views updated Jun 11 2018


Capital of the Republic of Yemen.

One of the world's oldest continuously inhabited sites, Sanʿa was the capital of the Yemen Arab Republic from 1962 to 1990, at which time it became the capital of the new Republic of Yemen. Over earlier centuries it had been the capital and chief city of a succession of political entities: the Hamid alDin Zaydi imamate from the end of World War I to 1962; the two Ottoman occupation regimes during the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries; earlier Zaydi imams before and after the Ottoman occupation; and numerous other regimes, major and minor. Regardless of ruler, Sanʿa was for centuries the great Zaydi urban center in the highlands of North Yemen, surrounded by tribes that accepted and defended Zaydism. The city has been Islamic since the earliest days of Islam, and its major mosque is said to be built on the ruins of one that was built before the death of the prophet Mohammad. In recent decades, the city has been the stage for much of Yemen's highest political drama: the sacking of Sanʿa by the tribes as punishment for its role in the aborted 1948 revolution and the heroics of its citizens and republican defenders during the seventy-day siege of Sanʿa in early 1968.

Sanʿa is located at an altitude of about 7,500 feet in the geographical center of modern North Yemen, northeast of the port of Hodeida (alHudayda) and north of Taʿiz. Its barren setting conveys an austere, almost monastic aura, but it has a dry, temperate climate, marred seasonally by lip-cracking dryness and dust-filled winds. Wells and erratic rains in the spring and late summer allow for both irrigated and dry farming as well as extensive animal husbandry in the city's environs. Sanʿa is not a green place; people and factories have won out decisively over trees, grass, and flowers in the competition for water.

Guarded by the small, bald mountain of Jabal Nuqum, Sanʿa stretches across a wide, flat plain from the mountain's western flank. Before the 1962 revolution, Sanʿa had an hourglass configuration: the Jewish quarter (Qa al-Yahud) to the east separated by a half mile of gardens and the usually dry watercourse from the much larger, walled Islamic city at the foot of the mountain. This configuration was largely erased by the unplanned growth of the
1960s and 1970s and, even more so, by the urban sprawl of the 1980s. Still, the old Islamic city remains one of the urban architectural treasures of the world. It was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the early 1980s and has been the object of considerable restoration and preservation campaigns since then. In addition to its main gate, restored portions of thick wall, and dozens of slender minarets, the city is distinguished by the dense concentration of houses, many of them several stories tall, made of cut stone and of baked and sun-dried bricks. The domestic architecture of Sanʿa dates back at least two millennia and is a triumph of art and engineering. The city's ancient marketplaces still thrive; the most famous of these is at the core of the old city. These marketplaces house shops selling goods from all over the world and are also home to artisans and traditional manufacturers. In recent years, the new city and the outskirts have become the locale for modern stores, distribution centers, showrooms, and light industry. Sanʿa has also become a city of schools, most notably the Sanʿa University.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Sanʿa boasted handsome stone government offices and other public buildings, old and new, as well as many mosques, schools, and fine homes, but Taʿiz claimed to be the commercial and business center of North Yementhe more modern city, more open to the ideas and practices of the outside world. By the 1980s, however, with a population of more than 500,000 and growing rapidly, Sanʿa had emerged as the undisputed center of political, cultural, and economic life in North Yemen. With Yemeni unification in 1990, government officials and supplicants flooded from Aden to Sanʿa, the political capital, and the preeminence of Sanʿa became even more apparent; it remains to be seen what ranking and division of labor will ultimately prevail between Sanʿa and Aden, the designated economic capital of unified Yemen. The cities, while similar in size, are wildly different in appearance and lifestyle, making them a complementary pairing. As they grow, both must cope with traffic congestion, water and electricity shortages, limited sewage facilities, great housing needs, and the inadequacy of other urban services. The great challenges of becoming a livable modern city in a poor, developing country were compounded in Sanʿa after 1990 by the deluge of unemployed workers expelled suddenly from Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War. By the mid-1990s, Sanʿa's population had reached almost one million. For the first time rimmed by slums and replete with beggars, Sanʿa is nonetheless beginning to meet some of these challenges, and the old city survives as an urban treasure.

see also hamid al-din family; yemen; yemen arab republic; yemen civil war; zaydism.


