Heir to an ancient culture spanning through several millennia and that goes back to the 3rd millennium BC, time by which it is believed to have been inhabited by a Semitic tribe – the Qahtani, modern Yemen is home to innumerable treasures of history and archaeology, most of which, due to the slow and early modernization of the state, are available to the visitor in plain view, even if not properly taken care of and subject to constant looting, expropriation, demolition and above all, oblivion.
Closed to the Western world for centuries and vastly unexplored, not only because of its difficult topography but also because of a turbulent history, Yemen is today known to be the place where the Arabian Peninsula and Africa met, and the home of the Sabean civilization, a rich and powerful culture distinct from that of mainland Arabia and that rapidly vanished after the arrival of Islam, leaving much to be imagined and some traces in the language and culture of the place that diverse as it is, can still be seen today.
Known to Greek geographer Ptolemy as “Arabia Felix” (Happy Arabia) because of the fertile land, moister climate and great wealth, there seems to be something of irony today in the term: After gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, it was ruled by a monarchy and then followed a brief revolution in the aftermath of which we have witnessed continuous armed strife, civil wars, secession, reunification, and in more recent times two equally unfortunate phenomena: The long-claimed status of the country as the home-base of Al-Qaeda and the Shia insurgency in Sa’adah governorate since 2004. From its ancient status as a place of great wealth, Yemen remains today one of the world’s poorest countries.
In 2011 the Yemeni uprising – part of the Arab Spring – the people demanded the resignation of long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh and after the signature of a power transfer deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, there seem to be some steps pointing in the direction of a possible democratic future for the country.
Yesterday, long-time activist Tawakkul Karman received the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Yemeni and the first Arab woman to receive the prestigious award. As little attention as the Yemeni uprising received from the international community, it is possible that Karman’s status as a Nobel laureate will bring her at the forefront of the international scene and help her promote some positive change in the country.
Among the many things that need to be built or re-built and protected in Yemen is its ancient heritage. Three places in the country have been declared UNESCO world heritage sites: The Old Walled City of Shibam – known as the Manhattan of the desert – in 1982, the Old City of Sana’a in 1986 and more recently the historic town of Zabid in 1993.
Other than that, there are dozens of places of archeological interest spread all over the country and the now famous Socotra Archipelago, added by UNESCO in 2008 to the World Heritage Marine Program. The archipelago lies in the northwest Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden and comprises four islands and two rocky islets which appear as a prolongation of the Horn of Africa; famous for its rich biodiversity and unique flora and fauna.
The iconic Shibam is a 16th century city surrounded by a fortified wall and seems to be the oldest example of vertical construction out of the cliff edge of Wadi Hadramaut, from which the governorate where it is located, takes its name. Shibam has been ensured protection through the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen (GOPHCY), anchored in the Antiquities Law of 1997 and the Building Law of 2002. A joint-project run since 2000 with the German GTZ has improved the small city’s overall condition.
The Old City of Sana’a – inhabited for over two millennia –on the other hand, even though it has received substantial investment from public and private sector and international organizations is rapidly becoming more and more vulnerable because of social mobility and threatened by modern hotels and telecommunication towers in the surrounding landscape. Other than that it has also been the site of constant gunfire in the course of the Yemeni uprising and has been susceptible to significant damage. The case of Sana’a has received little attention but the UNESCO has requested from the Yemeni government to avoid further deterioration since a great deal of the structures are still intact, however they might be under threat.
The last case and most recent addition to the list – Zabid – remains largely forgotten and of almost impossible resolution: Located on Yemen’s western coastal plain – the Tihama – and named after Wadi Zabid, it was of great importance in the Arab and Muslim worlds for many centuries because of its Islamic university. It was the capital of Yemen during the Rasulid period and its unique and colorful architecture is a mixture of Arabian, East African and Indian styles, nowhere else to be found.
