Preserving Yemen’s Cultural Heritage
Yemen is one of the most isolated countries in the world. At one point, it hardly made international news except when it came to the United States’ war on terror against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, otherwise known as AQAP. But, much has changed over the past few years after the so-called Arab Spring that finally ousted President Ali Abdallah Saleh who was in power for nearly thirty years. At the start of 2015, Shi’a rebels known as Houthis took control of the capital Sana’a forcing Yemen’s recently elected president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to resign. Houthi control of some major cities led a Saudi coalition including five Gulf countries, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Sudan to launch airstrikes to destabilize the Houthis.
Despite the hardships that many Yemenis have endured and continue to experience with poverty and underdevelopment, chronic corruption, and now an escalating war, there is so much more to Yemen that is often neglected. It is by far one of the most beautiful countries in the Middle East with diverse landscapes including mountainous terrains, river valleys, deserts, and coastlines. Apart from its natural beauty, Yemen’s most striking attributes are its charming homes, ancient high-rise buildings, and majestic walled cities. Many of these architectural structures built centuries ago still stand today as a testament to Yemen’s rich heritage.
Yemen is located in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east. It is believed to be one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world. Yemen’s history dates back around 3,000 years to the Minean and Sabaean Kingdoms. The latter kingdom was ruled by Balqis, Queen of Sheba. These kingdoms flourished due to Yemen’s strategic location at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, which for centuries served as the crossroads of ancient and modern trade routes for spices and incense between Africa and Asia.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated four world heritage sites in Yemen. These sites include the old city of Sana’a, the old walled city of Shibam, the historic town of Zabid, and Socotra Archipelago, a chain of four islands situated in the Indian Ocean. It is believed that one-third of plant life on the archipelago is distinct to these set of islands and found nowhere else on earth. Socotra is also described as the most alien-looking place on the planet.
Over the next few weeks, this column will explore some of Yemen’s beautiful architectural establishments including Sana’a’s centuries-old gingerbread houses and Shibam’s mud skyscrapers dubbed as the “Manhattan of the Desert”.