While the war in Yemen is going on, concerns are increasing about the destruction of the old city of Sana’a, especially as the city already suffers from problems in its infrastructure, and the UNESCO is concerned about the heritage of Sana’a.
Every morning Hefzallah Ayni, 45, went to his farm to sell vegetables to locals, which helped him earn enough to feed his 11-member family. But on September 19 his customers from downtown Sana’a didn’t go to his farm. Instead they went to his home to offer their condolences: Ayni and nine of his family members died in an air strike by a Saudi-spearheaded coalition, part of an attack underway since March 26, 2015.
Ayni’s home was in a neighbourhood, which is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. In what is called Old Sana’a, it was build more than 2,500 years ago and is a unique architectural area, containing nearly 9,000 houses built from clay and black stones, covered with unusual geometric patterns. It is surrounded by a wall and seven gates, most prominently, the Yemen Gate. The old city’s winding streets include the well-known salt market, and several mosques, notably the grand mosque.
Although Sana’a, Yemen’s biggest city, has the natural protection of being surrounded by mountains, throughout the years it has faced many waves of violence and wars. Many important ancient monuments have been lost, including the ancient fortress Ghumdan Palace which was razed to the ground in the fifth century and today is a group of ruins.
Over recent decades, the government and heritage-concerned international organizations have tried to preserve the rest of Old Sana’a.
Until 2015, the focus had been on protecting Sana’a from natural disasters but, with the onset of the Saudi-led military coalition’s Operation Decisive Storm, a new unprecedented wave of destruction threatened the ancient city and its heritage.
Deputy Head of the General Authority for the Preservation of Historic Cities Nabeel Mansar says the latest air strike, in which Ayni’s family and their neighbours died, destroyed and damaged 58 houses. He blames the coalition for bombarding an unique historic city in violation of all the international conventions which ban targeting ancient areas. Mansar says that international organizations should take full responsibility for the systematic targeting of Yemen’s history.
Bombardment and condemnations
And the shelling of Ayni’s house was not the first incident of its kind. The old city has been affected by the bombarding of nearby military sites, including Noqm Mount, east of Sana’a, in addition to the shelling of other locations within Sana’a. The first time Old Sana’a was directly hit was on June 12 in a widely condemned incident that claimed the lives of at least five people and destroyed a number of houses in Qassimi neighbourhood.
“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,” declared Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO. “I am shocked by the images of these magnificent multi-storied tower-houses and serene gardens reduced to rubble.”
“The neighborhood’s residents were terrified,” said Mohamed Sharafeddin, a resident whose house was among those badly damaged and who was forced to rent a flat outside Old Sana’a. “Women and children left their homes in terror after the missile hit Ayni’s house. At first, I did not realize what happened. My house was quaking strongly after the explosion. Soon, I knew we were shelled. I do not know why Old Sana’a has been targeted. They know very well it neither poses any threat nor contains weapons. What is has is ancient buildings and civilians. It was clearly barbaric and haphazard shelling.”
Sharafeddin hopes that he will soon return to his house which was inhabited by his ancestors hundreds of years ago and which his children, he says, will live in after he dies.
Fear of major collapse
“The houses of Old Sana’a do not stand bombardment, especially since many of them are already dilapidated,” said archeologist Islam Ha’el. “Every now and then, a house in the Old Sana’a collapses. In fact, when a large lorry passes through the city’s neighborhoods, the houses shake.”
Ha’el says the city suffers from neglect due to a lack of resources, which prevents the government from maintaining these houses, baths, markets and other landmarks. “I am afraid that one day we will wake up to see the Old City reduced to rubbles. The initial estimates show that the city’s houses have been damaged, cracked or partially or totally destroyed as result of many factors, including the big explosions caused by the coalition raids on Noqm Mount which is very close to Old Sana’a. Moreover, there is a need to correct the mistakes of new projects, such as paving the streets in a way that has made the already weak foundations damp has and led to the collapse of many houses. In one instance, two people were killed. In addition, seasonal rains greatly affect the old city. The latest initial statistics show that about 4,000 houses have been damaged in this way.”
“I could not believe that they targeted Sana’a. Many of my foreign friends asked me whether Sana’a was truly bombarded because it constitutes a history of the entire humanity, not just of Yemen. Targeting Sana’a means attacking history, not only Yemenis,” he concluded.
Swept by missiles
“If I were the mayor of this city, I would sweep it using my eyelashes,” said an Italian moviemaker in the 1970s after he visited Sana’a, amazed by the beauty of the city and of its architecture and landmarks. Paradoxically, the city today is only swept by jet fighters and all kinds of missiles.