Bonnenfant, Paul, ed. Sanaa: Architecture domestique et société. Paris: CNRS Editions, 1995.

Serjeant, R. B., and Lewcock, Ronald, eds. Sanʿa: An Arabian Islamic City. London: World of Islam Festival Trust, 1983.

robert d. burrowes


views updated May 23 2018


SANʿA (Ar. Ṣan ʿā ), capital of *Yemen with 1.85 million inhabitants (2005 estimate), 100 km from the coast of the Red Sea, on a plateau on the western slope of Jabal (Mount) Nuqūm, at an elevation of 2,200 meters above sea level. Once a small town of not more than 50,000 souls, its speedy development took place after the republican revolution of 1962. For many centuries it has been the chief economic, political, and religious center of the Yemen Highlands. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities, known since the pre-Islamic Sabaean Kingdom. Most of the remains of that period have been destroyed through reuse of building material. The principal Sabaean monument in Sanʿa was the Ghumdn Palace, probably situated north of al-Jāmi' al-Kabīr (the Grand Mosque), the earliest reference to which is at the beginning of the third century c.e. This palace, according to al-Ḥamdānī 20 stories high, was destroyed under the caliph 'Uthmān (644–56 c.e.).Sanʿā has a very distinct architecture and is considered one of the world's most beautiful cities. Hence, it is high on inter-national organizations preservation list.

The tradition of the Jews of Yemen refers to Sanʿa as Resh Galūt, namely one of the first places in Yemen in which they settled when they left Jerusalem 40 years before the destruction of the First Temple (586 b.c.e.), responding to *Jeremiah's prophecies about destruction. According to that tradition, the Jews first settled in Barāsh, at that time a fortified town at the top of Jabal Nuqūm, about another 550 meters above the city. Eduard *Glaser, who visited the place in 1882, found there Jewish inscriptions dated to 589 c.e. Rabbi Joseph Qāfih visited the place in 1937 and found a few vestiges of a synagogue and two ritual baths. Later on the Jews went down the mount to Qaṣr (the Citadel of) Sanʿa, the most ancient and the higher part of the city, adjacent to the quarter of al-qaʾī', after which many Jewish families are called al-qaʾī'ī, to give evidence that indeed Jews lived for some time in the Qaṣr, which was known as Qaṣr Sām ibn Nuḥ, according to a Jewish-Muslim tradition that it was built by that biblical figure (i.e., Shem). Al-Rāz, a Yemenite Muslim chronographer, writes that in 991 there were 1040 houses in Sanʿa, 35 of them occupied by Jews.

We have some more solid information regarding the next move of the Sanāni Jews from Barāsh and the Qaṣr to their first neighborhood in the city between the walls, in the eastern quarter today known as al-Fulayī. All sources attest that Jews were forcefully expelled from the heights of Jabal Nuqūm as part of anti-Jewish discriminatory and humiliating regulations. This did not take place immediately after the Muslim occupation of Yemen in 629, but many years later, probably under the rule of the Egyptian *Ayyubids (1173–1254). Al-Fulayī was located at the eastern end of the city, not far from the Sā'ilah, the wādī dividing the city from north to south. The Jews first built their new houses south of the gate leading to the close town of Shu'ūb, near the Wādī al-Marbakī. Rabbi Joseph Qāfiḥ informs us that, while he was visiting a Muslim scholar in al-Fulayī in the early 1940s, the latter showed him that his house was originally a Jewish one, as attested by the roof of the living room built to be removed for the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jewish origin of many houses in the city and their typical structure was determined as well by the German anthropologist Carl Rathjens, who visited Yemen in the 1920s and the 1930s. It is not known how long the Jews lived in this place, but it seems that for a certain period they still kept their synagogue in the Qaṣr, as attested by remains of a Bible on which it was noted that it belonged to the Hanīsat al-yahūd fi Hārat al-Qaṣr (the synagogue of the Jews in the neighborhood of al-Qaṣr) and dated to some years after the Jews were expelled from there by the Ayyubids.

