Old Sana’a: A City of Gardens [Archives:1997/45/Last Page]

November 10 1997

This article is based on a lecture delivered by Eng. Nabeel Ali Munassar on Tuesday, November 4 at the British Council in Sanaa. Eng. Munasser is the Director of Buildings and Renovation at the General Organization for the Preservation of Historical Cities in Yemen (GOPHCY).
The gardens or ‘meqashim,’ as they are called in Sanaani dialect, are extremely important. Unfortunately, not many people have the right awareness to properly take care of them. Our forefathers were more aware. They used to leave green spaces between neighboring residential quarters. Today, there are about 45 gardens inside old Sanaa. They are ‘waqf’ – under the trusteeship of the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Guidance. The gardens are entrusted to gardeners who used to work within an integrated system. They planted the gardens, looked after the nearby mosque, and drew water from the well for the faithful to do their ablutions, which was used later for irrigating the gardens. The old system of irrigation was quite a harmonious one. The water used for ablutions is collected in a special pit, which is then taken to irrigate the garden. The human feces is also collected, dried, and used to heat water in the old Turkish baths. The remaining ash is then used as a fertilizer. This system was quite environmentally friendly. Nowadays, many wells have dried up because of the depletion of underground aquifers. Also, many mosques in the old city are now connected to the sewage network. So the waste water can no longer be used for irrigation, neither can the human feces be used as fuel in Turkish baths. So the whole system has broken up. Some people have even started building in the neglected former gardens. By neglecting these gardens, people living in old Sanaa are gradually losing precious places of relaxation and recreation. Some gardens have even become ugly rubbish tips damaging the environment. Preserving the remaining gardens is an integral part of preserving the old city of Sanaa. According to an 1874 Ottoman map of old Sanaa, green areas constituted about 70% of the city. Now it is only 30%, of which 45% has become infertile. It is quite possible that the remaining green areas will disappear in the not too distant future. All concerned official bodies must coordinate their activities in order to preserve those gardens. Lack of water for irrigation poses a serious threat. Some mosques in old Sanaa are now getting their water from three wells outside the walled city. Few mosques are still connected to few of the remaining gardens, but the water is just not enough. The other threat is that gardening is no longer a popular profession among the younger, more educated generations. Old and more experienced gardeners are becoming irreplaceable. The ‘waqf’ system is a sort of employment for the gardeners. They only have to pay a token annual rent of about YR 400. They must be assisted more by the Ministry of Endowments to re-plant the neglected gardens. Those who are unable or unwilling to work must have the gardens taken from them and given to other more hard-working people. Three Yemeni cities – old Sanaa, Shibam Hadhramaut and Zabeed – are on the UNESCO’s list of world heritage. This means that they must be preserved. We have to make sure, for example, that building in those places does not involve the use of foreign material such as concrete. GOPHCY has short and long-term plans to preserve these three historical cities. These include renovation, road paving, replacing the old water and sewage networks, renovating the old market places or “samaser,” preserving the gardens, etc. We now have a plan, in coordination with the Sanaa Traffic Administration, to regulate car traffic inside the old city whose roads were made wide enough for two fully loaded camels coming in opposite directions. GOPHCY’s main objective is to develop and modernize life in old Sanaa and other historic cities while keeping their architectural heritage intact. An international symposium will be held in December, in Sanaa in which many experts and organizations from various countries will participate. They will review the procedures of providing financial and technical assistance for preserving ancient heritage.