Yemen’s historic architecture (Part 1 of 4)Scientists explore the Tarimi Palaces [Archives:2003/689/Culture]

November 27 2003

By James Conlon,
Pamela Jerome
and Selma Al-Radi*

From Dec. 28, 2002 through Jan. 15, 2003, a team of American conservators and employees of the Yemeni government’s General Organization of Antiquities and Museums (GOAM) surveyed Qasr al-‘Ishshah as part of a documentation training program for the mud brick palaces of Tarim in the Hadhramawt Valley.
Co-directors of this effort are Pamela University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; Senior Associate, Wank Adams Slavin Associates, LLP, Dr. Selma Al-Radi, Research Fellow, New York University Institute of Fine Arts and Co-Director of the ‘Amiriya Restoration Project, Rada’, Yemen; James Conlon, Staff Associate for Archaeology and Historic Preservation Columbia University Media Center for Art History, Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Participants also included Gina Crevello, Independent conservator; Lamia Khaldi, PhD candidate, Cambridge University.
Abdullah al-Saqqaf, Abd Al-Karim Al-Barakani, and Saleh Sultan Al-Husaini, employees of GOAM, worked closely with the group, training in our methodology.
Jerome began documenting the traditional construction and repair technology of the Hadhramawt region in 1997. These efforts produced a technical paper (Jerome, Chiari, and Borelli, 1999) and a documentary video for a broader audience (Borelli and Jerome, 1999).
It became clear from this work that rapid change in the Hadhramawt Valley threatens to overwhelm the mud brick architecture and overall built environment of its historic cities. The Tarimi palaces, a collection of approximately thirty mansions constructed between the 1870s, were identified as particularly vulnerable.
In 1998, Jerome, Al-Radi, and Borelli listed Tarim on the World Monuments Fund (WMF) 100 Most Endangered Sites list, where it has remained through the current cycle.
The Samuel H. Kress Foundation of New York City supported a feasibility study in 2000 (Jerome and Al-Radi, 2001). This research resulted in a preliminary assessment of the significance of the Tarimi palaces, their condition and issues of ownership. Some of the structures were also reviewed for adaptive reuse potential.
The study proposed a documentation training program along with a restoration pilot project for Qasr al-‘Ishshah and al-Munaysurah, two of the palaces. The work this season represents the initial stage of this project.

Rationale of documentation process
To paraphrase the Burra Charter (Marquis-Kyle and Walker, 1994), the intention of conservation philosophy and practice is to maintain, and in particular cases recover, the significance of a place for future generations. Conservation work respects the existing physical fabric of the object of preservation as a guiding principle: the inextricable connection between materiality and significance is of primary importance.
To this end our discipline engages historical, anthropological, technological, and scientific inquiry as well as the fields of graphic and architectural design. Conservation reports, in turn, reflect the primacy of the fabric as expressed from these intellectual perspectives.
These documents often gloss over the role of activities of great importance to any project, but not traditionally associated with the history and practice of conservation: community organizing, educational practices, public policy and fund raising, cultural performances and even ‘unauthentic’ contemporary construction practices are at times bypassed, while technological innovation is valorized.
In defining the significance of heritage places, conservators are now more open to include cultural practices in their totality and engage collective memory as well as the materiality of the structure. The discipline is also more open to both the interpretations and aspirations of community stakeholders placing them on equal ground with academic research.
The use of the very term conservation is intended to signal a more broad interest in maintaining continuity with the past through managed change rather than the preservation of specific materials (Matero 2000:7). Cont’d next issue
* Reproduced with permission from Yemen Update Bulletin of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies # 45/2003.

