A commentary on Yemeni traditional architecture


This article was originally published in the journal of the British Yemeni Society, November 1996

It has become fashionable to take an interest in the architecture of the Yemen, the "Arabia Felix" so called by Roman geographers. On an important trade route of antiquity, inevitably these historic cultures have left their mark, and have influenced recent architecture in Yemen. Around 1000 BC there were three important kingdoms: that of Saba, noteworthy for the biblical account of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, as well as the temples and dam at Ma’rib, and also the kingdoms of Ma’in and Qataban. History records an influx into the Yemen of Jews, Christians, Ethiopians and Persians. The expansion of Islam brought further contacts as did more recent trade links along the incense route from the far east into Wadi Hadramout.

As a result of this cultural background, inevitably there are important historic sites and buildings in the country which demand considerations of study and conservation. Already the march of development has destroyed many of the town walls and gates. In the modern world the automobile, and the misuse of inappropriate building materials, are leaving scars everywhere. It is known that the Yemeni people, who created such a fantastic architecture, are proud of it; they continue to build in traditional ways.

Yemeni people have inherited building skills since ancient times, and construction seems to be in their life-blood. Apart from some demonstration projects, most new house construction is carried out on traditional lines, by private individuals. There have been some large scale projects carried out by public institutions. Most housing is constructed by the inhabitants themselves. In contrast to many developing countries, the Yemen does not seem to have suffered from an acute housing problem. Only a few squatter settlements exist, such as those made by workers coming from the Tihama to become employed in street sweeping in Sana’a. Vernacular houses are spectacular; villages are sited on the tops of cliffs for defence; living quarters are above ground level; buildings are many-storeyed, of thick walls out of local materials.

The result is the achievement of a functional and harmonious architecture suited to the life of the Yemeni people. However, when alien techniques and materials are introduced, there are several effects. With imported materials, a large proportion of the cost goes into the pockets of a few contractors, with only about 25% remaining in the district. If local communities are to participate in self-help for construction, money must be spent locally, on local materials and labour. In addition, imported building methods usually prove to be unsuited to the climate, because the walls and roofs are not heavy enough.

Techniques in construction have developed using non-sophisticated plant and machinery, although modern equipment is available. Because the building industry is still organized on rather traditional lines, it has not felt the need for excessive modernisation in building methods, at least in rural areas.

Until 1962 North Yemen had been largely unknown country, without modern technical developments. This period was followed by a seven-year civil war, after which the new Republic - the YAR - was founded. The United Nations and its specialised agencies came forward and a development programme was set up about 1968. South Yemen possessed similar traditional styles, with variations. There was an input from the Public Works Department in Aden Colony and the Protectorate, continued during the years of the PDRY Now that the former PDRY and YAR have combined there is an opportunity for the creation of a truly Yemeni architecture suited to present-day needs yet observing the rich Yemeni traditions.

It is therefore to be deeply regretted that in a sense of falsely understood "progress", certain circles wanted to be "modern" at any price, and despising the outstanding features of traditional Yemeni culture, attempted to introduce reinforced concrete buildings. It is a fact that these ideas came from foreigners, who were mainly responsible for the destruction of the heart of Sana’a with the building of Abdul Mogni Street lined with shops and apartments made with reinforced concrete frames, filled in with thin walls of cement blocks. These houses are hot in summer and during the day, and cold in the winter and at night, because the walls and roofs are so much thinner than in traditional houses. They require (but do not always get it) expensive maintenance because they are not faced with materials that weather naturally.

One result of the UNDP project in physical planning and construction was in successfully reversing the trend towards indiscriminate building with imported materials. It became official government policy to construct all public buildings in Yemeni stonework, using the local skilled craftsmen. This ended the mere copying of foreign building styles, and stimulated the growth of a truly modern Yemeni architecture, blending well with the environment.

It has been realised that architecture in Yemen is of the highest standards. Housing had developed in an outstanding way suited to conditions of climate and craftsmanship, using building materials that were available locally Architectural design had evolved, over a period of at least 2,000 years, so ingeniously that today we find many aspects of functional design belonging to the most recent stages of the art of architecture.

The existence of so many minarets and high buildings throughout Yemen seemed to confirm a belief that earthquakes were not likely in spite of the fact that a few earthquakes have been reported since the 13th century.

In December 1982, an earthquake with a magnitude of six on the Richter Scale occurred about 15 km north of Dhamar, and 17 days later, a second one with magnitude of four. Some 1,150 villages and settlements in an area of about 4,000 sq. km. were destroyed in this unexpected disaster. About 1,500 people are said to have died, and 300,000 to have been rendered homeless. 42,000 houses became uninhabitable, of which 15,000 were completely wrecked. In addition, mosques, schools, water-supply facilities, wells, and government buildings were destroyed.

