Ancient Sanaa.. Threatened with Removal from the World Heritage List

Ancient Sanaa.. Threatened with Removal from the World Heritage List

I went through the great gate, the Yemen Gate, and found in front of me only ancient history which I had read about, as if it were a live transmission from the past. It is a unique case, which is difficult to repeat on this scale and with this breadth and realism. The heritage city, through whose narrow streets and markets crowded with vendors and buyers I was trying to cross, was in fact a real city in which real people lived. Every individual in it represented a link in an historical chain which might reach back to the days of Shem the son of Noah peace be upon him the founder of the ancient city of Sanaa. Every house situated within its impregnable walls is like a museum of antiquities, and it is difficult to calculate how many people have lived in it from that ancient date to the present.

The ancient city of Sanaa, which was part of the Kingdom of Sheba and contained the throne of Balqis, is more than 2,000 metres above sea level. Successive civilizations passed over it: the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and others, whose fingerprints are still clear in that museum of a city. The mountains surrounding Sanaa are the highest in the Arabian Peninsula, which explains the predilection of invaders for building their fortresses on their peaks to ward off dangers. A newcomer to Sanaa and other cities of Yemen is bound to note that everybody is unconcerned by having to climb higher on mountains, highlands, the roofs of houses. The reason for this deliberate effort is that the enjoyment of chewing qat and storing it in one s mouth is only consummated by sitting in a maqil (a special room) that is high up, after lightening the body from fluids by climbing up and down, in order to enable the flavor of the qat to take effect. Qat is the only explanation for movement in the society in Yemen.

Your Pocket Your Pocket

Although at the beginning of the road I was surrounded by all the markets of old Sanaa in one place, prosperous professions like manufacturers of silverware, carnelian and ornamental belts, steadfast professions like herbalists, and professions which have disappeared and are no longer known like manufacturers of headcloths.

The scents of hot spices, grains and incense waft in the spacious place, and the voices of the owners of stalls chant, each one holding in his hand samples of his colored wares. Beside these vendors sat a group of people contemplating, with no work or aim except to gaze on God s creation. It is said that this crowded entrance has since ancient times been the favorite place for pickpockets to do their work, especially with those who put their money in their top pocket. A group of guards stand in wait for them, their task to repeat the words, Your pocket, your pocket , to warn people. Those who are caught red-handed stealing will face the most unpleasant situation in their lives.

In All the Languages of the World

I was perplexed about where to begin, and which direction to go. This city is full of hundreds of narrow streets and endless branching lanes with which I could not cope. I left this dilemma to those who had gone before me in getting to know this city and experiencing it. Fortunately for me, the young diplomat Khalaf Boudhahir from the Kuwaiti Embassy in Yemen and a Yemeni companion took on the responsibility for this difficult task. Khalaf chose Friday for me to carry out this long tour, because on any day other than a Friday I would not be able to take a single photograph due to the density of the crowd. He reassured me that the perplexity I was suffering would soon disappear, since each one of the old markets of Sanaa specialized in a particular commodity, and all we had to do was pass through them one after the other. We entered the Yemen Gate with a Jeep. The owners of the stalls by the historic gate were conducting sale and purchase transactions. We headed very slowly towards the left until we came to a small grocery. The owners of the stalls were standing to the right and left as if they were an official reception committee for those entering. Their competitiveness increased in intensity when a group of blond tourists entered fascinated by the magic of the East. Perhaps if there were six gates as there had been for the ancient city when it was founded, there would have been less overcrowding at that solitary gate. Some people might think that these vendors lined up on the right and left are culturally backward, but they are quite the opposite. They change their linguistic color according to the customer. With a German they would behave like pure Germans, with the English they would become like icebergs, and with French people they would speak the language of Voltaire. In brief, most of the vendors in old Sanaa spoke several of the main languages fluently, as a necessity for earning a living.

A Single Architectural Style

Almost all the houses in old Sanaa look alike to a great extent in their exterior and interior components, as I learnt subsequently, houses built of basalt and adobe, with broad lines of white gypsum smoothed around the edges of the windows and the houses, as if they were put to demarcate and accentuate the features of each house. No house was taller than five floors. The customary division for the inhabitants of these houses was the upper floors for the men, particularly the top floor, the lower floors were stores for grains, and a courtyard for raising some kinds of useful animals for the requirements of the home. The middle floors were for the women, and the kitchen was usually next to them. With regard to this repeated similarity of the houses, I asked myself, what if someone came to ask directions to one of these houses, would he use a map? Or would he look for a guide to show him the way?

