[21/April/2004] Sana'a has been continuously inhabited for over 2,500 years. Its religious and cultural heritage is reflected in its 106 mosques, 12 hammams (bath houses) and 6,500 houses built before the 11th century.
The city's architecture has been damaged, demolished and rebuilt through flooding, wars and prosperity. Yet, it wasn't until the modernization in the 1970s that the city's architectural fabric was truly in danger of disappearing.
In the early 1980s, at the request of the Yemeni government, UNESCO launched an international campaign to conserve the city, which has been lauded world wide as a success.
After considerable preservation and rehabilitation efforts, the city was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and given an Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1995. While conservation efforts have been successful, little has been written to analyze the impact of the resulting tourism and development.
Physical and Historical
Located in the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen's earliest excavated village settlements are dated to c. 5000 BC and the first urban settlements on the eastern deserts date from around 1200 BC.
Sana'a lies in a fertile basin over two thousand meters above sea level, on a major communication axis that crosses the mountains of Yemen. As part of the African Horn where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean, it is often described as the ancestral heartland of the Arabs.
Sana'a is one of the most ancient surviving cities in Arabia and arguably the longest continually inhabited city in the world.
By the first century BC Sana'a emerged as a center of the inland trade route. After the withdrawal of the Turks in 1630, Sana'a became the seat of an independent Imam.
This ushered in a period of prosperity for the city, which lasted for nearly two centuries and can still be seen in the quality and quantity of buildings from that time. Most of the domestic architecture still standing in the city dates from this period and later, while the extant mosques reach back well over one thousand years and fragments of towers are as old as four centuries before the rise of Islam.
Sana'a's architectural vocabulary was already well formed by the tenth century when Ibn Rustah wrote that most of the houses "are adorned with gypsum, baked bricks, and symmetrical stones."3 The architectural heritage of Sana'a consists of multi-story buildings decorated with geometric shapes and horizontal bands rendered in gypsum, narrow streets, urban gardens, elegant minarets and imposing monuments.
The streets of the city are flanked by towering houses five to nine stories high. The houses are constructed of ashlar stonework from six to ten meters above street level where exposed brickwork then takes over.4 In Sana'a the space between buildings is just wide enough for pedestrians and mule-drawn carts.
Timber is in short supply since trees are relatively rare and small and so the traditional architecture of Sana'a relies on stone and clay bricks decorated with gypsum plaster. Symmetrical balance is clearly a desirable characteristic in the houses of Sana'a and facades have strong ingredients of conventional formality.
Impacts of Modernization
Sana'a has been an important center in southwestern Arabia for nearly 2000 years. Until the end of the Yemeni civil war in 1969 the city was closed to outsiders for two centuries, its unique multi-story buildings protected behind mud walls. A traditional way of life was preserved in a society that values looking after poor people and old animals. The city, though in need of maintenance, was clean and sanitary.
The opening of the country to the outside world in the 1970s, and the growth as well as the modernization drive in the country posed new challenges to the old city. The huge influx of dollars from the oil boom in neighboring Saudi Arabia, combined with a rapidly growing population, placed considerable stress on the old city's historic buildings and its inadequate infrastructure.
Sana'a grew extraordinarily fast as oil workers returning home invested their money in property. The population grew from about 55,000 in 1970 to 250,000 in 1982. City growth by 1978 was out of control and with the new money came more automobiles.
Urban Yemenis abandoned their houses because they could not afford to maintain them, and preferred new villas out of town. The main shopping, banking and government services shifted out of the old city, mainly to the west and northwest. Educational, recreational, entertainment and health facilities also moved away to an area outside the walls.
Wealthier residents moved away due to the unsanitary condition of the streets, lack of services and the relative inaccessibility of their houses by vehicles. They relocated to areas that promised a modern lifestyle adjacent to new facilities. Lower income Yemenis moved in to the old city and conditions deteriorated.
Economic development in Sana'a made the introduction of modern construction technology unavoidable. New reinforced concrete structures became eyesores alongside the traditional buildings. Additionally they proved to have adverse effects on traditional construction materials. Concrete's inflexibility cracked surrounding brick and deposited salts that deteriorated the soft traditional materials.
As a result of modernization efforts in the old city, including the introduction of water and sanitation systems without adequate drainage, thirty historic houses collapsed between 1978 and 1979.
In reaction to this grave state of ill repair, Yemeni officials and foreign technical advisors working in Sana'a pressed for the conservation of the city. They proposed that the whole town should be saved and that preservation challenges could be solved incrementally. The international community criticized this approach.
The main idea was to promote a living city while balancing the needs of conservation and development. Ronald Lewcock, an active advocate of the plan, summed up the primary motivation behind this philosophy: "Its value lies not so much in the merit of the individual buildings, important though they may be, as in the unforgettable impression made by the whole an entire city of splendid buildings combining to create an urban effect of extraordinary fascination and beauty."
CONSERVATION PROGRAM INTERVENTIONS
UNESCO's conservation program stresses that expertise, fellowships, equipment and voluntary financial contributions are urgently needed from all sources if the campaign is to be successful.
Since the early 1980s a campaign to restore and upgrade the city has been ongoing under the direction of the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY).
The campaign as outlined in a UNESCO publication presents a strategy for conservation with three main goals.
One, preserve as much of the physical context and as many of the monuments as possible, in order to maintain the city's unique character together with its sense of age and history.
Two, ensure the preservation and rehabilitation of the traditional way of life of the medieval city as much as possible for those who desire it, without stifling urban life or the population's desire for change and improved facilities.
Three, create a simple method of implementation for every aspect of the preservation and conservation of the old city.
The plan also provides typical examples of the architectural conservation necessary, strategies for reviving cultural traditions, a suggestion for a plan of action and preliminary financial estimates for the preservation and conservation of the old city.
Implementing the Plan
Key concerns addressed in the plan include water problems, impossible streets, traffic, unsightly wiring and aerials, poor maintenance, inadequate public amenities, and ugly (and harmful) modernization projects.
The Yemeni government has allocated $11 million to install and improve water and sewage systems and agreed to pave the city's streets and alley's with bands of black basalt and white limestone.10 Work on the mud walls of the cities started in 1987 and continues today, as does the rest of the program. A pool of skilled local labor has been set up for this purpose.
Adaptive use projects have led to new functions for historic buildings, including a women's technical school, an art gallery, a craft center, and guest houses. Throughout the city, local owners were encouraged to renovate their houses under the guidance of GOPHCY. Work continued as Swiss, Italians and others renovated buildings for use as hotels, cultural centers and private residences.
Both the public and private restorations have shown considerable sensitivity to the architectural features of Sana'a, incorporating traditional materials and construction techniques in the restoration process.
New markets are now more accessible to vehicular traffic, thus boosting business and revitalizing the area's once sagging economy. Cultural life in the city has also improved with the addition of galleries and craft centers, which have encouraged the arts and provided employment for craftsmen.
GOPHCY was successful in coordinating the efforts of governmental, bilateral and multilateral projects. It has helped improve the quality of life in old Sana'a thus earning the good will of the inhabitants, who have mobilized to continue the rehabilitation process.