Yemen Vernacular Architecture
Humans were able to conquer the world with their ability to adapt to different environments. Each civilization was able to withstand climate changes by adapting the materials found in the context. And throughout the ages, a combination of cultural influences and passed-down knowledge created the local architecture styles that are unique to every part of the world. The story in Yemen is not different than the rest of the world. Yet, the resulting styles are indeed unique.
Architect and Travel-writer Mamdouh Sakr take us into a deep expedition into the traditional Yemen architecture, exploring 4 different regions and their interconnected styles.
The Development of Yemen’s Architectural Style
Throughout the ages, Yemen was always following Islamic and Arab cultures that have the character of introverted architecture. But in contrast with other Islamic cultures, Yemeni’s took their need for privacy vertically instead of horizontally.
Yemeni’s are very good builders, with a lot of focus on details and techniques. Moreover, because they have strong trade connections with the world, Yemenis have strong influences from East Asian and African countries due to their strong trade connections. Consequently, these distant cultures have influenced a lot of motifs and patterns in the Yemeni’s decorations. But the main influence on the main concept of the architecture is from the Islamic cultures. Thus, we can strongly observe that the forms and use of patterns are very similar to Islamic styles, yet the details of the patterns are uniquely diverse.
Yemen’s Diverse Architecture
Due to various cultural influences and climatic zones, the local architecture took varying development routes, yet we can still observe its strong character. Each region adapted to its climate differently, yet wherever you go, you can still the strong identity of the architecture in Yemen.
Sana’a is the old capital city with a very strong identity. Its consistent building materials and its small alleys gave this city its character. Although the weather in Sana’a is very pleasant all year long, sun exposure is very harsh, especially in summer.
The Yemenis designed Sana’a for maximum sustainability, especially if it was under attack. To ensure this, the designers of this town clustered it within a gated wall. They worked on developing high rise towers built from sun-dried mud bricks to fit enough houses within these walls. This building technique came with a lot of benefits on so many levels such as social, economic, urban, environmental, & safety levels.
The benefits of high-rise Mud towers:
- Bigger homes with a reduced land plot
- More spaces in the town for agricultural lands within the city
- Providing shade all over the city streets.
- Thick walls that provide adequate thermal insulation and structural resilience
- More privacy and less noise on the top floors
Each home has 7 floors; each with a different function
- Ground floor for raising livestock
- 1st floor has small chambers for storing and grinding beans and legumes called “Bayt Al-H’ab”
- 2nd floor has the kitchen and the dining area and the place for water called “Mashrabeya”
- 3rd floor is a common living area for the ladies
- 4th floor is the guests’ reception hall “Diwan”
- The rest of the top floors are bedrooms for the family
The house owner takes the top floor as it is connected with the roof terrace and has the best view
All the living/bedrooms are on the top floors for maximum light exposure, ventilation, and best viewership. The decorations and elevation elements have very strong identities and unique styles. Although the details have various inter-cultural influences, the overall style is unique to this town and its people. The Yemeni’s say: “one must pass by Sana’a” because it is the most developed urban settlement in Yemen.
Taizz is composed of clustered towns around a very rich agricultural land. Its Identity comes from the strong white color that covers their religious buildings. Because the locals take very good care of their heritage, They regularly maintain and restore these historical buildings.
The town settlements cluster on the flat parts of the mountain plains and fortresses are built on the higher parts. And the rest are agriculture lands. Taizz has a moderate to cold climate due to its high altitude. Which is weather-permitting the growth of grapes and apples.
The mosque architecture in this city has very strong forms, emphasized with the pure white colors that cover them. The white finishing has philosophical influences from Sufi Muslims. Yet, the forms seem to be eclectic and inspired by a variety of cultures. This can be seen in the different patterns and details of each mosque. On the other hand, the domes and minarets have similar proportions and moods, which enriches Taizz’s identity.
Shibam: Manhattan of the desert
Shibam is located in the valley of Hadramawt and people refer to it as the Manhattan of the desert. The locals built the great tower city entirely from sun-dried mud bricks and wood. The majority of the locals are traders; that’s why they have strong influences with East Asian cultures in their motifs and decorations.
The buildings in this town could reach up to 8 floors. For the interior, they use an Asian technique for varnished plastering using eggs, gypsum and other natural materials. This mixture gives a finishing similar to marble, as well as closing the wall’s pores.
Very similar to that of Sana’a, the vernacular style in Shibam is very sustainable and resilient. Although the weather conditions are contrasting between the 2 cities, the thick mud walls show their structural strength in all cases, as well as its thermal insulation against both hot-dry and cold-wet climates.
Furthermore, the bright natural colors and pure white in this city reflects the strong sun heat away from the buildings, providing further comfort in all of its spaces. In addition, the houses of Shibam have light wells that provide indirect lighting into the spaces, that can keep it bright and cool at the same time.
Although the decorations and motifs are inspired by an intercultural exchange with distant communities, the development of this town’s style was, and always is, local. The minarets of their mosques resemble Spanish colonial architecture in East-Asia. Yet the details and patterns seem to be influenced by African cultures.
Zabid is a world heritage site by UNESCO. This distant town was built by the Ayubids in the 12th century, and surprisingly, the structures are still with their original condition. It is a very old town with numerous historical sites, which is very famous for its patterns and decorations.
Like all Yemeni towns, the pure white color is taking over its organic alleys. Everywhere you go you will find yourself intertwined between heritage and modest living. The domes take over the place from the number of mosques and historical sites that are in this town.
Yemeni’s have a strong connection to their roots and religious rituals. Which consequently motivates them to conserve their historical buildings regularly. Therefore, the historical buildings have layers of plaster covering them that are as old as the building, which could date up to 800 years old.
The sky-scape of this city is diverse, yet harmonious. One of the privileges of having a small interconnected town is that all of its locals take care of every single detail. Adding to that, they work together in strengthening their culture by meditatively working on artistic details. In return, all of these individual actions are what gives the town its identity.
The patterns have a very strong resemblance to African patterns, yet they are covered completely with white. Patterns are more focused on forms rather than details. With abstract shapes and floral patterns, all the details are unique to each building. In addition, the elements on the façade make it look as if it’s a hovering carpet, with the patterns resembling its weaves
Further exploration of Yemen’ Architecture
Certainly, the traditional architecture in Yemen is a wonderful example of humankind’s adaptation to extreme natural fluctuations. The 4 towns we showed were some of the most developed historical urban settlements in the country. Yet, clusters of villages appear everywhere in between the big towns. These villages are built with the same cultural influences and construction techniques that were inherited through the ages in all of Yemen.
Finally, Mamdouh Sakr’s visit to Yemen showed us a very beautiful part of the world that is yet to be explored. He is definitely a lover, as well as a practitioner, of vernacular and traditional architecture. Furthermore, Sakr’s trip showed us a very interesting part of the world, which he discusses in details in his book “Did you try Qaf?” Check out our interview with Sakr, The Architect & Travel Writer!