruits and vegetables for the residents. The alleys lead to the different specialized goods and handcraft markets.
The Old City is surrounded by a thick clay wall about 6,200 metres long and 8 metres high. The wall dates back to the Sabaean period (800 BCE-275 CE) but has been regularly renovated and maintained by successive rulers. The most recent renovation was in 2014, using the same old building materials.
Of the wall’s original seven gates, only Bab al-Yemen still survives, flanked by magnificent twin defence towers overlooking one of the city’s busiest squares that leads to a myriad of narrow streets and small shops. The names and locations of the other gates are all well-known and still used today, but the gates themselves were removed to accommodate the city’s expansion.
Another impressive structure is the Great Mosque of Sanaa, one of the oldest continually active mosques in the world. Although it has been added to and restored over the centuries, some of its earliest elements date back to the 7th century.
During a routine renovation in 1972, workers discovered stacks of ancient papers and manuscripts in a long-forgotten attic space. On further investigation, it was discovered that many of these documents dated to the earliest days of Islam and included what is believed to be the oldest copy of the Koran in existence.
In the heart of the Old City is a round stone wall of what is believed to be Yemen’s first church, al-Galis Church. It was built by the invading Ethiopian ruler Abreha around 527, in an attempt to convert what at the time was a predominantly Jewish kingdom.
Architectural treasures under threat
Today, many of Yemen’s historical and archaeological treasures, including those in Sanaa, are under threat from the ongoing war. Saudi air strikes hit the Old City at least twice in 2015 and 2018, killing several people and destroying many buildings.
Other sites, like the 1,200-year-old al-Hadi Mosque and the pre-Islamic walled city of Baraqish, both in northern Yemen, and the coastal city of Zabid, lost an important number of their historical landmarks. The National Museum in Dhamar, containing some 12,500 artefacts, was completely destroyed.
UNESCO, which has gone to considerable lengths since the early 1980s to preserve the Old City, condemned the strikes on what it described as ‘one of the world’s oldest jewels’ of Islamic culture.
“This heritage bears the soul of the Yemeni people; it is a symbol of a millennial history of knowledge and it belongs to all humankind,” said UNESCO head Irina Bokova. She called on all parties involved in the conflict to refrain from targeting the country’s unique cultural heritage and using heritage sites for military purposes, and said she was “profoundly distressed” by the damage.