Conservation of the Historic City of Zabid in Yemen

Preservation of Zabid on the World Heritage list constitutes a major contribution to the national image of Yemen as a cultural tourism destination.


Zabid is situated in the western lowlands of the al-Hudaydah region of Yemen, about ten miles from the Red Sea. Muhammad ibn Ziyad, an Abbasid emissary and the founder of the Yemenite Ziyadi dynasty in Yemen, built Zabid as a round walled city, possibly modeled after the circular layout of Baghdad where the Abbasid Caliphate was stationed.
Dating back to 820, Zabid is one of the oldest urban settlements in Yemen. The Great Mosque of Zabid was constructed in the same year and its madrasa soon became an international center for Sunni teaching, attracting scholars from all over the Islamic world. The Ziyadi city flourished as the economic, administrative and religious center of Yemen, benefiting from its strategic location on the trade and pilgrimage routes from Aden to Mecca. It maintained its importance through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, specifically under the Rasulids (1229-1454) who used it as the winter capital of the dynasty. During this period, approximately 240 mosques and madrasas were built throughout the city. After brief periods of Tahirid and then Mamluk rule, the city was incorporated into Ottoman territory in the middle of the sixteenth century. By the early seventeenth century, Zabid had become a modest local town.

The “Historic Town of Zabid” was designated a World Heritage Site in 1993.
Today, the city is a fraction of its former size. Efforts are now underway to restore the historical city of Zabid and save it from ruin and hence, from being dropped from UNESCO`s World Heritage List.
A frank talk with Mr Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj, team leader of the Urban Development and Heritage Conservation Project for Zabid, interview.
Q: Tell us about Zabid, its history and present day challenges?
Omar: First of all I have to make a disclaimer. Just because I lead a project of urban development and heritage conservation in Zabid, I am not an authority on the history of Zabid. Our Project works on the principle of enabling and empowering the people of Zabid to actually preserve their history and culture. Having said that one can not absolve oneself from the responsibility of knowing something about the local history of the city where one is working. So I will try to answer to the best of my ability.
Zabid is one of those sites where real history intermingles with myths and popular culture. Many of the historiographic materials we have on the city are in actual contradiction to archaeological finds. However, it is indisputable that the small town that started as an encampment of local tribes around a small well, near what is today known as al-Ashaer mosque, in the early days of Islamic period, grew to become a major urban area by the tenth century. Its location in the middle of a fertile land on the crossroads of trade between Africa and Arabia has contributed to wealth accumulation, concentration of religious learning institutions and unfortunately power struggles and wars.
Several golden periods have marked the growth of the city. The Najahi’s (a dynasty of African origin) and their archenemies the Rasulids left many of the great mosques and monuments of the city as witness to their presence. Later, the Ottoman period elevated the position of the city in the region to one of major prominence.
Throughout its history, the city boasted a position of esteem among the regional religious scholars. Whether of the Shafi or the Hanafi schools, scholars from all over the region came to Zabid searching for employment and shelter. Those who did not make the move retained steady correspondence with the Ulama of Zabid. Theoretical questions were often forwarded to Zabid for confirmation and approval. This position of reference earned the city the nickname of the “City of Knowledge and Scholars”. This nick name is still remembered proudly by the inhabitants of Zabid today, despite the fact that many of the religious institutions of the city are extant or have been moved to the regional capital city of Hodaida after the 1962 republican revolution in Yemen.
The same fate of the religious institutions also befell the commercial institutions of the town. Successive miss-judgments of planning and urban policies emptied the souq of Zabid from its commercial activities. Irrational irrigation schemes and unsustainable agricultural activities of growing high-water-demand crops like mango and bananas deepened the water table around the city and reduced the once fertile wadi Zabid to an arid landscape. The once rich elites of the city, who supported the city’s architectural legacy with their patronage and philanthropy, were reduced to small time rentier petit landlords. Their sole income is now generated through low rent of their properties or worse through the progressive sale of their old assets.
The wealth of Zabid has been slowly degrading over the period of the last thirty years.
The inability of the old elite to act as entrepreneurs in the new regional economy worked to the advantage of nearby towns and villages. These developed local markets and commercial centers that attract most of Zabid old hinterland customers. Today, the city residents depend heavily on government jobs for their incomes. A substantially large number of people work as teachers. Two thirds of the local council budget goes to pay the salaries of teachers: a form of hidden unemployment benefits scheme. Zabid is highly segregated between a wealthy class of former elites and a poor majority. Qat consumption eats away any economic advantage the city may still has when compared with other poor parts of Yemen.
Q: Guide us through a traditional Zabidi house, explain the city`s unique architectural style?
