The Old City of Sanaa with burnt-brick tower-houses and iconic mosques. It has survived the test of time but the war in Yemen almost proved fatal.
Inhabited without interruption for more than 2,500 years, the area faced threats from air strikes when Saudi-led coalition fought Iran-backed Huthi rebels.
Resident Salah Aldeen remembers the Old City’s heydays.
“In the past, the number of tourists used to be the same as that of Yemeni people. They come everyday to visit from different nationalities, from Italy, from Germany, from all around the world. But nowadays, maybe because of the security and the war and the problems, they dont feel safe to come, though it is safe. “
Doaa al-Waseai spent many happy years working as a tour guide in the Old City of Yemen’s capital Sanaa, showing foreigners its hidden hammams and markets teeming with silver and spices.
After nearly a decade of war, that life feels like a distant memory. The Old City itself — Waseai’s childhood home — feels cut off from the world, its warrens of thousand-year-old rammed-earth buildings falling into disrepair.
“Tourism opened my eyes to my own culture,” Waseai, 40, told AFP, reflecting on how she had gained a deeper appreciation for Yemeni clothing and food by explaining them to outsiders.
No word to express catastrophe that is war
She once comfortably spoke English and German, but now her foreign language skills are wasting away, though she reckons it’s just as well.
“There are no words to express our catastrophe — in English or German or even French.”
A UNESCO World Heritage site for nearly four decades, the Old City has been classified as “in danger” since 2015, shortly after Saudi Arabia spearheaded a military intervention to prevent the complete collapse of Yemen’s beleaguered government.
As she waits impatiently for the war to end, Waseai has kept painstaking records of the Old City’s decline, her spreadsheets listing collapsed homes and battered hotels.
Determined to make productive use of the dead time, she is pursuing a master’s degree in tourism at Sanaa University in hopes she can one day aid the Old City’s recovery — which can’t come soon enough.
“We’re losing Old Sanaa,” she said. “I’m so sad to say that.”
In the war’s early months, air strikes rained down on the Old City, reducing houses and gardens to rubble.
Waseai had heard stories of bombing raids during an earlier civil war in the 1960s but never thought she would one day witness them herself.
“Why are they attacking our city?” she recalls thinking. “There are no weapons in Old Sanaa, and it’s forbidden to attack our history. They are destroying our history.”
The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Huthi rebels who control the capital denied responsibility at the time.
The hazards have grown as the war has dragged on.
‘Destroying our history’
The Old City’s houses, with their distinctive white gypsum trim, “are very fragile and require constant maintenance”, said UNESCO associate project officer Mohammed al-Jaberi.
But that has proved impossible for many families during a wartime economic crisis marked by unpaid salaries and rising food prices.
“Traditionally the homeowners would carry out the maintenance,” Jaberi said.
“People are making a hard choice between putting food on the table and maintaining the roof over their heads.”
Drainage infrastructure has also suffered from neglect, making Old City buildings vulnerable to collapse during flash floods.
Fighting has dropped off considerably in much of Yemen since a truce took effect in April 2022, even though it expired last October.
The absence of a lasting ceasefire, however, has left many of the country’s institutions at a standstill, including the public preservation body which is tasked with saving historic sites but, like other government bodies, is starved of funds.
The growing desperation was on grim display in April when more than 80 people were killed in a crush at a cash handout for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at an Old City school.
The handout amount was 5,000 rials, or about $8.
To rise again
These hardships aside, Old City residents hold out hope its past glories can be revived.
“This farm was once like a heaven… you couldn’t even walk through it because of the grass, it was all green before the war,” said 28-year-old Abdullah Asaba, gesturing towards his rows of tomatoes, leeks, shallots and basil.
The field sits near a block levelled by an air strike in 2015, but Asaba, whose family has raised crops on it for decades, says they are “trying to rehabilitate it, step by step”.
Near the Old City’s historic Yemen Gate, in the shop where he sells traditional healing oils, Salah Aldeen labours underneath a picture of then French president Francois Mitterrand visiting the Old City in the 1990s — a time when foreigners were a common sight.
He said he was confident those days would return, and compared the Old City to a hospital patient.
“Sooner or later, it will recover, you know. War is a disease, but we will recover.”