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Vivat Arabia Felix: the evolution of Yemen's remarkable architecture is explored at the RIBA.

In the Yemen, tribesmen in traditional dress, with the jambiya (the giant curved dagger of manhood) in their belts, drive 4 by 4s and own the Kalashnikovs that are now as important a sign of maturity as the dagger. Immemorial customs, like chewing quat leaves (low-grade narcotics that Yemeni men masticate during their evening chats), co-exist with satellite phones and a sort of democratic republic. In ancient times, the place was immensely wealthy, so much so that Augustus sent an expedition to try to conquer Arabia Felix, which produced much of the world's frankincense and myrrh. The raid failed, and though from time to time the country was periodically partly occupied by foreigners (Persians, Fatimids, Ottomans, British), its culture has unbroken connections to immemorial times (modified somewhat by seventh-century Muslim conversion).



Yemeni buildings echo ancient lineage too. Up to nine storeys high, traditional houses of mud brick or stone (depending on local geology) were built as towers for defence, but also to ensure a small footprint in areas where fertile land is highly prized. Bricks are still made as they have been since biblical times by treading straw into mud and drying resulting thick tiles in the sun. Down in the south-west corner of Arabia, the map suggests that water should be in such short supply that there would be little left over for building. But, though the Yemen's rather vague northern border with Saudi Arabia runs through the shifting sands of the Rub' Al Khali, the Empty Quarter, mountains in much of the country intercept monsoons from the Arabian Sea. Intense seasonal rainfall over millions of centuries has carved awesome chasms into Yemen's high plateau. Valley floors are shaded by vegetation--often dense palm plantations, a source of wealth that was one of the reasons why the Hadramut, the province roughly in the middle of the long south coast, became relatively prosperous and an important player in the mercantile economy of a huge region, with traditional close links to Africa, India, and the East Indies.

Over the centuries, merchants have brought money home and invested in their houses and settlements, which are the main subject of Salma Samar Damluji's exhibition Arabia Felix: the Architecture of Yemen (at the RIBA, London until 19 January). Using specially made models and her own surveys and photographs, Damluji explains the history, constructional technology and architectural traditions of the Hadramut and neighbouring provinces. Outside influences have affected the extraordinary multi-towered massing of the towns. Their powerful spaces, urban and domestic, have changed over the centuries but have essentially remained the same. Can those orderly little cylindrical projections below a primitive capital be vague memories of Doric guttae? If so, are they modelled on antiquity or the Neo-Classical forms of the Raj?

Nowadays, some of the most prosperous people paint their palaces in a range of pretty colours made possible only by contemporary pigment technology. Perhaps Disneyesque colour treatments signal the end of the great tradition; the 4 by 4s are destroying natural landscapes and the Kalashnikovs have put paid to most of the larger desert animals. When I was in Sana'a, the capital, some years ago I remarked on the beauty of the houses to our translator, and an old lady in the crowd responded that we didn't have to climb numerous flights of steep stairs several times a day. Traditional Sana'a is surrounded by one- and two-storey concrete buildings that would not look out of place on any airport approach road. Big Saudi contractors (including the Bin Ladin family) almost all come from the Hadramut. Profits of their huge redevelopment schemes that are destroying Mecca and other traditional cities are now used to build new concrete palaces in the Hadramut and nearby traditional settlements are left to fall down.

They will not be forgotten, for Salma Damluji has produced a book (The Architecture of Yemen, From Yafi' to Hadramut, Laurence King, London, 2007, [pounds sterling]40) based on her repeated journeys into often difficult and dangerous parts of the country. She records the great range of building and shows how architectures evolved in ecological balance with the extreme climates and strange topographies. The RIBA exhibition is distilled from the book and is an introduction to one of the few traditions still living--just.


At the RIBA, London, until 19 January
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Title Annotation:reviews
Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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