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It was fortuitous that a new hospital (above) had just been opened in Dhamar on the day before the earthquake occurred, and the injured from surrounding villages were treated in the hospital, and lives saved. The structure of the hospital did not suffer, apart from a very few minor cracks. The construction was a modern version of local traditional building, as well as taking into account the climate. Air conditioning was unnecessary.

This event has shown how vulnerable the traditional Yemeni buildings are, and it poses the question: what of the future concerning building in Yemen? Construction methods have used thick walls and roofs, an advantage in ensuring that the heat of the day is "stored", allowing restitution at night, thereby providing a stable indoor temperature without any need for heating and air-conditioning. But from the point of view of earthquake risk, these are the most dangerous structures. It is possible that older buildings were constructed with built-in timbers in the walls, to ensure there is sufficient tying together of the building elements so as to resist movement. Probably in the interests of economy such safeguards have lately been omitted, or it might be that the need has been forgotten.

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Geology dictates the use of a variety of suitable building materials, stone, random or cut; fired clay bricks; unbaked earth blocks; rammed earth known as "zabur" (right, in Sa'ada) or "midamak" etc; mixed material such as burnt brick facing to interior earth blocks. The latest use of thin walls of cement and sand blocks, supported by a reinforced concrete frame, are a total failure, making for structures insensitive to climate, and costly to maintain. This has become a standard solution in many places in tropical areas. Most designers ignore the use of traditional solutions, aiming to try again and again to "re-invent the wheel". It seems they are afraid to be accused of "romanticism", yet such solutions do not solve the problem in a satisfactory manner. The climatic differences are reflected in traditional building design in the various regions. Some recent new buildings have been erected, ignoring the influence of climate, with unfortunate results.

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Traditional solutions making for successful buildings are: in the uplands, high buildings with thick walls and large glazed windows that benefit from the winter sun; the coastal lowlands windows have no glass, being fitted with timber grilles and shutters - the "mashrabiyah" (left), permitting a cooling breeze to enter the building in such humid conditions. The coast is typified by the old "Turkish-type" high buildings, today being replaced by more modest houses of thatch and straw. Rain is not a great problem; providing earth walls are kept dry, they stand for ever.

It must be said that without people there would be no buildings. Their costume and their buildings vary, as is seen in the Yemen, between the cool uplands, the warm coast, and the interior deserts. Case studies have been made, whereby climatic data plotted on bioclimatic charts give some indications. In the uplands Sana’a has comfortable conditions by day and cool nights; in the intermediate zone, Ta’izz, for example, has comfortable conditions during half of the year, and with less diurnal variation from day to night; the coastal lowlands bordering the Red Sea, including Mocha, Hodaidah, Luhaya, demand the cooling effect of breeze;

Zabid lies in the Maritime semi-desert with a different microclimate; Ma’rib and Baraqish are typical of the semi-desert in the east. Similar zones can be identified in the former South Yemen with climatic differences between the ocean and those on the Red Sea.

The form of traditional buildings anywhere in the world is influenced by local climate and geology In the Yemen there is good building stone, and clays suitable for making burnt bricks, as well as sun-dried blocks, or used in the form of rammed earth or adobe. The clays are suitable as finishes for flat earth roofs. Alabaster is fired in kilns producing gypsum used for architectural details, as well as for strengthening the surfaces, and for the manufacture of decorative features. There is, however, a shortage of indigenous building timbers. These local materials over the centuries have become the raw material used by sophisticated and expert craftsmen. In the uplands the resulting massive construction of walls and roofs is an ideal solution towards the achievement of comfortable buildings, the thick walls possess the necessary heat resistance, whereby traditional buildings in the upland regions in particular do not require any space heating or air-conditioning. The skills of Yemeni craftsmen have contributed to a unique and fantastic architectural style.

A film, "Traditional Architecture in Yemen", made for the United Nations Conference on Human Habitations at Vancouver, 1976, describes the philosophy in accordance with government policy It demonstrates that with a proper use of locally available resources, the cultural heritage of the people, and also their economic possibilities, can be respected, throughout all countries in the world.

The criteria to be applied are that the structures should respect traditional patterns and also the climate, and should allow public participation in construction so as to encourage self-reliance. The long-term aim must be to improve traditional techniques together with the application of appropriate technology. Only in this way will the Yemeni tradition survive, and survive it must.

    November 1996