War and Architecture in Yemen

US bombs, Yemeni buildings, and Saudi urbicide

The urban landscape around al Shuruj Erik Freer

Introductory note, from January 2024

When I spent the summer of 2008 studying Arabic in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, there was a morbid joke going around that eventually the United States was going to find a reason to invade the country. At the time, with more than a hundred thousand soldiers deployed in unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, such a thing seemed impossible to me, but inevitable to Yemenis. Now that it looks like such a possibility might be on the mind of some of our policy makers, we think it is a good time to post and share an edited transcript of a conversation we co-hosted with Madeleine Schwartz of The Dial in the summer of 2020 about war and architecture in Yemen.

After the Houthis successfully seized control of Sana’a and northern Yemen in 2014, the school where I had studied in Sana’a, the Yemen College for Middle Eastern Studies, shut its doors. By 2020, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was nearly six years into a war that had established (or rather re-established) an autonomous coalition-aligned state in the south but had failed to dislodge the Iran-aligned Houthis from the north. Faced with a stalemate, the coalition resorted to indiscriminate bombing, using US made bombs.

This conversation, with editor Madeleine Schwartz, Yemeni architectural historian Salma Samar Damluji and investigative journalist Iona Craig, unpacked the situation at the time and talked about how aspects of the actual traditional architecture of Yemen rendered the bombs particularly deadly.

Last week I reached out to Professor Damluji for an update on how the situation has changed since 2020, which we have appended to the end of this piece.

Original introduction and conversation, published February 2021

More than 28 million people live in Yemen. Geographically and culturally, the country can be understood as comprising three distinct parts. Northern Yemen holds the end of the Arabian peninsula’s mountainous spine, the Sarawat Range. These mountains, with moderate temperatures and terraced farms, contain most of Yemen’s population in some of the oldest cities in the world, including the capital Sana’a. The southwest region of Aden is dominated by the eponymous port city of Aden, nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano whose strategically located deep water port has made it a cosmopolitan trading hub. Finally, the east is largely flat and sparsely populated, with the exception of a gigantic depression, a dramatic canyon that forms the extremely fertile and more conservative region, Wadi Hadhramaut. Whereas the southern coast and the city of Aden have long been held by others, mainly the Ottomans (1538–1645) and the British (1838–1967), the northern area has never been a department of anyone else’s empire. After British withdrawal, Hadhramaut and Aden became South Yemen, a communist state aligned with the Soviet Union, as opposed to North Yemen, which aligned with the United States. A peaceful unification in 1990 became a forceful conquest of the South by the North in a 1994 civil war. After the protests of the Arab Spring in 2011 led to the abdication of the long-time president, the country fragmented again. In 2015 a northern armed insurgency believed to be aligned with Iran, the Houthi, seized Sana’a from the Saudi-aligned government under President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Since 2015, the Saudis and their Gulf allies—primarily the United Arab Emirates—have tried to beat back the Houthis and restore the Hadi government through a campaign that largely depends on mercenaries and airstrikes. According to the Yemen data project, the airstrike campaign has now lasted 2,130 days (as of publication) with 22,485 strikes killing 8,758 and injuring 9,810. A Saudi-led blockade has led to a famine in which 20 million Yemenis face hunger, as well as shortages of critical medicines. Repeated attempts by the United States Congress to sanction Saudi Arabia and halt the use of United States munitions were vetoed, resisted and sometimes circumvented by the Trump administration, intent to please the Saudis and sell bombs.

A map of Yemen with the cities mentioned in the article highlighted, displaying different regions of conflict

Yemen is best understood as three different regions: Northern Yemen, Aden, and Wadi Hadhramaut. Today the Houthis control Northern Yemen, while a government backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates controls Aden and Hadhramaut, largely mirroring the old border between North and South Yemen. The places identified on this map are the ones mentioned in the conversation. Erik Freer

Nicolas Kemper: What makes the architecture of Yemen distinct?

Salma Samar Damluji: I hope the world will discover before it’s too late that Yemen has a uniquely rich architectural heritage. There is not a single country in the world that can boast the sophistication of Yemeni earth architecture, in the major cities or in the hinterland.

Yemen has one of the longest histories of continuous habitation and one of the earliest urban histories in Arabia, including the Ma’rib Dam and other areas that are archaeologically rich and remain so despite all the looting and the illegal digging that has been going on for at least the last decade, and further exasperated during the war. What makes the architecture of Yemen extremely distinct is the fact that we’re talking about six or seven story-tall high-rise buildings—where the expansion is vertical, as opposed to horizontal—using earth materials, meaning natural materials and resources. And that’s what makes it not just sustainable but economically viable. These materials are stone, sun-dried mudbrick, baked bricks, slaked lime and a material known as Girf, thin slabs of stone similar to shale. All over Yemen you will find high-rises, not just in the known cities of Shibam and the capital Sana’a, but in other areas like Yafi’ where few foreign visitors have been.

