Heavy rains lashing Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, which dates back to ancient times, have in recent days caused the collapse of 10 buildings in the Old City, the country’s Houthi rebels have said.
At least 80 other buildings have been heavily damaged in the rains and are in need of urgent repairs, the rebels, who have controlled Sanaa since the outbreak of Yemen’s civil war more than eight years ago, said on Wednesday.
The Old City of Sanaa is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The area is believed to have been inhabited for more than two millennia. Its architecture is unique, with foundations and first stories built of stone, and subsequent storeys out of brick — deemed to be some of the world’s first high-rises.
The buildings have red brick facades adorned with white gypsum moulding in ornate patterns, drawing comparisons to gingerbread houses, a style that has come to symbolise Yemen’s capital. Many of the houses are still private homes, and some are more than 500 years old.
In a statement, Abdullah al-Kabsi, the culture minister in the Houthi administration, said the rebels are working with international organisations and seeking help in dealing with the destruction. There were no immediate reports of death or injury from the collapses.
The houses had stood for centuries, but this season’s intense rains have proved too much for the iconic structures. Bricks and wooden beams now make for massive piles of rubble between still-standing structures.
“I get scared when I hear the rain and pray to God because I am afraid that my house will collapse over me,” said Youssef al-Hadery, a resident of the Old City.
Al-Kabsi insisted that UNESCO bear some responsibility for salvaging and restoration efforts, given the area’s history. Years of neglect under the previous government had taken their toll, he added.
A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to push back the Houthis, who had taken over most of the country — including Sanaa — and to restore the internationally-recognised government that had been forced out of the capital by the rebels.
Earlier this month, the warring sides agreed to extend a truce that had been in place since April for another two months.
Some observers say air attacks on Sanaa by the Saudi-led coalition have probably shaken the historical buildings and damaged their foundations. But lack of maintenance is the biggest problem, according to Mohamed al-Hakeemi, who heads a local organisation called The Green Dream, specialising in Yemen’s environmental issues.
An initiative in 2021 repaired hundreds of homes and rebuilt a dozen — the first serious maintenance since the war began.