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YEMEN : Preserving Sanaa's Unique Architecture

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Odei Saddam Hussain at school, 1972

Odei Saddam Hussain

 

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General Barzani

 

Oil tanker, Persian Gulf

Skyline, SanaaThe ancient walled city of Sanaa, with its mosques, souqs and spectacular domestic architecture, presents a challenge to planners and restorers. “Here we have a coherent example of Arab culture which is still alive, still flourishing”, says Iraqi architect Samar Damluji, who has done extensive research on Yemeni cities. The old city of Sanaa has not yet been socially and economically eclipsed by the new city, as is the case in Cairo. Its unity and harmony have not been destroyed by the development of office-blocks and motorways, as have many parts of old Damascus and Bagdad.

An old city teeming with life

In the narrow winding streets of Sanaa today, few modern buildings are in evidence and they retain many of the distinctive design features of the older buildings. What is more, the old city teems with life. Unlike, for instance, old Jerusalem, it has not become a tourist trap. Whatever its problems, most Sananis are proud of their city and take a lively interest in its history and heritage.

So saving Sanaa is not a question of reviving a dead city but of ensuring that the city remains an integral part of Yemeni life. But in the last few years the pace of change has quickened. Professor Ronald Lewcock, a leading authority on the architecture of Sanaa, believes that the physical decay of many of the city’s finest buildings, though worrying, is not as serious as the growing exodus of residents from the walled city. This lends urgency to restoration plans. But the need for rapid action has not, so far, been met by the slow-moving Unesco campaign.

Shaikh Allos in his old houseUntil the 1962 revolution, the old city of Sanaa had changed little since the explorer Carsten Niebuhr visited it in 1762. Most of the population of about 50.000 lived within its walls. Preliminary results from the 1986 census indicate that 425.000 people now live inside the present city boundaries, of whom only 30.000-35.000 are residents of the old city.

Each year scores of families moves from their homes in the old city to the comfort of a new suburban villa, although without necessarily breaking their links with the old city altogether. For Abdullah Allos, a judge in tribal law and a shaikh with authority over several of the traditional quarters in the old city, 1962 marked a turning-point in Sanaa’s history. He feels that despite the undeniable benefits brought by the revolution, its impacts on the city was negative.

For him, it meant the weakening of familiy ties. Traditionally, several generations would live together in the same house. Sanaa’s magnificent domestic architecture reflected this family cohesion and prestige. With the opening-up of the country after the revolution, lifestyles began to change, and sons began to want separate houses when they got married.

“I used to live in an old house bought by my father 70 years ago”, Shaikh Allos says. His brother and five sisters also lived in the same house. But eventually, they all got married and had children. “Then it was no longer possible to live all together. So we sold the old house and built or bought new houses, four of us in the old city, three in the new one”.

Young people are attraacted by the facilities of the new town

Restoring a stained-glass windowYounger people are also attracted by the facilities of the new town. Abdel-Nasser, aged 30, is the son of Yahya Suneidar, a leading Sanani merchant. He studied abroad and now works in one of his father’s shops. He and his family live in the new city. “We prefer the new house”, he says. “We have a lot of space, a nice garden, fresh water for the kids”.

His father is still devoted to their large family house near the Friday mosque, and says he has spent 600.000 rials ($70.500) restoring it. But with most of his immediate family now living abroad or outside the old city, the house is empty and he is now thinking of renting it out as a hotel.

He admits that the old houses are hard work for the women of the family. “The old house, with its seven floors and 120 steps, needs a lot of work. Before, we used to have servants. We had four women, two to take care of the animals (goats and sheep were usually kept on the ground floor of city houses) and two for the kitchen and house cleaning. They were Yemenis, wives of soldiers or peasants who worked for a quarter of a rial a month”. Now, he says, no Yemeni woman would take such a job, only migrants from Ethiopia or Djibouti.

Maintenance is very important for the survival of these old family houses. But labour and building materials are very expensive, especially if there are few family members to share the cost. Some houses are left empty or almost empty because the heirs cannot agree what to do with the house. Frequently the house and its garden, hidden behind high walls, have been endowed as a family waqf (waqf dhuriyya) and cannot be sold. So it is either left empty, or rented to tenants. Either way, maintenance often suffers.

Abdel-Rahman Ziraji, a coffee merchant left his family home three years ago to live in a new house he had built outside the walls, though he continues to work in the old city. “I hate to leave the old family house in which I had spent my whole life”, he says. “ “But the whole time I was spending money to repair it. The house doesn’t belong to me; It is a waqf dhurriyya endowed  by my own grandfather, and I shared it with my sisters and uncles. We cannot sell it and now it is empty”.