One can hardly begin to describe the importance of this architecture, climatically or environmentally, how well-preserved these designed buildings are, and how well the urban fabric of towns and cities work. If we take the typical house in Sana’a or in Jiblah or in Taiz or Hadhramaut, where I’ve been working since 1982, you will find that these houses had one entrance. The first two stories were used for storage or keeping livestock. And then each floor had a set of apartments. And then in Sana’a, the men used the upper floor called almafraj, for the afternoon qat sessions, while Shabwah or in Hadhramaut, the living areas used by the men and in particular merchants and traders, were closer to the entrances on the first or second floor.

It was only after the unification of the South and North in 1990, that Yemen built cement buildings and the invasion of what is wrongly called modern architecture began. Imported construction techniques started to take over, funded mostly by remittances coming back from the Gulf.

NK: What is the current state of the conflict in Yemen?

Iona Craig: Since the summer of 2018, with the withdrawal of UAE troops, and after the attack on the Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia, there has been a process of de-escalation, the most significant since the Saudis first got involved in 2015. It wasn’t official, but there were indirect talks then that happened between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. Unfortunately, that rapidly unwound at the beginning of 2020, and the violence resumed.

The humanitarian situation remains perilous. You have two-thirds of the population in need of aid, 3.65 million people who are now displaced, and on top of all of that is the situation with coronavirus. Yemen was one of the last countries in the world to officially record any cases of Covid-19. I was in Yemen at the time when that happened. The first official case was recorded on the 10th of April, and by the end of the April it appeared in Aden. But when I was in Aden it became quite apparent the disease had been there for some time. By the time official cases were recorded the city was inundated with people getting sick. At the same time, less than 50 percent of medical charities were operating in Yemen.

There is a de facto blockade on the country that makes importing medical equipment very difficult. Particularly when you’re looking at things that you would need for intensive care units, for example, during a pandemic such as Covid-19. So on top of the ongoing humanitarian crisis, you’ve now got the pandemic spreading wildly across the country. The Houthis are not officially declaring numbers anymore.

Added to that—I’m sorry, there’s nothing really optimistic to say—is the defunding of humanitarian aid. UN agencies have been losing funding. They’d been cutting back programs and will cut more going forward because of a lack of funding. Recent funding efforts in Geneva in May fell a billion short of what was needed. And there is the issue of remittances, which had been worth up to 10 billion dollars a year. A lot of that money is now drying up because Yemeni expats were expelled from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

Although there has been food in the markets, it has been increasingly expensive, and people have not been able to afford to buy a lot of it, or even if they’re buying it, they’re buying it in much reduced quantities. And we’re going to see more of that. And as the UN has only warned from the last week, many more people are going to starve to death now.

Madeleine Schwartz: I think very few US citizens are aware of our own government’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about when that involvement began and how it has affected what’s going on in that country.

IC: The involvement goes back to the strong relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia and indeed the UK and Saudi Arabia. It goes back decades. So it was no different with the Obama administration than it has been under the Trump administration in that respect. For the US, it’s largely about arm sales. I mean, the UK has sold 5.3 billion pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015, when the coalition got involved, which is dwarfed by what the US is making out of this conflict. In 2017 alone the US sold $18 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. So it’s very big business, and the human rights law violations and potential war crimes have done little to sway the US administration into suspending sales. Precision-guided weapon sales to Saudi Arabia were briefly suspended at the end of the Obama administration. Then they quickly resumed once President Trump came into office.

What makes the architecture of Yemen extremely distinct is that the buildings are often six or seven stories tall, effectively, high-rises. The cities expand vertically. Here are drawings of *Husn al Shuruj*, a house in *Shuruj*, with the elevation on the left and plans of its six floors to the right.

What makes the architecture of Yemen extremely distinct is that the buildings are often six or seven stories tall, effectively, high-rises. The cities expand vertically. Here is Husn al Shuruj, a house in Shuruj, with the elevation on the left and plans of its six floors to the right. Erik Freer Most of the drawings in this piece are redrawn from Salma Samar Damluji’s upcoming book, The Architecture of Yemen and its Reconstruction.

NK: How do architecture and the conflict interact? Can you tell us about the term urbicide?

SSD: Urbicide, which means urban killing or “violence against the city,” is a term that has been used since the Second World War and means the deliberate targeting of cultural heritage, towns and cities.

