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Heavy rains collapse 10 historic buildings in Yemeni capital

The UNESCO World Heritage Old City site is believed to have been inhabited for more than two millennia and its as architecture is unique.

August 11, 2022
By Ahmed Al-Haj
11 August 2022

Heavy rains lashing Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, which dates back to ancient times, have collapsed 10 buildings in the Old City, the country’s Houthi rebels said on Wednesday.

At least 80 other buildings have been heavily damaged in the rains over the past few days and are in need of urgent repairs, said the rebels, who have controlled Sanaa since the outbreak of Yemen’s civil war more than eight years ago.

The Old City of Sanaa is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and 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 stories of brick. They are deemed to be some of the world's first high-rises.

The buildings have red-brick facades adorned with white gypsum molding 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.

A UNESCO-supported project to restore homes in Sanaa earlier this year. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

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 dead or injured from the collapses.

The houses had withstood 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 in between still-standing structures.

The rains show no signs of letting up.

"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 salvage and restoration efforts, given the area's history. Years of neglect under the previous government had taken their toll, he added.

The conflict has also added to Sanaa’s decline.

Yemen's civil war erupted in 2014, when the Iran-backed Houthis descended from their northern enclave and took over Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognised government to flee to the south and later into exile in Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi-led coalition, then backed by the United Sates, entered the war in early 2015 to try to restore the government to power. Since then, the conflict has turned into a proxy war between regional foes Saudi Arabia and Iran and spawned one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

A collapsed UNESCO-listed building in Sanaa Old City. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

Some observers say airstrikes on Sanaa by the Saudi-led coalition have also probably shaken the historical buildings and damaged their foundations.

But lack of maintenance is the biggest problem, according to Mohamed Al-Hakeemi, who heads an 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.

UNESCO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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