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  Book review

The Architecture of Yemen: From Yafi’ to Hadramut 

by Salma Samar Damluji

Laurence King Publishing Ltd, London, 2007. Pp. 304. Foreword by Abdullah Ahmad Sa’id Bugshan. 700 colour images and architectural drawings. Glossary. Notes. Index. Hb. £40. ISBN 978-1-85669-514-5. 

Samar Damluji is an Iraqi-born specialist in the Islamic and vernacular architecture of the Arab world, who has been recording the traditional architecture of southern Arabia for a quarter of a century, a period that has seen vast changes in much of the area. Her first book, The Valley of Mudbrick Architecture (1992) described the principal towns of Wadi Hadramut. Next came The Architecture of Oman (1998), again mainly focusing on traditional architecture, and thirdly The Architecture of the United Arab Emirates (2006). In each case she has pursued where possible the traditional, the indigenous, the vernacular, while lamenting the tastelessness of so much of the new, most especially and predictably in the UAE. 

In this volume, she is describing in words, photographs, plans and isometric drawings, the survival of what must be among the most dramatic examples of traditional architecture. Each chapter includes a technical section of ‘Building Notes’. And for the aficionado there is an invaluable twenty-three page glossary of terms in Arabic, which are also transliterated and translated, with details of their provenance. My hyperbole is justified by much of the terrain which she describes – extremely rugged mountains, a harsh climate with extremes of heat and drought, miserable transport in most of it (chew qat to ease the ride, she suggests), agriculture that is barely self-sufficient, poverty that might seem desperate to the average economist. 

The main title is slightly misleading because Dr Damluji is only describing a small area of Yemen, although she includes apposite comments on Aden and Jiblah. Her main focus is on the districts of al-Dali’ and Yafi’ in Lahij province, Bayhan and Habban in Shabwa province, the Hadrami coastal towns of Mukalla and Shihr, and two important wadis, Wadi Daw’an and Wadi Hajr, which are tributary to the main Wadi Hadramut. Details of population, towns and villages are included. These are all areas where she has been received with warmth and generosity. One senses throughout that this book is her gesture of love and gratitude in return. ‘The tougher the terrain, the kinder and gentler the people’ is an appropriate comment. 

She is, of course, particularly well equipped – as Arab, Muslim and architect – to cross the gulf, created so often by those who write about Islamic art and architecture, between themselves and the traditional craftsmen whose advice, assistance with terminology and a lot more besides, are here a crucial part of each chapter. Many of her informants come from families of craftsmen who can trace their skills back through many generations. Change is also part of the picture; many of the places mentioned are ones which she has visited over several decades and some (especially in Hadramut) have been more affected than others by the arrival, since the unification, of remittances from Hadramis who have made their fortunes in Saudi Arabia. So it is particularly useful that she can draw comparisons between early visits in the 1980s and more recent visits in the twenty-first century. She notes sadly the diminished role of women, who in some respects were remarkably involved in building in the 1980s but are now hampered by stricter Islamic conventions. She is generally restrained about the intrusion of cement, except in the case of the port city of al-Shihr where she is almost in despair: the old city. . . is in a terribly chaotic and disorganised condition’ due to ‘negligence and lack of concern of its inhabitants’. She quotes several instances of fifteenth century mosques having been demolished and replaced by concrete. ‘Villa type’ housing spreads inexorably along the Hadrami coast; west of Mukalla, for instance, the coast for nearly a hundred kilometres is marked out for development which is wholly inappropriate when it arrives. 

Fortunately for Dr Damluji, and for her readers, once away from the coast, the dearth of funds for modern development has helped to preserve traditions, here superbly photographed. Master builders and their patrons in the interior are conservative and, if only by force of circumstance, are strongly appreciative of the past, so that the ancient crafts of building and decorating continue to survive. Outside, the buildings blend with the severity of the mountain background; interiors reflect the Yemeni predilection for colour and pattern. Towards the end of her account Dr Damluji describes the enormous rococo palace of her major ally in Wadi Daw’an, Abdullah Ahmad Sa’id Buqshan, with its striking, lavishly painted exterior.

Early in her account the author writes: ‘This book is about cities that are being lost. It is for those who refuse to let this loss occur unopposed and who consider that architecture can offer an intelligent pattern or matrix for the future’. Here in the Yemeni hinterland she has found what has often been so lacking in other parts of southern Arabia. This is a painstaking and invaluable account of a most remarkable tradition. One must hope that the labour of research and production leads to the preservation of that tradition.

Sarah Searight