There is little question that a large-scale program in Tarim will need to recognize traditional forms of knowledge and cultural practices as a part of a dialogue with contemporary conservation thought and practice. We would articulate the role of “folk knowledge,” however, as an active participant in this…. The palaces include examples of Mughal, British Colonial, Art Nouveau, Deco, Rococo, Neo-Classical, and Modernist styles unparalleled in Yemen.
While these foreign decorative styles have been incorporated in the Tarimi architectural idiom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, traditional Hadhrami construction techniques, based on the thousand- year old traditions of unfired mud brick and lime plasters, served as the primary methods for executing these buildings. Conversation rather than as the passive object of conservation practice.
To this end we have tried to open a dialogue with a diverse group of people interested in the architectural heritage of Tarim as the first step in formulating a plan for the conservation of the historic core of the city. We see heritage conversation as neither a partnership with a continuous, dynamic tradition of earthen architecture, nor the application of technical expertise towards the preservation of built fabrics, but as a third program resulting from the international of both within the Tarim context.
While this report is a record of the technical documentation and condition assessment of Qasr al-‘Ishshah for the 2002-03 season, it also presents the opening stages of this dialogue.

Historical introduction the architect in the Hadharamawt
For most of its history, Yemen has been integrally linked to Southeast Asia, East Africa, the Iranian Plateau, and the Mediterranean Basin through trade and pilgrimage. Geographically and socially varied, one may trace Yemen’s diversity through the cultural interactions and hybrid architectural fabrics of various regions. Foreign styles and ornamental features have entered Yemen as typological and aesthetic changes.
At the same time, traditional construction techniques are flexible enough to incorporate these new developments. In this way Yemeni architectural history represents a dialogue between cultures both within and outside of the modern nation.
The south Asian-inspired painted plaster of the ‘Amiriya Madrassa is a good example (Al-Radi 1997), as is the hybrid architectural fabric of Tarim, the theological, juridical, and academic center of the Hadhramawt Valley.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, merchant families in the Hadhramwt Valley and its tributaries grew rich from the Indian Ocean trade and their investments abroad. The al-Kaf family was considered to be among the most influential of these merchants. Many members of the family were respected religious scholars. At the same time, they were among the first Westernizing elite of the region and contributed to public works projects in the name of modernization.
Their status was thus based on a complex relationship between traditional society, modernity, and international trade (Damluji 1992). Their palaces remain as a testament to both their affluence and the complex identity of the modernizing elite of the colonial period.
The palaces and public buildings constructed under the patronage of the al-Kafs and other prosperous families were executed in the stylistic idioms that they encountered in British India and Southeast Asia. A member of the local community, interviewed by Al-Radi, said that Muhamed Hassan al-Kaf sketched many of the buildings he came upon when abroad. These drawings served as some of the design models for the Tarimi palaces, although none of his sketches have been recovered to date. Architectural pattern books from urban centers such as Cairo may have also influenced the al-Kaf designs.
As a consequence, the palaces include examples of Mughal, British Colonial, Art Nouveau, Deco, Rococo, Neo-Classical, and Modernist styles unparalleled in Yemen. While foreign decorative styles have been incorporated into the Tarimi architectural idiom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, traditional Hadhrami construction techniques based on the thousand-year-old traditions of unfired mud brick and lime plasters, served as the primary method for executing these buildings.
In his report to UNESCO in 1980, Stefano Bianca listed common challenges facing the architectural heritage of the Islamic world. Over twenty years later, many of the problems Bianca enumerated are still the source of deterioration in historic urban fabrics. Tarim and the other cities and towns for the hadhramwt do not face the same scale of demographic pressures as many other historic cities in the region, but Bianca’s comments on social disintegration and the new standards in education are relevant to the Yemeni case.
Especially pertinent are his comments on the privileges associated with new styles of urbanism and architecture and the impact of economic transitions that have accompanied transnational labor movements. The later have drawn Yemenis out of their country to work at higher paying jobs in the more affluent nations of the Persian Gulf, as well as in the United States.
This shift and the consequent effects on urbanization and the production of ‘vernacular’ architecture were well underway throughout the 1980s (Serageldin 1982). In 1990 the North and South united. The new nation did not join a Security Council vote to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; this resulted in the Gulf State’s decision to expel their large populations of expatriate Yemeni workers.
Yemeni nationals who were forced home injected still more capital into the region. Their return sparked a construction boom, while also changing people’s expectations of building styles and construction processes: many preferred to build in the materials and idiom of the contemporary architecture of the Gulf States and were no longer willing to wait for longer period it takes to build with mud brick and lime plaster.
As a result, many clients demand construction in reinforced concrete in a postmodern idiom. Professional contractors (muqawal) have also taken on many of the roles once reserved to the master mason (usta or mu’ allim) (veranda 1996:154). In 1992-93, Sana’a University graduated its first class of architects. Both professions often valorize new technologies, materials, and styles and are now an integral part of the conservation, construction, and planning process (Veranda 1996:156).
To paraphrase said Yislam Ba-Sweitin, a master mason from Shibam, people now have different tastes, expectations, and lifestyles. As a result, younger generations are not learning traditional building and maintenance techniques (Borelli and Jerme 1990. The problem then not only lies in preserving significant structures in their urban context, but also in articulating the value of traditional craftsmen as the city changes with regional integration into a global social and economic milieu.

