Famous for its unique mud brick tower houses and labyrinthine souqs and listed as a world heritage site by the United Nations, Yemen’s old city of Sanaa is now under serious threat.
The entire area was declared a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1986; in a bid promote the preservation of the city’s traditional architecture.
But UNESCO has recently threatened to remove the city from the list of protected sites, if the authorities do not do more to prevent the destruction of old buildings in favor of new, cement ones.
The warning comes as cement is increasingly used to renovate the city’s architectural treasures, in violation of UNESCO’s rules.
Chairman of the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities, Nagi Thowabeh, said he understood the need to preserve the city’s heritage, but said there were financial obstacles.
“All the houses need to be maintained and restored. A small portion, which is around 20 to 25 percent, needs to be rehabilitated. Of course rehabilitation is not like building a new building; a new building costs around 20,000 to 30,000 USD. But, because these buildings are listed on the world’s heritage sites, the cost of their restoration reaches more than 150,000 USD per house,” said Thowabeh.
Thowabeh appealed for world support to help save the old city, suggesting a fundraising project as one possible solution.
“UNESCO should come and see the situation and we should sit together to assist it. After that, we can call for a world fund project that could be supervised by an international figure in order to initiate a fundraising campaign from individuals, international groups and agencies,” he said.
Though inhabited for over 2,500 years, old Sanaa is a living city, where women swathed in black carry bundles from the market, children play with spinning tops in the alleys and families live in houses, each six or seven floors high.
Ahmed al-Sadiq, a resident of the old city, blamed heavy rain for much of the destruction of city’s historic buildings.
“Sanaa is now threatened, frankly speaking. It is particularly threatened during the rainy days. There were houses that collapsed last autumn, due to rains,” he said.
Faced with the UNESCO threat, local official Salim al-Haimi said the country’s authorities would step up efforts to ensure the protection and preservation of the city’s architectural heritage.
“We care about keeping Sanaa on the World Heritage List, as much as UNESCO does. Sanaa is not owned by us only, it is owned by the world, and we hope that the international community will consider what has happened in Yemen and provide help and support to us. We do not want to receive warnings. We will prove to the world that we will work, we will do the best we can,” said al-Haimi.
But deputy minister of culture, Huda Abalan, said the UNESCO warning worked against the efforts that had been made over the years to help preserve the old city.
“We in the Ministry of Culture take it very seriously, and we also think that such a warning could affect all the cultural and historical work that has been done over the past 30 years in the old city of Sanaa,” said Abalan.
In recent years, Yemen, the poorest state in the Arab world, has looked to tourism as an important source of foreign revenue. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners used to flock to Yemen annually, attracted by its ancient sites and rich cultural heritage.
However, Yemen is now struggling to attract tourists from the West and Asia because of the country’s growing instability and the threat of militant and tribal attacks.