The architecture is diverse. Stone is used in the higher mountains. In Sanaa, the hundreds of five-storey houses (lower storeys of stone, upper storeys of fired bricks) compete keenly in height. At the top of each house is the mafraj, a penthouse-like guest room with panoramic views and full of mattresses and pillows. The other rooms have smaller windows, with coloured glass and crowned with a qamariya, an arch made of gypsum (or expensive alabaster). Gypsum whitewash, which has to be renewed every other year, decorates the outside walls. Massive wooden doors, carved elaborately and decorated with metal, give access to cool stairways. Between the housing blocks there is room for trees and bustans, large vegetable gardens.
Mud brick is used as a building material in the foothills and plains. In the Saada region, groups of irregularly quadrilateral houses blend in easily with the colour of the earth, resulting in a unity of tone much like that of the mud-brick architecture of Djenné, in Mali. It is possible to walk around Saada on the mud-brick wall surrounding it. The houses it protects are soberly decorated with bands of white plaster. A masterpiece of Yemeni architecture is Shibam, once the capital of the Hadramawt, and nicknamed the Manhattan of the Desert. Shibam boasts the world’s first skyscrapers, which are made of mud bricks, and are up to seven storeys tall.
Shibam has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO, with restorations constantly under way to protect the city from ruin. In fact, many Yemeni architectural masterpieces are constantly being restored, as mud and gypsum are washed away by the rain and wind. Restorers are reinventing traditional architecture and training new generations in age-old skills. Funding is usually provided by foreign donors, because maintenance often proves too costly for Yemen. Restoration of the famous Amiriya Madrasa, in Rada, was completed in 2006, but many historic buildings throughout Yemen, including a large number of domes and citadels, are on the verge of collapse, awaiting repairs and restoration. The same is true of archaeological sites.
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