Advertisement Close

Yemen’s UNESCO-Listed Old Sanaa Architecture

posted on: Jun 29, 2021

By: Safa M. Qureshi/Arab America Contributing Writer

Yemen, the Arab peninsula’s poorest country, is one of the region’s richest in history and heritage. Situated in a mountain valley at an altitude of 2,200 meters, Sanaa has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the city of Sanaa became a major center for the propagation of Islam. This religious and political heritage can be seen in the 103 mosques, 14 hammams, and over 6,000 houses (all built before the 11th century). Sanaa has its own architectural design represented by its decorations, carvings, and styles that form the unique and distinctive architectural identity. This makes it one of the masterpieces of world heritage. The city’s multi-story houses were built from gypsum (a sulfate used in many forms of plaster) and fired bricks. Sanaa was one of the few cities that existed when there were only tents to be found in the Arabian Peninsula. It is therefore considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and was added by UNESCO. 

History Behind the Architecture

Rival tribes sought to attack the wealthy town of Sanaa, so the Sananis’ built multi-story brick houses to protect their families and their properties. Most of the homes have six floors. The first floor is usually built of solid stone. The second floor is used as a defense in case of an attack. The windows of these houses are unique and were built strategically so that the house owners could see above from the spy holes to see who was approaching. 

Present-Day Crisis

Heavy rains trigger collapse at Yemen’s newly restored museum.

The exceptionally heavy rains in 2020, which began in mid-April, have not just damaged the city’s historical buildings, however, they have also worsened the effects of the on-going war in Yemen. Old Sanaa has been a significant historical icon for generations.

As a native Yemeni, Ahmed Nagi used to travel there often.

“Walking down the winding, narrow paths of one of the oldest cities in the world is an experience no one forgets. Its clay walls would pull you in and refuse to let go, keeping what’s around the corner a secret. Even as a regular visitor, I frequently lost my way, mesmerized by the magic of the ancient architecture, traditional markets, neighborhood cafes, and welcoming Sanani people. It’s not a surprise that UNESCO named the old city a world heritage site in 1986.” 

As of August 2020, 5,000 of the towering buildings in the old city have leaky roofs, and 107 have partially collapsed roofs, according to Aqeel Sales Nassar, deputy head of the National Committee for Historic Cities Preservation. Sanaa resident, Muhammad Ali Al-Talhi, saw his house partially collapse in August of 2020, as heavy rain thrashed the city of Sanaa. The extensive damage left six women and six children of his family homeless, Reuters reported.

Some residents have put sheets on their roofs to try and protect their damaged homes from the rain. A group of people saving a boy from drowning. The floods from July washed away dozens of people.

Due to its world heritage status, any changes made to the Old City’s ancient houses might lead to it being taken off the UNESCO list, according to a source at the culture office in Sanaa. According to locals, no building maintenance has been done since 2004. 

“Many inhabitants sell their homes to market merchants who reconstruct them or turn them into commercial centers—dealing with them as normal properties, not ancient buildings needing to be taken care of. We have seen new markets emerge, new premises built, while white-brown buildings disappear,” said Mohammed, a merchant who had worked in the city’s old market for more than twenty years.

Hope for Yemen

For Sananis, the old city’s architecture is part of their identity and history. But over the last decade, much of this history has been lost, and what remains is gradually slipping away. In July 2015, UNESCO added the historic city to the list of world heritage sites in danger. Damage caused by the floods this summer is just the latest and most visible evidence of this. But you can help bring hope to people in Yemen by donating and meeting the urgent needs of children and families. Below is a shortlist of aid groups that you may donate to:

Humanitarians who live and work in Yemen

Fatik al-Rodaini has been called a hero by Yemenis. He collects funds, buys food from local vendors, and creates batches of food (the term of art is “baskets”) for families who his group has identified as needy. These days there is no shortage of need.

Yemen Hope and Relief
Ahmad Algohbary rescues children suffering from severe malnutrition. Families request his help, and he uses donated funds to transport and house them for weeks while their children are treated at nutrition clinics in major Yemeni cities.

Organizations whose mission is to help Yemenis

Yemen Aid
This group, founded by a Yemeni American, provides assistance and resources to Yemeni people, regardless of their race, political affiliation, ancestry, or religion, in order to positively change, and ultimately save, lives.

Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation
This charity, based in Washington State, provides help and support to Yemeni families in desperate need. Through a network of volunteers in-country, YRRF reaches out to needy families not only in urban areas but also in remote villages and refugee camps. YRRF is registered in the US as a 501(c)3 and in Yemen as a charity organization.

For the full list of groups you can donate to, click here.

Check Out Arab America’s Blog Here!