For unknown reasons, and in an unknown year, the Jews had again to abandon their houses in the quarter of al-Fulayī and to move westward and build new houses on both sides of the Sā'ilah. There they suffered from the occasionally drastic floods of the Sā'ilah. From different documents one may deduce that this happened between 1615 and 1662, but from a note in a manuscript (see below) we can determine that it happened already in 1457.

The spiritual center of the Jewish Sanani community was the central synagogue, kanīsat al-'ulamā' or Midrash ha-Ḥakhamim (the Academy of the Scholars), which moved with the Jews from one place to another. It functioned as a Supreme Court of Appeal not only in regard to Jewish courts throughout Yemen, but in regard to the central Jewish court in Sanʿa itself. From a note in a manuscript in the library of Leiden we learn that the old synagogue of Sanʿa was destroyed in 1457 under the rule of Aḥmad 'Amir, the founder of the Dāhirī dynasty, and that the one located in the Sā'ilah was destroyed in 1679. This synagogue was later restored as a mosque – Masjid al-Jalā' (the Mosque of the Expulsion).

The destruction of the latter synagogue was part of the big tragic event of Galut *Mawza' in which almost all the Jews of Yemen were expelled from their neighborhoods in cities, towns, and villages to the ancient small town in the west of Yemen, not far from the port town of *Mokha. That was a result of the Jewish messianic movement in 1667, when some Jews in Yemen, headed by a Slaymān Jamāl, a Jewish Sanani scholar, followed the messianic Shabbatean movement and tried to seize control of Sanʿa from the Muslim governor in the Qasr. The Jews were aggressively punished and, after a legal-religious debate between Muslim scholars of Yemen, Imām al-Mutawakkil Ismā'īl (1644–1676) accepted the conclusion that the Jews had lost their right to live as *dhimmis (a protected community) under the Zaydi imamate and ordered his heir al-Mahdī Ahmad ibn al-Hasan (1676–1681) to expel all the Jews. When the expulsion edict was canceled in 1681, the Jews of Sanʿa, like Jews in other localities throughout Yemen, were not allowed to return to their neighborhoods and houses within the walls and had to build for themselves meager new houses outside the city, close to the Muslim garden neighborhood of Bīr al-'Azab. This new Jewish neighborhood was called Qā' al-Yahūd (the valley of the Jews), which for almost 140 years was completely exposed to assaults of the tribal warriors. Only in 1818 was Qā' al-Yahūd annexed to the city by a protecting wall.

The houses in Qā' al-Yahūd were small and poor, not more than two stories high in accordance with the humiliating anti-Jewish regulations, and the streets very narrow and unpleasant. During the years of chaos in the 19th century, most of the houses were abandoned by the Jews, who moved to the periphery. But following the Turkish occupation in 1872 the Jewish neighborhood was populated and, in 1876, a new neighborhood, al-Qaryah al-Jadīda, was built south of the old one. During the 1930s and the 1940s, under the rule of Imām Yahyā (1904–1948), 'al-Yahūd became very crowded, with at least 10,000 people, by the influx of Jews who left their places in towns and villages on their way to the Land of Israel or to make a better living. But the aliyah in the years 1949–1951 completely emptied the city of its Jews. Today nothing is left in Sanʿa to recall its Jewish history.


Y. Qāfiḥ in: Maḥnayim, 119 (1958), 36–45; C. Rathjens, Jewish Domestic Architecture in San'ā (1957); R.B Sergeant and R. Lewcock, San'āAn Arabian Islamic City (1983); Y. Tobi, Iyyunim bi-Megillat Teman (1986), 56–78.

[Yosef Tobi (2nd ed.)]


views updated May 18 2018

Sana'a (San'a) Capital and largest city of Yemen, 65km (40mi) ne of the Red Sea port of Hodeida. Situated on a high plateau at 2286m (7500ft), it claims to be the world's oldest city, founded by Shem, eldest son of Noah. During the 17th century and from 1872 to 1918, it was part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1918, it became capital of an independent Yemen Arab Republic, and in 1990 capital of the new, unified Yemen. It is noted for its handicrafts. Agriculture (grapes) and industry (iron) are also important. Pop. (2002 est.) 1,653,300.