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The old City of Sanaa


Sanaa is the capital of the Republic of Yemen and the centre of Sanaa Governorate. Sanaa is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. At an altitude of 2,300 meters (7,500 ft), it is also one of the highest capital cities in the world. Sanaa has a population of approximately 1,937,500 making it Yemen's largest city.

Historical introduction:

The heritage books begin with what is provided for in them about Sana'a by the Story of Shem the son Noah, who came from the north of the south looking for a better homeland for settlement till he finally found the appropriate place and founded the palace of Ghamdan and thereafter the city was named Sam City "City of Shem" and that means it is the oldest town.

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While other Books mention another name for the city, i.e. Azal as provided for recurrently in the poems and indications about the antiquity of the city too, because Azal is one of the sons of Joktan Bin Amir Bin Shalik Bin Arfakhashed Bin Shem Bin Noah. It is a name that is provided for the Old Testament. From the name Azal comes the present verb Yazl meaning fortified , Storing and Manufacture. The same meaning in Amhric (a Yemenite Dialect spoken in Ethiopia) Manufacture. May be due to the lapse of time there has been confusion concerning the name but generally the name of town, as "Azal" has always been ubiquitous in the poetry. But the name that always accompanied the city and its history events since 20 centuries age is Sana'a and its root is in the Sabaeic Encyclopedia and is referred to as Hasna when in adjective mode meaning "Beauty".

The first ever found inscription mentioning Sanaa dates to 70 AD as one of the Sabaeaic towns following Marib in importance as per the context of its reference in the inscription, while Ghamdan Palace was the second after Salheen in Marib. From the inscriptions also it has been found that "Dhu Nawas", the last Himyarite King was the first to establish Sanaa as his capital in 525 AD and remained so during the Abyssinian occupation for almost half a century. Whilst when Sanaa fell under the Persian Empire's Control it remained as the capital of the Persian Ruler. As of the dawn of Islam till the beginning of independence of Islamic sub-state in many parts of Yemen detaching from the Capitals of the Islamic Caliphate from Madina at the Time of the Disciples Caliphs, to the Umayyad in Damascus and the Abbasids in Baghdad up till the outset of the third Hegira Century (9th Century AD) Sanaa persisted begin the Capital City of the Ruler, who himself is Caliph's deputy in running the affairs of one of Yemen's Three Makhalifs i.e . Mikhlaf Sana'a, Mikhlaf Al-Janad and Mikhlaf Hadhramawt, The city of Sanaa recurrently assumed an important status and all Yemenite States competed to control it of which is the famous competition between the Zaidite and Qarmatite States or was at times adopted as capital of a Sultanate.

The Sullaihiad Kings (One of the Biggest Yemenite states during the Islamic Reign) were the first to adopt Sanaa as Capital for the Sullaiyhid Dynasty before transferring the capital to Jiblah between the years 1047 and 1083. Then it became a capital of Hatimite State (a tribe of Hamdan) from 1098 till 1173.They were partisans of the Sullaiyhids and were in war with the Zaidites Imams in Sadah and were allies of the Zaidites in Aden during their wars with Al-Mahdi in Zabid till the Hatimate State demised at the hands of the Ayyubides (1174-1229 AD). Also Sanaa remained important during the Ayyubides and the Zone named Bostan A-Sultan in Sanaa refers to Sultan Taghtakin Bin Ayub whose capital was Taiz. The Status of Sanaa didn't change during the region of the Rasoulides (1226-1454 AD) and this was the strongest Islamic Sub-state in Yemen which covered most of Yemen,  i.e. Greater Yemen. Their capital was Taizz. Also during the Tahiride Rule of Yemen, Sanaa remained as an important city.

The Mamelukes arrived in Yemen following the Portuguese invasion of Yemenite Coasts in 1517 AD, following the collapse of the Mamelukides in Egypt at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, Yemen fell under the Ottoman Rule and during the first Ottoman rule of Yemen between 1538-1635 Sanaa became the capital of the Ottoman Vilayet. Albeit the Zaidite expansion following the first Ottoman exodus to the extent that it covered Greater Yemen, but Sanaa was not the capital of that State and the condition in later times deteriorated till the number of Imams in Sanaa and its surroundings were five at the same time. Then again came the Ottomans and controlled Yemen with Sanaa as capital as of 1872-1918. After the Ottomans Sanaa was the capital of Imam Yahya, who ruled North Yemen until 1948 and during Imam Ahmed's rule it was the capital of Sanaa Province until the break out of Revolution in 1962, where after it became the capital of the Arab Republic of Yemen until the Reunification declaration of Yemen was proclaimed on 22nd of May in  1990 and it was dubbed as the historical capital of Yemen.

