In 2006, the Venetian Institute of Cultural Heritage promoted a project to restore two of Yemen’s historic mosques. In 2014, we went to see the work in progress
Last update: 2022-04-22 09:38:00
The Great Mosque in Sana’a. © Veneto Institute of Cultural Heritage
Architecturally, Yemen is the most beautiful country in the world. Sana‘a, its capital, is an untamed Venice built on dust without San Marco and without the Giudecca, a city-form the beauty of which resides not in its perishable monuments but in its incomparable design. One of my dreams is to busy myself with saving Sana‘a.
These are the still highly relevant words with which Pier Paolo Pasolini described Sana‘a in an interview that was later published in L’Oriente di Pasolini (‘Pasolini’s East’). Precisely in Sana‘a, Pasolini had filmed a short documentary in 1970, with the intention of launching an appeal to UNESCO for the safeguarding of a city unique in its kind for its historical, cultural and architectural value. Italy (and Venice, in particular) took up Pasolini’s heartfelt appeal and has launched a project in this border country tormented by grave political and economic unrest but possessing a cultural heritage that is both one of the richest and one of the most threatened in the world.
The Veneto Institute of Cultural Heritage has been working in Yemen for approximately eight years i.e. since it was entrusted with the task of restoring two of the country’s important historical and religious monuments: the Great Mosque in Sana‘a and the Al-Ashrafiyya Mosque in Ta‘izz. The Great Mosque, in particular, constitutes a unique architectural example of Islamic art. Indeed, it may be considered one of the most ancient mosques in the world, if not the most ancient one, since the mosques in Mecca and Medina have been totally modernized.
The Italian mission is nearing the end of its work and both worksites will be closed in a year’s time. But the now ripened experience, the encounter with this country and its endangered beauties have all given architect Renzo Ravagnan (the Institute’s director) both the idea and the desire to continue this journey by founding, in Sana‘a, an Italo-Yemeni Centre for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. This with the ambitious project of planting other seeds over and above those that have already germinated during this period of co-operation with the Yemenis. Over the last few years, the Institute has professionally trained a hundred or so young male and female restorers working with murals, wood and stucco-work, thereby creating a generation that will, in the future, be able to dedicate itself to protecting its own cultural heritage and, moreover, triggering virtuous micro-economies through the use of ancient professions and crafts in works of restoration and maintenance.
Yemeni and Italian restorers at work in the Great Mosque in Sana‘a and the Al-Ashrafiyya Mosque in Ta‘izz. © Veneto Institute of Cultural Heritage
The new centre will begin its activities next autumn. It will start with training courses on traditional Yemeni building techniques, given that it will only be possible to save an urban and architectural heritage that is hundreds and hundreds of years old through a culture that respects original methods and materials. Other initiatives will focus on publishing and dissemination through handbooks, translations, seminars and conferences. At a regional level, there are plans for joint projects with international bodies such as ICCROM in Sharjah and UNESCO, in its regional centre in Doha, to name but a couple: evidence of the interest that this initiative has aroused.
Example of traditional architectural decorative motifs. © Veneto Institute of Cultural Heritage
In June 2014, during the proceedings of the conservation forum ‘Le Vie dei Mercanti’ (‘Trade Routes’) conducted in Naples, the new centre launched an international appeal for the rescue and protection of Sana‘a’s old historic centre, which is risking being excluded from the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites because of the inaction caused by the country’s well-known lack of resources, particularly during this difficult phase of political transition. Sana‘a is everyone’s heritage, however, and everyone has the duty to save it.
The faithful praying in the Great Mosque in Sana’a. © Veneto Institute of Cultural Heritage
Massimo Khairallah*: Vice-Director of the Italo-Yemeni Centre for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage and Lecturer in Arabic at the Ca’ Foscari University, Venice
*The author's biography is up-to-date as of the date the last article was published.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
To cite this article
Massimo Khairallah, "Sana‘a, the Arab Venice needing Saving”, Oasis, year X, n. 19, June 2014, pp. 120-128.
Massimo Khairallah, “Sana‘a, the Arab Venice needing Saving”, Oasis [online], published on 1st June 2014, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/sana-a-the-arab-venice-needing-saving.