Financial support needed to preserve historic cities [Archives:2007/1078/Culture]

August 20 2007
A man complained of substituting the undamaged bricks of his home with the new weak bricks and leaving the damaged as they are.
A man complained of substituting the undamaged bricks of his home with the new weak bricks and leaving the damaged as they are.
The Minister of Culture inaugurated the first stage of the conservation plan.
The Minister of Culture inaugurated the first stage of the conservation plan.
By: Nisreen Shadad
“Bring back the undamaged bricks of my building,” a man in the Old City of Sana'a demanded, asking those responsible for repairing ancient buildings to not substitute the undamaged bricks of his home with the new bricks, which he claims are weak. Another woman residing in the same city stated that the news bricks in her home began to be crumble.

In a three-day symposium on urban and community development held by the Center of Architectural Training and Studies, numerous reports were presented. The symposium intended to clarify the role of the General Organization for Preservation of Historic Cities (GOPHCY), the importance of cultural heritage considering the historic settlements of Sana'a, Bir Al-Azab and Al-Rawdah, the conservation plan and its importance for the preservation of the historic settlements as well as recommendations made during workshops.

The symposium was held under the auspices of Minister of Culture Mohammed Al-Maflahi and the GOPHCY in cooperation with DED foundation.

The director of GOPHCY, Abdullah Issa, talked about the importance of protecting Yemen's culture heritage in general and the historic cities in particular. He shed light on the importance of drafting a comprehensive map of the ancient cities as well as including local community members in preservation efforts.

Planning is one of the most important aspects needed by an association and is considered one of the top priorities in protecting historic cities. Group work undertaken by the Center of Architectural Training and Studies, headed by Nabeel Munassar, achieved the first step of the conservation plan. The first inventory analysis of Sana'a, Bir Al-Azab and Al-Rawdah is included in around 40 thematic maps, featuring the different conditions of physical structures in these three cities.

“Now we have a plan that has a clear vision about each building, with its photo, the name of the owner and all data about the building, so that easily we can get all information of any ancient architectural building,” Issa stated.

Adel Homaid, an architect, shared, “We worked on this project for two years, and it is considered the first step of protecting the historic cities. We have made a field survey in three cities; the Old City of Sana'a, Al-Rawdha and Bir Al-Azab. Each building in these three cities has a particular number. Clicking on its number on the map, we can see its picture and get all information about it.”

There are specific maps highlighting different categories discussed. There is a map that describes building conditions, another for the undeveloped areas, and then one map each for Bir well, Marenah ramp, Bustan or Magshama garden and Sabil fountain and market. The group consists of around 15 members, including architects, technicians and archeologists. Five architects are interested in entering the data and two to GIS; a program in the computer, according to Homaid.

The beauty of historic cities is not only in their architecture, but also is personified through the hospitality of their residents. According to Tolle, country director of DED, a foreigner who was questioned about his visit to the Old City of Sana'a first praised the hospitality of its people. After that, he praised the city's architecture. Tolle encouraged symposia and workshops like that held by GOPHCY. “The fruit of this discussion that was held for three days will last for the next thousand years,” Tolle stated.

The economic situation in Yemen is one of the challenges historic cities face. Local economic prosperity is the basis of development. “All efforts must work together, avoid mistakes and use resources to create the feeling of the ownership,” Tolle remarked.

Tolle is pleased with the partnership that has existed between DED and GOPHCY since 1991, providing his organization with 21 plans to protect ancient cities such as Shibam, Hadramout and Sana'a.

The impetus behind protecting Yemeni heritage lies in the awareness of society. “If we can't make the local community involved in our projects, I don't think we will succeed. This is the first step we have to take, as our relationship with the civil community is not on a high level,” Al-Maflahi stated, adding that while international support is also key in safeguarding Yemeni heritage, the main responsibility lies with Yemenis themselves.

“The main thing we are in need of in the Ministry of Culture is to reformulate the frameworks of all organizations as well as associations that work in this field and give the specialists the chance to take their appropriate role. Add to that, we have to review the ways of protecting our heritage,” Al-Maflahi remarked.

Zabid in danger

The reason for establishing the GOPHCY was due to the existence of two executive offices in Sana'a for the purpose of preserving historic cities; therefore the government shut down one of them and left the one that is located in the Old City of Sana'a with its cadre. In 1993, the city of Zabid was added to the World Heritage list. The city's weak infrastructure is due to it being located far from our executive office. Further, this office was interested only in the Old City as how can we with very few people and low finances protect all the historic cities in Yemen. In Shibam, there is an executive office so that we can easily observe the current problems and work to solve them. Now, we have branches in Aden and Jibla, according to Issa.

The World Heritage Committee decided to retain the historic town of Zabid on the list of World Heritage sites in danger for a further two-year period. According to UNESCO, the city is subjected to regular reports, the latest of which is to be submitted by the Yemeni government by February 1, 2008.

Obstacles to intervention

Issa explained the obstacles he has faced as a director of the GOPHCY. “The organization's essential role is technical; however we are observing and controlling those who are trying to violate the rules. We couldn't concentrate on the main specialty, we spend a lot of time penalizing violators and jailing them.”

One of the main obstacles that needs to be solved currently is the intervening of outside bodies of authority. “The authorities should achieve their goals and responsibilities without intervening with the responsibilities of another place. I think if the local councils, the endowments office, the labor office, the security and the prosecution achieved their responsibilities without looking to their 'individual interests,' we can protect the Yemeni historic cities,” Issa stated.

He added, “One of the barriers the organization suffers from is the 'construction license' that is responsible to give the people the agreement of constructing. At the beginning, the organization was in charge of that; however now it becomes the responsibility of the labor office. The labor office gave us the license to construct and neglected our conditions therefore we returned the authority to give the agreement to the organization. People construct, though their construction conditions don't match the construction conditions of the historic cities. They get the agreement from other places that charge fees for the license. Add to that, no one can stop them, though they are violating the rules. I have to bring permission from the prosecution to stop it and sometimes prosecution permission to stop the construction does not work.”

Even in the technical field, which is basically the responsibility of GOPHCY, outside bodies intervene. “Some of my commands are not executed and many projects which are of GOPHCY responsibility are carried out without our permission. Rather than working as a 'director,' I become a 'correspondent' running from one person to the other asking them the reason behind neglecting the official organization that is in charge of these projects and can complete them alone. We have to not run after our individual interests. Each office should know its own responsibility without transgressing in ours,” Issa stressed, adding that his organization lacks financial support from the Ministry of Culture, particularly in Zabid.

Ahmed Al-Qadhi, the deputy of the Minister of Culture said he confirmed the Ministry of Culture's cooperation. “We want Issa to inform the ministry of the budget and we will consequently discuss it with the Ministry of Finance.”

Yemeni handicrafts are about to vanish

“If the Ministry of Culture does not protect Yemeni handicrafts, they will vanish,” al-Ayzari stated a member of a local council and head of Sana'a sheikhs. Around 14 handicrafts vanished in the Old City of Sana'a.

“Taxes are the biggest problem the worker in handicrafts faces,” Motahar Taqi Al-Din, the director of General organization for tourism development, revealed.

“Our handicrafts are made outside Yemen with cheaper prices. Machines that have the ability to make 10 belts that holds the Jambia are imported, so what is the handicraftsman who spends 20 days to make a belt to do,” Issa questioned.

“I am ready to work in canceling the taxes of the handicraftsmen, but with the condition to be accurate in their works as well as to train more handicraftsmen. We are seeking pure works and trainers in this field,” Issa said.