Urban Development Destroys the Ancient City of Sana’a

War, greed and UNESCO’s negligence threaten a world heritage site

Investigation by: Noura Al-Thafiri

The city of Sana’a has been known by many names; the Torah describes it as the city of Sam bin Noah; the city of Azal attributed to Sam bin Noah; and Azal, the grandson of Sam bin Noah. Sana’a has been inhabited for more than 2500 continuous years and has preserved a religious and political heritage including 103 mosques, 14 public baths known as ‘hammams’ and more than 6000 homes all built before the eleventh century attest to this history.

In July 2015, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee announced the inclusion of the old city of Sana’a in Yemen on the List of endangered world heritage sites.

Despite this, the ancient landmarks of old Sana’a are being demolished due to the absence of deterrence by the competent authorities and in violation of the Law on Preserving Cities, Regions, Historic Landmarks and their Urban Cultural Heritage. This investigation documented twenty-seven violations committed by merchants, city residents and influential people in different areas of Old Sana’a that disregards the law, fifteen of these cases included effacement, altering and distorting the features of the historic building or landmark.

Law on Preserving Antiquities No. (16) of 2013, Article (58):

Ibrahim Al-Omari bought a historic building in the ‘Sukkara’ neighborhood in Bab Al-Salam in the Old City of Sana’a. He had it demolished and has built a structure on the land that had remained from the wall of the ruins of Old Sana’a.

The violation was not limited to demolition and construction in the part remaining from ​​the ancient wall but also extended to the construction of a new building that does not align with the architectural identity of Sana’a’s old city. Moreover, the new construction fails to align with the general patterns outlined by UNESCO’s standards, and the structure erected has caused severe damages to the old houses adjacent to it.

The head of the National Coalition for Civil Society Organizations, Muttahar Taqi, bemoans what is happening in Old Sana’a because of commercial expansion, especially in the areas near the old markets, and specifically on the western and southern parts in the Bab Al-Salam neighborhood, near Bab Al-Yemen. He describes this as an “invasion” of a number of residential neighborhoods by commercial shops.

Taqi adds that this leads to “an imbalance in the distribution of the population and commercial facilities; it is customary to have the markets in Old Sana’a separate from the area’s residential properties.”

Mohammad Haydara, the Deputy Minister of Culture in the Sana’a government, asserts that “the main reason for the increase in violations is that merchants are greedy and are looking to turn the historic city into a modern commercial market.” He says, “This is a huge problem. The merchants of Old Sana’a and the General Federation of Chambers of Commerce are primarily to blame for this, and they must take a serious stand against such practices.”

Du’a Al-Wase’I, the head of the Belkis’s Throne Foundation for Development, Tourism and Heritage, describes the architectural violations of the commercial developments as acts that “target Old Sana’a indirectly while Coalition forces have targeted the city through three direct strikes.”

Al-Omari clarifies that the building was purchased in 2016, and the construction work took place in 2018. The building has been damaged and on the verge of collapse as it was initially used as a warehouse storage space for goods. This led to the building’s collapse, likely due to broken sewers running underneath the building.

Al-Omari confirms that the case was referred to the Higher Committee for the Preservation of the Old City of Sana’a for inspection. Construction permits were issued, and an engineer appointed by the Committee supervised the process.

Al-Omari confirmed that the building had a “bodrum,” or a basement entry area. When asked whether the engineer in charge made it clear that Al-Omari was violating Law (16) of 2013 on construction in Old Sana’a, Al-Omari said, “There is no violation. I have built the house in ‘yajour’ the traditional red bricks, following traditional methods as requested. It was done under the supervision of the Committee even though the adjacent buildings all have balconies, and the house was initially built in the sixties; and does not belong to the listed type of old heritage buildings.”

Concerning Al-Omari’s violation, the former head of the General Association for Historic Cities, Mujahid Tamish, said, “This case was among many others that were referred to the Higher Committee for the Preservation of the Old City of Sana’a. The Committee its executive committee issued a decision about it prior to my appointment as head of the Committee. At that time, steps were taken to address several violations, and these included Ibrahim Al-Omari’s case.”

*The photo is of Old Sana’a at Al-Sai’lah, in the neighborhood of Qubbat Al-Mahdi, heading towards Bab Al-Sabbah.

