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Excavating Zabid

Royal Ontario Museum Yemen Project Overview

Traditional brick houses of Zabid

Edward Keall
Curator Emeritus
Royal Ontario Museum

Traditional brick architecture of Zabid, including small twin-domed mosque

Traditional brick houses of Zabid

The Zabid Citadel heritage conservation program began in 1987 as a direct result of a need for the Canadian Mission to have a place to live. The former military barracks buildings, abandoned in 1962, were derelict. The Yemeni authorities approved restoration of some of the buildings, in return for the right of occupancy. The initiative helped the traditional building industry to survive – an important factor in the successful UNESCO-supported bid in the 1990s to designate Zabid as a heritage city. The Zabid Citadel now houses a museum describing the history of the city and of the work of the Canadian Mission.


The decorative brick facades of Zabid’s vernacular architecture are distinctive. This brickwork featured in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s iconic 1974 movie, “Il fiore delle mille e una notte” (released in English as “Arabian Nights”). It is the use of recycled bricks, with variable sizes, that give the walls their distinctive look. The first textual reference to brick recycling is from the early thirteenth-century writer Ibn al-Mujawir (d. 1291). It is unlikely that the concept of an exterior decorative building facade occurred in Zabid much before that time. Certainly there is ample evidence in Old South Arabia for decorated interior temple walls; and the interior courtyards of early mosques were also decorated. But their exteriors were generally plain. ‘Articulated/architectonic’ exterior building facades in Islamic architecture are only attested for the first time in the street façade of Cairo’s early twelfth-century Fatimid-era al-Aqmar mosque.


The bricks traditionally used for Zabid’s distinctive brick buildings are immensely hard, having been fired at a very high temperature, to the point that some of them are partially vitrified. They are dark red, often with a reduced (black) core. There is no archaeological evidence that bricks of this quality were being made before c. 1000. There used to be a well-established industry in Zabid for the recycling of these old bricks, which gives the city its charm. But it was extremely destructive to the archaeological record, as old walls were systematically mined. A much softer, low-fired orange fabric characterizes the remains of the ninth to tenth-century city bricks. These earlier bricks are not suitable for recycling.


Articulated entranceway of a private house, its courtyard stepped down from a rising street level


Derelict roof in the Zabid Citadel barracks, in 1987


A local master builder (‘usta Qasem) assessing one of the partially collapsed barracks’ buildings


Delivery of bags of noura lime, for mortar


An ‘usta creating wall support to carry the beams of a rebuilt roof


Hard wood beams

for rebuilding the flat roof


Working the noura surface of the laid roof


 Applying a whitewash (noura abyad) finish to a window frame

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