Old City of Sana’a

Old City of Sana’a

Hakim Almasmari, Februrary 2, 2014 http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/02/world/meast/yemen-german-kidnapped/

View of Sana’a on the World Map Image by Hakim Almasmari, Februrary 2, 2014


Anas Alhaii http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/google_map_Sanaa.htm

View of Sana’a Image by Anas Alhaii

About Sana’a (UNESCO 2016)

  • The Old City of Sana’a, also known as the capital of Yemen, is an extremely important archaeological site in the middle east for a range of factors including that it has been inhabited by people for over 2,500.
  • Previous to the 7th and 8th centuries, it became a major trade route and also a site with much Christian influence; however, extensive changes following the beginning of the 7th century transformed this site into a dominant center for the Islamic faith and culture.
  • The city of Sana’a has many connections to the Bible and the Koran.

Archaeological Significance

  • The strange geographical location of Sana’a has allowed it to preserve famous pieces of Islamic history such as the Great Mosque which was said to have be built when the Prophet Mohammad was still living making it one of the oldest mosques that worshipers still go to today. The Great Mosque was the first mosque to be built outside the holy lands of Mecca and Medina (UNESCO 2016).
  • It was here that one of the oldest known copies of the Qur’an were found, a true treasure of the Islamic faith (Kramer 2015).
  • UNESCO (2016) mentions just how spectacular the architecture within the city is. There are around 103 mosques, 14 hammams (steam rooms), and over 6,000 houses. They all have a craftsman like quality to the design aspect implementing white detailing on beige brick and stone giving it a pictorial like essence.
Architecture of Sana'a https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3168/2558351428_46544e26c8.jpg

Architecture of Sana’a

  • The Old City of Sana’a has been considered a world heritage site since 1986 (Soto 2016). This site meets the following criteria as established by UNESCO (UNESCO 2016):
    • The city presents a “homogeneous architectural ensemble” meaning that many of the buildings look very similar and portray the stylistic elements of early Islamic culture.
    • The partially built wall around the city reveals a city which contains houses that are an “extraordinary masterpiece” of traditional human settlement dating back 2,500 years ago.
    • This city also has a direct relationship with the history and spread of the Islamic religion.

Factors Endangering the Site According to UNESCO (2016)

  • Civil unrest
  • Housing
  • Land conversion
  • Management activities

Endangering Factors

  • Housing, land conversion, & management activities (Young 2016)
    • Until the year 1969, the city of Sana’a was closed to visitors due to civil war in the country. After the war ended, leaders decided to make Sana’a the capital city of the new Yemen Arab Republic which drew mass amounts of people and their vehicles. By 1978, the population had increased so much that the historic city could not support the needs of the people. The infrastructure was in desperate need a rehabilitation and update. Soon enough, people began moving out of the city to new villas similar to suburban areas that are present in the United States.
      Depiction of Destroyed Traditional Housing in the Old City of Sana'a Due to Poor Infrastructure http://web.mit.edu/akpia/www/AKPsite/4.239/sanaa/Fig3.jpg

      Depiction of Destroyed Traditional Housing in the Old City of Sana’a Due to Poor Infrastructure

      That in turn caused an influx of businesses and recreational and educational services to move out of the old city because they also struggled with the makeup of the infrastructure of the city. The roads could not support the automobiles driving on them making getting around the city quite difficult. As wealthier people and businesses moved away from the city due to crowded and unsanitary conditions, poorer Yemenis moved into the city causing an almost worsening of conditions.

    • In an attempt to modernize Sana’a, new concrete buildings were put up; however, these buildings became “eye sores” and looked out of place next to the traditional style houses and buildings. The visual integrity of the property is currently being threatened by the development of modern hotels and cell phone towers (UNESCO 2016). New development has also caused cracking and sometimes complete collapses of the older traditional style of houses due to salt deposits from concrete deteriorating the the materials used in traditional style houses. In 1978 and 1979 inadequate drainage systems from the introduction of water and sanitation systems caused thirty irreplaceable houses to collapse.
    • Since 1989 after the recognition by UNESCO that this site should be included as a world heritage site, archaeologist, engineers, and other world leaders have tried to figure out ways in which to preserve the old character of the city while also improving and sustaining the way of life for the people of the city. Ronald Lewcock, an advocate for the restoration of the Old City of Sana’a once said:

      “Its value lies not so much in the merit of the individual buildings, important though they may be, as in the unforgettable impression made by the whole ­ an entire city of splendid buildings combining to create an urban effect of extraordinary fascination and beauty.”

    • Through grants and fellowships from UNESCO, other international agencies, and the Yemen government, strong steps towards the conservation of the city have been made. People have paid particular attention to the sensitivity of the traditional buildings and have been able to use material conducive to the materials used in traditional buildings when renovating their houses and businesses. Improved infrastructure will in turn help maintain the integrity of the Old City of Sana’a for future generations to come.
  • Civil Unrest

    Director General of UNESCO (UNESCO 2015):

    “I am profoundly distressed by the loss of human lives as well as by the damage inflicted on one of the world’s oldest jewels of Islamic urban landscape. I am shocked by the images of these magnificent many-storeyed tower-houses and serene gardens reduced to rubble. This destruction will only exacerbate the humanitarian situation and I reiterate my call to all parties to respect and protect cultural heritage in Yemen. This heritage bears the soul of the Yemeni people, it is a symbol of a millennial history of knowledge and it belongs to all humankind.”