Old Sana’a Buildings

Sana’a’s old buildings are characterized by an architectural style that has persisted for decades. Construction is done by mixing large amounts of earth, bricks that are light red in color for the facade. Buildings are erected over one another and form different levels within small spaces that are decorated with geometric patterns of bricks and white plaster. Windows are usually small made from wood and topped by what is described as “qamariyyat,” or arches that allow light to enter the dwellings.

The buildings are also connected; so if one of them is demolished, the others might collapse too.

Violations Go Unsupervised

In 2013, the Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued Law No. (16) of 2013 on Preserving Cities, Regions, Historic Landmarks and their Urban and Cultural Heritage. Article (5) states that the Committee is the competent entity that is responsible for preserving cities, regions, historic landmarks and their urban, cultural heritage.

However, the committee issues permits to restore and repair historic buildings whose character gets effaced. Unauthorized materials have been used in the process of restoration, rebuilding or demolition. A large number of the violations were committed in the name of carrying out repairs, renovations or demolition even without obtaining any permits. This counts as negligence on the part of the authority whose tasks are to monitor and follow up on preserving the city by coordinating and reporting any such violations to the authorities.

Mujahid Tamish, the former head of the General Association for Historic Cities said that no permits have ever been issued for any demolitions works in old Sana’a, adding that such requests should never be entertained.

Dr. Mohammad Jumeh, Yemen’s delegate to UNESCO, warns that renovations for commercial purposes in Old Sana’a today will harm the city’s status and will certainly endanger its place on the UNESCO’s list; therefore, attention should be paid to it.

Influential People

Musleh Al-Dabee is a real estate dealer whose name appears when referring to a number of violations that took place in Old Sana’a. These violations included demolitions, reconstruction, effacement of identity and renovations.

Al-Dabee buys old and historic houses, lodges and junkyards and demolishes and rebuilds them in a manner that violates the Law on Preserving Cities, Regions, Historic Landmarks and their Urban, Cultural Heritage. Al-Dabee demolished a historic house in Al-Humidi neighborhood after buying it from Ibrahim’s family. The house is reported to have been the Turkish Bank when Yemen was under Ottoman rule. He also demolished an old lodge in the Nadhara market in Old Sana’a after purchasing it. Then, he reconstructed the building in a way that has obliterated and changed its entire historic character.

Dr. Ali Al-Shara’abi is a professor of Islamic Archeology in the Department of Archeology and Tourism at the Faculty of Arts at Sana’a University. He believes that “the huge problem is that the citizens who commit violations such as demolitions are those who have power and influence. Regular citizens cannot do that because the General Association holds them to account in case they break the law.”

The demolition processes carried out by Al-Dabee severely damaged Mohammad Sawi’s house.

When the head of the General Association for the Preservation of Historic Cities was confronted about Musleh Al-Dabee’s violation, he said, “I am not aware of a violation by Musleh Al-Dabee’s in Al-Humidi neighborhood.”

*Photos taken by the journalist as these violations were in progress and show the house of the late Mohammad Sawi.
*The documents and the last photo were taken in Al-Humidi neighborhood, and they show the location of the building which Musleh Al-Dabee demolished and where he started constructing a new one.

Al-Nahrain Mosque

Demolitions were not limited to homes but extended to orchards and mosques, one of the most prominent of these places is the antiquated Al-Nahrain Mosque. This demolition was carried out by the authorities with the approval of both the religious endowment trust, and the General Association for the Preservation of Historic Cities since part of its structure collapsed due to heavy rain and instead of restoring it, the whole mosque was demolished.


The first photo is of Al-Nahrain Mosque before its demolition obtained courtesy of Dr. Ali Saif Said Al-Shara’abi. The second photo shows the mosque after its demolition.

Yemen’s delegate to UNESCO, Dr. Mohammad Jumeh explained that “The demolition process violates international laws concerning the protection of cultural heritage; however, since this has occurred already, this mosque should be reconstructed in accordance with UNESCO’ standards if there are any reconstruction plans.” UNESCO warned that such violations could affect Sana’a’s status on the World Heritage List.

Document2 Document2

* photos of the documents related to the demolition of Al-Nahrain Mosque located in the Bab Al-Sabbah neighborhood, overlooking Al-Sai’lah.

*Photo of the designs for Al-Nahrain Mosque by Engineer Radwan Al-Rawdi presented to the General Association for the Preservation of Historic Cities.