Documentation, assessment, and dialogue
The combination of cultural-historical, aesthetic, and scientific significance of the Tarimi palaces in itself calls for a sustainable conservation program. Over the last thirty years, the al-Kaf family palaces have been neglected – in some cases, partitioned for multiuse occupancy; in others, completely abandoned – falling into a state of disrepair.
As a result, many are now in danger of imminent collapse and a full documentation and conservation program is needed for the historic core of Tarim. At this point in time much of the historic create of the city is either incompletely documented or simply undocumented.
With the support of a fellowship funded by the U.S State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs from the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and of the Columbia University Media Center for Art History, Archaeology and Historic Preservation, we chose Qasr al-‘Ishshah, the largest and most significant of the al-Kaf palace complexes, to open a larger documentation program of the Tarimi palaces and the significant urban fabric of the city.
The documentation materials of this field season will support an adaptive reuse program for Qasr al-‘Ishshah as well as the development of a suite of web-based pedagogical resources. The team conducted a full documentation of the ‘Ishshah complex, including the completion of plans, elevations, and measured drawings; conversational digital, and Quick Time Virtual Reality photography of the more than three hundred rooms and the exterior of the complex; and condition assessments.
In addition to documentation, samples of the ‘Ishshah’s mud brick and plaster construction materials were taken for further analysis in the United States. (We are still waiting for the results of these tests presently). The team also took Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) points of twenty-eight additional al-Kaf and other merchant families’ palaces for future condition assessments and the development of a Geographic Information System.

A. Qasr al-‘Ishshah complex: introduction and condition assessment

The household complex of ‘Umar bin Shaikh al-Kaf, Qasr al-‘Ishshah is one of the original al-Kaf family houses in Tarim. Shaikh al-Kaf built the house on the fortune he made in South Asian trade and from a hotel investment in Singapore. The name ‘Ishshah derives from the Arabic root ‘-sh-sh meaning to nest, take root or establish. Members of the al-Kaf family and other individuals in the community said that the name refers to the original house that, to paraphrase was like a bird’s nest in a thick palm grove.
This first building, know as Dar Dawil, was constructed during the 1890s. Today the complex sits within an other affluent Tarimi merchant families. Qasr al-‘Ishshah is a collection of several buildings constructed over a period of forty years. The main southern building alone includes several additions. Dar Dawil is located in the northeast corner of the site.
This house has a ground floor kitchen, a ramp (manzaha) that passed over the kitchen to permit a camel to draw water from a deep well, and store rooms below the living quarters. A north and east gate define the entrance to the site. Eventually Dar Dawil was altered, presumably as the household grew. Two additional windows were added to the three original windows on the upper story, while an extension was added to the south, including a pigeonaire.