The Old City of Sana’a: An architectural paradise [Archives:2007/1080/Culture]

August 27 2007
Painting describing famous features of Sanaa.
Painting describing famous features of Sanaa.
Al-Saila in the old city of Sanaa.
Al-Saila in the old city of Sanaa.
Ikbal Al-Haji
Strolling down the streets of Sana'a, one can't help but be attracted by the city's architectural beauty, intricately decorated buildings with their traditional, colored-glass, half-moon-shaped window panels (Qamariyya). This unique architectural detail makes the Old City of Sana'a special. Envious of the city's homeowners, the by-passer wishes to possess one of these architectural gems. The houses usually consist of two or three floors, sometimes four. A common feature of these buildings is the “Mafrag,” an elaborately decorated room located at the top of the house, overlooking the neighboring building. This room functions as a place for chewing Qat and resting. The remaining floors consist of three rooms with small windows. The moon panels play a vital role in filtering light into the space. Every ceiling features colorful decorative accents.

It is uncommon for the actual owners of these buildings to reside in their property, instead leasing the building to tenants. A recent study found that 70 percent of the Old City of Sana'a are renters, whereas homeowners do not exceed 30 percent. The study added that residents of the city who are originally from Sana'a are scarce, abandoning their houses for several reasons.

“My house is being rented for 15 years. I rented it because I have a big family and I do not need it. It is rented at YR 35,000 as it is inside the Old City of Sana'a,” Ahmed Ali shared.

“You can hardly find real dwellers of the city. I rented my house to foreign students,” Mansour Hussein commented.

“I have three houses. Two are in the Old City of Sana'a and one in Al-Asbahi city. I rented those in Sana'a's Old City to tradesmen to store their goods. I am living now with my family in Al-Asbahi. Every house is rented at $250,” Nu'man stated.

On the other side of the Old City of Sana'a, people are reluctant to rent their houses. “This is my house. I will not leave it even if I die out of hunger. This is an archeological house. I will maintain it for my grandsons. This is the Old City of Sana'a, the origin of Yemen,” Ateeqah Ahmed stated.

A popular teahouse in the Old City is decorated with stone arches and small chimneys along with small windows allowing sunlight to illuminate stone tables carved in the ground. The owner, Mutahar, is warm and welcoming. He has been known by the people in the area since the time of his father. Now an old man, Mutahar revealed that Yemenis as well as tourists visit his teahouse to observe the uniquely carved tables and other architectural details. Many top off their observation with a cup of cold, fresh raisin juice. They ask about the builder of the teahouse, how old it is and how it was built. Mutahar stated that Sana'a needs to be developed by its own citizens.

Ahmed Yahya, an old man and long-time resident of Sana'a, said, “Most of the dwellers of Sana'a are Sana'anized. Nowadays you cannot differentiate between the natives and the new inhabitants.”

“I was living in the Old City of Sana'a but I rented my house because the city is very crowded with markets, shops and restaurants,” Mustafa Ahmed stated.

“This is the only house I got from my uncles. I left the countryside 30 years ago. I am living in this house. Tourists visit it to observe me and my house. It is one of the most decorated houses. It has rare antiquities and beautiful moon panels. I am 90 years old. I will not rent my house to anybody because it is my heritage. I will never leave it,” Omar Nassir shared.

The Old City of Sana'a was deemed the “Cultural Capital of the Arab World” by UNESCO in 2004. It is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Despite such recognition, natives continue to abandon the city, leaving its crowded markets and streets to be inhabited by foreign dwellers and tourists, mesmerized by this ancient city's architectural beauty and charm.