Old Sanaa, an endangered UNESCO heritage site

Updated 29 April 2013

Old Sanaa, an endangered UNESCO heritage site

To see Sanaa’s Old City for the first time is like “a vision of a childhood dream world of fantasy castles,” a visitor once remarked, but neglect and unruly construction are threatening to destroy that magic.
Yemen’s capital is one of the most ancient cities in the world, and entering its oldest quarter has been described “as perhaps the closest thing to time travel” we can experience.
Ancient “tower blocks,” some six storys high, some nine, look like gingerbread castles. With ground floors of black lava stone, their upper storys are of baked brick decorated with intricate geometric shapes and horizontal bands in gypsum whitewash.
Each quarter has a mosque, a hammam (Turkish bath) and a garden around which the houses were built.
In the past, water used for ablution in the mosque was then pooled to irrigate the gardens, used for growing vegetables, and waste was recycled to heat water in the hammams or for fertilizer.
That rich heritage is reflected in 103 mosques, some built more than a millennium ago, 14 hammams and more than 6,000 centuries-old houses, and the Old City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
But preservationists are struggling against the ravages of the modern world. Randomly built concrete houses distort the Old City’s skyline, salt from the cement weakens its structure and the once-spacious gardens are disappearing.
Many people have abandoned their homes, which are costly to maintain, and moved to new villas outside of town. So the Old City has increasingly become a home for lower income people, who are even less able to stem the tide of dilapidation.
More and more of these houses, each of which stands as an individual piece of art, are collapsing because of decay, the recent installation of sewage pipes along the narrow alleys and heavy rainfall.
This is compounded by a lack of maintenance resulting from the indifference of the authorities, UNESCO warns.
And because of inadequate drainage, the rainy season poses an annual threat to the old mud brick buildings.
In February 2012, UNESCO urged the authorities “to ensure the protection of the cultural heritage” of the impoverished country. But the government has been absorbed by an ongoing political crisis and security threats, and had little time, or money, to spare for preservation.
Naji Saleh Thawaba, president of the General Organization for the Preservation of the Historic Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY), said the government is now focused on holding a national dialogue to end political deadlock in the country.
“The government and the international community have only one thing in mind: the national dialogue, and have forgotten everything else — including heritage,” he said.
Founded in 1990, GOPHCY is an independent body that was set up to develop a strategy for sustainable development in Sanaa and other cities.
Thawaba’s bitter remark suggests his agency does not have the means to do the job.
“The ministry of finance has not allocated anything to the organization, which is expected to prepare studies about preservation and prevent abuse,” he said.
Thawaba’s deputy, Ammatelrazzaq Jehaf, shares his concerns.
“We have a budget of five million riyals ($ 23,000/17,700 euros) for Sanaa... How can this amount be enough to take care of 600 houses?“
“The only practical solution is a UNESCO mission which would unify national and international efforts to preserve this heritage. Without such a mission, nothing will change,” says Thawaba.
Jehaf hopes UNESCO will reach out by “finding donors and financiers who would come to the aid of Sanaa.”
UNESCO has organized several missions to Sanaa to try to provide assistance to restoration projects.
But the UN organization said no official information is available on the state of conservation of Old City properties “due to security restrictions.”
Sanaa residents feel their precious heritage is about to crumble, and blame authorities for not doing enough to protect it.
“We have no government attention while many homes are on the verge of collapse,” said Abdelaziz Al-Dhahiani.
Another resident, Wazir Al-Ghallab, echoed the sense of helplessness.
“We cannot restore them ourselves. We keep waiting for government intervention that never arrives. There are houses that have been ruined for 15 years and nobody cares,” he said.
“Sometimes the facade is slightly restored but the interior is left in ruins,” said Ghallab.
“Old Sanaa is an unmatched jewel that everyone should try to preserve.”


Saudi village is a treasure hidden above the clouds

Located 25 km from Abha city, the region has become a top tourist destination due to its rich heritage, history, culture and all-year-round good weather. (Reuters)
Updated 03 August 2020

Saudi village is a treasure hidden above the clouds

  • Al-Souda overlooks the Tihama mountains with their stunning valleys and quaint villages dotted along the plains and slopes with terraces hanging from the steep cliffs

ABHA: Saudi Arabia’s southern Al-Souda mountains harbor one of the Kingdom’s most prized hidden treasures.
At 3,000 meters above sea level, a hidden village above the clouds gives spectacular views on the world below. The village of Al-Souda offers panoramic 360-degree views of the surrounding paradise on Earth consisting of mountains covered in sheets of greenery, dense forests, peaks and valleys.
Located 25 km from Abha city, the region has become a top tourist destination due to its rich heritage, history, culture and all-year-round good weather.
Al-Souda  overlooks the Tihama mountains with their stunning valleys and quaint villages dotted along the plains and slopes with terraces hanging from the steep cliffs. The villages are less crowded than other sites but unique in its location.
In the summer, temperatures can drop below zero degrees and rain clouds provide awesome sights as the higher peaks break through them.
Ahlam Mash’hadi, a physiotherapist and artist, said the mountains provided an inspirational and perfect environment for her work.
“I felt completely energized and meditation helped me relax and enjoy the natural scenery. The sight of the clouds sparked my imagination and I’m sure it would do the same for any artist who loves to create unique works.

Some people will be impressed with the beautiful scenery while others will enjoy the cold weather on the top. Some will stand in awe because of the overwhelming feeling of the place.

Abdulrahman Al-Zahrani, Psychology consultant

“The memories of visiting Al-Souda are etched on my mind because of the pure beauty of the place — very inspiring.”
The serene thick vegetation and clean air of the mountains offer an experience to visitors and those looking for inspiration or “escape therapy” to rejuvenate.
Another visitor to the village, psychology consultant Abdulrahman Al-Zahrani, said: “Some people will be impressed with the beautiful scenery while others will enjoy the cold weather on the top. Some will stand in awe because of the overwhelming feeling of the place.”
The area is a photographer’s dream and Nasser Al-Shehri said he gained immense joy from taking shots of the clouds and valleys from the mountaintop. One of the best times was at sundown, he added, when visitors could stand with a blanket of clouds at their feet and watch the reflected moonlight change the look of the landscape.
Al-Soudah’s countryside and mountains offer a plethora of opportunities for trekkers as well who would like to wander and get lost in the beauty of the forests overlooking breathtaking views of the world below.