Tourist areas in Sanaa:

Old city

The old fortified city has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years, and contains a wealth of intact architectural gems. It was declared a World Heritage City by the United Nations in 1986. Efforts are underway to preserve some of the oldest buildings, some of which are over 1400 years old like the Samsarah or the old Mosque. Surrounded by ancient clay walls which stand 9–14 metres (30–46 ft) high, the old city boasts over 100 mosques, 12 hammams (baths) and 6,500 houses. Many of the houses resemble ancient skyscrapers, reaching several stories high and topped with flat roofs. They are decorated with elaborate friezes and intricately carved frames and stained glass windows.

One of the most popular attractions is Suq al-Milh (Salt Market), where it is possible to buy not only salt but also bread, spices, raisins, cotton, copper, pottery, silverware, antiques (both fake and real) and formerly, slaves. The majestic 7th century Jami' al-Kabir (Great Mosque) is one of the oldest mosques in the world. The Bāb al-Yaman (Yemen Gate) is an iconized entry point through the city walls and is over 1000 years old.

A commercial area of the old city is Al Madina, where development is proceeding rapidly. In addition to three large hotels, there are numerous stores and restaurants. The area also contains three parks and the President's palace.

The Current  Status of Sana’a and its main Tourists Attractions

Sanaa is one of the ancient Yemen cities dating date back to the Sabean dynasty. The oldest reference to its existence is found in inscriptions that dates back to the late the 1st Century AD. The inscriptions also refer to the historical Palace of Ghamdan associated with Salheen Palace in Marib. This suggests, that Sanaa was the capital of the Himyrate dynasty at the onset of the 6th century AD, when king Yousef Athar Dhu Nawas, the last of the Himyarite kings, was in power. It was also the capital of the Abyssinian rules and after them the Persians, who also made Sanaa their capital.

Sanaa in the various stages of its history continued to be an important city or capital for a ruling state. It was an important station on the trade route that started in Aden, passing through the mountains through Sanaa. This route was known as As’ad Route or the "Route of the Elephant Owners". During the Islamic period Sanaa entered another stage and put on a new fashion with the Holy Mosque replacing the Church of Ibraha (Al-Qillis). Thus, the minarets and domes dominated the skyline of the city. Schools and steam baths (Hamamms) were built. Gardens were expanded to become luscious outlets for the surrounding houses. The houses of San’a are old and some are more than 500 years old. It is believed that the foundations of some of those houses today dates back to more than 1000 years, taking into consideration the tradition to rebuild on top of collapsing houses.

The houses of old Sanaa are known as tower houses with some reaching eight stories high. In old Sanaa there are more than 14000 of these kind of houses. Such houses from the middle of old Sanaa (Cattle market) one can walk 500 metres in any direction with coming across new building. The ground and first floors of the old city houses are built of stone with the upper floors being built of cooked bricks. The floors are separated from one another with a strip of the same building material. The rooms are lit with marble arched stained-glass windows. The exterior walls are decorated with ornaments coated with lime in an updated architectural style and similar material. The ground floors are used as stores, while the large first floors are used for entertaining. These are also rooms allocated for women and children. The Mafraj is the male domain, located at the top of the house, and is a rectangular room with broad windows allowing good sight of the surroundings. It is the most decorated and beautiful room in the house.

Old Sanaa was exposed to many natural disasters and war calamities the most severe of which was the sweeping floods in the late 9th century. However, it was rebuilt and restored to its original condition and then expanded during the Ayubid Reign in the 12th century AD, when they built what is called Sultan Orchard. The city also witnessed expansion under the first Ottoman period, and a new quarter was added to Sanaa,  called Quarter of Beer al-Azab, which was populated by the Senior officials. This quarter was distinct in its architectural style, differing from that of old Sanaa with regard to orchards and fountains. In the middle of the 16th century, Sanaa expanded again by adding the “Qa’a Al-Yahud”, a rampart dating back to the 1 st century AD encircled “The Jewish Quarter” . The rampart was in the shape of an 8,and used to have six gates four of which were used for the old city. These gates were closed each night at 8:00 o’clock and were opened before the dawn prayer at 4:00 am. Today only the southern gate rampart is standing. All others, together with its towers, have collapsed but still some parts exist, particularly eastern and the southern parts adjacent to Bab Al-Yemen. The wall of the city had towers of which the thickness was enough to tow a cannon or tow walking knights.

