Defensive Architecture in Yemen

by David Warburton

Yemen Update 33(1993):20,21

[N.B. It can only be with extreme trepidation that a layman approaches the subject of architecture in a country with strongly pronounced traditions of architecture and architectural scholarship. In a land with such diverse architectural traditions as Yemen, it is however possible for the unsuspecting visitor to imagine that another angle is worth mentioning, and thus this small contribution, which is primarily intended to inspire deeper investigation by the more qualified, or those seeking to become such.]

Throughout the Yemeni highlands, one frequently finds villages of square stone tower houses surrounded by a mighty wall, complete with watch towers and pierced by a single relatively inaccessible gate, all placed precariously atop a peak or at a suitably unapproachable site on a mountain slope. The defensive character of such settlements is quite obvious, and the same idea lies behind the wall surrounding the compact city of Shibam in the Hadramaut. Both can be traced back to pre-Islamic times, with the walled city of Baraqish the best surviving example of the genre. The walls of Sanaa served the same purpose. Each represents a community investment, insofar as the time consuming and labour intensive construction of the wall implies that any assault be carefully considered in advance, and thus deters gratuitous aggression. The apparent strength of the defenses alone serves to defend the town.

In recent times in the Hadramaut a more representative tradition has prevailed. In place of massive masonry, we have mud-brick magnificence. The palace of the Kathiri Sultans in Say'un is a monumental version of the traditional Hadrami shaykh's representative square fort with high walls and corner towers. These forts are rarely located at strategic positions, and most of them are set in tactically unsound surroundings, in a village in the middle of the valley, exposed to attack of all kinds from all sides. Such forts can be seen in varying stages of dilapidation in various towns and villages of the Hadramaut, and despite al-Kindi's narrative, one can imagine that the fighting in the battles of the XIX century was never very intense, for a few well placed cannon balls would quickly have eliminated not only an architectural tradition, but the power of the shaykhs residing in the forts, and such self-destructive tendencies are not a characteristic of the orderly methods of dispute settlement among civilized people. And, in fact, the elimination of the power of the shaykhs also brought about the demise of their fortifications: being political structures, they were destroyed politically rather than militarily.

Tactically well placed are the lone towers on the slopes edging the Hadramaut, usually made of mud-brick and wood, with windows only near the top. They bear a striking similarity to European castles, with their carefully chosen positions. Tall round towers can also be seen in upper Yemen, although the latter are occasionally built of stone and windowless. The towers in the North are more commonly placed in long lines down the middle of the wadis, as in the Bawn, which Glaser termed thebalad aman, "Land of Security". Serving as watch towers and signal stations, as well as potential places of refuges, it is only in their tower-like form and solitary positions that they resemble their southern cousins, for their European relation would be the watch towers of the Roman limes.

Three stone forts on three tall mounds completely block the Wadi Hammam just south of Nisab, in Shabwa. The five hundred year old tall square towers testify to another age, before the Sultans and the British, when traffic was moving north and south and the country flourished under a semi feudal political system. A similar tower guards the pass at Nadj Marad. A symbol of the same feudal environment is the stone and mud brick Husn al-Hor, set on a hilltop in the Wadi Masila, large enough to house soldiers and their mounts.

Dating to the same period, but far more serious is the small fort on Sira Island at Aden, built purely with a view to European conceptions of defense: the high walls of solid stone support gun emplacements for large cannon, and the position -atop an island without easy access - was selected for its unassailability. The 360 degree panoramic view from the top of the main fort is obscured only by a slight prominence to the northeast, where there is a secondary gun emplacement. The walls are also rounded, so as to deflect the impact of any cannon balls which might actually strike the thing, and the form itself somewhat remarkable, being semi-circular with two round towers set before the line of the diameter. This most unconventional fort was well placed to defend shipping interests from the very serious threat represented by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The Portuguese were defeated before Sira in 1513, and the Emir had no difficulty persuading a Dutch merchant warship to depart in 1614. The artillery on a single Dutch gunship was probably greater than the total number of field pieces ever transported to the Hadramaut until very recent times, and thus the motivation to assure protection far greater than in the Hadramaut. Walls protected not only Sira, but also all of Crater, and walls run all across the peninsula.

Another example of foreign military architecture used in defense of shipping interests in Yemen is the citadel at Luhayya, constructed during the second Turkish occupation. Overlooking the town and the Red Sea Coast is a small fort with enough space to comfortably house a company of soldiers. The defenses were of course equipped to meet the moderate threats of the time, and thus the walls and the cannon do not bear comparison with the fort at Sira. In the last few centuries, most of the competition has been between Aden and Mocha, with the latter suffering considerably more, as it can only be protected by commercial and political guarantees, the topography of the place being unsuitable for military installations.

Built or rebuilt as representative administrative and military compounds are the Ottoman citadels in Zabd and Sanaa. The structure in Zabid can trace its origins back to the XVI century at least, and the citadel in Sanaa probably goes back to prehistoric times, although the oldest architectural evidence unearthed thus far can be ascribed to the Yufirid period at the earliest. The citadel in Sanaa is more consciously military than representative as the eastern edge of the city was constantly threatened.

Obviously, the defensive architecture of Yemen reveals not only the different architectural techniques and materials which characterize the various regions of the country, but it also throws into bold relief differing attitudes towards warfare and different types of threats, while also reflecting the slow process by which Yemen was technologically drawn into the modern world although the strategic points remain the same, a point which is driven home when skirting the modern tank pits not far from the pass at Najd Marad, with its mediaeval and ancient fortifications.

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