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The Yemen's mud brick buildings. (Place).

For over two millennia, the inhabitants of the Yemen have built their strange tower houses out of the earth below them. The tradition continues still and seems adaptable to modern life. Though much is beginning to decay, the crafts continue.

Well into the second half of the last century, the Yemen was virtually medieval, and its traditional ways of building survived almost unchanged. In the towns, tall houses, each owned by an individual family, date back as a type to at least the first millennium BC, (1) and the ways of building them, stone in the mountains, dried mud brick in the wadis (2) and oases, have not changed much, and in some places are still in use today. The tall form must be almost as old as the traditional inward-turned courtyard houses of the Mediterranean world. The Queen of Sheba (if she ever existed) must have known such buildings.

Several forces generated the tower type. Without vaulting or trusses, Yemeni traditional architecture had to rely on the usable length of palm, acacia or tamarisk trunks for spans. Cultivable land was so precious that buildings for the majority had to have as small a footprint as possible. And, of course, grouping such houses made formidable defensive walls to protect each settlement, particularly as ground floors were traditionally occupied by animals, and usually the only opening was a strong wooden doorway. (3) In a fiercely tribal society, with traditions of internecine warfare that lasted at least until ten years ago, defensible towns and houses were vital.

Above the animal level (now often used for storage), are four or five storeys, with perhaps more storage on the first floor, a diwan (4) and maybe the kitchen above that, then bedrooms. On top is often the traditional mafraj, the big room with the view, in which the owner and his male friends would gather to drink coffee and chew qat leaves, the local narcotic herb to which most men are devoted. Round the perimeter of the room is usually a continuous bench seat (a very distant relation of the Mediterranean triclinium?) which, like the walls and floor, is covered with patterned ornamental fabrics and cushions. Depending on the wealth and ambitions of the family, there may be a manzar, a sort of wooden hut on the roof to allow the host and his best friends to get even better views. In the houses of the rich, a traditional form of air conditioning was available for the best rooms. In the depth of the wall, behind an external grille, unglazed earthenware pots were suspended on thongs. Filled with water, these hum idified and cooled incoming air (by the latent heat of evaporation). Air was extracted by vents over the windows, so a convection powered circulation system was set up.

Traditionally, roofs were covered with a robust mixture incorporating lime, ash and clay, making a more or less waterproof layer, plastic enough to move with the main body of the building, yet hard enough to take a polished finish. This was on top of levelled earth over palm leaves that rested on unwrought tree-trunk beams. Mud bricks are still made in the traditional way with sterile earth and straw, which are first saturated with water, then cured in the sun, and turned several times. Mud makes mortar and the render.

Fired bricks, known from ancient times, are obviously more durable, and the traditional ones are made of clay mixed with dung to create a pale buff, rather soft material that works well with the sun-dried vanety. Now, fired bricks are made without dung and come out hard, sharp and rather fiercely red, and do not harmonize with the traditional towers, of which they are increasingly forming upper floors (in Sana'a at least). But quite a lot of traditional buildings are being changed to conform to the new brick aesthetic by being smeared in a livid red render which, being cement based, will never be removable from old structures.

In Sana'a and some of the other major settlements, piped water and mains drainage has been installed. (5) The old excrement rooms on the ground floors are (thank goodness) no longer used for their original purposes. (6) But the traditional ways of signalling arrival to people upstairs and letting them in through the bottom door by clever rope and pulley systems is still in widespread use. Windows were traditionally of translucent alabaster, but during the second Turkish occupation, (7) deeply coloured stained glass began to be used in the decorative plaster window tracery.

The lime from which plaster is made is burned from gypsum rich rock, and outside most towns is a place of kilns, often emitting filthy black smoke from burning tyres that amazingly produces the pure white powder that is used as decoration on both mud and stone buildings. Patterns are dictated by function and tradition -- for instance openings, doors and windows are often (but scarcely always) emphasized in white. Sometimes, string courses emphasize floor levels. Sometimes the sky is greeted with a white cornice over an otherwise brown building. Sometimes whole towers are coated in whitewash. Each family in each district has its own approach, usually working within a locally established code. Now chemical paint pigments, cheaply bought from the West and mixed with whitewash are beginning to add pastel patterns, in pale imitation of the much more strong mineral-derived colours that were used traditionally in some areas.

