Old City of Sana’a: Ancient metropolitan planning amid modern disorder [Archives:2006/954/Culture]

June 12 2006
A view from the Old City of Sanaa: the space is utilized efficiently and wonderfully.
A view from the Old City of Sanaa: the space is utilized efficiently and wonderfully.
Mustafa Ragih
The sa'ilah (water course) surrounding the Old City doesn't give a creatively new picture of Sana'a city. Rather, it provides a platform from which a foreign tourist or passerby can contemplate a city that has preserved its brilliance throughout millennia.

Earlier, the self-motivated individual had to delve into neighborhoods and building spaces to rediscover the warmth of an ancient civilization and examine its inside.

Now, the sa'ilah does nothing but attract one to the gorgeous house fronts lining its banks in calmness and elegance. The scene must be completed inside.

The metered Raha taxi driver wasn't comfortable with a passenger's request for him to slow down. Simultaneously, he turned up the volume of the cassette player, giving vent to the voice and melody of Yemeni singer Mohammed Sa'd Abdullah, who best performs Sana'a songs:

May Allah, with health and safety, let me approach my pretty beloved,

That beloved who has beauty, handsomeness and all that is nice.

All is dross that is neither Sana'a nor its people. Sana'a has every art:

Water and the greenery of its hills, filled with prettiness.

There, time laughs much at the tears of clouds.

May Allah send much rain to that abode.

The striking impression of a passerby is the apparent incongruity between two scenes, those called old and new. As soon as one passes Shu'oob Bridge, the characteristics of old architecture fade away, melting into modern building fronts in a horrific view of atrocity, randomness, disorder and tastelessness.

This is no nostalgia for bygone days. However, it is a matter of a particularly modern metropolitan style manifested inside the Old City of Sana'a disappearing in the concrete and stone structures called the new city of Sana'a.

The first type of architecture is called new, but it incorporates all signs of modernism and order. Ironically, the second is called modern while it has nothing to do with modernism. It can be described as a Frankenstein that doesn't hold the qualities of the old, such as its dense meanings, nor does it hold qualities of the modern, except for the faceless concrete. There is no planning or harmony, thus, it doesn't reflect anything of the personality of the place or its dwellers.

Dwellers of the new city are a mixture of individuals gathered in the city without full integration. Their gathering doesn't lead to any sort of agreement on certain modern values that distinguish their gathering. When one contemplates the new city of Sana'a, he will find it based demographically on localism, as those from a certain area of Yemen gather in one place in the city.

When one looks at the Old City, he will find everything in order. From the sa'ilah's bank, one views the city but finds nothing inharmonious and nothing disturbing the scene's aesthetics, completeness, homogeneity or constituents.

Ventilation and lighting inside the rooms of Old Sana'a houses form the structure's basis, as though mainly erected to supply dwellers with air and illumination. This knowledge not only is the privilege of bricklayers, as all citizens share it and consider it a truism.

There's no place for isolation when constructing outside space. Individuals divided their space as though ordering their private lives. Gardens are an essential component of every neighborhood and miqshamas (vegetable fields) are part of this green pattern.

The space of the Old City of Sana'a is “spacious” with many amenities like gardens, bath houses, metropolitan design, etc. In contrast, the space of new Sana'a is overcrowded with shops and randomly built houses, high walls and hill-occupying military camps that look utterly ugly. The space of the new portion of the city is filled with dust, pavements and heavy bus traffic throughout the day.

Constructing the city's spaces reflects citizens' thoughts and their ideas about their life. There is no possibility for human interaction and such possibilities are close to zero as long as there remain few gardens, parks, theaters, swimming pools, cultural and sports clubs, etc.

The community's elite keep their distance and construct their own life beyond high fences: private swimming pools, gardens, tennis courts and the like. They seek to increase the gap between them and everyone else by further heightening their walls. This is a manifestation of a closed community wherein “walls” are built at various levels. Human relationships become sophisticated in such an atmosphere. Amid walls, relationships become suspicious and distrustful – a daily gossip marathon.

In line with its architectural superiority reflecting an elevated pattern of human relationships, the Old City of Sana'a has produced a highly magnificent artistic mode – Sana'a singing. With its own rituals and melodious rhythms, it's an art whose cadence and tunes express a civilized life and open-mindedness. Life is captured there and its moments utilized to the very last.

Such art constitutes valuable material, but becomes hackneyed and distorted in poor performances. However, nobody has proposed the idea of establishing an institute for Sana'a singing to preserve it and save it from extinction.

Sana'a housing system, past and present

Historical references show that the Sana'a housing system deteriorated after 1962, degrading from previous stages. This degradation alienated the city from its former identity not only in terms of metropolitan planning, but also environmentally and socially.

It would've been good if such separation marked the birth of better manifestations consistent with the age. If so, such change could have been appreciable, even if it transcended traditional metropolitan planning. However, the reality of the housing system deteriorated, disregarding the environment and humans.

Although humans tend toward modernism and renewal, present housing and environmental reality necessitates a return to the traditional metropolitan housing system adopted in the Old City of Sana'a – with all its environmental balance, social relations, good neighboring, cooperation and intimacy – provided that such a return doesn't deprive citizens of the advantages of modernism and age-dictated renewal.

Tradition shouldn't fetter movement or advancement because the population of Sana'a now grows in eight months approximately as much as its net accumulation since its founding in 1962.

The historic city of Old Sana'a

Located on a rectangular plateau in the center of a chain of high mountains, most notably Nuqum, Sana'a is an ancient metropolis with an elevation of 2,200 meters and an area of 184 hectares. The city dates back to the time of Noah's son Shem, who is mentioned in divine books; thus, it is considered among the world's oldest cities.

In pre-Islamic ages, Sana'a not only was an important metropolis, but also a trade station and a famous Arab area marketplace. It continued to hold the same reputation in Islamic times.

Under Islam, Sana'a took on new characteristics when some of the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) companions arrived and established one of the oldest mosques, the Grand Mosque. Al-Razi and other historians state that Sana'a became perfected under Islam, as its wealth increased and those from various areas came to it.

Sana'a expanded at various times, one of which was under the reign of the 11th century Hamdanite state, as well as the Ayyoubide. Al-Nahreen neighborhood was added to the city's western side, at the southern end of which the sultan's headquarters were established. To the present day, it still bears the name “Bustan Al-Sultan” (Al-Sultan's Garden), across which the “Al-Ghail Al-Aswad” (Black Spring) ran.

During the 16th century's first Ottoman era, another neighborhood was constructed on the western side called “Bir Al-Azab” (Al-Azab's Well), in the eastern part of which Al-Bakeeriyah Mosque was constructed in the Ottoman style.

During their last presence, opposite the city's wall, the Ottomans constructed buildings differing from the prevailing style. They were used as barracks and named “Al-'Urdhi.”

The Old City of Sana'a experienced changes, renewals, expansion and contraction that can't be traced accurately. However, what is certain is that the ancient city has withstood wars, sieges and catastrophes throughout the ages. It remains a living landmark of original Arab-Islamic civilization with a high level of artistic quality yoking craftsmanship and architectural aesthetics, thus giving itself ceaseless life.

Throughout the ages, Sana'a has remained a significant metropolis bearing the past's features in its palaces, wall, mosques and marketplaces. It has the right to pride itself on being one of the most majestic cities in the world.