The characteristics of Yemeni architecture [Archives:2004/764/Culture]

August 16 2004
Sanaani House architecture building
Sanaani House architecture building
Ismail Al-Ghabiri
Excavations and discoveries which occur every now and then, indicate clearly that Yemeni architecture is rooted in a 4000-year-old cultural heritage.
The characteristic of Yemeni architecture that distinguishes it among other types, is that construction was an art, practiced by Yemenis building their humble, durable but nice houses.
Architecture was meant to satisfy the individual's needs, withstand the climate and match building resources available at the time. Therefore, a tourist gets amazed at architectural variations seen over short distances. Yemeni bricklayers used construction materials available in the surrounding environment. A building was made of stone or clay depending on whether it was located in a rocky area or not. Houses were made of hardened volcanic lava if the environment was volcanic, and so on.
Yemeni Islamic architecture was expressed simply, and planned flexibly in terms of design, details, elements and patterns.
These features no doubt contributed to the contentment and happiness of the dwellers, as well as adding to the serene and solemn atmosphere. The same thing was preserved in building up places of worship and teaching.

Factors influencing Yemeni architecture:
When we examine the architectural formation of Yemeni cities, we can describe them as one visual, cultural and social entity. Yet, each city has a location and functions differently from the others, which creates a local spirit and personifies the 'unity in diversity' dctrine. So, we can detect in a Yemeni city two levels of identity; one general which links the area culturally and historically, and the other special which pertains to a specific location with distinguished traits and events.
There are a number of factors that have influenced this identity:

The geographical factors:
Areas along the coastal line have volcanic lands. Buildings in these areas are basically made of stone.

Mountainous areas:
A series of mountains at different elevations and steep slopes among which there are wide valleys and agricultural terraces extending along coastal plains. The climate is cold, moderate, and dry, the fact that affected the design of the buildings and diversity of construction materials.

Plateaus and semi-desert plains:
They extend along mountainous areas sinking into the Empty Quarter. They have special construction materials, and buildings are made of clay.

Geological factor:
Architecture has been affected by materials found on ground such as stone, soil, wood, copper, iron, or marble. Yemeni bricklayers used stone and palm fronds in early historic periods in building religious and public facilities especially in Qana city and settlements in Dawan Valley, Hadramout.

Climatic factor:
Because most of Yemen is in the hot tropical area with different temperatures, and face winds saturated with water vapour, buildings were designed so that walls were thick, openings wide, with yards and geometrical shapes.

Religious and social factors:
The relation between religion and architecture is obvious in the dual movement system in the form of horizontal projections. The designs allow separate movements of both men and women, and posed the structure towards the Kaaba.

Historic and political factors:
Yemeni architecture has a long record expressing civilization and economic and political development. There were a host of civilizations and states before Christ in Yemen such as Ma'in, Saba, Qataban, Himiar, and Hadramout. They had their metropolises and cities such as Marib, Shabwa, Sana'a, Ma'afir, Zabid, and Makha. There are other cities like Shibam, Hadramout, Tarim mentioned in ancient scriptures and are located on the trade routes.
Some cities have put on an Islamic dress. For example, Sana'a, Zabid and Tarim are still civilization centres with original architectural style.

Yemeni architecture characteristics:
Though so-called modernization and technology is accused of distorting the texture of ancient Arab cities, its effects are less discernable in the case of Yemeni cities in comparison to ancient Arab towns like Damascus, Cairo, and Tunis, whose styles are fading after the invasion of new architecture.
Yemen is still preserving its own artistic architectural identity, and its architecture. It is deemed to be the best sort of architecture that has embedded its traditional style. It has also incorporated the new into an unique model deserving admiration and the continuous interest of architects. The characteristics of Yemeni architecture differ from place to place across Yemen depending on the origin and nature of each local version:

Spatial formation:
The spatial formation of Yemeni cities reflects the religious and social conditions of their dwellers. We find the skyline stretching with vertical minarates frequently crossing it. There are also public squares and shrines. This collection is characterized by natural realistic dimensions that fit into the human behaviour scheme.

Building heights:
The skyline is usually uniformly distributed at almost the same height. This is one of the secrets of the Islamic city in its organization and spatial formation that contributes to a feeling of safety for all residents, resulting in strong in inseparable social bonds.

Architectural style:
Whoever contemplates the art of Yemeni architecture, can recognize its traits and variations. The style of coastal areas, for example, is different from that of valleys, and mountainous areas.
The architecture of the old city of Sana'a is different from that of Shibam. Thus, every area has its own identity that distinguishes it from others.
The architectural style of Yemeni cities exposes the spirit and concepts of traditional architecture, and the fact that it depends on local construction materials. It interacts with the Yemeni man's environment, utilized to serve his life. The elements of architectural style are still developing, but retain their original character.