Saving the city of mud

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The Independent Culture
The ancient buildings of Sanaa are under threat from modern development. Jane Withers looks at efforts to preserve the Yemeni capital's heritage

Sanaa, capital of Yemen, a labyrinth of mud skyscrapers and minarets, is a breathtaking sight. If you wanted to describe the exuberantly madcap architecture, a good starting point would be to feed blueprints for Venice and Manhattan into a computer with instructions to "morph" them into a medieval Arabian city made of what looks like gingerbread and decorated by a pagan pastry chef.

I had been told to expect the medieval bit - the goats, donkeys, veiled women and men with bristling moustaches chewing qat and wearing curly jambiya daggers - but not the modern infiltration of satellite dishes the size of giant waterlily pads, Toyota pick-up trucks ramming through narrow alleys and neon tubes strung up like fairylights. On the edge of the city, there are the stock concrete stumps and sprawling, bungaloid suburbs.

But old Sanaa is quite simply one of man's most extraordinary and idiosyncratic architectural achievements. This was recognised formally in 1984, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), together with the Yemeni government, launched the International Campaign to Safeguard the City of Sanaa, a campaign similar to those protecting, among many others, Venice, Old Havana and Borobodur in Indonesia.

It is also extraordinary that Sanaa, along with numerous similarly designed villages in the highlands of north Yemen and the desert plains of the south, has survived intact for so long. Yemen was protected through being isolated until well into the 20th century. It is only since 1962, when the last Imam was overthrown, that the country opened to the outside world, and even this has been a sporadic process, with the country closed to visitors during last year's civil war. Now Yemen is taking a crash course in modern life and the future of the old city of Sanaa is threatened by the irreparable decay that modern development and changing values inflict on historic cities.

To come to terms with Sanaa's future, it is necessary to know something of how such an amazing place came to be built. Sanaa - the name means "well fortified" - grew rich because of its position on one of the key trade routes used to ferry spice and incense across Arabia. The Sabaeans, Himyarites, Abyssinians and Byzantines, the Persians, Turks and Mamelukes have all played a part in Sanaa's cosmopolitan history. This cacophony of cultural influences is revealed graphically in the architecture, which appears to have roots drawn from all points of the Arabian compass yet still manages to be particular and idiosyncratic.

As well as a precocious talent for the urban, Yemeni architecture is shaped by what appears to be a love of height for its own sake. The vertical thrust of Sanaa was, however, partly a response to circumstances. Sited in a fertile valley, the city was built so as to occupy as little arable land as possible. It also needed to be secure. The answer was to build high with accommodation on the top floors. Old Sanaa, as we see it today, dates essentially from the 14th and 15th centuries, although the hub of the city and the design of the tower house predate Islam.

The towers were built as family houses with each floor appointed a different use. The lower stories, frequently built in stone, housed livestock and make a secure foundation for up to seven stories of mud rising to almost 100ft. Separate floors are still reserved for use by men and women and also for entertaining. At the very top is the mafraj, a room simply furnished with cushions and used for chewing qat, the mildly narcotic leaf which half the nation chews most afternoons (at great cost) and which, at first, is like eating a privet hedge.

When Unesco came to Sanaa, the rich had already begun to desert the old city for the convenience of Arabian-style villas in the suburbs, and old palaces stood empty, or divided and let cheaply. The conservationists' first step was to install running water and drainage. Poorly installed water supplies had already caused extensive damage to the fabric of old houses. A further problem was finding workers skilled in the handling of mud bricks, lime, gypsum and volcanic ashes used to make roofs waterproof. A multi-functional centre for building crafts has been set up in Sanaa, funded by the Italian government. In the face of Italy's current economic difficulties, however, the project has been temporarily halted.