Renovations Take Place in Broad Daylight

Our investigation has also documented a number of violations that the Law on Preserving Cities, Regions, Historic Landmarks and their Urban, Cultural Heritage categorizes as “renovations to historic buildings or annexation of a new building in the immediate surroundings of the historic building.” One of these cases was the construction of the commercial market of Souk Nseir in the courtyard of a historic building constructed by ‘Al-Wazir’ family for investment purposes.

*Photo of the inner and outer sides of Souk Nseir in the Nseir neighborhood taken by the author of this investigation.

There are other cases, such as the antiquated house of ‘Abbad’, which was demolished in the neighborhood of ‘Bahir Rajraj’, where a house has been built in violation of construction rules inside the city.

*Photo of the house of ‘Abbad’ in the neighborhood of Bahir Rajraj taken by the author of this investigation.

Another case is the renovation made by Abdel Rahman Al-Haifi on a house he bought from Ishaq’s family in Al-Abhar neighborhood where he managed to construct three floors in the backyard of the historic building and has made an opening that connected the two dwellings, the old and the new.

*Time-lapse photos show the construction process in Beit Al-Haifi in Al-Abhar neighborhood taken by the author of the investigation

In a previous statement by Al-Haifi on Du’a Al-Wase’i’s Facebook page, he says “The house is as old as the Great Mosque, and I had obtained a permit from the General Association for the Preservation of Historic Cities for 200,000 Yemeni Riyals.”

Who controls the process of issuing permits for demolition, construction and restoration?

The Law on Preserving Cities, Regions, Historic Landmarks and their Urban, Cultural Heritage No. (16) of 2013 states that issuing permits is the responsibility of the General Association for the Preservation of Historic Cities, as it is the entity authorized to do so based on Article (5) of the law.

Article (5) of the law

This article states that “the Association is the competent entity that is responsible for preserving cities, regions, historic landmarks and their urban, cultural heritage. Therefore, it has the right to exercise its duties and powers for this purpose.” Item (8) states, “A permit to rebuild, restore, maintain, remove waste, or rehabilitate any building or historic landmark in the registered sites should detail the conditions, controls, and instructions related to the process. None of these operations may be carried out except under the direct supervision of the Association.”

Dr. Ali Al-Shara’abi holds the General Association for the Preservation of Historic Cities responsible for what is happening inside the city since it is the entity authorized to issue construction and restoration permits there.

The head of the National Coalition for Civil Society Organizations, Muttahar Taqi, says, “I am against granting official permits outside the scope of the 2013 law on preserving cities set by the Association. I hope that the leadership of the Association would refrain from granting restoration or demolition permits, especially since there are people who obtain these but in reality, they demolish the building and change their features dramatically.”

Du’a Al-Wase’i’ believes “it is necessary to dissolve the Association and to activate some executive entities affiliated with the Presidency of the Republic or to the government in a way that would enable them to perform their (conservation) duties.”

On the other hand, Muttahar Taqi believes that “the overlap of powers is extremely dangerous and creates duplicity in the decision-making. The law set by the Association on preserving cities is clear, and it grants full authority to the General Association to carry out this task.” Taqi also hopes that the Association manages to assert its authority according to the law.

Who is in Charge?

Dr. Mohammad Jumeh, Yemen’s delegate to UNESCO, holds the legislative authority primarily responsible for what is happening in the city of Old Sana’a, even if the city is under the control of the Ansar Allah group, or the Houthis. He says, “Some sites that used to be on the World Heritage List have been removed.”

Jumeh asserts that UNESCO is unable to access accurate information about the status of Old Sana’a because the city’s authorities do not allow accurate reports to be published regarding the violations.

He adds, “UNESCO does not communicate directly with the Houthis in Sana’a because the United Nations and UNESCO do not recognize the Houthis as an official authority there.”

Taqi agrees with Dr Jumeh, “The organization is very distanced from what is happening in Old Sana’a, which is at war and under siege. It is time for the relevant authorities to open a channel of communication with the organization, so it can perform its duty.”

Dr. Ali Al-Shara’abi asserts that the status of the city on the World Heritage List can be saved if the General Association for the Preservation of Historic Cities lists the violations, removes them at its own expense and then submits a report on them to UNESCO.