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The Buildings Of YEMEN

This post is about buildings for Yemeni by Yemeni. This is the town of Al Hajarayn.

Al Hajarayn

A bunch of boxy brown buildings covering a barren hilltop ought to be ugly but it’s not. What we’re seeing is the beauty not of repetition but of variations on a theme. We’re seeing similarities of colour, of patterns of windows, of shape, of alignment, positioning and size. As well as all that, we’re also picking up on something else these buildings and their environment have in common. Some writers might say, “they share a certain rugged beauty”. Except these buildings are not trying to be beautiful. Here’s some more views.

Yemeni towns tend to be on hilltops if they can. It’s nice to see when you’re about to have visitors.

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It’s also good to be near a fertile bed (wadi) of an intermittent river. This next is Ar Rihab, still thriving.

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The town of Old Marib hasn’t fared so well. It was once the capital city of the Sabaean kingdom, the Sheba as in Queen of Sheba, according to some. Yemen is known for the excellence of its ancient water engineering. Irrigation made possible by the Marib Dam (circa 800BC) plus trading in frankinscense, myrrh and other spices with the Romans made the entire region prosper. The Romans called it arabia felix (Happy Arabia).

Yemen is regarded as the pre-Islamic historic homeland of the Arab peoples. The story goes that the many tribes spread out into the Arabian Peninsula after the dam breached. A new dam was more recently built close to the location of the old one, at the expense of Shaykh Zayed Bin Sulṭān Āl Nayhān, the late ruler of the United Arab Emirates, whose tribe resettled from Ma’rib to the present UAE some time in the 17th century. Marib itself limped on until the middle of the twentieth century.

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You’ve probably seen photos of Shibam though. It’s doing fine.

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Not least in part to its part in Pasolini’s 1974 “1001 Nights [“Il fiore delle mille e una notte”]. If you can imagine what that’s going to be like. Here’s a snippet.

Salma Samar Damluji (whom you shall meet later) says it was Pasolini and his movies that drew international attention to Shibam and prompted UNESCO to designate it, along with Sana’a, and Wadi Hadramut as World Heritage Sites. Not that that’s any kind of guarantee they’ll continue to exist. Aleppo is a World Heritage Site.

Shibham is all mud brick, some of it 100ft high. It’s mostly 500 years old but has only managed to become 500 years old because of continuous maintenance and repair. Around the back, there’s plumbing.

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Just outside of Shibam is the Ba Jammall mosque. Wonderful. Whitewash is generally only used for mosques and palaces.

Shibam's Ba Jammall mosque

Even with a town like Shibam on flat ground, the height and clustering make a more compact city easier to wall and defend, but beyond that, it also makes for a better microclimate through self-shading. It seems that only the tops of the buildings are painted white because that’s the part that needs to reflect sun the most. If so, that’s very clever. The famous frontal view faces due south. Check it out. 15°55′36.98″N 48°37′36.01″E Deep set windows provide sufficient shading. The walls are thick the windows small.

We need more information. It’s time to refer to Salma Samar Damluji’s excellent book, The Architecture of Yemen – From Yafi to Hadramut. 

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The Architecture of Yemen

Damluji’s book isn’t a glossy guide. It’s the result of measured surveys and discussions with builders. It attempts to document the lesser known buildings of places you and I will never visit but can hopefully appreciate and maybe learn something from.  There are regional variations in size, shape, layout and decoration but I’ll only deal with generalities here. Place names won’t mean much without a map.

Nevertheless, here’s a modest house in Shu’ayb. It’s a classic plan.

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We like to think our houses and plans are tailored to suit us and only us and how we want to live but we’re kidding ourselves. Most people have much the same space and spatial connection requirements as most other people.

If you live in the UK, it’s quite common for people to buy an “unimproved” terraced house and then change it to how they think they want to live in it. Mostly, this involves knocking down the wall between the original dining and living rooms, and extending the kitchen so it has a table and a skylight. As everyone else does. I see a lot of sense in the Yemeni way of just building some rooms of different sizes and allocating them according to what’s needed at the time, or the time of day, or whatever your family configuration is like at any given time. 

The ground floor is nearly always used for the storage of food and feed, and firewood if there’s any space left. The reception room is most likely to be the largest room on the first floor, with a kitchen in a smaller room adjacent. A family or women’s living room is most likely to be the largest room on the second floor, and any rooms on additional floors are likely to be used as bedrooms or just as rooms. Bathrooms are most likely to open off of the stairwell or a landing. These are the general rules but the living rooms can also be used as bedrooms. It’s all rather flexible. It seems that you build the house first, and then decide how to use it according to your family’s particular situation. It’s easy to imagine rooms being reallocated to make quarters for a recently married son. This is a very flexible way of doing things. It’s much better than flexibility achieved by moving walls.

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I once lived in a four-storey terraced house in London. Ahh bless the internet! Here it is – 35E Gibson Square. My front door was the one behind the red car. The corner building and the two newbuild terraced houses that belatedly completed the full terrace were designed by James Gorst who’s done some good stuff. The basement was a bedroom and a bathroom. Ground floor was a hallway and dining room above the bedroom, and a kitchen above the bathroom. On the first floor was a living room the size of the hallway, dining room and kitchen and the second floor was identical to the basement. 