Settlements have grown colossally. Sana'a has exploded from a small walled town of some 60 000 people to an extensive metropolis with nearly a million inhabitants in little more than a couple of decades. There are traffic lights in the new part of the city. In 1983, Ronald Lewcock and R. B. Serjeant remarked that 50 per cent of the land surface of the Sana'a plain was devoted to agriculture. (8) But now the proportion cannot be more than a fifth of that. What were formally fields, villages and individual farms with their orchards, qat plantations and sorghum fields have now been incorporated into a huge low-rise Los Angeleno fabric that reaches to the feet of the surrounding mountains. Vast amounts of fertile land have been lost round the capital and other cities, and the country now has to import 75 per cent of its food -- though even so, 30 per cent of children under five suffer from some sort of malnutrition. (9) Only 40 years ago, according to our guide, it was possible to hear the roaring of lions and the howling of wolves from the city, but since the coining of the four wheel drives and the kalashnikovs (every self-respecting man has one), wild animals have become very rare if not extinct. And many of t he forests in which they lived, shady groves that in ancient times gave the country its reputation for being Arabia Felix, (10) were cut down in the civil wars and revolutions.

Surprisingly, Sana'a is still quite a green city. Many of the trees planted in the main thoroughfares of the modern city by the Turks and the Imams have been chopped down, but there are still quite large areas of intensely cultivated irrigated market garden in the middle of the old town (each is owned by a mosque). Surrounded by wild pepper and fig trees, they are calm places away from dust and noise, and they are of course overlooked by some of the best houses.

Much has gone wrong, but a great deal still survives. Outside Sana'a the greatest concentrations of mud tower houses are in the Wadi Hadramaut, a most extraordinary geological phenomenon in the east of the country. It is reached from Sana'a across the Ar Rub' al-Khali -- the Empty Quarter, southern end of the great desert that covers much of Arabia. The route lies past almost abandoned mud towns bombed by the Egyptians in their attack on tribal peoples, a desperate attempt to make the country modern by force in the 1960s.

After a long time driving through the dreadfully dull featureless sands, huge walls and mesas of rock begin to appear on both sides of the track. This part of the country is fundamentally a dry high sandstone plateau, but over millions of years infrequent rains have carved out a vast valley 300 metres deep and about two kilometres wide, the bottom of which is at roughly the same level as the desert. It runs from west to east, never connecting with the sea. Gradually, between the cliffs, desert sand gives way to vegetation.

Here is the most fertile region of southern Arabia, and one of its most mysterious. The British arrived in the 1930s and by diplomacy put an end to age-old clan fighting, but before that, the area was little visited by outsiders and acquired a wonderfully romantic reputation. But the outside world was much visited by the inhabitants of the Hadramaut. Because of the fecundity of the land, they became prosperous and began to trade with India, Africa and south-east Asia from small ports on the Arabian Sea, reached by tracks from the valley over the high plateau.

The influence of the subcontinent is most clearly seen in Tarim, at the end of one of the many tributary wadis. Here are some of the most important mosques in the area, dominated by the 50m high mud brick minaret of the Masjid al-Muhdar. (The city is the centre of the Shafa'i school of Sunni Islam.) But as remarkable as the mosques are the great palaces of the rich that faithfully evoke Indian styles: maharaja Baroque and even maharaja Art Nouveau. Their craftsmanship and elegance is astonishing, with mud (reinforced by stone or wood) making slender polished columns and forming finely carved decorations. Now, the palaces are almost all approaching ruin because their owners fled or were put down following the 1967 South Yemen communist revolution. Families can reclaim at least one palace if they want to, but there is little sign that they do. If you have a comfortable life in Saudi Arabia, London or the Gulf, what is the point of spending millions on a mud palace in a poor, remote and inaccessible provincial t own? The great buildings will presumably all decay completely, and many are well on the way to dissolution already.

