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Yemen conference warns about commercial incursion in ancient Arab capitals

[GAMAL NOMAN/AFP/Getty Images] Yemenis walk through the historic Bab Al-Yemen (Gate of Yemen) entrance to Sanaa's old city.

[GAMAL NOMAN/AFP/Getty Images] Yemenis walk through the historic Bab Al-Yemen (Gate of Yemen) entrance to Sanaa's old city.

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Participants who attended the Second International Conference of Islamic Architecture and Arts in mid-June warned of ongoing commercialization of ancient Arab and Muslim heritage cities.

Architecture experts said that the distinctive character founds in Old Sanaa, Damascus, Aleppo, Kairouan and others is being threatened by ongoing commercial projects.

The League of Islamic Universities in collaboration with the University of Sanaa organized the gathering,

Al-Shorfa met with Dr. Gillan Hamoud Gillan, professor of History and Archaeology at the University of Sanaa and general co-ordinator of the Islamic Architecture Conference. He is also secretary-general of the Association for Yemeni History and Archaeology.

Al-Shorfa: Why was it important to hold the conference in Sanaa?

Gillan: There is no doubt that Sanaa is the mother of urban civilization in Yemen because of its unique architectural character, which reflects a historical and archaeological heritage dating from ancient times.

Sanaa's Old City is a beacon to all Arab researchers, archaeologists and those interested in Islamic architecture because the architectural character is a product of pure Arab thought that is not influenced by other civilisations. It is necessary to highlight this heritage so others can study it up close, so that it why it was important to hold the conference in Sanaa.

Al-Shorfa: What were the main themes of the conference?

Gillan: The conference sought to shed light on antiquities and architectural arts in different countries and their connection with particular environments. We sought to identify the connection between Islamic art and architecture and other arts and the effect of this interaction on both sides.

Participants discussed the impact of Islamic legislation on architectural arts. The conference themes focused on improving archaeological research and Islamic arts curricula and developing a vision for new engineers and craftsmen so they can draw their ideas from their own heritage.

We plan to modernise the curricula of the Colleges of Applied Sciences to serve this segment.

Al-Shorfa: Are there Yemeni cities characterized by a strictly Islamic architectural style?

Gillan: There is not a strictly Islamic architectural style in Yemen, but it represents an extension of what existed before Islam. I can say that the Islamic era developed architecture by adding several elements.

For example, the existence of the mosque is an extension of the temples that existed in ancient Yemen, but it added Islamic elements such as the mihrab, minbar, central door and minaret. These elements brought Islamic character to Yemeni architecture.

Al-Shorfa: How is Islamic architectural style preserved?

Gillan: The most important way is to document Islamic and Arabic antiquities and to establish registration centres, especially for Islamic architectural landmarks in cities so their identity is not obscured in the name of modernity. The original should be preserved alongside the contemporary. Some research revealed the effects of Islamic art and building with Islamic architectural character and the best ways to preserve restore and re-commission them so a structure lasts a long time.

Al-Shorfa: What were the most important recommendations issued by the conference?

Gillan: The conference offered practical recommendations to serve the development of Islamic architecture by authorizing academic centres to review the syllabus used in the teaching of a number of arts, establishing applied research centres for Islamic architecture at the University of Sanaa and other Islamic universities, and establishing environmental seminars for preservation of these buildings.

The conference stressed the importance of raising awareness about preserving architecture and the arts as part of Islamic civilization and the necessity of protecting this heritage from possible damage.

Al-Shorfa: Is there a threat to the ancient cities built with Islamic or Arab architecture?

Gillan: There are a number of Arab cities that are seeing an invasion of commercial areas.

People in the historic city of Sanaa complain as do people in the historic city of Zabid. These two cities are subject to destruction within eyesight and earshot of the Antiquities Authority and the Authority for Conservation of Historic Cities.

Likewise, there are Arab cities such as Old Cairo, the Old City of Damascus, Aleppo and Kairouan that are subject to invasion by commercial areas, and this threatens their unique architectural style.