Omar: Zabid’s architecture is a natural mixture of many influences: African and Indian patterns came with the international trade movement; ornaments and proportion system were borrowed form the main centers of Arabo-Islamic civilization; construction techniques that evolved locally using local building traditions were affected by Ottoman structural engineering innovations. No one single influence can be credited with the local architecture style of Zabid.
A traditional house in Zabid evolves dynamically around a small courtyard known locally as a “qabal”. The single modular building element is the traditional room “muraba’a”. One or more of these rooms will be built around the “qabal” as the family needs for additional sleeping space demands it. Wealthier families may build a larger type of a room known as ‘liwan”. Visitors are often received in a communal room set near the entrance know as “mabraz”. On rare occasions upper floors were developed with an upstairs room known as “khalwa” and terraces used for summer night sleep.
A traditional house is built with bricks. Bricks were mixed from the local clays of the region. Water that was used in the indigo tanneries of the city was recycled to mix the clay, which gave the bricks a slightly bluish hue. The main façade of the house has various patterns of bricks extruding in bas-relief from the surface imitating great arches of Cairo, Indian floral patterns, geometrical patterns, African abstracted animal designs and/or various types of calligraphy. The external surface is covered with a layer of lime. Successive lime washes added through the years give the surface patterns an organic feel.
On the inside, the rooms are spacious. They are often proportioned to accommodate an integer number of sofas “sarir” used during the day for sitting high off the ground, and at night as beds. The beds are placed on the periphery of the room in such a way to enable people from facing each other. The height of the room is taken as a ratio of the room length. The ceilings are therefore high. Hot air escapes to the top enabling new air to enter the room and creating a cycle of natural ventilation. The inside of the room is also highly decorated with plaster decorations and wooden cabinets.
In the homes of the wealthy, highly colorful ceilings were also popular and a source of pride for their owners.
Q: The importance of Zabid as historical and archeological site…?
Omar: In 1973 an aerial photo of Zabid was taken. Back then, the traces of the old walls were still visible. A city of some 85 hectares of surface area, Zabid was but a small shadow of its glorious days. Archaeological excavations have revealed urban settlements outside the late medieval ramparts.
However, the finding of archaeological remains outside the city should not be exaggerated as some historians have tended to do by claiming a living urban center several times the magnitude of the modern day city. Many of the remains outside the ramparts could have been temporary settlements and/or tribal trading posts.
Most probably, the city originated around a small hill some 400 meters in diameter. At the center of the hill stands now the al-Ashaer mosque. A review of the urban pattern around the mosque indicates a pattern of land tenure common to early Islamic cities known as “khitat” or tribal allocations. Eventually, the two main perpendicular streets meeting in front of the Ashaer mosque were extended to demarcate four main quarters. Having witnessed periods of prosperity as well as periods of decline, the city grew and shrank accordingly.
The military architecture consisting of the walls and the citadel are later medieval structures and reflect but a latter urban condition of Zabid’s history. This point is particularly important when evaluating the urban qualities of the city. Architects and urbanists who worked on registering the city as a world heritage site in 1993 seem to have ignored this living quality of Zabid’s urban fabric.
The inscription of Zabid in the UNESCO World Heritage List was demarcated as per the city’s final transformation. However, in the public memory empty spaces in and around the city were always perceived as a real estate reserve for future growth. Eventually, when the city needed to expand, in the wake of the return of Yemeni workers expelled from the Gulf States in the wake of the Gulf war, it was these empty spaces that were soon taken over for new developments.
UNESCO consultants were enervated by the inability of the Yemeni authorities to preserve the site in time. Zabid was placed on the World Heritage List in Danger.
A decision to keep the city or remove it from the prestigious list will be issued in July 2009.
Q: Efforts are now underway to restore the historic city and save it from – ruins. In what state is the historic city of Zabid?
Omar: A casual visitor to Zabid will be hard pressed to find the historic urban landscape that was still prevalent 30 years ago. As already mentioned, many of the once open spaces of the city are now constructed with modern building materials and/or modern styles. Indeed, many neighborhoods of Zabid look more like urban slums than historic neighborhoods. This was the driving force for questioning the status of Zabid as a viable World Heritage Site.
However, a careful look into the city reveals that the majority of the historic houses of the city are still there. Approximately, three quarters of the historic buildings are to be found behind the first layer of new constructions. Most of the architectural jewels of the city can be preserved provided an intensive program of preservation is put in place. As for the building violations with modern building materials, they now constitute approximately half of the urban fabric.
Some of these constructions are easily concealable. A few major violations constitute a major challenge to the general outlook of the city and will require drastic treatments. In many ways the situation in Zabid is still reversible, theoretically.
Q: Tell us about the project, how do you intend to proceed, what has been accomplished?
