Travel & Tourism

A call to protect the old history of Sana’a

National Yemen

Sana’a city the capital of Yemen

By Tamjid Alkohali

For a thousand years, old Sana’a was and is still a pride for Yemenis everywhere. It has withstood wars, sieges, and disasters, and has remained a historic site representing Arab Islamic civilization, mixing between the art and architectural beauty at the same time responding to the material and spiritual needs of its inhabitants.

Among the development of life, the absence of the stat, and the people’s low awareness in its value, it became possible that people may wake up and old Sana’a has vanished.

Old Sana’a suffers from architectural infractions committed by many people and the distorting of the historic appearance of the city. Unfortunately, the agent of the General Authority to maintain the historic cities, Amt al-Rzaq Jhaf, stated that architectural infractions in old Sana’a have increased significantly to 37 infractions in the last year and 10 infractions during the first two months of the current year, including serious infractions such as demolishing historic houses and building new homes on the ruins.

“In the past, offenders were taking building permits then they broke the rules, but now they no longer care about permits, they commit the infractions directly on the pretext that there is no state,” she continued. Jhaf noted that the General Authority to maintain the historic cities doesn’t have the power to stop these infractions.

Jhaf confirmed that the deteriorating security situation in the country has led to an increase in the rate of infractions in old Sana’a, especially from traders supported by officials and senior figures in the country.

“There are two types of offenders: traders who buy old houses with a historic value but can’t restore them, so they destroy the houses and build modern houses or commercial centers instead, taking advantage of their power and the weak possibilities of the General Authority. The other kind is poor citizens who are forced to develop their houses using simple materials that change the historic form of the building,” explained Jhaf.

According to Saeed al-Shami, the Officer of monitoring the architectural infractions at the General Authority to maintain the historic cities, infractions began being committing in the 1960s. “There are many reasons behind these infractions, such as population growth, people’s needs to change small details in their houses, and the trade expansion.” He continued, “The trade expansion is the most dangerous and is spreading. It’s done by those who have big capital despite they can achieve their projects outside the old Sana’a.”

Regarding the kinds of infractions, al-Shami said that the seriousness of the infractions varies according to their types, where some infractions can’t be addressed and are considered a threat to the historical importance of the Old Sana’a.

“The most prominent architectural infractions are building additional floors that differ from the ancient architectural style, replacing the old wooden doors by modern doors instead, and the erosion of external and internal features of some historical buildings with the absence of maintenance, and increasing propaganda posters on the roofs of buildings,” al-Shami explained.

Al-Shami added that demolishing archeological buildings to the ground and build modern buildings is sadly considered of the grave infractions, such as demolishing al-Rabuai brokerage in 1985, Sylan market including many houses and Al-bwai brokerage in 1995, Ahmed Hamdani’s home in 2011, and others.

Most people who demolished these buildings are supposed to be found and punished according to the Yemeni law. However, Al-Shami confirmed that all the offenders are known traders but no one can stop or punish them. “There are legal penalties issued in 2013 that differ according to the kind of the infractions, but in fact there isn’t any application of these penalties.”

Old Sana’a is located in the heart of the capital Sana’a. It is the most important tourist attraction and heritage in Yemen. Therefore, it was inscribed by UNESCO on the list of World Heritage Sites in 1986.

However, Agent of the General Authority, Jhaf, said that old Sana’a is now on the edge of danger, which may lead UNESCO to issue warnings to remove it from the list in case it isn’t maintained. Fortunately, the World Heritage Committee is aware of the bad situation in Yemen from the annual report submitted by the General Authority.

Regarding the role of UNESCO as an organization supporting historic cities, Jhaf said UNESCO doesn’t provide financial support as many people believe, but it only provides technical and logistical support. “Often, UNESCO launches an appeal to Member States to support and finance the rescue plans for historic sites that are in danger, so now we really need UNESCO to launch a global call to save Yemeni historical cities,” added Jhaf.

Jhaf confirmed that the General Authority has tried to help the situation, but no benefits have been seen. “The General Authority has begun implementing a plan to preserve historic sites not only in Sana’a, but in Zabid, Hadramaut, and many other provinces, but the lack of possibilities and situation made it stop the implementing every time,” she explained.

Jhaf added that the Capital Secretariat also stopped the campaign to save old Sana’a. “We hope the Capital Secretariat can complete its campaign and the state should quickly customize alternative cities to address population crowding in historic cities”

According to statistics, the walled old Sana’a has seven doors but only one remains. It’s been inhibited since the 5th century BC at least. It has 103 mosques, 11 sauna bathes, and about 6,000 homes all built before the 11th century. 3,846 homes are still intact while 2,100 are infractions.

In the first century AD, old Sana’a became a capital of the Sheba Kingdom. Many areas in old Sana’a and around Sana’a were mentioned in the discovered inscriptions.  It includes about 54 neighborhoods, 45 markets, 40 orchards, and is it’s famous for its many handicrafts inherited by generations; the most important is the onyx industry. It’s also the only place in Yemen that still has Oil-Pressers.