All over the Hadramaut are unloved mud buildings: houses, palaces, tombs and even whole town quarters slowly slithering down into amorphous heaps of earth, anonymous mouldering corpses penetrated here and there by the odd wriggling rafter. But at the same time, traditional brickmakers are as busy as ever, and new houses are still being made in the old ways, though in general they seem to be detached and large in plan rather than contiguous and thin.

Most of the settlements of the Hadramaut are on the flanks of the valley, under the cliffs above the normal level of floods. But the most famous one, Shibam is different. It stands isolated in a palm grove where one of the great spice routes crosses one of the main courses of the wadi and is very ancient. It is surrounded by a decaying mud wall, but you scarcely see that because its majestic tall mud houses, up to eight storeys high, crowded together in defiance of enemies, dominate the whole landscape. Inside, the narrow alleys are tight woven, winding shadily between cliff-like walls of brown mud or sparkling white lime wash. Here and there, an intense splash of traditional colour or an ancient carved door (far too many of which have been sold to tourists and replaced by steel) relieves the rhythm. Shibam is one of the strangest and best preserved old towns in the world and, rightly -- like Sana'a -- it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Like many Yemeni traditional settlements, it is under threat. Its preser vation has been partly to do with its relative poverty: people could not afford to change the traditional way of building.

Being on the floodplain, Shibam is regularly inundated. Some buildings are falling down, and there are few resources for repairing them, because funds have been disrupted by the wars and revolutions, and the transition from a medieval to a modem money economy has made building in traditional ways very expensive for the families who own the buildings. (11)

But in the villages of Wadi Daw'an, one of the most important tributaries of the Hadramaut, money seems to pour in from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. New merchants' palaces are being created, not on foreign models like the melancholy remains in Tarim, but on local ones, using local techniques, though they are often painted in the new pastel colours. At least in the Wadi Daw'an, the immemorial Yemeni cycle of decay and new growth continues.

(1.) The origins of Yemeni architecture arc examined in a beautiful and provocative exhibition Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen at the British Museum in London - on until 13 October.

(2.) River valleys, which are often dry, but occasionally full of water alter torrential taut. Most settlements, except the highest mountainous ones, are based on a wadi.

(3.) Mud houses (at least its the capital Sana'a (between the mud and stone cultures) often have a stone ground floor to make them more defensible and resistant to the elements.

(4.) Sitting room, sometimes used for business.

(5.) Sana'a won an Aga Khan Award in 1995 partly in recognition of this (AR November 1995, p78). The General Organisation for the Preservation of the Historic Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY) continues its work with UNESCO help.

(6.) Traditionally, the dried excrement was removed and burned to heat the hammams, the Turkish baths. Provision of mains water and drainage has seriously altered the ecological balance of the area. Water is drawn from deep artesian wells and the water table is continuously dropping.

(7.) Of North Yemen from about 1850 to 1919. After that the country was an independent imamate. South Yemen was focused on Aden, a coaling station at the bottom of the Red Sea that was occupied by the British in 1843. British protection gradually expanded to the east towards Oman, bringing calm to many warring tribes. The British left, messily, in the late 1960s. South Yemen became a communist state, supported by the Soviet Union. North Yemen remained under the virtually medieval control of the Imam until 1970, when it became a republic supported by Egypt. After much chaos, the two halves were amalgamated as a republic by democratic vote in 1990. But there was a violent civil war between north and south in 1994, after which the northern victors established a stable government, though there are still moments of unrest from tribal peoples.

(8.) Serjeant, R. B. and Ronald Lewcock, Sana'a: An Arabian Islamic City, World of Islam Festival Trust, London, 1983. A wonderful book, written before many of the major physical and political changes had taken place, it covers the whole of the culture from agriculture to architecture, history to children's games.

(9.) And most of the population suffers from endemic intestinal disease. Yemen Observer, 27 April 2002.

(10.) The Roman name: Happy Arabia as opposed to Arabia Deserta.

(11.) Until the end of the imamate, the only North Yemen currency was the Maria Teresa thaler, the Austrian silver coin that was the international currency of the eighteenth century. (And gave rise to the US dollar.) Now, the currency is riyals on paper.

Peter Davey's visit was made possible by tile kind help of tile British Museum, Universal Travel and Tourism of Sana'a, and Yemenia, tile national airline.
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Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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