In 2016 I participated in the Urbicide Conference held at the University of Venice with a presentation on the destruction of cities in Yemen, including Sana’a, the historic fort of Taiz, and the systematic bombing of these areas and the blowing up of domes and Sufi cemeteries in Hadhramaut. The Yemeni General Organization of Antiquities and Museums has been very diligent in reporting all of this. You can get complete lists detailed with a time and place and who they were targeted by, whether it was the bombing from the air or whether it was through their agents on the ground or whether it was through the fundamentalists, et cetera.

NK: Iona, you had said near the beginning of the war, that you had done some research on the effect of airstrikes on concrete, about more modern construction buildings versus traditional ones. Can you please tell us about that?

IC: Sure, but first I want to pick up on something that Salma was just talking about, about urbicide. The Saudis have actually been pretty shameless about that. In 2015, they declared the Houthi city Sa’ada a military zone. They were using airstrikes as a way to displace people forcefully. When I was in Yemen in 2015, they strategically bombed around every single wall of the Al-Hadi Mosque, which dates to the ninth century, in Sa’ada. When you do that around an old building, although you might not bomb it directly, the building crumbles anyway from the repeated vibrations of 150,000 pound bombs being dropped right next to it, creating fifteen-foot craters. That does an immense amount of damage to those buildings. They were also bombing villages and the outskirts and inside Sa’ada, the markets and everything, because they just declared it a military zone. That’s one of the biggest cities in Northern Yemen. So, just to underline that reality, urbicide is not just a conspiracy theory. The Saudis actually were very shameless about it, particularly at the beginning of the war until they learned a little more about the PR game.

As for my research, when you bomb a concrete building, you get a pancaking effect. You will have pockets in there where people will sometimes survive and can be dragged out and rescued. When you drop a bomb on a mud brick home, the whole thing collapses and it’s dirt and earth. So even if people aren’t being crushed by the heavy-weight concrete, they’re suffocating. As Salma indicated at the beginning, these houses are sometimes up to eleven stories high. I lived in a seven-story-high house in old Sana’a before the war.

When you hit one of those older multistory buildings, you are more likely to kill multiple generations of a single family. A lot of them are what we in the UK call terraced housing. It means they’re tightly packed, so sharing walls, whereas the concrete houses tend to be separated. And we saw that in Sana’a as well. When a bomb drops on one of those houses, more often than not the houses on either side tumble down as well. The devastation is much greater, the risk to civilians is much greater. Unlike a concrete house, it’s very unlikely that you will be pulling people out alive from a house that has been bombed that is traditionally built, that is from mud bricks.

I found in my research that when bodies were being retrieved from rubble, that most of the time the medical professional found that people had died from suffocation rather than being crushed. Sorry, this is all a bit grim, but that’s the reality. In the mud-brick homes, when you’re bombing those villages, the families had fled while the men would often stay behind to look after the houses to make sure that they weren’t looted or occupied.

SSD: Don’t forget that it’s the nature of the planning of these houses as well. Concrete buildings mean that you have very wide streets, separated sites in open zones, and a city that sprawls horizontally. With vertical expansion, there are clusters of six or seven or eight or fifteen houses, creating a quarter with pedestrian streets in between that are too narrow for cars. In normal times the clusters create corridors of air and wind for ventilation. They operate like wind catchers, as opposed to the wide-open streets that you can’t walk on because they’re exposed to the sun and to the heat.

You can imagine that when you drop a bomb or there’s an airstrike in a quarter, four or five or six houses collapse sometimes. And if they don’t collapse, there’s considerable damage because these buildings are constructed with load-bearing walls that carry and support them. This is why they tend to also taper and how you can build up to ten or eleven stories, whether it’s in mud brick or in stone or in shale. For earthquakes, it’s always much better to have a mud-brick or an earth building because the buildings move, they give and take. There’s a synergy in the design of these quarters. And this is what makes a city like Sana’a successful. Bombing traditional areas means you’re going to get rid of entire quarters, not just one street or three buildings here and there. They always use the excuse that fighters take refuge in old towns.

A typical traditional quarter, shown in this house location plan from the early ‘80s, showing how, as Iona Craig said in the conversation, buildings are "tightly packed, so sharing walls.... When a bomb drops on one of those houses, more often than not the houses on either side tumble down as well. The devastation is much greater, the risk to civilians is much greater. Unlike a concrete house, it’s very unlikely that you will be pulling people out alive from a house that has been bombed that is traditionally built, that is from mud bricks."

A typical traditional quarter, shown in this house location plan from the early ’80s, showing how, as Iona Craig said in the conversation, buildings are “tightly packed, so sharing walls…. When a bomb drops on one of those houses, more often than not the houses on either side tumble down as well. The devastation is much greater, the risk to civilians is much greater. Unlike a concrete house, it’s very unlikely that you will be pulling people out alive from a house that has been bombed that is traditionally built, that is from mud bricks.” Erik Freer

NK: What can we do to help?

