Magazine article Geographical

High Hopes: The Imposing Mud-Brick Cities of Yemen-Built in the Middle Ages to Millennia-Old Traditions-Have Survived by Default Rather Than Design

Magazine article Geographical

High Hopes: The Imposing Mud-Brick Cities of Yemen-Built in the Middle Ages to Millennia-Old Traditions-Have Survived by Default Rather Than Design

Article excerpt

Years of under-investment and political instability prevented the country undergoing the rapid Westernisation that transformed its oil-rich Middle Eastern neighbours. Now, with its wealth of culture and ancient wonders, Yemen has the opportunity to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. But preserving its precious heritage is proving an arduous task. (Conservation in Yemen)

FOR TRAVELLERS FAMILIAR WITH ARABIA'S popular destinations, Yemen is something of a shock. There are no six-lane motorways, and no concrete skyscrapers. Nor are there the shopping malls that dominate the skyline in Dubai, Manama, Muscat and Jeddah. Famed for its mud-brick tower houses, palaces and old stone villages, Yemen has largely preserved its 400-year-old dwellings built to 1,000-year-old designs.

In the winding medieval souqs of San'a', Yemen's capital, the crush of bodies sweeps the visitor from market to market. Each street specialises in a single craft or commodity, in the shadows of the medina's magnificent tower houses. The result is a bewildering cacophony of herbalists, tinkers, coffee merchants, qat sellers, jambiya (tribal dagger) makers and hawkers plying their wares. Ginger-bread mud-and-whitewash houses with glass and alabaster windows shelter the narrow, cobbled streets from the sun. Yet a chance turning leads to lush communal vegetable gardens, where mulberry trees and palms cast their shade over neat rows of onions and sunflowers, while mint bursts from nooks and crannies.

Yemen was one of the world's most isolated and traditional societies until revolution overthrew its feudal religious rulers in the 1960s. Then, after a brutal struggle for independence, the country fell prey to Cold War divisions, Western powers pitting the republic of North Yemen against its bitter rival, pro-Soviet South Yemen. After a turbulent 20th century of division and upheaval, the two Yemens were united in 1990 after the Soviet Union collapsed. But unified Yemen has endured set-backs too: in the 1990s it lost around US$3billion (2billion [pounds sterling]) worth of remittances, after the neighbouring Gulf states deported millions of Yemeni migrant workers when the government refused to endorse the allied offensive against Iraq during the Gulf War.

The nation remains the poor relation in a wealthy neighbourhood, lacking the oil that has enabled the Arabian Gulf states to swap their Islamic architecture for wide boulevards and status-affirming tower-blocks. Ironically, this has preserved much of Yemen's heritage. Political upheaval, poverty and a lack of foreign investment have fortuitously prevented Yemen's mud-brick architecture from going the way of the sandstone wind-towers that once lined the banks of the Creek of Dubai.

Now, though, Yemen is changing. Recent years have seen a return to economic growth, thanks to assistance from the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank. Entrepreneurs are on the lookout for business opportunities, encouraged by President Salih's declaration in November 2001 that Yemen is backing the US fight against terrorism (demonstrated in February by the expulsion of 100 Islamic scholars as part of a crackdown on al-Qaeda members).

But, with the benefits of wealth comes the toll on Yemen's heritage. Slowly, mud-brick construction methods are losing ground to breeze blocks and concrete. Modern agri-businesses and urban sprawl are creeping steadily across a rural landscape once dominated by lush, cultivated terraces. Conservationists estimate that one ancient palace collapses or is razed every single day in San'a'. The old city is home to more than 20,000 mud-brick palaces and tower houses. At the current rate of demolition and collapse, a third of these will have vanished by 2010.

In the early 1990s, UNESCO declared three Yemeni cities--Old San'a', Shibam in the governorate of Hadramawt and the Red Sea city of Zabid--World Heritage Sites. …

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