By Susana Soto
“Viewed for the first time the old walled city of Sana’a creates an unforgettable impression, a vision of a childhood dream world of fantasy castles.”
The Old City of Sana’a in Yemen, which has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years, is situated in a mountain valley at an altitude of 2,200 m. Propagation of Islam, in the 7th and 8th centuries, can be attributed to the city. A strong religious and political heritage can be seen in the 103 mosques, 14 hammams (which are steam rooms, much like turkish baths) and over 6,000 houses, all built before the 11th century. Sana’a’s tower-houses are built of rammed earth, meaning built using raw materials such as earth and chalk. The Old City of Sana’a has been a Heritage Site since 1986. The Old City meets with the iv, v, and vi criterion set up by UNESCO and World Heritage group, meaning it offers an example of a “homogenous architectural ensemble”, “extraordinary . . . example of of human settlement”, and is directly associated with the history of Islam.
By meeting with these specific criterion, Sana’a shows that it has a lot to offer to not only its people and those closest to it, but also the world. Sana’a is the largest city in Yemen and the center of Sana’a Governorate; yet it forms a separate district than that of all Yemen. It is a city maintained within a partially preserved wall and it is within that wall that the “outstanding example of a homogenous architectural ensemble” exists. These architectural structures offer an understanding of the organization and characteristics of early Islamic centuries. In addition, the houses of Sana’a are “outstanding examples of extraordinary masterpiece, traditional human settlement” despite becoming vulnerable due to contemporary social changes. Finally, Sana’a is directly involved with the history of the spread of Islam as it is here where the first known mosque was built outside of Medina or Mecca. The Old City has also been important to the Yemeni, Arab, and Islamic World through the contributions of historical figures.
With all that Sana’a has to offer, one would presume that it would be a place held in high esteem by many. The fact that this site has been a World Heritage Site since 1986 means it has had its fair share of problems, but within the last few years, particularly 2011-2015, it has come up against some of it greatest threats. The issues Sana’a faces are numerous, ranging from political, to religious, to geographical, and even economic. There are three major conflicts that Sana’a has been experiencing for years. First is a strong Al Qaeda presence, second a collapsing economy, and third a civil war between the northern and southern regions. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world and has been facing an economic downfall since before September of 2014, when its government was overthrown and abandoned by the President. Yemenis have been through various plans since the unification of the north and south in 1990, yet they still struggle to maintain a steady economy and have an unemployment rate of 17%.
The political and religious issues seemingly go hand in hand. As recently as September of 2014, Sana’a, along with other districts throughout Yemen, were occupied by Al Qaeda. Military and “popular committees” were created and posted in various areas in order to fight the terrorist group. In May of 2015, with the fall of the Saudi Arabian backed government, the Shia group known as Houthis from northern Yemen began to gain momentum. This group particularly resisted the Saudi Arabian led intervention on Yemen. Yet both the Saudi Arabian coalition and Houthi groups are under constant attack by the Islamic State (ISIL). Sana’a’s location has also caused it to be under of constant destruction. Missiles and airstrikes from a variety of groups are intended to destroy only military related locales, yet they seem more often than not to also attack locations of civilian life. In 2015 alone, there have been a recorded 38 deaths; and more are possible but with restriction of journalistic endeavors, it is difficult to know the true number of civilian casualties.
Since 2011, a protection and management requirement plan has been in effect on behalf of UNESCO. The protection of the Old City of Sana’a “is ensured” by the Antiquities Law of 1997 and the Building Law of 2002. It is believed that protection will be improved when the Historical Cities Preservation Law, which provides for the expansion and maintenance of historic places, comes into force. Preparations have been made, including the documentation of buildings within the city and its surroundings. The General Organization for the Preservation of the Historic Cities of Yemen aims to develop a conservation plan in the next few years. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has “recommended that and adequate buffer zone should be established around the old city” and although this should be implemented to improve protection, there are no clearly defined directions to follow.
The intention of creating and adopting a clear strategy for sustainable preservation of the city is a good plan in theory, yet if the wait for a plan is some few years, there could be more devastation and destruction occurring during the wait. There is a plan but until it is carried out in its entirety, the fate of the Old City of Sana’a is up in the air.