IC: If you are a US taxpayer, it’s really about lobbying your lawmakers, particularly on the issue of arms sales and establishing congressional oversight. That is as important as donating. There are also a lot of local Yemeni organizations that are already doing really good work. There’s one based in the US, the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation and msf.org/yemen-depth is also doing important work to help with the pandemic.

MS: The new edition of your book, Salma, talks not only about the history of Yemeni architecture but also on efforts to preserve and possibly reconstruct it—can you tell us about those efforts?

SSD: I set up a foundation with some colleagues of mine, architects and the civil engineer in Hadhramaut, called the Daw’an Architecture Foundation. Daw’an is one of Yemen’s valleys, which is a tributary of Wadi Hadhramautand has stunning architecture. We are proud, and so are the people, of the reconstruction that took place over the last two years (2019–21). And it ought to be acknowledged that the funding came from the Cultural Emergency Response and the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands, with a grant from the British Council Cultural Protection Fund in the UK.

Yemen is blessed with resources and specialized manpower in construction and building. The master builders are capable of not just teaching us architects but of still producing this work. This is why I call this architecture a contemporary architecture that is more valid than anything we call “modern,” and far superior. So the reconstruction of this has been extremely valuable, not for political reasons, as far as I’m concerned, but for the social impact it has on the inhabitants, to give them courage that their urban heritage will not be destroyed.

Mud brick towers of al Naqabah between Habban and Ataq Erik Freer

In 2024 we reached out to Professor Salma Samar Damluji for an update—here is what she had to say:

Little has changed since our 2020 interview except that the facts documented therein have resulted in the continued dire situation of Yemen, in the aftermath of the ravages of aggression, and the systemic destruction of the country.

‘Post conflict’, a favourite political term, has become a matter-of-fact-accepted-condition pointing to a state of stagnant devastation; a country wasted on every conceivable level, on both the tangible and intangible fronts.

The strategy of targeted ‘coalition’ bombings conducted during five years of war resulted in a state of attrition: the wearing away of the infrastructure, economy, agriculture, trade, human endeavour, education, legal, civil institutions, and medical services. This status quo found in Iraq, Syria, Libya, has set in as the new normal regional condition.

The people of Yemen have no recourse for change or development, since the protagonists of the war have perpetuated a policy of tight siege and despair.

Both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) have taken over administering the country, ostensibly under the adopted UN Chapter 7, in an uneasy division of resources. Whereas the UAE succeeded in taking over Socotra Island and established a hegemony over the south, KSA is struggling to gain a foothold in Hadramaut and the southern coast for its oil pipelines. International travel is limited, apart from a limited controlled movement of 3 or 4 battered Yemenia planes with a limited routes from Cairo and Amman airports to Say’un and Aden airports, in a monitored and controlled aviation routing and movement.

Exploitation of the oil and gas industry, amongst other natural environmental sources of the country, are diverted and divided, with Yemen having little access to its own oil, for local use or export. Power cuts are continuous, and electricity is provided for a limited number of hours per day. The few who can afford it often resort to generators or solar panels as substitutes. What revenues are received are channelled to and controlled by the government in Aden, for the south, and the Houthi government in Sanaa for the north. The invisible players and rulers are the UAE, KSA and their agents.

With the recent US/UK (Australia and The Netherlands) aggression targeting Houthis for disrupting the movement of ships across the Red Sea, the expected agreement between the Houthi government and KSA is now on hold.

In the absence of peace, civil order and security, watching the country (especially the environment and ecological landscape) become a wasteland is painful. Cities are crumbling, and concrete and cement extensions have taken over. Architecture has also suffered tragically with the erosion of traditional gardens, orchards, date palm fields, wadis, natural water sources, canals and water storage basins, that are rapidly parcelled by developers for construction and speculation.

Climate change has become severe. The hot months of summer extend into the fall and winter and waterfall is eradicated. Cement production is one of the few industries that thrived during the war and continues unabated.

The battle for the survival of the unique earth architecture remains one of the biggest challenges we are facing. Over the last 3 years however, we have continued working on post war reconstruction projects in Hadramaut, in the city of Mukalla and in the interior Wadi Haramut in Qatin, in the vicinity of the town of Shibam.

Salma Samar Damluji is an architect and leading authority on Yemeni architecture. She is a professor at the American University of Beirut and the author of The Architecture of Yemen and Its Reconstruction.

Iona Craig is a preeminent English-language journalist on the conflict in Yemen. Her work has won numerous awards, including the 2016 Orwell Prize for Journalism (the United Kingdom’s most prestigious honor for political writing)and the 2014 Gellhorn Prize.

Madeleine Schwartz is an award-winning writer, former editor of The Ballot, and editor of The Dial.

Nicolas Kemper is the publisher of NYRA.