Although the city is suffering from the exodus of many of its inhabitants, economically it is still very much alive. The souq area -- some 47.000 square meters -- is a city within a city, with 40 different souqs and 1.700 shops. The area also includes a number of historic buildings, such as the Friday mosque and the samsaras (caravanserais) of Muhammad Ben Hassan and Al-Nahass.

“The whole economy of the (old) city lies within the souq”, says Franck Mermier, a French scholar who is writing a thesis on the souq. But here too, despite the air of bustle and prosperity, there have been many changes. Shaikh Muhammad Amer, a wholesale fabrics merchant, has seen many changes since 1967, when he became the senior shaikh of the old city. During the last four or five years, he explains, all the big merchants -- the Watari, the Suneidar, the Ghamdan and the Aslan families -- have left the old souq because they have moved into new areas of business. “Before, they used to sell fabrics and spices, like all of us. Now they are selling tractors, pumps, cars and perfumes. It’s natural that they would move out of the old souq to larger premises”, the shaikh said. He remains in the shop which belonged to his father, because he likes the neighbourhood and because the shop is large enough for his business. “My sons will do what they want”, he concludes, sitting on a pile of fabrics imported from Taiwan and Macao while chewing his afternoon qat.

Crafts in decline

Not only have some of the big merchants moved out, but some of the traditional crafts are no longer practised, and whole sections of the souq have been disbanded. For instance, though some types of metalwork continue, the copper souq has disappeared. Other trades, like tailoring, selling veils and trousers for women, have expanded, taking over whole streets previously reserved for other wares.

Near Bab al-Yemen, an old city gate, one of the last camel-driven oil presses is still at work. Its owner bought back his three brothers’ shares in the business for 125.000 rials ($14.700). “They wanted to sell the shop”, he says, “but I refused because my father asked me to keep the business”.He kept only one of the two presses and scarcely makes a living from it. It takes a whole day to press three liters of sesame oil which he sells at 60 rials ($7) a litre, while imported margarine can be bought much more cheaply.

“The main threat is that the souq will stop being a centre of production for craftsmen and become merely a sales depot for poor-quality goods for the rural population”, argues Mermier. At present, there is no shortage of customers in the souq. In addiction to old-city residents, people from the countryside like to shop there. Often they have known the merchants for years and find products they could not buy elsewhere. The new suburbs have their own shopping areas, but it seems many still prefer the old souq.

Yet the economic balance has changed, as shops, offices, workshops and factories have proliferated outside the walls. Those with money to invest, whether in businesses or property, look to the new city. According to Lewcock, in recent years the government has passed a number of regulations which relate to the needs of the modern commercial sector but which have caused difficulties for the merchants of the old souq.

While everyone seems to agree that the old souq is important and should stay as it is, Lewcock suggests that merchants should be offered incentives to keep their businesses there. He and other experts stress that its continued prosperity is vital to the success of any restoration project. If the economy is not flourishing, no amount of restoration will prevent the old city’s decline.

Consulting the elders

Also crucial to stem the flow of people and money out of the old city are major improvements to the ramshackle infrastructure. Dr. Abdel-Rahman Haddad is an official who has been active in involving community leaders in this daunting project. His task is made somewhat easier by the fact that the traditional leaders -- the merchants, and the shaikhs and headmen of the quarters -- still retain much of their influence.

One such person is Shaikh Allos, who argues that nothing can be achieved in the old city without the co-operation of these traditional representatives. “We are the only ones who know the people”, he asserts. “We know who needs  help and who does not. Without us the government cannot do anything. The state comes like a flooded river. It does not know who is rich and who is poor”. Dr Haddad believes there is some truth in this. One of his first actions in his new post was to organise a meeting of 160 community representatives to sound out their wishes and involve them in the restoration of the city.

This highlighted some of the basic problems which lead people to look for homes elsewhere. Most of the streets are unpaved and dusty, or when it rains, they become seas of mud. The community leaders suggested the streets should be paved with black Yemeni stone, not asphalted. They also want electricity cables buried; at present they festoon the streets and walls, a dangerous eyesore.

