Sana’a: One of the Oldest Continuously Inhabited Cities in the World
By: Lindsey Penn
With so much history of humanity in the Arab world, it’s not surprising that the region has quite a few of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Yemen, and more specifically its historic capital Sana’a, is no exception. Although Sana’a is in an area with war, its architecture and history have garnered much attention, even having parts of the city declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Sana’a is located in the southwestern part of Yemen, in the western foothills of Mount Nuqum in Yemen. Because of its location at the foothills, the elevation of the city is 7,500 ft. It is also wedged between the Sarawat Mountains and Jabal Tiyal, considered some of the highest mountains in the country and possibly the region. The name of the city means “fortified place”. Sana’a was Yemen’s largest city, with a large population before the war began.
The Legend of Sana’a
According to many Yemeni people, Shem, one of the Prophet Noah’s three sons, founded Sana’a. Shem established Sana’a and built the city in the valley where it is located today. At the time that he founded the city, it was called Azal, named after one of Shem’s direct descendants. People believe that Azal also founded the Arabian tribe that lived in Sana’a for generations. Ancient Sabaean texts mentioned Sana’a as san’oo, coming from the Sabaean word masna’a which means “fortified place”.
Sana’a has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years, although the actual date of the city’s establishment is unclear. The city is in the same place as the pre-Islamic city Ghumdan, which dates to around the first or second century BCE. By the first century AD, Sana’a had become the center of the inland trade routes. Before Sana’a converted to Islam in 632 CE, many Christians and Jews lived in the city. When the Abyssinians controlled the city in 525-575 AD, they built the cathedral and martyrium.
In 632 CE, though, Ali, the fourth caliph and the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, converted the city to Islam. At that time, the city was rebuilt as the Islamic faith spread, and much of the Christian monuments had been destroyed. This fact was evident in the archaeological remains in the Great Mosque, which people believe was built when the Prophet Muhammad was still alive. In Sana’a, the imams were Zaydi. As time went on, there were inconsistent rivalries between the Zaydi imams in Sana’a and other imams in different cities, each trying to establish its dominance as the center for Muslims in Yemen.
From the 12th to 15th centuries, Sana’a’s power declined when different conquerors created their capitals in other cities. In the early 16th century, during the Tahirid dynasty, the ruler built many mosques and madrasas, expanding the city. Then, starting in the mid-16th century, the Ottomans began trying to conquer Sana’a. The Ottomans were not able to conquer Sana’a quickly; it took many invasions in order to fully assert Ottoman control over the city. It was during this time that the imams controlled Sana’a, although the Ottomans eventually broke through in 1572.
The Ottomans ruled for a few decades, rebuilding the city. However, at some point in the 17th century, the Yemenis rebelled again and regained control. After the rebellion, the imams controlled Yemen until 1872. In 1872, the Ottomans invaded again, but this time were able to conquer and hold the city. While the Ottomans reconstructed the city, the Yemenis and imams continued to rebel against Ottoman rule. This conflict between the Ottomans and the imams continued for decades, until 1911, when they signed a treaty. The imams and the Ottomans signed the Treaty of Da’an in the city of Da’an in 1911 and gave the imams near-total autonomy in Yemen. However, the Ottomans were still present as his allies in the districts he controlled, and controlled some other districts. This agreement remained in place until the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. After that, Yemen became independent and named Sana’a as its capital, with only one brief period where the capital was in Ta’izz from 1948-1962.
In 1962, there was a revolution in Yemen, ending with the proclamation of the Yemen Arab Republic or North Yemen, with Sana’a as its capital. South Yemen and North Yemen merged into one in 1990, and kept Sana’a as the united country’s capital.
Walls surround the Old City of Sana’a with a gate called Yemen Gate (or Bab al-Yemen in Arabic). It boasts 106 mosques, 12 bathhouses, and 6,500 houses, all of which were built before the 11th century AD. The Yemeni government requested that UNESCO look into the Old City of Sana’a and conserve it. UNESCO in turn launched an international campaign to preserve and rehabilitate the city. In 1988, UNESCO declared the Old City a UNESCO World Heritage Site, determined to have “outstanding universal value”. In 1995, it was given the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city is supposed to be maintained and protected.
Unfortunately, between the civil war in Yemen and recent floods, much of Sana’a has been destroyed. UNESCO has since said the site of the Old City is in danger of being lost.
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