With the establishment of Ottoman rule, Zabid was neglected when the seat of government moved to the capital, Sana’a. In spite of everything, the city enjoyed a reputation among religious scholars of both the Shafi and Hanafi schools of Islam, what came to an abrupt end in 1962 after the republican revolution when many of the religious institutions moved to the regional capital, Hodaida. Similar has been the fate of local commerce, partly due to bad planning in urban and agricultural policies that has significantly impoverished a once more or less wealthy region.
Traditional houses in Zabid evolved around a small courtyard – qabal – and built more and more rooms as were needed, around the “qabal”. They were built with bricks made from local clays and the water used in the indigo tanneries of the city was mixed with the clay, giving it a characteristic bluish color, adorning the facades with different patterns of bricks imitating Cairo arches, Indian floral patterns, African animals and also Arabic calligraphy. The external surface of the facades was covered with layers of lime, adding more and more layers through the years, giving the impression that the houses were part of the local nature.
This unique and particular style changed ironically right after it was declared a world heritage site (1993) and the city suffered a great loss of its historical identity when many emigrants returned during the Gulf War, causing population growth that in turn led to increasing demand of more and more housing. Cheaper materials were sought for and in the total absence of strict protection of the heritage; the distortion of the city began unmolested.
Even though it is the second Yemeni city in number of mosques after Sana’a – some of which are over 14 centuries old – and has about 4000 houses ranging between 200 and 600 years, it was estimated in 2009 by the General Authority of Protecting Historical Cities (GAPHC) that over 40% of the houses had suffered distortions from their original form with the widespread usage of modern materials, and over 60% of the original houses were abandoned or ruined.
Already in 2000 the city was placed in the list of endangered heritage sites and in 2007 a Mission Report of UNESCO’s World Heritage stated that Zabid was then at a critical point of no longer having world heritage value: The degradation of the city was described as on-going and an initial survey revealed than over 50% of the original historic buildings were already completely destroyed. The permanence of Zabid in the list, at least temporarily, was based on the fact that there are still many monuments and areas of national and international value in terms of world heritage. Needless to say, UNESCO consultants became enervated by the inability of the Yemeni authorities to preserve the site.
At the alarming news, a German-sponsored mission – following from the success of Shibam – was established for Zabid in 2009, in order to avoid the removal of the city from the list that would indefinitely harm Yemen’s place in the cultural and touristic map of the world, with devastating effects for an already impoverished economy and that would set the mood for the ultimate destruction of the entire site. According to its director, Omar Hallaj, most of the damage done to the site was reversible and some conservation plans could be put into action.
Two years later, the city is still protected as a world heritage site by UNESCO even though it retains the endangered site status and unless action is taken, it is very probable that it will be removed from the list in the very near future. After several months of unrest in the course of the Yemeni uprising, the plight of the city remains unheard, unemployment and poverty are even more widespread than before and a collapsing state infrastructure has made it impossible to follow up on the different initiatives taken in 2007 and 2009.
There might be still some chance for Zabid not to fall into oblivion if the newly appointed Yemeni authorities and the prominent activists do not forget the great potential that historical sites in Yemen have in bringing revenues from tourism and in establishing the future Yemen as a destination for historical tourism.
There are still dozens of cities and hundreds of scattered sites all over the Yemen, deserving articles of their own, to tell their stories and to call for action in order to prevent further damage. It would be at the same time realistic to think, that Shibam will continue to receive funding from Germany in purview of its apparent success and that any new initiatives would look at the Old City of Sana’a rather than other places.
That goes not without saying that it would be a great loss to the Middle East if such an important – albeit forgotten – place like Zabid would ultimately succumb to terminal destruction and end up having no world heritage value at all, as it has been the case with many sites in Afghanistan and Iraq. The number of issues to be tackled in a post-revolutionary Yemen scenario are too long to be listed in one article or in a dozen, and probably culture and heritage is not even near the top of the list; nevertheless it is important not to forget that heritage is not only a question of tourism, but also one of the most elementary forms of nation-building.