War 'at the gates' of Zabid UNESCO World Heritage

Architectural marvel of early Islam is now under threat.

    Yemen's devastating war closes in on its historic capital, famed as an architectural marvel of early Islam. The town of Zabid can only hope to survive the three-year-long war behind its ancient mud and rock walls.

    The sand-coloured town, overlooking the country's west coast, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 for its centuries-old urban planning and architecture, including the world's fifth-oldest mosque.

    Riven by neglect and poverty, it was placed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage in Danger seven years later.

    War in Yemen

    The nearly 3-year-old Yemen war has resulted in the killing of more than 10,000 people, displaced two million and helped spawn a distressing cholera epidemic in the Arab world's poorest country.

    Amid its humanitarian crises, Yemen's culture and historical sites have also been affected by the war, which is now threatening the fate of Zabid.

    In 2014, Houthi rebels seized the Hudaida port in a takeover of territory that included the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.

    The government has pushed to recapture Hudaida in recent months.

    In November, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a total blockade on the Hudaida port, as well as the country's main international airport, in retaliation for missiles launched by the rebels towards Riyadh.

    The blockade sparked harsh condemnation by the UN and has since been partially lifted.

    Battle for Hodaida 

    So far, Zabid has been spared in the battle between Yemen's Houthi rebels and a government backed by a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

    But a fight for nearby Hudaida, home to Yemen's most vital port, has raised fears the violence is closing in on Zabid.

    Residents and international organisations fear the Saudi-led coalition's warplanes may hit the town itself, as it is still under the control of the Houthi rebels.

    The coalition did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    "The fighting in Hudaida governorate is at the gates of the historic city of Zabid, fanning fears for the fate of its cultural heritage," said Alexandre Faite, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross's delegation in Yemen.

    Zabid overlooks a river 75 kilometres (50 miles) southeast of Hudaida, the rebel-held Red Sea port city which faces a naval blockade by the Saudi-backed government.

    Hudaida is the main conduit for aid to the nation of 28 million people, 70 percent of whom face starvation as poverty, violence and cholera stalk the country.

    Ahmed Hussein Ahmed says his home was damaged last month, as government forces clashed with Houthi rebels nearby.

    Like other residents, he fears for both his family and his town, where homes built from baked bricks give the centuries-old skyline its trademark, sandy hue against the bright blue Yemeni sky, but offer little protection.

    "Our homes are built of local mud," Ahmed told AFP, seated near one of the old, wooden windows carved into the wall of his brick home. "Another blow and the roof will cave in on us."

    Experts have warned Zabid may not be able to withstand more blows, even if fighting remains confined to its outskirts.

    "These are centuries-old buildings. They cannot bear shelling or even the vibrations of missiles," said Yemeni restoration specialist Hussein Abdulrahman.

    "The world should be fighting to preserve this."

    World Heritage

    From the 13th to the 15th centuries, Zabid was the capital of Yemen before being dethroned by Sanaa.

    The town predates the coming of Islam to Yemen, but is an architectural marvel of the faith: Four gates surround the city, where a web of narrow, cobblestone streets links a souk with quieter residential areas.

    It also features the highest concentration of mosques in Yemen, one of the world's first Islamic universities and canals to supply water to residents.

    In Zabid, shops that resemble little castles are still open, and traffic flows through the streets.

    Also open is the Zabid Public Library, a tiny gem hidden in the basement of an old house, with 10 arched and engraved windows to allow daylight in.

    Mukhtar Abdulsamad, head of the general authority for historic preservation in Zabid, fears one of the last pillars of his country's heritage may soon be demolished.

    "We appeal to international organisations, and UNESCO, to prioritise the protection of Zabid," Abdulsamad said.

    "This town belongs to the world and not to Yemen alone."

    What will it take to stop the war in Yemen?

    Inside Story

    What will it take to stop the war in Yemen?

    SOURCE: AFP news agency


    YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

    'We scoured for days without sleeping, just clothes on our backs'

    'We scoured for days without sleeping, just clothes on our backs'

    The Philippines’ Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest storm ever to make landfall. Five years on, we revisit this story.

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    Russian-Saudi relations could be very different today, if Stalin hadn't killed the Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

    Daughters of al-Shabab

    Daughters of al-Shabab

    What draws Kenyan women to join al-Shabab and what challenges are they facing when they return to their communities?