For two and a half millennia, people have lived in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, making it one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. According to Yemeni legend, Shem, one of the Prophet Noah’s three sons, founded and built the wondrous city in a valley at the western foot of Mount Nuqum. In ancient times, Sana’a was known as Azal, or Uzal in Hebrew, after one of Shem’s direct descendants.
It is believed that Azal was the founder of the Arabian tribe that inhabited Sana’a for generations. The name of the Yemeni capital was mentioned in ancient Sabaean inscriptions as san’oo, which is derived from the Sabaen word masna’a, meaning a “fortified place.”
One of Arabia’s Most Prominent Cities
By the first century CE, Sana’a had emerged as a center of trade in southern Arabia. In addition to being a commercial hub, the ancient city was also an important religious center for Jews and Christians, and home to the ancient pre-Islamic fortress of Ghamdan. The 20-story building, which dates to the first and second centuries BCE, is believed to be the first “skyscraper” ever built.
After Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), converted the inhabitants of Sana’a to Islam in 632 CE, many of the city’s pre-Islamic structures were destroyed. The Yemeni capital then became home to Al Jami al-Kabir, or the “Great Mosque of Sana’a,” in the seventh century CE. It is believed that materials from Ghamdan Palace were used to build the ancient city’s iconic mosque, one of the first mosques built outside of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
After the seventh century, Sana’a became a major focal point for the spread of Islam in the region. In the centuries that followed, the inhabitants of the southern Arabian capital developed the ancient city into a thriving metropolis and an architectural masterpiece that continues to be admired by people all over the world.
The Wonders of Old Sana’a
The Old City of Sana’a is home to 106 mosques,12 hammams (public baths), and 6,500 houses, all of which were built before the 11th century CE. For centuries, Yemen’s ancient capital has been protected by a wall built of mud and stone that reached a height of 20 to 30 feet in some places.
Historically, the wall had seven babs, or “gates” in Arabic, including Bab al-Yemen, Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Sabah, Bab Amer, Bab al-Balqa, Bab al-Sha’ab, and Bab al-Qa’a. However, the negligence of successive governments led to the partial destruction of Sana’a’s wall, leaving only Bab al-Yemen. The wall’s remaining gate leads to endless tight alleyways that wind through the Old City’s multi-storied, tower houses.
Yemen’s ancient city has long been renowned for its impressive residential towers, which were built on stone foundations and rise four to eight floors. The ornate geometric patterns made of adobe and white gypsum adorn the windows, doors, and facades of the brick towers, giving the Sana’a skyline an “extraordinary artistic and pictorial quality.”
The beaten paths of Old Sana’a lead to souks, or “markets” in Arabic, which are filled with the smells of coffee and spices daily. The city’s market area, Souk al-Milh, or “Salt Market” in Arabic, is famous for its unique layout of smaller, specialized souks. To this day, the city has 41 specialized markets, selling traditional handicrafts, vegetables, and gold.
Sana’a’s unparalleled design along with its exquisite orchards and squares have earned the ancient city global recognition and admiration. “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,” Ronald B. Lewcock, an architect, conservator, and scholar, wrote in a 1986 UNESCO report on the preservation of the Yemeni capital.
The War’s Next Victim
In the late 20th century, the population of Sana’a grew exponentially, from roughly 35,000 in the early 1960s to more than 400,000 by the mid-1980s. As the capital continued to expand, Old Sana’a eventually came to represent only one-tenth of the city’s population and area.
Sana’a remained largely neglected until the 1980s when UNESCO and the Yemeni government began preserving and repairing the walled city. UNESCO added the Old City of Sana’a to the World Heritage Site list in 1986. Almost 30 years later, in 2015, the World Heritage Committee finally added Yemen’s ancient capital to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
For the past four years, the war in Yemen has caused untold devastation to some of the country’s most invaluable historical gems. Part of Old Sana’a has been destroyed by bombing, leaving rubble where stunning tower houses once stood. “Protecting this city is an international responsibility, not just a Yemeni responsibility,” Abdullah Ahmed al-Kabsi, the official in charge of culture in the Houthi administration, told Reuters.
UNESCO has also reiterated the need for all actors in the conflict to avoid the “destruction of irreplaceable sites, monuments and museum collections in Yemen,” which are “critical to the identities of local people and of global significance for the history of art, architecture, science, and culture.” Nevertheless, these calls have fallen on deaf ears.
Unfortunately, Yemen’s long history of political instability has left the country’s rich heritage vulnerable. Civil war, the greed, and negligence of self-serving governments, and most recently, the Saudi-UAE-led military intervention in Yemen have led to the decay or destruction of parts of Old Sana’a. If the war in Yemen does not come to an end soon, the legacy of the ancient civilizations which built Sana’a could become yet another victim of the senseless conflict.
Feature image: Rod Waddington via flickr