Cleaning up the streets

Still worse is the rubbish problem. Some, like Abdel-Rahman Ziraji, blame “foreigners” -- Yemenis from the countryside who come to shop in the souq. He claims it is they who throw litter in the streets, and says the city  used to be much cleaner. Certainly the waste generated by modern consumer goods has combined with a poor standard of rubbish collection to make an unhealthy environment and one which does not encourage people to keep their own houses in good repair. One of the problems with efforts to improve the collection of rubbish is that it is the work of a very poor, low-status group from the Tihama, known as the akhdam, who live in one of the few squatter settlements on the outskits of Saana.

Traffic problems are also high on the list of local complaints. Cars and motorcycles cause congestion and danger in the narrow streets. But only one of the old-city representatives was willing to accept a total ban on cars inside the walls. This was Yahya Suneidar, who now lives in the new town. He thinks people should go back to using animals to carry their goods. But Shaikh Allos fears that if such an extreme measure were taken more people would leave the old city. The consensus is that the narrowest streets should be closed to traffic, that there should be a system of one-way streets, and that parking lots should be built. Some merchaants objected to the idea of limiting access to vehicles to the early morning. Abdel-Rahman Ziraji, for instance, says some of his customers drive long distances to deliver their qishr (coffee husks) and bun (coffee beans), and need constant access to his samsara.

One of the main reason for the collapse of houses in recent years has been poor drainage. According to Lewcock, piped water supplies were installed without an adequate drainage system. Fractured water-pipes added to the damp rising under the houses and undermining their foundations. A World Bank-assisted project for a main sewage and drainage system should alleviate the problem. But much damage has already been done. Lewcock recalls that in one week in 1983 five houses collapsed. During heavy rains this March (1986), two houses collapsed.

Who will pay?

The Yemeni government and Dr Haddad have been trying to persuade the merchants to help finance improvements in the souq area. But the merchants are cautious. “We are ready to contribute”, says Shaikh Amer diplomatically, “but only once we see that the government has started work”. He adds some merchants have already made a contribution. The shoe merchants, for instance, have paid for the sewage system in their district. But he argues that not all the merchants can afford to help.

Both infrastructural and restoration work is expensive, and clearly public funds are needed. As Lewcock points out, the Yemeni government has shown itself willing to put money in the old city, but after the drain on the budget caused by the 1983 earthquake, the sums available are small. International help is therefore essential.

So far, the only assistance has been $5 million of bilateral aid from Italy to improve the Sayyad Maad district of the old city. The project includes paving the streets, after burying the electric and telephone cables, and the restoration of several threatened houses. The Italian team will also try out different techniques of restoration, using modern and traditional materials. in addition, as part of a 10-million-rial ($1,2 million) cultural centre, they will build an experimental laboratory for research into building techniques.

Although in the new city modern building techniques are dominant, the old skills have not yet died out. “The Yemenis themselves are the most knowledgeable and expert on their own architecture. We can only contribute to the development of established techniques -- not impose new ones”, says architect Samar Damluji. The problem is that traditional building methods, though both durable and attractive, are no longer cheap. The cost of skilled labour for this time-consuming work is now high. Abdel-Rahman Ziraji, who has restored his family’s samsara,  estimates that he spent 120.000 rials ($14.000) in wages for three masons and goss (traditional lime-plaster) workers. The goss itself has become expensive:  the government subsidises cement but not lime and gypsum. The mud-bricks from which many of the houses are built were made locally until the Sanaa brickworks was closed down. The cost of transporting bricks from Hodeida proved prohibitive. Recently, the Sanaa brickworks was reopened in response to demand. But these are problems which can be resolved. “We are doing experiments to see if, by the use of simple machines, we can cut the labour time involved in some of the traditional methods”, says Lewcock.

The city’s future

Despite the magnitude of Sanaa’s problems, and the shortage of money, most observers are cautiously optimistic about the old city’s future, not least because both residents and government officials have shown a concern to preserve its cultural heritage and improve the environment. A few people have moved back into the old city. Ahmed Ali Elibbi, a 30-year-old architect who studied in Damascus and now works in Dr Haddad’s office, has set an example by restoring a house in the old city belonging to his wife’s grandmother. They spent 20.000 rials ($2.350) on the house and are happy living there. “In the old city”, Elibbi says, “you feel a special relationship with the people living around you”.

But Samar Damluji stresses that saving Sanaa does not just mean restoration. This approach, she says, is purely cosmetic. “It’s unhealthy to see cities as antiquities. For whose benefit are they being restored?  You can’t treat rehabilitation as a project on its own -- it has to relate to national planning as a whole”.

(The Middle East magazine, July 1986)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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