Yemen, a cultural and historical gem lost in turmoil
The longtime destabilized situation in Yemen has cut off a world of cultural heritage to tourists and archaeologists alike
A Saudi Arabia-led coalition is waging “Operation Decisive Storm” against the Houthi coup in Yemen, in a move seen as the breaking point after months of infighting in the country.
The longtime destabilized situation in Yemen has cut off a world of cultural heritage to tourists and archaeologists alike, with one site even previously being placed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger due to poor upkeep and conservation.
Sanaa’s rich heritage is reflected in 103 mosques, 14 Turkish baths and over 6,000 houses built before the 11th century and it is not the only gem in the country.
Here is a rundown of the beleaguered country’s most iconic cultural sites.
Old Walled City of Shibam
Ensconced by a fortified wall, the 16th-century city of Shibam is “one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on the principle of vertical construction,” according to UNESCO.
Nicknamed the “Manhattan of the desert,” Shibam’s tall cluster of sun-dried mud brick tower houses rise out of the cliff edge of Wadi Hadramaut.
The city’s Friday mosque dates, for the most part, from the 9th -10th century and its castle from the 13th century, however the initial settlement originated in the pre-Islamic period.
Some of the city’s dwellings are up to seven storeys high and supersede an earlier settlement that was partly destroyed by a massive flood in 1532-3, according to UNESCO.
The city was located on important caravan spice and incense route which saw traders ride across the Southern Arabian plateau.
Old City of Sanaa
The Old City of Sanaa, a unique architectural marvel of Yemen’s past listed since 1986 as a UNESCO world heritage site, faces the dual dangers of state indifference and unruly construction.
Situated in a mountain valley at an altitude of 2,200 meters, the city has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years and consists of multi-storey houses rising above stone ground floors, built of rammed earth and burnt brick.
Each building is decorated with geometric patterns of fired bricks and white gypsum — inspired by traditional Islamic art.
In the 7th and 8th centuries, Sanaa was a major center for the propagation of Islam, a religious and political heritage seen in its 103 mosques, 14 hammams and over 6,000 houses, all built before the 11th century.
In February 2012, UNESCO addressed a letter to the Yemeni authorities urging them “to ensure the protection of the cultural heritage of the country.”
However, the authorities, absorbed with the impoverished country’s political crisis and security threats, have had little time to spare for heritage preservation.
Historic Town of Zabid
In 2000, the town of Zabid was added to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. According to a UNESCO report, “roughly 40 percent of the city’s houses have been replaced by concrete buildings and other houses and the ancient souk are in a deteriorating state.”
In the 13th-15th centuries, Zabid was the capital of Yemen during the Rasulid period and the town’s domestic and military architecture make it an “outstanding” archaeological and historical site, according to UNESCO.
Home to an iconic Islamic University, the town was actually already flourishing when Islam was established in the region in the 7th century.
Zabid is strongly linked with the history of the early spread of Islam demonstrated in the archaeological remains within the town’s Alash’ar Mosque, associated with one of the Prophet Mohammad’s companions, who built it to become the fifth mosque in Islam.