SOAS University of London

SOAS academic curates new exhibition on the architectural heritage of Yemen

10 July 2017

Trevor H.J. Marchand, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at SOAS University of London, has curated a new exhibition on the architectural heritage of Yemen opening this week in SOAS’s Brunei Gallery.

Yemen possesses one of the world’s finest treasure-troves of architecture and three of its ancient cities – Shibam, į¹¢anaa and Zabid – are UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. "Buildings That Fill My Eye" Architectural Heritage of Yemen, sponsored by the MBI Al Jaber Foundation, explores the astonishing variety of building styles and traditions that have evolved over millennia in a region of diverse terrains, extreme climates and distinctive local histories.

Buildings that fill my eye - picture 1

View of the town of Shibam in Wadi Hadhramaut. The multi-storey houses are built of mud brick. Shibam is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photograph by T. H. J. Marchand

Generations of highly skilled masons, carpenters and craftspeople have deftly employed the materials-to-hand and indigenous technologies to create urban architectural assemblages, gardens and rural landscapes that dialogue harmoniously with the natural contours and conditions of southern Arabia. In turn, the place-making practices of Yemen’s builders have played a significant role in fostering tight-knit communities with a strong sense of pride and distinct cultural identities.

Conflict and resistance, too, have contributed to the history of Yemeni design, town planning, and civil engineering. Yemen’s built environment is characterised by sturdy forts and fortifications; towering houses with windowless ground storeys and heavy timber doors; steeply-terraced mountainsides for cultivation; deep lime-plastered water cisterns; fine arched bridges, and vast networks of stone-paved pathways connecting strategically-perched mountaintop villages. These features have aroused the aesthetic sensibilities of visitors for centuries, but they also speak of a requisite need for domination, defensibility, and self-sufficiency during times of attack or siege.

Tragically, a sharp escalation in violence in the country since the 1990s has culminated in hydra-headed conflict, involving international adversaries. This has resulted in thousands of civilian fatalities and millions more displaced and on the brink of starvation. The region’s rich cultural heritage, too, has been a casualty of the conflict. The aim of this exhibition is to remind the world of Yemen’s tremendous cultural creativity and the need for international collaboration to protect it and its people from the destructive forces that have beset the region.

The exhibition opens in the Brunei Gallery on 13 July and runs until 23 September. The exhibition has received additional support from Gingko Library and the British-Yemeni Society