The Ottoman influence in Yemen [Archives:2008/1124/Culture]

January 28 2008

Hamed Thabet

Sana'a is the beating heart of Yemen, full of elemental force and vitality and considered a veritable paradise on Earth by its people. The city, whose name means “fortified place,” is also one of the oldest inhabited Arab cities, purportedly founded by Shem, one of Noah's three sons.

The Old City of Sana'a has been inhabited continuously for more than 2,500 years and contains a wealth of intact architectural gems, for which reason the United Nations declared it a World Heritage Site in 1984. Efforts are underway to preserve some of its oldest buildings – some more than 400 years old – and many other buildings, as well as the area's surrounding ancient clay wall, which stands six to nine meters (20 to 30 feet) high and dates back to pre-Islamic times.

The Ottomans ruled Yemen for two periods, first in 1538 to 1638, and again from 1828 to 1918. Many changes occurred in both the Yemeni lifestyle and architecture during these two periods, especially in Sana'a.

Yemenis took jobs in the army alongside the Ottomans, thereby gaining military experience through them. Yemenis were good citizens, which made the Ottomans trust them enough to provide them with extra benefits like allowing them to become officers, advising Ottoman rulers and assisting judges and generals.

Besides gaining Turkish military knowledge, Yemen also adopted Turkish aesthetics. Buildings in the Old City of Sana'a were influenced by the Ottomans, as evidenced by the decorations added to them. Some Old City homes more than 400 years old are built of dark basalt stone and decorated with intricate frieze work. Additionally, the area's surrounding wall is extremely well-preserved due to Ottoman fortification.

Moreover, a total of 12 hammams or bath houses in the Turkish style were constructed during the Ottoman periods in Sana'a.

Many homes in Old Sana'a look like ancient skyscrapers, reaching several stories high, topped with flat roofs and decorated with elaborate friezes, stained glass windows and intricately carved window and door frames representing an accumulation of effort and offering a pleasing sight to those entering the area.

Sana'a has approximately 100 mosques, most dating back to the two Ottoman periods and incorporating sculpted and ornamented wood designs. Upon entering mosques in Old Sana'a, one notices Qur'anic verses carved into the walls and wooden doors. Ottoman craftsmanship such as this gradually fused into local Yemeni culture.


The Turkish influence upon buildings was especially prevalent in the style of windows, including mashrabiyya or latticed windows each with their own meaning and use in Yemeni architecture.

Mashrabiyya, or latticed windows, have numerous holes that are necessary for ventilation. Such windows don't completely face the sun, but rather allow air to enter, in order to maintain a constantly cool room temperature.

Because women in those days weren't able to go outside as much as men, this type of window provided a way to stay in contact with the world outside their homes. Women could observe the goings-on outside without being seen and check who was at the door. Windows like these are still in use today.

Shubbak windows are often made of brick or stone, whereas wooden shubbaks are small, cage-like mashrabiyyas affixed to the outside wall. Shubbak windows were used for both ventilation and for preventing the cold from entering.

Dubbed with the Turkish word for kiosk, kushk windows are decorated very artistically with patterns much more complicated than the other types of Turkish windows.

One such kushk is in the palace of Imam Ahmed's daughter, who was married to one of the sons of Shami, who is one of the famous families in Sana'a.

Made for Imam Yahya's son Ahmed in 1938 in Bir Al-Azab – where most kushks are found in Yemen – Khushk Al-Khair is one of the largest kushks in Sana'a, able to seat three to six people. The imam's wives used this kushk to peer outside without being seen, since kushks were used much like enclosed balconies.

During the 18th century, Yemen prospered economically mainly due to its trade in coffee and incense, which afforded it contact with the outside world. Because of this, Yemenis learned more about the uses for glass, one of the best window-making materials, but also a rare and very expensive commodity.

Stained glass windows enjoyed popularity because when the sun shone through them, it refracted beautiful colors into a building's interior; however, due to its rarity and high cost, such glass was used almost exclusively by the wealthy.

Ottoman development of Yemen

Under Ottoman rule, Yemen developed an extensive coffee trade, with the coastal town of Mokha becoming an internationally important coffee-producing hub. Despite this, the Yemeni highlands, which also were under Ottoman rule, remained economically and culturally isolated from the outside world from the mid-17th century until nearly the mid-19th century, during which time modern thought and technology greatly influenced Western Europe.

Originally belonging to Ottoman residents of Sana'a, Souq Al-Milh is one of Yemen's oldest existing markets. Although its name means “Salt Market