Omar: Our project represents a new direction on the part of the Yemeni Government in approaching the problems of Zabid. Following the success of the Yemeni-German cooperation in Shibam, the Social Fund for Development of Yemen has provided matching funds to those provided by the German Government in order to disseminate experience gained in Shibam to Zabid.
The project will work on two main fronts. On the one hand, it will provide direct subsidies for house restoration and preservation. This will be done in manner that would cover the difference in cost between the expensive traditional materials and techniques and the cheap modern materials. The program is expected to train and develop local capacities to supervise and manage the issuing construction permits and insure that the local authorities are in tune with the requirements of managing a world heritage site.
On the other hand, the project is working on revitalizing the local economy of the city to insure that the economic base needed for the preservation of the city is viable and capable of meeting future preservation demands. This is mainly done by working with local NGO’s to reintroduce handcrafts, trades, commerce and institutional roles to the old city, particularly in the souq area. Many conservationists in the past have advocated a restoration approach to revitalizing the souq. This is a very shortsighted strategy.
Many such projects have failed elsewhere in the past despite millions of dollars in spending. The process has to start from the bottom up by working with the market operators and users and introduce improvements to the souq in collaboration with the private sector. An essential condition for improving the area is to have the merchants and craftspeople involved in the stakes of rehabilitating the souq and to establish a clear ownership to the efforts.
Within one year of starting in Zabid we have already started many of the planned operations. We have now finished the pilot phase of the housing program. We now have more than 35 contracts with residents to restore their homes with more than 100 additional applications awaiting their turn. Already 20 households have benefited from the subsidies and completed at least one phase of work. The institutional capacity of the program is now established and we are expected to provide assistance to at least one hundred houses before the July 2009 deadline of UNESCO.
By doing so, we have also encouraged private entrepreneurs to reproduce the traditional brick of Zabid. Our policy in this regard is to stop the failed approaches of the past of having the State authorities manufacture the material and selling it below market prices. These unsustainable approaches of the past have actually contributed to the bankruptcy of private manufacturers. The new approach works on increasing demand for the material therefore encouraging the private sector to produce it and indirectly contribute to the revival of the market. The increased demand has already encouraged competition for production. The price of brick was reduced by 25% in one year.
On the economic development front, we have also finished a pilot phase of working with four NGO’s on traditional crafts training. A market association is formed representing the merchants of the souq. The Association has already helped several shops to relocate and open in the souq. We are now launching a subsidy scheme to help traders and craftspeople to restore and improve the shops they want to open in the souq.
Of course we are not the only player in Zabid. The city has seen a concerted effort in the last period on the part of many national and international institutions. We have collaborated with most of these stakeholders to eliminate contradictory approaches and overlaps and to coordinate work to introduce complementary programs.
Which buildings are of particular historical importance and which will restored?
Omar: All of Zabids buildings form an integral part of the historic fabric of the city. However, different buildings merit different approaches for conservation. We are primarily concerned with the private housing stock. In this regard our approach that proved very successful in Shibam consists of providing a package of services and then have people apply and demand them. So at first we need to insure the largest spread of the program and we would worry little what type of households are actually applying to receive our services.
Eventually, as we have learned from Shibam, word-of-mouth would encourage the others to come forward. This requires some flexibility to accommodate the various types of demands all at once. The basic measure for admittance into the program is the waiting queue. Houses that require urgent interventions are simply stabilized until their turn comes. This rigidly transparent approach to distributing benefits is a major element of our success.
On the other hand there are many public buildings in Zabid of value and need preservation. The Yemeni Social Fund for Development has other teams working on these. We try to provide assistance whenever we can but we try not to replicate their work. In some limited cases we will do restoration work for public buildings but only for the purpose of training young builders to carry difficult restoration works. In this regard we claim no special knowledge of the traditional construction techniques in Zabid. We just insure that the conditions needed to transfer knowledge from the older masterbuilders to the younger ones are met. And in the process we document these techniques and customs and use the documentation to produce educational materials for the benefit of the future generations.
Q: What restoration techniques are being proposed, or will be used?
Omar: Two colleagues (Lamia Khaldi and Abdullah Hadhrami) have already produced a manual for construction techniques for Zabid. However, I firmly believe that traditional techniques are best learned on site and not in manuals. So our main approach is to link young and old masterbuilders to work together. Only through the symbiotic work can traditional techniques survive to the next generation. We therefore, interfere only minimally with the choices of techniques preferred by mastrerbuilders at first. However, as we accumulate experience and document the process, we would need to codify these techniques to insure quality of construction even after the passing of the old masterbuilders.
How are you organized, what support are you getting and from whom?
