x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Unesco world heritage site crumbles amid neglect and unruly construction

Sanaa's Old City is crumbling as a result of thoughtless development and political apathy.

To see Sanaa's Old City for the first time is like “a vision of a childhood dream world of fantasy castles,
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 official neglect and unruly construction are threatening to destroy that magic.

SANAA // Yemen's capital is one of the most ancient cities in the world, but neglect by officials and unruly construction are threatening to destroy the UN world heritage site.

Ancient tower blocks, some six storeys high, some nine, look like gingerbread castles. With ground floors of black lava stone, their upper storeys are of baked brick decorated with intricate geometric shapes and horizontal bands in gypsum whitewash.

Each quarter has a mosque, a hammam 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 fertiliser.

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 World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) 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 town. So the Old City has increasingly become a home for lower-income people 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 last year, Unesco urged the authorities "to ensure the protection of the cultural heritage" of the impoverished country. But the government has been absorbed by political crises and security threats, and had little time, or money, to spare for preservation.

Yemen was rocked by an uprising in 2011 that forced Ali Abdullah Saleh out of the presidency after a year of clashes in Sanaa between loyalists and opponents.

Naji Saleh Thawaba, president of the General Organisation for the Preservation of the Historic Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY), said the government was 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 set up to develop a strategy for sustainable development in Sanaa and other cities.

"The ministry of finance has not allocated anything to the organisation, which is expected to prepare studies about preservation and prevent abuse," Mr Thawaba said.

Mr Thawaba's deputy, Ammatelrazzaq Jehaf, shared his concerns.

"We have a budget of five million riyals [Dh85,600] 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 ... efforts to preserve this heritage. Without such a mission, nothing will change," Mr Thawaba said.

Mr Jehaf hopes Unseco will help by "finding donors and financiers who would come to the aid of Sanaa".

Unesco has organised several missions to Sanaa to try to provide assistance to restoration projects. But Unesco said no official information was available on the state of conservation of Old City properties "due to security restrictions".

Sanaa residents feel their heritage is crumbling 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," he said. "Sometimes the facade is slightly restored but the interior is left in ruins. Old Sanaa is an unmatched jewel that everyone should try to preserve."