Bringing a Zabid guesthouse back to life

16 Aug

Malak Shaher

Yemen Times


For a poor construction worker, the restoration of the 14 large rooms, two kitchens and two bathrooms of a two-storey building might have been no more than a way of earning a living. But he and his colleagues were in fact working on the conservation of one of the landmark buildings in the historical town of Zabid, western Yemen.

Around 90 years ago, Salem Shami, a famous Yemeni mason, constructed the building these poor construction workers were restoring.

He built Dar Al-Diyafa, literally “the guest house,” for Arabs and foreigners who visit the city of Zabid, famous for having over 200 mosques and madrasas, schools for those who seek Islamic knowledge.

Zabid is one of the oldest urban settlements in Yemen, in the western lowlands of the Hodeida governorate, about ten miles from the Red Sea.

Zabid was the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th century, and was a city of great importance in the Arab and Muslim world for many centuries because of its Islamic university.

Today the city is in decline and in a very poor state of conservation. Around 40 percent of the city’s houses have been replaced by concrete buildings, and other houses and the ancient souq are in a deteriorating state.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2000 added Zabid to its List of World Heritage Danger to facilitate its preservation. At the time, Zabid beat the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary in Senegal and the Fort and Shalamar Gardens in Lahore, Pakistan, to the top of the list as the site most urgently needing conservation.

To preserve the unique architectural style of Dar Al-Diyafa, the US Embassy in Yemen in cooperation with the Social Fund for Development this July completed the restoration of Dar Al-Diyafa.

After the restoration, a collection of historic manuscripts from the town’s Al-Asha’er mosque were displayed in the house, and the house was to be open to the public soon after its restoration was completed.

In July 2010, the US Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation granted USD 111,000 to restore the house. The funding is part of the wider United States Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation which, in 2006, donated USD 2.8 million to fund 87 projects in 76 countries around the world.

The restoration of Dar Al-Diyafa also included the provision of equipment for continuing reservation work and onsite conservation training for local experts.

This year, the Netherlands Funds-in-Trust (NFIT) has also supported the training of Yemeni experts in conservation techniques for all of Yemen’s historical cities. The trust signed an agreement with the Government of the Netherlands and UNESCO to support the World Heritage Centre to help the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY).

This July, the latter started a training program to convey knowledge, values, skills, and experiences of architectural and urban conservation and management to Yemenis. Through coursework and field exercises, the training aimed to strengthen heritage conservation in Yemen.

The participants learned about the proper methodology to develop conservation plans for historic buildings and settlements


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