Patrimoine sans frontières

Focus on the Sana’a's heritage.

Sana'a : a millenary city passing away?

With its brick tower-houses richly decorated with white gypsum and resembling gingerbread houses, Old Sana’a looks like a place out of a fairytale. The old part of the Yemeni capital, which is one of the oldest cities in the world, was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1986. Nevertheless, despite being a protected city (as per the Antiquities Law of 1997 and the Building Law of 2002) a large number of buildings are today in an advanced state of disrepair, much to the regret of the national heritage campaigners who find themselves powerless in the face of the scale of this problem.

Years of neglect and failure to guarantee the preservation and integrity of the Old Town prompted UNESCO to threaten to axe Old Sana’a from World Heritage list. Following this ultimatum, the government and the municipality pledged to act to preserve the Old Town and ensure that it be kept on the list of protected monuments. But in a country embroiled in a political crisis since 2011 which has recently worsened, the renovation and conservation projects promised by the government are not a priority and have fallen behind schedule.

© Edition Gelbart

Delimited by a partly-preserved surrounding wall which gave the town its name (Sana’a means «fortified town»), Sanaa’s old district is home to a centuries-old architectural and historical heritage which comprises 6500 houses, 30 souks, many hammams as well as around 100 mosques, including the Great Mosque, built in the 7th century and considered one of the oldest mosques in the Muslim world. Besides their historical and artistic importance, Old Sanaa’s buildings – and particularly its houses – reflect the ingenuity of the architects of that era who used naturally insulating materials which stored heat during the day and released it at night, thereby making these constructions energetically self-sufficient. As such, if they were to disappear, this precious technical heritage would be lost too. Indeed, a great number of buildings, mainly houses – many of which were built before the 11th century – face an uncertain fate, with some left to decay whilst others are being damaged by botched or uncontrolled renovations which often affect their stability and integrity.

The demographic explosion which the Old Town has experienced in the past 20 years gave rise to an ever-increasing number of new constructions and the modification of existing buildings with the addition of new floors. Regrettably these constructions, sometimes illegal and often unregulated, are made using modern materials (such as bricks of cement rather than clay), of a different colour, therefore altering this homogenous architectural ensemble. Furthermore, the development of new hotels, the proliferation of communication masts and the vertical expansion of the tower-houses all contribute to defacing the city’s skyline. As well as distorting the aesthetic of the town, the spread of new buildings over gardens and other green spaces has a direct impact on the urban plan. In addition to man-made violations and irregularities and the damages due to time decay, Old Sana’a has also recently been affected by heavy rainfall which, owing to an unsuitable drainage system, have further eroded and weakened many of the city’s buildings.

© Abdul Karim Chisthi
In order to comply with the preservation criteria set out by UNESCO and to maintain the Old Town on the list of protected monuments, the municipality has pledged to investigate all violations and irregularities and punish those responsible. A report from the Media Centre for Sustainable Development in collaboration with UNESCO and released in 2013 identified two thousand such violations. Among them were: the use of new material in renovation works, partial or complete collapse of buildings, wooden doors replaced with metal ones, and the proliferation of posters on the city walls. Houses remain the most affected buildings with 600 of them awaiting renovation, as revealed by Naji Saleh Thawaba, director of the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historical Cities. In an article published in the Yemen Times in April 2013 he bemoaned the lack of funding allocated to the organisation at a time when the country was campaigning for the city to remain a UNESCO site. Sadly, nearly 6 months after the UNESCO/Media Centre for Sustainable Development report was published, the renovation work promised by the government had not yet started and some houses, in need of renovation for 15 years, are on the verge of collapsing.

In a bid to tackle the issue, the Sana’a Secretariat responded by offering, among other things, low-interest credits to homeowners who wish to restore their house on the condition that the work respects the style and integrity of the building. But despite this incentive, restoration costs remain high and those who can afford it prefer to move out of the Old Town, abandoning it to the less wealthy, which contributes to the site’s deterioration. Public buildings are not immune to these problems and one of the most striking examples is that of the maranes. These wells, which used to play a central part in the people of Sanaa’s daily lives have dried out completely and lie in a derelict state despite their importance to the integrity of the Old Town.

In light of the recent difficulties the country has experienced and following its pledge to do more to preserve the old city of Sana’a, UNESCO agreed to retain it on the list of protected monuments. During the 38th session of the World Heritage Committee which took place in Doha last June, the Yemeni culture minister met with the UNESCO director in Doha to discuss the preservation projects and ways to finance and implement them. However, the political situation has since steadily worsened and one can only wonder what effects this will have on the country’s heritage.

Sources :

- « Old Sanaa acts to restore its heritage », written by Faisal Darem and published on 6 May 2013 in Al-Shorfa.
- « Sanaa : l'agonie d'une cité millénaire », written by François-Xavier Trégan and published on 6 July 2012 in Le Monde.
- « Old Sana’a: a-city moving toward extinction », written by Amal Al-Yarisi and published on 11 June 2012 in Yemen Times.
- « Yemeni world heritage site threatened to be kicked off UNESCO’s preservation list », written by Rammah Al-Jubari and published on 7 March 2013 in Yemen Times.
- « UNESCO threatens to axe old Sanaa from world heritage list », released by Reuters on 17 March 2013.
- « Old Sana'a in danger », published on 25 March 2013 in Yemen Post.
- « 'Save Our City': an appeal to preserve the Old Sana'a City »,written by Rammah Al-Jubari and published on 7 March 2013 in Yemen Times.
- « Old Sana'a, an endangered UNESCO heritage site », released by AFP on 28 April 2013.
- « Battered by revolution old-Sanaa could lose its world heritage designation », written by Maria Abi Habib and published on 28 May 2013 in The Wall Street Journal.
- « Will historic old Sana’a gardens vanish ? », written by Samar Qaed and published on 17 June 2013 in Yemen Times.
- « Sana’a, Zabid keep on the World Heritage List », written by Hesham al Kibsi and published on 20 June 2013 in Yemen Observer.
- « The struggle to preserve Sana'a's architectural heritage », written by Amal Al-Yarisi and published on 17 December 2013 in Yemen Times.
- « Sana’a’s marane’? a national treasure with an uncertain future », written by Dares Al Badani and published on 24 April 2014 in Yemen Times.
- « Culture Minister calls for int'l campaign to preserve Zabid and Sana'a », released by SABA (Yemen News Agency) on 19 June 2014.

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