It is forbidden for the owners of these houses, which look exactly alike, to carry out any changes or repairs on them without permission from the Public Authority for the Preservation of Historic Cities. This is the agency which is authorized to carry out such a task, for fear that the single old architectural pattern of the city will be disfigured. In spite of that endeavor, some haphazard repair operations on some houses caused the UNESCO World Heritage Council to intervene in the middle of last year 2002, and hint at dropping the old city of Sanaa from Humanity s Heritage List if strict measures were not taken to preserve the architectural character of the city and halt all building and repair operations in it.

The Herbalists Remain

We passed by the herbalists' market, and found it standing firm in the face of the changes of time. They say that the fundamental principles of the profession have been violated several times in recent times. In the old days, a herbalist used to inherit the secrets of that profession from his father and grandfather. But today there are numerous newcomers who mix salt with sugar and sell it as a medicine which heals people. And goods which have nothing to do with the profession of herbalism have found their way into herbalists shops. Perhaps they were introduced in order to attract customers and activate the market. On the other hand, other goods of which herbalists used to be the official purveyors have been removed from herbalists shops, like perfumes and spices, for which there are now markets which exist independently. The thing about which there is most unanimity among the herbalists I met is their annoyance with street vendor herbalists and herbalists shops which have opened up outside the city and deprived them of customers who used to come specially to see them.

Young Men Are Deserting Turbans

In spite of what has been said about the hands of the clock standing still in the old city of Sanaa, I noticed some differences between the clothes of old people and the younger generation. Although everybody is strict about wearing a janbiya (a curved dagger) fastened with a belt round the waist, and a jacket over a long robe and sometimes a shirt with buttons, the custom of wearing a turban is almost non-existent among young people, who prefer to leave their heads bare and wear a headcloth over their shoulders. Very often this headcloth may be tied onto the head. In the past it used to be shameful for any man to go outside his home without a turban. This change, with the younger generation giving up wearing turbans and caps underneath them, has contributed to the decline and disappearance of that industry. The whole time we were in the old markets of Sanaa, we did not see a single shop or street vendor selling these things.

Old Sanaa from its High Places

While we were crossing the narrow roads and lanes, our Yemeni companion turned to the right towards one of the old houses whose owner he seemed to know well. He began to bang loudly on the old wooden door, which I never doubted was more than two hundred years old, in a way that almost knocked it down. The companion began calling, Abdullah! Abdullah, where are you? my companion looked at me and smiled meaningfully. Today is Friday, he said, and our friend is certainly sitting with his wife chewing qat together. We learnt a new piece of information, namely that qat-chewing on Friday is a family activity. It was only a few moments later that Abdullah came down to us and opened the narrow door for us, preceded by a crowd of children of various ages. Abdullah was a young man in his mid-thirties, good-looking and well-dressed. He gave us a greeting and shook our hands warmly. When my turn came all I saw of his face was his swollen temple filled with qat and his mouth tightly closed except for a small opening through which he talked with difficulty, and from which appeared his teeth made green by the action of the qat. I had never seen anything like it before, with this degree of greenness. Khalaf informed Abdullah that I was a journalist from Al-Arabi magazine who wanted to take some photographs of the old city of Sanaa from from a height, so would it be possible to allow this? He stressed to him that he should not fulfill any of the duties of hospitality, particularly preparing the maqil. We knew the answer from the way Abdullah turned towards the interior door and his shout to the people of the house, Make way for the guests.

We walked towards the interior, surrounded by the children of the house. I found a quick opportunity to ask Khalaf about the subject of the green qat in Abdullah s mouth. You have not seen the authentic qat-storing by the people of Sanaa up to this moment, he answered me. What you saw is the normal state, and anything else is either slight storing in the mouth or the beginning of it. My thinking on the reply was human the exhausting stairway that I was climbing. Suddenly I stopped from severe exhaustion, my breathing was disjointed, and the same thing happened with Khalaf, who reminded me of what was said about the low level of oxygen available in areas that were high above sea level. Abdullah took advantage of the situation and pushed us towards a rectangular-shaped room that was green in its color and its furniture. Its small windows overlooked the other houses in Sanaa. I chose one of them as a platform for my lens, and told my companions cheerfully, the words coming out of me with difficulty, The place here is fine for photography. No need to go higher. My words sounded to them like a joke, and they burst out laughing.

While we were sitting we learnt that the green room which we praised so much had the previous evening been the scene of a Sanaa wedding which I had missed. Had I been there I could have had a great treasure of rare photographs: clothes, daggers, folk dances, traditional songs and other customs and traditions of the inhabitants of this region. But I was lucky enough to learn that the custom of neighbors borrowing large houses to hold wedding parties in them was a common one in old Sanaa. The wedding of the previous day was a living example of that custom of mutual help that has still not become obsolete.

