The Bohemian and The Bulbul: Journeys in the Middle East (and further east), by Mira Baz

Posts Tagged ‘Amin Rihani’

Posted on May 6, 2010 - by

Travelling through time in Old Sanaa

Exploring the intoxicating architectural charms of the Yemeni capital

(Photo by PJW)
First appeared in The Daily Star

SANAA: “Sanaa it must be, however long the journey, though the hardy camel droop, legworn on the way,” goes a traditional Arab saying, cited by Al-Hassan Al-Hamdani in the 10th century AD.

According to legend, the Yemeni capital was established after just such a leg-wearing, camel-drooping journey. Shem, son of Noah, crossed deserts in scorching heat and braved precipitous mountain ranges, eventually stumbling across a temperate plain. There he laid a thread for the foundations of his building, but a bird swooped down and stole it. After a frantic chase, the bird dropped the thread. Shem realized that this was God’s chosen building site for the city that eventually became Sanaa.

Lebanese author and poet Ameen Rihani made the long journey to the Old City of Sanaa in 1922. What he saw then was probably not too different in style from what a traveler can experience today. As a traveler approaches the city from the mountains that hide it like a closely guarded secret, minarets glisten in the sun or are covered with a soft blanket of mist, depending on the season. The city’s tanned tower houses charm the visitor with their doll-house effect.

Stepping through the gate of Bab al-Yemen – literally, the Door of Yemen – into the bustle of the ancient souqs, visitors are likely to find themselves as bewitched as Rihani, who reportedly described it as the most beautiful city not only in Yemen, but in all of Arabia.

“The air in it is purer than water,” Rihani wrote, “the water clearer than the sky, and the sky more beautiful than poets’ dreams.”

Old Sanaa was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. Though believed to be one of the oldest inhabited cities, scholars say the name Sanaa didn’t become prominent until the third century AD, during the Sabaean Kingdom’s rule, as the city grew in importance. Many of the city’s houses, mosques, hammams (baths) and samsaras (caravanserais), built before the 11th century according to UNESCO, have been preserved within the remaining sections of its wall. The Grand Mosque was constructed during the Prophet Mohammad’s lifetime on his orders, when his envoys brought Islam to Yemen. Locals say its
walls contain stones from the now-vanished Ghamdan Palace, whose foundations are thought to have been laid by Shem.

“Sanaa in its time was considered an ideal city and had a sophisticated sanitation system compared to old cities around the world,” says Abdullah Zaid Ayssa, chairman of the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen and Professor of Architecture at Sanaa University.

He says that a special characteristic of Old Sanaa was that each quarter consisted of a mosque, a hammam, and a garden around which houses were built. Water used for ablution in the mosque was then pooled to irrigate the gardens, used for growing vegetables, and waste was recycled for use as heat energy in the hammams or as agricultural fertilizer.

The distinctive architecture of the tower houses was developed through centuries of experimentation, Ayssa says. Constructed without plans, their harmonious adaptation to the environment exhibits the craftsmanship of ancient builders. In experiments for his doctoral thesis, Ayssa measured temperatures in tower house interiors and found that the walls preserve a constant internal temperature of around 18 degrees Celsius, protecting residents from heat and cold alike. This feat is especially impressive given that temperatures outside can drop overnight by more than 20 degrees.

Constructed on a small piece of land, a house makes use of vertical space like a modern-day tower-block. The buildings average six floors but some rise to nine. The base is made of black lava stone, upon which upper floors of baked brick are erected, decorated with whitewash. The baked brick, customizable in size, gave builders the flexibility to create ornamental designs on the houses’ exteriors.

Even the houses’ windows show how form followed function in the past, Ayssa explains. The main windows had wooden shutters that blocked out heat as well as cold. But as shutters provided insulation and prevented light from entering the room, alabaster or stained-glass qamariyas, named for their halfmoon shape, were added above the windows for lighting and aesthetic value, and smaller windows allowed for ventilation.

The city provides perhaps the closest experience to time travel in the modern world. After the chorus of athans from the minarets call to noon prayer, a prelude to the afternoon lull in activity, Old Sanaanis settle into a mild intoxication courtesy of qat, the stimulating evergreen shrub, the experience heightened by the spectacular view of the city from the top of a tower house or hotel.