The basic principles of vernacular layout planning are still valid, even if we do have more bathrooms these days. The village of Jirbah. 

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It’s north-east of Aden. Map.political-map-of-Yemen

Here’s a new house from 1963.

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As you’d expect with mud brick, walls are thicker at the bottom and become progressively thinner as you go up. These gently canted walls give the building a dignity and monumentality as a result of structural and materials concerns. The wall is not trying to look beautiful. Here’s a new building from 1968.

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The bands at floor height are characteristic of this region. We are not used to seeing a total absence of individual grandstanding and statement making.

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This is Habban.

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And this is the ‘most distinguished’ house in Habban.

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As you’d expect with mud brick, it’s walls on top of walls all the way up, with any span larger than 2m requiring columns. See that bit of inside-outside stuff happening on the fourth floor? And again on the 6th? They look like nice places to be.

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Notice how the windows are low, with decorative niches above them for personal possessions?

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The blue coloured render is characteristic of this area. It’s a weatherproofing layer of render of sand mixed with fine bullrushes, the thicker ones having been used to strengthen the mud bricks. Yemeni architecture features many other types of renders and coatings made from mud combined with other substances and used for different purposes. The fine silt after floods is used to make a special render used in the same way we’d use bathroom and kitchen tiles. A render of ‘light mud’ is used as we would plaster. Another mixture is used as we’d use bitumen on a flat roof.

Yemen isn’t all mountain and desert towns. Here’s the port of Al Mukallah. If only Corbusier had come to Yemen instead of Marseilles!

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This is the town of Kaninah in Wadi Hajr.

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This is a house in nearby Jul Ba Hawah.

It’s the same but different. There’s the same flexible allocation of rooms. In the case of this house, it’s the second floor that’s reserved for the eldest son, and family living takes place above that, with separate men’s and women’s living areas, although either or both may be pressed into dual usage as bedrooms or family living areas.

This is a town in Wadi Hajr. What do we really hope to achieve by talking any more about architecture? It’s all been worked out.

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Just outside of Sana’a is Dar Al Hajar (The Rock Palace). It’s the Sydney Opera House of Yemen. The palace could probably be defended more easily than many other buildings in the city, but I get the feeling the point of this palace is to show superiority and power rather than impregnability. Mediaeval castles showed a similar shift from actual defendability to the posturing of defendability. Ultimately, all it shows is “I am important and thus worth defending”. This attitude remains in our phrase “moral high ground”.

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But just look at Sana’a! It’s  beautiful. It’s a different kind of beauty again from the other cities. It’s one of the oldest populated places on the planet and deserves respect. They might know a thing or two about buildings and urbanism. At 2,300m it’s also one of the highest capital cities. (Mexico City: 2,250m; Denver: 1,609m, in case you were wondering.)

Sana’a is pronounced with a hard S on Sa. Na is a long gutteral a ending in a glottal stop. صنعاء. ‎ Ṣanʿāʾ. Don’t confuse it with SANAA. Sana’a good, SANAA bad.

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In this post I’ve scanned and uploaded many images and there’s lots more to see and wonder at. The biggest wonder is “How did the Yemeni manage to make a built environment for themselves that we can only look at in awe and admiration?” Well, the country is the poorest in the Middle East. Yemeni society is deeply conservative and insular and these two characteristics will always work to retain building traditions that, frankly, nobody sees the need to change. Sure, there’ll be the one person who wants to paint their house white, but I don’t see much difference for the sake of difference beyond what we see in the ornament of Sana’a buildings.

Here’s Buqshan Palace, built 1955. It’s had a bit of a Bilbao effect for the village of Khaylah pop. now 35,000. Like the palace on the rock, it’s not representative and should not be what we remember of the buildings of Yemen.

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It’s always better to judge the architectural intelligence of a country by their ordinary buildings and not by spectacular oddities.

The Yemeni long ago arrived at the best building solutions for their environment and circumstances and saw no need to change. Modernism, Post Modernism, and Deconstructivism all passed them by. No doubt whatever lies ahead for us will as well. The Yemeni have their built environment sorted. More buildings are of course being built out of concrete these days and, like in Egypt, there may come a time when Yemeni think living in mud-brick houses is primitive or old-fashioned. That day is still a way away.

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Ingenious and admirable as they are, we’re never going to learn from the Yemeni many ways with mud. We might however be able to learn something from their relationship with their buildings – perhaps if we designed our buildings more inflexibly we might be able to loosen up about how we used them. 

Perhaps. But I think the most important thing we can learn from these buildings is what a coherent built environment

  • constructed to suit a climate
  • with an understanding of the properties of the resources at hand
  • with an economy of means and materials
  • and a total absence of architectural pretentiousness

looks like. We’re having trouble even imagining what one could look like. The point of this post is to help us remember. For if we can’t imagine a coherent built environment and how it might be good for us, it’s unlikely we’re ever going to work towards getting one for ourselves.  

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Here’s a link to some landscapes from a hot air balloon.
This link takes you to more useful information about the buildings.

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Travel Tip: If you’re thinking of visiting, brush up on the politics. Here’s a 2010 NYT article but times change. You should be okay if you stay in Sana’a. If you venture out, carry an AK-47, try to blend in, keep an eye out for drones.

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