Yemen’s grandest mosques depict history’s artistic side [Archives:2008/1175/Last Page]

July 24 2008
YT photo by Sarah Wolff
YT photo by Sarah Wolff
By: Saddam Al-Ashmori
For The Yemen Times

Yemeni mosques, both old and modern, are distinguished by their unique architecture influenced by nature. While they incorporate magnificent beauty, they also are constructed with durability and solidity in mind, as well as resistance to decay.

In the past, Yemenis paid more attention to their mosques than to their own houses in terms of construction style, decoration, carving and beautification.

Carving was the most prevalent art form in ancient Yemen. Archeological researcher Ali Ahmed Dariss notes that the Grand Mosque in the Old City of Sana'a and several other mosques, including Zabid Mosque in Hodeidah governorate and Al-Janad Mosque in Taiz, contain stones in their walls with carvings and decorations dating back to pre-Islamic times.

A stone in one of the gates of Old Sana'a's Grand Mosque has Himyari symbols carved on it, which means that the carvings are approximately 2,000 years old.

“In Yemeni mosques, one can find overlapping and varying styles of architecture, decoration and carvings dating back to various ages and nations,” Dariss explains, adding, “Observers cannot differentiate between them, as they often find native Yemeni, Turkish, African and Indian carvings in one image, which depicts the integration of all of these peoples and the mixing of their civilizations.”

Dariss says such diversity displayed in Yemeni mosque architecture and decoration illustrates the fact that mosques are “houses of God,” gathering His worshippers regardless of race or language.

He adds, “The diversity in Yemeni mosque architecture indicates Yemenis' ability to incorporate the civilizations of other nations in such a way that retains each nation's characteristics.”

Founded by Muath bin Jabal in the sixth Hijra year (627 A.D.), Taiz's Al-Janad Mosque is Yemen's oldest. The mosque has been renovated several times in different stages; for instance, according to archeological studies, it was covered with a type of plaster in 1215 A.D. Inscriptions also were added to its southern wall.

The Grand Mosque in the Old City of Sana'a dates back to approximately the same date as Al-Janad and it too has been renovated many times, the most important being the renovation of its ceilings and inscriptions in 1016 A.D., according to Adham Ali Al-Hakim, an archeologist specializing in mosque decoration and carvings.

Al-Hakim notes that Zabid's Grand Mosque is decorated with plaster and carved inscriptions dating back to the Al-Thahiri period in the ninth century A.D. Considered one of Yemen's most unique styles of artistic decoration, mosaics appear on the mosque's northern pillars and date back to the Amawi period of 705 A.D.

Another decorative style is the leaf design on the ceiling of Khawlan region's Aslaf Mosque, located approximately 50 kilometers south of Sana'a and dating back to 1125 A.D. In this design, three leaves appear in the form of grapevines and clusters growing from a stem. This mosque also contains decorations in the form of roses, borrowed from the Turkish style, which dominated Yemen in the first half of the 20th century.

Al-Hakim adds that Aden's Al-Aidaroos Mosque, built in 1485 A.D., is characterized by its Indian sub-continental style in which its minaret is located on the north side of a domed shrine.

Jawhar Mosque, also in Aden, contains circular and cubic window decorations similar to the decorated windows of Syria's Amawi Mosque in Damascus.

Plaster and wooden designs display the similarity of Yemeni mosques to those of other Islamic counties. For instance, mosques in Yemeni areas such as Asnaf, Jibla, Al-Sarhah, Dhafar and Taiz reflect the strong relationship between Yemen and Egypt during the Fatimid and Ayyoubid periods.