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Notes on the Geography of Yemen: Sana'a

Sana'a, Yemen's capital, has managed to protect a historic core that John Ruskin would have loved.

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Well, not this, but we should begin with a dose of reality.

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The flashiest supermarket in town (2007).

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Nearby, the old fortress mentality is alive and well, probably for a very good reason.

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Another example.

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But this is what we're here for: the historic walled city of stone and brick towers, each decorated with gypsum plaster to suit the pleasure of the builder. Come to think of it, it even looks a bit like Ruskin's Venice.

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Cheek-to-jowl but rarely joined or made to seem joined.

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Modern infrastructure--plumbing, wiring, street paving--hasn't changed the character of the place.

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The top room is the famous mafraj, another kind of room with a view. This kind serves as a social space, famously for men too busy chewing qat to say much. The building stays up not because of its walls but because of a central pier of mortared stone blocks. Around the pier a central staircase winds, opening on lobbies at each floor. Off those lobbies, cross walls from the pier to the exterior wall make the whole structure rigid and in the process form a set of small rooms.

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It all begins right here.

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Compared to the doors for sale at your home-supply store, this one seems alive.

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Gardens, now semi-abandoned, used to provide residents with fruit and vegetables.

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Many of these bustans were and may still be owned by the waqf or Islamic foundation.

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Recognize what you're looking at? Think about those gardens and the grooves worn in the black stones here. Got it?

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Now you see it: a well. Buckets were hoisted by camels walking down long ramps or inclines. As the water table fell, the ramps grew longer, in some cases to a 100 yards.

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Pride of place goes to the great mosque, the Al-jamaa al-kebir.

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Inside, it's as simple as the houses outside are complicated.

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A place of study but also of peace--and of salvaged or borrowed-without-asking architectural relics.

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Speaking of architectural relics, here's one. It's a walled, circular enclosure. What could it be or have been?

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Baffled? You have a right. But see how those two buildings are part of a cluster in a neat rectangle? Few other blocks in Sana'a are so geometrically perfect. So put that rectangle together with the enclosure.

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The sign should help, because that second word is cognate to "chalice." Got it now? We're looking at pre-Islamic church, built when Sana'a was part of the Axumite kingdom. The houses in the preceding photo sit atop what was the nave. Some of the columns in the cathedral wound up in the mosque.

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A market adjoins the mosque.

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A bend-down boutique.

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Tools by request.

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Is it a blade you require?

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Spices.


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