Ancient Sanaa may be casualty of Yemen’s violent unrest
SANAA, Yemen — The tanks, mortars and firefights rumbling and crackling through the ancient city of Sanaa are endangering not only Yemen’s future but also its magnificent architectural past of intricately decorated earthen houses and slender brick towers.
The old city, with its stealthy alleys and fortress walls, is one of the most striking visions in the Arab world, a bit of fairy tale in a harsh, despotically ruled land. But once-peaceful protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh that have escalated to street battles involving tribes, government forces and mutinous soldiers are encroaching on the historic center, settled more than 2,500 years ago and named a World Heritage Site in 1986 by the United Nations.
“It is very sad that the people in charge are not taking care of such a precious treasure,” said Ibrahim Dhawi, who owns a souvenir shop not far from 12 historic homes damaged by shelling in October. “I’m really afraid that if the attacks against the old city continue, Sanaa might lose a lot and so will the Islamic and Arabian cultures.”
Nine months of unrest have battered a country edging toward civil war as secessionists plot in the south and al-Qaida militants assassinate security officials and seize control of towns. Most of the fighting thus far in Sanaa, the capital, has erupted outside the old city’s stone and earthen walls, but gunfire, explosions and stray mortar rounds have been creeping closer.
“Sanaa is living history that Yemenis should take pride in and protect,” said Abdullah Zaid Ayssa, head of the General Organization for Preservation of Historic Cities of Yemen. “The old city of Sanaa is a source of income as a tourist site that needs to be protected and restored. It is very strange that people from the conflicting sides — regardless of who it might be — have attacked such an essential part of history, not just of Yemen but the world.”
The enclave of about 66,000 people has endured invaders, wars, religious upheaval and droughts for millennia. Sanaa occupied a prominent place in the emerging Islamic faith in the seventh and eighth centuries. Its houses, towers and minarets are mixtures of packed earth and kiln-fired brick decorated with geometric designs colored with white gypsum and glimmers of stained glass. From afar, the narrow, flat-top buildings appear like a delicate city in miniature. The last major renovation occurred during the Ottoman Empire.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization describes the old city with the mystique one might read in a travelogue from another era: “The ochre of the buildings blends into the bistre-colored earth of the nearby mountains. Within the city, minarets pierce the skyline and spacious green bustans (gardens) are scattered between the densely packed houses, mosques, bath buildings and caravanserais.”
But these days, modern weaponry and political intrigue are jeopardizing the capital as Saleh refuses to relinquish his 33-year rule amid international pressure and multiplying domestic enemies. Years of poverty, new construction and failed government oversight also have marred the old city’s aura by leaving historic buildings in disrepair.
“People who live here are of limited income and cannot help restore the houses,” said preservationist Ayssa. “There is a lack of awareness. The old city is under threat.”
UNESCO recently urged the Saleh government to better protect the old city’s architectural character, expressing “deep concern” about the state of preservation. The historic center contains 12,000 buildings, including more than 45 mosques, 42 gardens, 49 orchards, 16 baths and 48 markets, most notably the sprawling Salt Market that over the centuries sold copper, spices and slaves.
“People of the old city cannot restore the buildings themselves,” said Qanaf Sharib, a neighborhood leader. “They need help from the government, otherwise the city will lose its charm.”
Hundreds of residents gathered last month at Friday prayers and called for the ouster of Saleh, mutinous soldiers and opposition figures. The demonstrators, calling themselves the Silent Majority, shouted, “They all must go!”
The residents and shopkeepers demanded peace and an end to inflation and months of insecurity that have driven tourists away and ruined the economy.
“I’m afraid that the old city will become another battlefield,” said Dhawi, the souvenir seller, who daily endures blackouts and barricades.