Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sanaa, Yemen's Endangered Wonder

The old city of Sanaa, Yemen, looms up in its mountain valley like a vision of a lost world. It seems like a mirage, or one of those paintings they use in the background of fantasy movies. But it is a real place, 6,000 houses and 103 mosques within a crumbling wall that once protected it from bandits.

Sanaa sits astride the ancient inland trade route that ran from Yemen's ports across Arabia to Mecca, Syria, and the Mediterranean. Here in this valley of many springs, caravans could refresh after the crossing of the desert. There has been a city on this spot since 200 BCE. When Islam came, Sanaa became a center for its spread, full of mosques and scholars.

Although the city is ancient, few of its buildings are more than 200 years old. The city was completely reconfigured after it was conquered by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century, in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottomans replaced most of the mosques, palaces, and other pubic buildings. (They also built a Turkish bath in every district.) The houses are just not made to last forever. Most of the old houses have a ground floor of stone, which was used for storage or even stables. The floors above, where people lived, are made of adobe brick. Some are sheathed with a single layer of fired brick to protect them from the elements, others only with plaster. It does rain in Sanaa, so the adobe decays over time. Local custom has been that when a house starts to crumble, it is torn down and a new one built.

Sanaa has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. Just this week, though, UNESCO threatened to revoke Sanaa's status if Yemen doesn't do more to protect the city's historic atmosphere. The old city is threatened by the same forces that are degrading ancient cities and forts the world over: modernization, money, and bad plumbing. Yes, bad plumbing; every time I read into what is happening at some decaying old fort in India or Pakistan, it turns out that part of the problem is badly built or maintained sewers and water lines, which leak and undermine ancient walls. The same thing is happening in Sanaa.

Sanaa is now a sprawling city with more than a million inhabitants. The wealthy families who built the old city's beautiful houses are moving to new villas in the suburbs, equipped with modern conveniences like air conditioning. The old city is increasingly becoming a poor neighborhood where most people are renters. The absentee landlords who own its houses and apartment blocks have little incentive to keep these places up. According to an official with the government's preservation bureau, it costs only about $30,000 to tear one of these houses down and replace it with concrete, but $150,000 to restore it using traditional methods. So when the houses become decrepit, they are increasingly replaced with concrete.

In such a crowded city, space and water are both very valuable. Many of the gardens that were once Sanaa's glory have been built over, their water diverted to drinking and bathing.

The value of tourism probably insures that at least a good chunk of Sanaa's old city will be preserved. But I fear that concrete, that great monstrous bane of our age, will consume much of this old glory.

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