Sana’a Handicrafts’ Shops on the Decline [Archives:2001/43/Culture]

October 22 2001

Abdulalem Baggash
The history of inheriting handicrafts in Old Sana’a dates back hundreds of years BC, but this heritage is beginning to fade. The craftsmen are beginning to close their small shops and look for other profitable jobs. Despite the economic openness in the country, it has not taken any effective role to improve the handicraftsmen’s conditions.
The Old City is one of the oldest cities in the world which still preserves its construction and architectural designs. It is considered to be a unique model of international heritage. The Old City of Sana’a is one of the ancient and historic cities of Yemen. It has unique architecture which has made it the focus of interest to so many Arab and foreign tourists. It has also been the dream of so many researchers and European orientalists to visit and study its historical monuments. That is attributed to the rich archeological and historic monuments and sites which Sana’a is famous for and which qualified it to be included in the competition of the new seven wonders, held recently on the Internet.
Although the history of the city is unknown, the Italian scientist, Bola Ducasta, believes that historical references and engravings have pointed out that Sana’a existed 2500 years ago.
Sana’a has unique and marvelous architecture, comparable to many sites in the Arab world. When you are walking in the Old City of Sana’a, you can never fail to notice that it is a complete picture. What makes it more attractive and impressive is that it is real. Most of those who visit Yemen can not help but express their admiration and wonder at how this unique Islamic architecture and these exquisite handicrafts were applied in its buildings. Its historic wall is another wonder which is still bearing testimony to the greatness of our ancestors. The wall contains four main doors including Shoob, al-Sabah, al-Balakah, and al-Yemen. What has remained of these walls is Bab al-Yemen, which retains its exquisite beauty. The wall used to be the invincible defense, protecting the people and preventing any attack. Doors used to be closed at eight o’clock, as most of the residents used to work in farms and fields outside the wall.
Of the Islamic monuments is the Sana’a Mosque, or as it is called today the “Great Mosque.” It is located near the town market. It was built by Moa’adh bin Jabal, who was the first preacher sent by the Prophet (peace be upon him) to Yemen. That was after the death of Bathan, who embraced Islam. The mosque was the first Islamic mosque built in Yemen. It contains many valuable historic, scientific and Islamic manuscripts.
In another part of the Old City of Sana’a, you will find the two martyrs’ mosque, or as it is recently known as the Martyr Ali Mosque, which depicts the story of the two brothers killed by Bashr al-Amri during the aggressive campaign launched by Muawiah against the Shiite supporting Ali. The two martyrs were buried in the site on which the mosque was built. Saif bin Thee Yazan’s Palace located in one end of the Old City of Sana’a is now used for keeping weapons.
The old city of Sana’a is also distinguished for its trade market, which is the most important means of living for the residents. It is known as al-Melh Market. It was the most important trade center for all the commercial caravans that used to come to Yemen from neighboring areas including al-Sham and al-Hijaz. Yemen at the time used to be a very rich agricultural country. Lots of agricultural products used to be exported from the country. Of the important agricultural products is coffee, Sana’ani almonds, fruits, etc. Also, in the market there used to be special places for those coming from other countries that they could stay in for some time to buy things. The market also contained clothes, silver, traditional jewelry shops, etc., from which Yemen has been famous for a long time.
The Old City has 1911 handicraft shops and trade stores according to recent statistics. Families in the city have handed down the handicrafts from one generation to next for hundreds of years, such as tanning, blacksmithing, dying, weaving and traditional clothes. Some handicrafts are on the decline due to imported goods flooding into our traditional markets, particularly, the Old Sana’a markets. This results in the closure of these workshops. The handicraft workshops total 417. In 1971, the number of tanning workshops reached 224 and the metal workshops reached 187 workshop.
The Old City of Sana’a is famous for its Samaser, which are large places receiving the comers or visitors form other cities or villages. They visit these places either for shopping or for entertaining. Despite the disappearance of most of these Samaser, there are a few of them scattered here and there of the city of Sana’a. Trade activities there can be classified into three segments. The first segment is considered to be one of the most profitable segments in the city. Most of these workshops sell clothes, fabrics, jewelry, and silver. The second segment is restricted to the sale of foodstuffs such as dates, coffee, spices, and canned foodstuffs. The third segment is the weakest group; the majority of them are either qat, tobacco or grass sellers. Markets in Sana’a form a unique economic system.
Sana’a has a unique universality of its kind. The place of Old Sana’a is a wonder in itself. We have to preserve the beauty of these buildings. Regrettably, people randomly use these areas to build new houses. What does this suggest? Of course it distorts the real history of Yemen. Such random construction should be prevented immediately.