Sanaa is the most beautiful city in Yemen and probably in the whole Arabian Peninsula. It is a miraculous city with matchless architectural style. It can be said that it is a fantastic Islamic museum and international cultural Center in the same way as Jerusalem (Al-Qawds), Fez, Venice and Florence). UNESCO has considered  Sanaa as an international patrimony and undertook an international camping to protect, safeguard and maintain it in 1984.

Sanaa Mosques

In Sanaa, there are more than 50 mosques, five with domes and many with minarets, most important of which is the Great Mosque, built during the life of Prophet Mohammed in year 630  AD. This mosque was built near the market place of stones from the famous Palace of Ghamdan and its pillars considered to be rare and wonderful masterpieces. They are believed to have been reused after they were moved from Ghamdan Palace of from a Sheba Temple the present building dates back (without the present annexes) to the period of Ya’furriya State in the late 3rd century AD. Queen Arwa Bint Ahmad AL-Sulayhi and others also participated in expanding it. The ceiling of the Great Mosque itself is considered as one of the most important scientific and ideological schools throughout the Islamic history up until today. The Western library, the most famous manuscript library in Yemen, is annexed to this mosque.

There are many other mosques that are no less beautiful or wonderful with respect to the style of minarets, domes and artistic embellishments. One of them is Al-Mehdi Abbas dome, dating back 18th century AD and Bakirriya dome which dates back to the first Ottoman period, and was renovated in the late 19th century by the order of the Ottoman Sultan, Abdul-Hameed.

Sanaa markets

The market is considered to be one of the most significant components of the arabic cities. The markets of old Sanaa are regarded as a living example of this. There are 10 such markets, each specialized in a certain craft or merchandise such as Cloth market, Grain market, Silk market, Raisins market, Cattle market, Thread market, Coffee Husk market, Caps market, Carpet market, Salt market, Brassware market, Silverware market, Firewood market, all perfumed with the scents of the East and a reminder of the tales of “ One Thousand and one Night”.  

Steam baths (hammams)

There are about 15 steam baths in old Sanaa, which are a fundamental feature of the city, as baths are associated with cleanliness. It is said that the Persians introduced the baths. The style of steam baths in Yemen is similar to that of North Africa, but still some suggest that they were introduced during the Umayyad Period in the late 1st century AH (7th century AD).

Samsaras (caravanserais, khans)

There were a number of samsaras, which used to perform specific functions that were complementary to the business of the market, such as services of accommodation, storage, safekeeping of deposits and precious items. Such facilities had a specific architecture style characterized by arches and terraces in the interior, the ground floor of which was usually used for camels and horses. Samsaras are now examples of such brokerage inns, one of them is Al-Nahas Caravansary at the entrance to the Salt Market. which is now used as a center for training of craftsmen and displaying their products. There is another example of samsara nearby, called Samsarat Al-Mansour, which is presently the center for the painting artists.

Al-Saleh Mosque

Al-Saleh Mosque is the largest and most modern mosque in Sanaa and in Yemen. It lies in the southern outskirts of the city, south of the Al Sabeen Maternal Hospital. Inaugurated in november 2008 by former yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The mosque, with 27,300 square metres (294,000 sq ft) in size, has a central hall which is 13,596 square metres (146,350 sq ft) with an occupancy capacity of 44,000 worshippers. The cost of the mosque reached nearly US$60 million. It is open also to non-muslims.

Wadi Dhar

Wadi Dhar is located 14 km to the northwest of Sanaa, and is considered to be the most important recreation area for the city of Sanaa. Here all kinds of fruit are grown. In the center of the wadi,  perches Dar Al-Hajar ("Rock Palace"), a palace built on top of an enormous rock.  The palace dates back to 1786 AD, and its construction was ordered by Imam Mansour Ali Bin Mehdi Abbas. In the 1930s, Imam Yahya Hameed Al-Din added the upper stories and annexed and used it as a rest house. There is an ancient well piercing the rock from top to bottom as well as an old rocky graveyard. It is nowadays one of the main tourist attractions in Yemen. In addition, there are a number of ancient monuments scattered within the wadi.

Bait Baws

Bait Baws is a typical old yemeni village. It is located 7km to the south of Sanaa. Existing inscriptions found in the west of village show us, that this area used to be an important center in the ancient yemeni history. The village is naturally fortified, with only on entrance to the south.


Lying about 8 km from the city center, this region is continuously green because of its long trees of peanuts and other seasonal fruits. There are some old windmills, built during the Ottoman rule in  Yemen, which were driven by the force of water currents.



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