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Sana’a’s Traditional Homes – A Picture out of the Arabian Nights

posted on: Aug 29, 2022

Sana’a’s Traditional Homes – A Picture out of the Arabian Nights

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

A traveller once described the fascinating old towering homes of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, as ‘huge cakes, lavishly decorated for an important reception’ for when one first sets eyes on these closely packed majestic abodes with their picturesque outside decorations, they appear to be unlike any other in the world.  The descendants of the first skyscrapers on earth, these fairy tale-like houses are the embodiment of captivating urban architecture.

Their prototype is said to be the famous Ghumdan Palace, built by the 2nd century A.D. Sabaen King Sha’r Awtar.  A great sky-reaching edifice, it was erected in Sana’a and became legendary in Arab folklore and history.  According to Yemeni historians, this castle-like structure, which lasted until after the advent of Islam in the 7th century, rose to a height of 20 stories.  Each of its sides was built with different coloured stone and the roof was made from translucent alabaster, so clear that one could see the birds flying overhead.  To give it an aura of mystery, four bronze lions at each corner were constructed and set in such a way that they would roar with the blowing wind.

From the days of that famous palace, Yemen’s capital has carried on the tradition of building colourful towering structures.  Today, old Sana’a, which is on e of the largest completely preserved medieval cities in the world, is filled with these dwellings.  Within its deteriorating walls, there are over 7,000 houses and places, covering nearly 36.5 ha (90 AC), built in unique and sophisticated traditional Yemeni style – some more than 500 years old.   Erected in a 1,000-year-old method, they are packed side by side and usually rise from 4 to 6 stories.

Sana’a’s Traditional Homes – A Picture out of the Arabian Nights

Unlike Arab mansions in the north, constructed around a courtyard, Yemeni houses look outward.  The facades, decorated differently in each region, in Sana’a, are covered with elaborate zigzag patterns of white gypsum and roofs crowned with towers and cornices.  Their windows with top arches are a complex fretwork of superimposed types and shapes, often with traditionally made alabaster panes of different colours.  Much different than other Middle Eastern homes, they project an enchanting skyline of architectural beauty.

Atop a foundation of basalt rock, the first two floors are usually built of a beautiful combination of tufa, and limestone in various colours.  These support the remaining stories, built from burnt clay bricks.  Some protrude and form a variety of patterns, highlighted, along with the edges of the windows, by a whitewash of gypsum.  However, the most exquisite part, showing on the outside of the house are the highly decorative double arches.  Their geometrically intricate stained-glass transoms with elaborate plaster-and-glass filigree give an air of prestige to the structure.  During the day they create colourful hues on the inside walls and, during the night, throw out a rainbow of colours to the outside.  Today the traditional alabaster windows which radiate a very warm and dim light, are being replaced by the products of the 21st century.

Sana’a’s Traditional Homes – A Picture out of the Arabian Nights

The bottom floors, in the past, were used as barns for animals, but today, along with the second, they are utilized for storage.  The diwan, a large room used for family celebrations, and other living chambers are on the third floor.  Those above include the kitchen and living quarters, usually housing extended families.  Each floor has its toilet on one side of the house.  These flushed, in the past, into an excrement room at the bottom of the house.  Special cleaners then gathered the human waste, dried it in the sun and sold it to heat the public baths whose owners, in turn, retailed the ashes as fertilizer.  It was a natural way of recycling which kept the city clean.  Today, most residences are linked or are in the process of being connected to sewers and their problems.

The last room at the top, called the mafraj is the most elegant and highly valued chamber in the house.  Light entering from the fanlights above the windows gently diffuse colour dashes of blue, green, red and yellow through the stained-glass pieces on the soft whiteness of the plastered walls.  The windows are kept low and offer a panoramic view of Sana’a’s skyline.

Rich in decoration and furniture, the mafraj is the crown of traditional Yemeni homes.  All its sides are edged with mattresses and cushions, often topped with woolen mats.  The whole floor is covered with carpets and a try is set in the middle of the room on which are placed spittoons, waterpipes, thermos bottles for cold water and an incense burner.  Books, decorative plates, and cups are placed on gypsum shelves along the walls and a table is usually found at one end of the floor.

An all-male enclave set aside for entertaining guests, it is the nucleus of social life and used as a council chamber, for relaxing and dining and, above all, for the afternoon sessions of qat – leaves of a non-addictive plant chewed for pleasure by about 90% of the men and 10% of the women.  Almost every day after lunch, guests arrive, bringing their own qat.  For the remainder of the day, poetry, politics, and business are discussed as the leaves are chewed in the soothing atmosphere of the mafraj.

To a traveler walking in the narrow streets of the old Sana’a, the towering buildings wit h their enormous variety of decorative techniques appear to have sprouted out of the littered alleyways since the mist of time.  Yet, all is not well for these exquisite and treasured structures.  The galloping expansion of the city since the 1962 revolution is eroding the age-old buildings.  Almost every dwelling is in need of repairs.  Also, neglect and traffic in the narrow streets is further undermining the homes.

In the nick of time UNESCO has recognized Sana’a as a unique part of the human cultural heritage and, with the government of Yemen, has launched a program to restore the old city to its past splendor.  Some of the streets have been cobble-stoned and restoration of houses and the city ramparts are on-going.  Humankind would be much richer if the efforts to restore this alluring city from the Arabian Nights is crowned with success.