    • During the early morning on June 12, 2015 the Old City of Sana’a was hit once again by a bombing raid causing severe damage to many
      yemen war

      Conflict in Yemen http://www.zoneasia-pk.com/wp-content/uploads/civil-war-in-Yemen.jpg

      historic building and houses (UNESCO 2015). This is something that has become all too familiar to this region of the world. More bombings dating back to March 2015 and May 2015 occurred killing 142 people and injuring more than 350 during midday prayers at a mosque (Committee for Cultural Policy 2016). This city is becoming a war front which is seriously threatening the livelihood of the people living within the city walls and the cultural treasures it holds.

    • According to Soto (2016) the city started seeing damage back in 2011 due to a strong Al Qaeda presence near and around the city. As a result of groups fighting Al Qaeda, Sana’a started experiencing some repercussions from the war efforts. Starting in May of 2015, a group from northern Yemen started to gain momentum in their fight against the Saudi Arabian intervention on Yemen which in turn started a civil war in Yemen. The particular location of Sana’a makes it especially vulnerable for airstrikes and missiles attacks from multiple fighting groups in the area. These groups do not necessarily intend on ruining this important cultural and archaeological site; however, their conflict has put serious pressure on civilian lives and the preservation attempts of the city.

Insights into Global Issues

Archaeologists have studied war and conflict extensively in past societies. Many of the conflicts today are between semi-independent nations or groups, which all have very similar features to the structure of past chiefdoms (Sabloff 2008: 67). The civil war in Yemen is a perfect example of semi-independent groups-such as ISIS and Houthi- fighting for power in a particular area. Wars, in the past and present, have particularly started over the control of resources such as control of land or other natural resources. An understanding of past human conflicts can help in discussions about present conflict in areas, especially in the middle east where there are so many different groups fighting for so many different causes. According Sabloff (2008), archaeology is a useful tool for discussions about the inevitability of war and the role it plays in modern civilization. Archaeologists have first hand experience in studying wars and conflict so their insights are an essential component to addressing the problems of the world.

Archaeology should be playing an important role in modern urbanization of cities. They have studied past societies their state structures and have gained a clear understanding as to why a society may have collapsed or failed. Sabloff (2008) states that there are three key factors that over time have determined the overall health of cities. These include sacredness of place, ability to provide security and project power, and the opportunity to provide economic development (Sabloff 2008: 71-72). These three key factors are current issues threatened in the Old City of Sana’a. City officials are civilians are finding more and more difficult to preserve sacred places such as their centers of worship due to the constant violence surrounding the area. The members of Sana’a feel unsafe in their homes and worry that not only are their homes being ripped to shreds, but also that their cultural heritage is being destroyed. The war is placing hard economic pressures on the city. Economic opportunities were being displaced outside of the Old City of Sana’a even before the civil war began. City officials have tried and been somewhat successful at revitalizing the community; however, with the war going on it makes this task somewhat difficult to achieve. In order for this city to prosper, archaeologists will need to work hand in hand with city officials, companies, and urban planners on how to ensure the cultural identity of this site is preserved while also protecting the livelihoods of the people living within the city walls from surrounding war efforts.


Sabloff, Jeremy A.

2008 Archaeology Matters. Left Coast Press, Inc., California.

Committee for Cultural Policy

2016 Electronic document, https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/old-city-of-sanaa-in-yemen-damaged-by-bombing/, accessed December 5 2016.

Young, Luke.

2016 Electronic document, http://web.mit.edu/akpia/www/AKPsite/4.239/sanaa/yemen.html, accessed November 30 2016.


2015 Electronic document, http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1295/, accessed December 5 2016.

Soto, Susana.

2016 Electronic document, http://sites.uci.edu/artunderattack/old-city-of-sanaa-yemen-2/, accessed November 24 2016.

Kramer, Howard.

2015 Electronic document, http://thecompletepilgrim.com/great-mosque-of-sanaa/, accessed November 30, 2016.


2016 Electronic document, http://whc.unesco.org/en/soc/3352, accessed December 1 2016.


2016 Electronic document, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/385, accessed November 20, 2016.

BBC News.

2016 Electronic document, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29319423, accessed December 5 2016.



3 thoughts on Old City of Sana’a

  1. My site was also affected by the Yemen Civil War. I like how you provided a link to learn more about the Civil War so we can better understand the reasoning for it. Good job incorporating Sabloff into your site as well to support your reasoning for why this sight should be preserved. It definitely makes your argument stronger. Besides the Civil War what is the second most significant endangering factor? Land conversion? Management activities?

  2. I think it’s really interesting that there are so many old ties to Islam in this site. My site has a lot of similar concerns with urbanism, that new constructions will harm the old architecture and will compromise the visual authenticity of the city. I also think it’s great that you made so many detailed comparisons between the current situation and Sabloff’s book.

  3. My site in Yemen was also affected by the Civil War, but not to the extent of yours it seems. It is amazing the negative effects it is having not only to the civilians but the historically significant sites and cultural centers. My site has also been effected by the new mindset of “out with the old, in with the new” and it is sad they are willing to destroy whole towns that played such a critical role in the past.

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