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|Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj, Team Leader of the Urban Development and Heritage Conservation Project of Zabid:|
“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 from the main centers of Arabo-Islamic civilization; construction techniques that evolved locally using local building traditions were affected by Ottoman structural engineering innovations.”
Interviewed by Irena Knehtl
FOR THE YEMEN POST
Article Date: October 06, 2008
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 Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj, team leader of the urban development and heritage conservation project of Zabid.
Irena Knehtl: Tell us about Zabid, its history and present day challenges?
Omar Hallaj: 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, 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.
IK: Guide us through a traditional Zabidi house, explain the city`s unique architectural style?
OH: 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 from 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.
IK: Efforts are now underway to restore the historic city and save it from – ruins. In what state is the historic city of Zabid?
OH: 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.
IK: When shall we see a restored Zabid?
OH: 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 World Heritage Committee (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.
IK: What are the requirements to keep Zabid on the World Heritage List?
OH: 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.