Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, is the oldest inhabited place in the world, and according to popular legends, the city was founded by Shem, the son of Noah. Sana’a is home to the ancient Ghumdan Palace, a 20 storey building, sometimes acknowledged as the world’s first skyscraper. Today, only a few ruins remain of the Palace. It is believed that the Great Mosque of Sana’a was mostly built from the materials of the Ghumdan Palace in the seventh century. The Great Mosque is one of the oldest mosques besides Mecca and Al-Madina in Saudi Arabia. Among the city’s other notable features are 103 mosques, around a dozen bath houses or hammams, and more than six thousand houses all built before the 11th century.
This charming city is located in a mountain valley and recognized as “the most authentic and significant examples of the extraordinary urban civilization.” The city is characterized by storied houses, described as high rises as each house is built with five to nine stories. The houses are constructed with ashlar masonry, a type of stonework construction that involves rectangular blocks of stones. Each house is beautifully adorned with white friezes made from gypsum plaster that is applied around windows, doors, and other facades most resembling gingerbread houses.
The old city was once protected by a medieval looking fortress with seven large gates believed to have been built around a thousand years ago by the Sabean Kingdom. The only surviving fortified wall is Bab al Yemen or the entrance or door to Yemen. Sana’a is the first destination for many travelers and Bab al Yemen undeniably signifies the gateway to Yemen’s rich cultural and architectural heritage. Souq el Milh or the Salt Market is very much part of old Sana’a cultural life today as it was many years ago. Here, visitors and locals alike purchase salt, bread, spices, cotton, pottery, copper and other local products.
The Old City of Sana’a was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1986 for its architectural design and preservation of hundreds of tower houses and Bab al Yemen. It was also recognized for its cultural and religious contributions not only to Yemen, but to other Arab countries and the Islamic world. In 1995, Old Sana’a won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which distinguishes architectural concepts that respond to the social, economic, and cultural ambitions of Islamic societies.
The gingerbread houses of Old Sana’a and the large gate of Bab al Yemen are extraordinary sites to see. The minarets of ancient mosques still call Muslims to prayer even at odd hours of the early mornings, afternoons, and sundown. The small alleyways lined with stones leading to the souq still fill the air with scents of sweet spices. So much of this magnificent city and its ways are palpable today as they were centuries ago. As the Yemeni proverb goes La budd min Sana’a wa law taal al safar, or “Sana’a must be seen, however long the journey takes.”
Indeed, Sana’a must be seen.
On May 12, 2015, UNESCO’s general director, Irinia Bokova, condemned all parties to Yemen’s armed conflict for failing to protect Old Sana’a as it came under severe bombing.
As the conflict intensifies, it is only heartening to hope that there will not be a large and senseless loss of life and that Yemen’s centuries’ old architectural sites will also be spared from damage.
Join us next week as we explore more of Yemen’s cultural heritage.
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