Just as we had felt fatigue and exhaustion, suddenly we felt very much at ease, as if the green room were a filling station at which we refueled in order to continue afterwards the second half of our climb to the top, with less effort and in a shorter time. I arrived at my goal, and what a beautiful sight it was: the whole of beautiful Sanaa under my eyes, surrounded by the tall Surat Mountains. The enchanting scene made me imagine that I had played with the mythical time machine so that it took me back a thousand years. Had it not been for the satellite dishes spread out on the roofs of most of the neighboring houses, I would not have believed that I was living in the 21st century. The moments of amazement which the circumstances of the elevated view had imposed on me began to dwindle gradually. I was able to notice dozens of minarets, among them the minaret of the mosque of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib (may God honor him), which was close to the house onto whose roof we had climbed. The views about which I had heard appeared in front of me, namely the place on the upper floors allocated for the men to sit chewing qat and hold the sessions which usually accompanied this, for enjoying music and conversation. I remained in this state of attentiveness and observation until I decided to continue the rest of our tour. The strange thing was that our descent of the flight of stairs was restful, and only took three minutes, including greetings and kisses.

The Grand Mosque

We headed directly for the road which leads to the Grand Mosque. This is one of the oldest mosques in Islam, as it was built in the eighth year of the Hijra by the orders of the Prophet Muhammad (bpuh), on the ruins of the Church of Abraha the hare-lipped who had tried to destroy the holy Kaaba and turn people's pilgrimage towards his church. His attempt failed after God sent flocks of birds which rained down stones on his soldiers and destroyed them all. This spacious mosque is in the same architectural style as the Haram (holy shrine) in Makkah. When we passed by it we saw the believers inside kneeling and bowing their heads, seeking God s race and mercy.

Disaster on the Road

This happiness, which overwhelmed me when I saw one of the most famous of God s houses of worship, was not to last long. The fact that some of the houses surrounding the Grand Mosque were empty of inhabitants aroused my curiosity to know the reason. I wish I had not known. The people there told me a lot about their fear that these houses and others would collapse on their owners heads because of the moisture which was threatening the foundations of most of the houses in the Grand Mosque quarter. This results basically from obstructions in the sewage pipes for several years. It is said that there were technical defects when the streets of the city were paved are what caused the blockages in the pipes. Some of the inhabitants say that the danger is not confined to the collapse of two or even ten houses, indeed the danger may amount to several successive collapses of other houses rather like falling dominoes. This could cause a human disaster whose victims would be hundreds of people. Petitions and appeals regarding this question are still being presented to those responsible, without success.

The Extraordinary Carnelian

On the way back, our Yemeni companion insisted that we must see the shops which sold rings, many of which we had in fact gone past. Have you not heard of the supernatural powers and miracles which one can gain by wearing a carnelian ring? he asked me. Are you serious in what you say? I asked him in turn. He smiled. You are one of the few tourists who come to Yemen and do not ask about the precious stone, he said, referring to the carnelian. We in Yemen only came to know the status of the carnelian through some of the Arabs and Muslims who came to us recently. Because of them this industry became prosperous and in demand. Khalaf intervened on this subject, with the words: Let s go to these shops. They are on our way back, in any case.

In the first shop they told us that red carnelian keeps scorpions and spiders away. In the second shop they said that the same carnelian does not disappoint a man in bed, increases the level of intelligence and brings a livelihood and delight to anyone who acquires it. The ultimate in illusions and superstitions!

The same words were repeated in the subsequent shops, except for one shop in which was a man who was a specialist. He told us about carnelian without myths. There are many varieties of it, the best known of which are red, decorated, pink and brown carnelian. In Yemen it is not rare, it is available everywhere. But its different types and sizes, which have been injected with a great deal of superstition, are what gives it an aura that influences some people whose desperate circumstances or lack of faith impels them to visit those shops frequently in search of the extraordinary carnelian that will solve all their problems for them.

The last thing we learnt in the carnelian market was that it has its own specialist fortune-tellers like palmists, coffee cup readers. Their job is to read the carnelian stones and determine the benefit that each stone brings. In payment for that they receive large sums of money.

The Venice of Sanaa

Our last activity after coming out of the Yemen Gate was a tour in the car. We headed to the right alongside the wall of the old city. Then we turned once more to the right, but heading downwards. In fact I had not noticed what was strange at the beginning: two streets going in different directions, and we were going along one of them. Khalaf surprised me by saying, In the season when there is heavy rainfall, this street fills up with water to its limits. We are going along an open tunnel about five metres deep. It was designed for this purpose. Then he pointed with his index finger, Look at the high-water mark which has imprinted itself on the wall. Everything below it is a dark color because there is water there throughout that season. I learnt that this place was called Al-Sayila (flowing), because the water flows in it between the old city of Sanaa and the areas around it. It was as if we were in Venice in Italy. The remarkable things in this museum of a city did not want to leave me even after I had departed from it, as if it were inviting me to visit it again.


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


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