Omar: Our project is a technical cooperation program between the governments of Yemen and Germany. On the Yemeni side the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities (GOPHCY) is the direct counterpart. On the German side the funds provided by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development (BMZ) are administered by the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ). The Social Fund for Development of Yemen (SFD) is co-financing the component related to disseminating the experience of Shibam to other cities including Zabid. So the our Project for the Development of Historic Cities of Yemen (PDHCY) is still working in Shibam and has an office in Zabid and an office in Sana’a. The Sana’a office coordinates the overall work of the project and supervises the work on the other historic cities to be incorporated into the project successively.
We have on site in Zabid a complete team of professionals. Initially this team has worked on setting up the project while working with local authorities on building their capacities. Eventually, we hope we will reach the same stage as in Shibam, where the conservation work is implemented by the local authorities and our role is limited to training and monitoring.
Q: And the level of cooperation from the local government, responses from local residents…?
Omar: The local government in Zabid reflects the local community. This community has been neglected for many years and has not seen the benefits of living in a World Heritage Site. On contrary, the ban of new construction has actually been detrimental to development. So it was natural at first that the local community would reject conservation efforts. This has caused many of the local officials to be hesitant in collaborating with the project for fear of seeming out of sync with their constituents. However, as the project is gaining acceptability among the Zabidis many public figures are now endorsing our presence and are collaborating with the project.
The initial steps were very difficult. Many of the community elites were hesitant to collaborate with us. Many within the elite have seen the restriction on building in the city as a direct threat to their property values and to their rents. So naturally they are skeptical about future, yet unforeseen, benefits of preserving their heritage. Many have actually lobbied their politicians to hasten the removal of Zabid from the World Heritage List. Also, many of the poor are burdened with the use of traditional materials.
However, the approach of linking economic development to conservation seems to finally be understood and accepted in many corners of the city. Once people start seeing the tangible benefits from conservation they tend to be more willing to participate. After all the Zabidis are very proud of their history and heritage; and if they have been forced by economic constraints to leave their heritage to decay it is out of necessity and not out conviction. Once the economic constraints are removed, the majority of the city residents would want to preserve their heritage and revive the reputation of their city as prominent historic center.
Q: When shall we see a restored Zabid?
Omar: The process for rehabilitating Zabid will take time. However, the essential thing is to initiate that process. There is now funding from various donors to do the pavement of the city. Our project will impact 20% of the historic houses in the next two years. The Old Souq will witness the beginning of some physical improvements in the next year. The Social Fund is already sponsoring the restoration of many public monuments.
Within three to four years a visitor to Zabid will definitely see a major difference in the outlook of the city. However, all these efforts are dependent on the ability of the local government to stop new building violations. If these do not stop, the WHC will most likely pull Zabid off the List and our race against the clock will be lost. For that purpose the political will of the Yemeni Government should be very clearly exhibited. Encounters between the national authorities and local politicians and community leaders should be held regularly to monitor the situation. This has still not been clearly demonstrated despite major developments in the national government’s funding allocations to Zabid.
Q: What are the requirements to keep Zabid on the World Heritage List?
Omar: One of the main challenges to keep Zabid on the World Heritage List is to develop the mechanisms needed to reverse the situation. The World Heritage Committee does not expect the situation to be reversed by July 2009; but it expects to have the mechanisms and resources needed in place. Of course, as I have explained earlier, the main reason for the deterioration of the city are economical. So it would be a major mistake to treat the problem only as an architectural problem. The WHC has actually outlined many benchmarks to be achieved if Yemen wants to save Zabid on the List. These vary from adopting a legal framework for preservation, providing human and financial resources, halting all new constructions in the city and developing new areas to absorb demand for new housing. Other requirements are more technical in nature such as finalizing a conservation plan that has a realistic approach to treatment of old violations in a systemic way.
In summary, the WHC is expecting to see a reversal in the governmental laissez-faire attitude in favor of some serious policies of conservation. These policies will be long term in nature but they have to be formulated and initiated before the 2009 deadline.
What will be benefits – for example, tourism?
Omar: Tourism is a long term benefit. At the moment the city lacks all the essentials of tourism infrastructure; and these are not likely to be established until the private sector feels secure with the future prospects of the site. However, a revitalized souq and an improved business climate will directly improve the prospects of the city within its immediate region. This means that the Government will have to still provide direct inputs into Zabid for the foreseeable future. But this is a very wise investment.
Final thoughts:
Omar: The preservation of the city on the WH List is not just beneficial for the Zabidis it constitutes a major contribution to the national image of Yemen as a cultural tourism destination.
Mr. Omar Hallaj, team leader team leader of the Urban Development and Heritage Conservation Project for Zabid. thank you.

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