Yemen Tour Guide: Sana'a

Yemen Tour Guide: Sana'a Last updated on Monday 26th April 2010

The city's history

Sana'a is one of Arabia's oldest living cities, supposedly founded by Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. In the second century it was the main highland garrison town of the Sabean Kingdom, whose capital, Mareb, was situated 100km to the east, at the edge of the desert. The city's name, Sana'a, meant "fortified place".

Sana'a was twice conquered for the King of Persia and was ruled for fifty years by the Abyssinians. During this time a great cathedral was built there with the help of two architects sent by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The cathedral is the largest Christian building south of the Mediterranean and Sana'a was, for a time, the centre of Christian pilgrimage in Arabia.

A hundred years later in 628A.D., Yemen embraced Islam and all non-Muslim palaces were destroyed, so that mosques could be built. Historians tell us that the Prophet Mohammed gave strict instructions for the exact positioning of the main mosque and for the open prayer space outside the city.

Sana'a continued as Yemen's capital throughout the development of Islam and was only replaced occasionally and temporarily by another centre.

In the late sixteenth century, Sana'a was conquered by Turansha, brother of Sala al Din, after Yemen had been chosen by the Turks as a secure retreat, should their power in Egypt crumble. Turansha built a palace in the west of the city, where his troops were stationed, an area later incorporated within the city walls at I.

After 55 years of rule by the Ayyubids, power passed to a family of their adherents, the Rasulids, who moved the capital to Ta'izz. Sana'a's importance did not diminish, however, and the city was a major target of Ottoman conquest during the reign of Suliman the Magnificent. The Ottoman governors ruled from Sana'a, residing at the Qasr al Silah, in the east of the city. One governor, Sinan Pasha, had a large Turkish mosque built nearby, together with a very fine public bath. Both these buildings are still in use today.

The Ottomans were expelled when Yemeni power grew stronger under the Imams. A new period of prosperity then commenced in Sana'a. A building boom in the 17th century is evident from the number of houses still standing, which date from this period.

By the 18th century, the fame of legendary Sana'a /I

The city's recent history begins in 1872, with its second conquest by the Turks. A modernization programme was introduced, beginning with the building of a hospital, a high school and a stone bridge across the Sailah. The Turks always needed to maintain their position by a strong military presence, as one can see from the large numbers of surviving barracks dating from this period.

Eventually, in 1919, Turkish rule came to an end and the whole country entered a time of peace and prosperity under the guidance of the benevolent Imam Yahya, who ruled until his unfortunate assassination in 1948. His son, Imam Ahmed, took revenge on the perpetrators of the plot by transferring the capital to Ta'izz.

After Ahmed's death in 1962, the Yemen Arab Republic was first proclaimed. This resulted in a civil war between the republican forces and those of the new Imam Badr -- clashes which lasted until 1969.

After this war, the Republican allies, Egypt and Russia, provided much expertise in new urban planning. This led to the creation of a new city centre and main shopping street, immediately to the west of the old city wall. From this nucleus, a modern city has developed, extending into the old garden suburb of I in the west and, in recent years, to the north and south also. It is probably due to this new urban centre outside the city walls that we owe the excellent level of preservation of the old city as a complete and fascinating unit.

Of Sana'as total population of 250,000, it is estimated that approximately 50,000 people live in the old city today, with about 42,000 of these living within the old walls themselves. Many of these inhabitants are old families. But there is a steady influx of people from country districts, replacing Sananis who have chosen to move to more modern-style housing outside the city walls.

What to see in Sana'a today

The Old City: This contains houses which are more than 400 years old, built of dark basalt stone and decorated with intricate friezework. The old city wall is extremely well preserved.

Suq al-Milh: The best time to visit Sana'a's main souk is in the morning or between 6 and 7pm, when it is a hive of activity. The name Souk al-Milh means Salt Market, but actually a wide variety of goods are on sale, such as spices, vegetables, corn, qat, pottery, raisins, copper, woodwork and clothing.

The National Museum is located next to al-Mutwakil mosque, about 100 metres north of Tahrir Square. The House of Good Luck (Dar as-Sa'd) in which it is housed, was once a royal palace dating from the 1930s. The museum contains artifacts from the ancient kingdoms of Saba, Ma'rib, Ma'in and I, and is open daily from 9am till 12 noon and from 3 till 5pm Fridays; mornings only.

The Military Museum is situated at the western corner of the same square and is open daily from 9am till 12 noon and from 4 till 8pm (except Fridays and the last Thursday of each month).

Mosques: For Muslims only, these mosques are well worth a visit: al-Jami'al-Kabir (the Great Mosque) on the western side of the main souk; Salah al-Din in the city's eastern quarter; Qubbat Talha which has an interesting Turkish influence; al-Aqil, a small mosque with a beautiful minaret which is delicately lit at night; and Qubbat al-Bakiliya in the eastern part of the city, which was built by the Turks in the 17 SUP

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