I was shown round the old city by Abdullah Hadrami, director of studies and technical co-operation at the General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities - the Yemeni government body that is working hand in hand with Unesco. The tower houses are difficult to date as they have been constantly changed and added to over the centuries: many elevations have been altered to meet the demand for larger windows and fashions in exterior decoration. The basic structure of one house, restored with Italian government funds, is at least 700 years old; but although the first floor is probably 500 years old, the top floor dates back just 50 years. The restrained decoration painted on to the facade in white gypsum is as smooth as icing sugar. Such restraint is indicative of great age (later styles are fancy). Window panes used to be made of translucent alabaster, but since the 1830s these have been replaced by gaudy coloured glass.

The restoration of a house near by is being funded by the Swiss government. Here work is restarting after a hiatus caused by the civil war. Restorers are exploring the foundations to discover more of Sanaa's history.

The Unesco approach, represented by the restoration of these two buildings, has, however, come in for criticism. "Instead of educating local people," says Marco Livadiotti, a long-time Italian resident in Sanaa and a vocal force in its preservation, "Unesco just restores palaces. The old centre is disappearing around them. In 20 years, I have a vision of just a few special palaces standing - a Swiss palace, an Italian palace, a Japanese palace, a German palace - but everything around them gone. Unesco should be educating Yemenis to take care of their own buildings. In 25 years, they could protect the heart of the city."

Now in his mid-thirties, Mr Livadiotti has lived in Yemen since the age of five when his father became doctor to the last Imam. Passionate about Yemeni architecture, he is a maverick crusader in the fight to save old Sanaa. Mr Livadiotti learnt about Yemeni architecture while restoring his own house in the Turkish quarter, and has used the experience to encourage others to do the same.

Together with Mr Hadrami, Mr Livadiotti is working on a string of restoration projects some of which, such as the 14th-century palace at Rawdah - a former royal retreat just outside Sanaa - and the hotel built in traditional style in a palace compound, are financed by the travel company Universal Tourism. "I want to show that tourism can be positive," says Mr Livadiotti. "Tourism is new to Yemen, but if Yemenis can see that other people are fascinated by their historic architecture, then they may well be encouraged to look after it themselves."

Mr Hadrami, who studied architecture in New York and then returned to Yemen, observes: "Since the installation of water and sewage systems, foreigners, mainly from the embassies, began taking over palaces and restoring them. Now, a new generation of Yemenis are restoring their houses for foreigners, and the sons of the rich are moving back and taking apartments in palaces." Around $4,000 has been spent on the restoration at Rawdah, but this was before the civil war, since when building costs have shot up. "We have to show people that it is possible and within reach," says Mr Livadiotti.

Today, Mr Hadrami says, the biggest threat is the violation of building regulations by individuals. He points out a facade where delicately carved harem screens have been replaced by garish aluminium window frames. Forcing owners to undo such work takes time; often it is too late. Mr Livadiotti takes me to a new shopping centre built where old palaces stood until a few months ago, breaking up one of Sanaa's most beautiful tourist streets. Several such centres have been set up to sell trinkets to tourists. Mr Livadiotti, who has gone to jail twice for obstructing demolition work, says: "Something goes every day, but you can't be everywhere."

Part of Sanaa's beauty lies in its restricted palette of colours: clay browns melting into the surrounding mountains. Recently, however, a craze for red brick, which struck Sanaa like an epidemic of Tudorbethan glazing in the Home Counties, threatens this harmony. The new, coated bricks are used to patch and even rebuild sections of mud towers. Mr Livadiotti does not exaggerate when he describes it as a "cancer attacking the town". Ironically, Mr Hadrami says, the fashion began when the red brick was used to restore Bab al-Yaman, one of the city gates in the mid-1980s. Now the work is to be redone using authentic materials, but the effect on the rest of the city cannot be so easily reversed.

"Sanaa must be seen, however long the journey, though the hardy camel droop, leg-worn on the way," says an old Arab proverb. Today, it is a lot easier to get to the city on the "rooftop of Arabia" than it was for travellers who trekked across the Arabian peninsula by camel train. Yet, as old Sanaa adapts to the pressures of modern life and the beginnings of a tourist industry, it is possible that the majestic city we go to find will not be there.