Yemen Finds Dreamland of Architecture

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SANA, Yemen — It has been almost 800 years since Saleh Qaid Othaim’s house in the heart of the Old City was built from hand-cut stones and traditional alabaster decorations.

Yet on a recent morning, Mr. Othaim watched contentedly as a group of men renovated the place using exactly the same ancient methods and materials. Workers mixed the moist chocolate-brown masonry known as teen while a master builder supervised, a dagger hanging from his belt. There was no scaffolding, no helmets, no whine of machines: only the scraping of trowels and masonry, interrupted at last by the call to prayer in the high desert air.

“I don’t care how long it takes,” said Mr. Othaim, a government worker. “The most important thing is that it be done in a traditional way.”

The capital’s Old City is one of the world’s architectural gems, a thicket of unearthly medieval towers etched with white filigree and crowned with stained-glass windows. But more unusual than their mere survival is the fact that the traditional building arts continue to thrive here. Elsewhere in the Middle East, many older houses are being ripped down to make way for bland steel-and-glass high-rise buildings. The hyper-modern skyline of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with its mismatched skyscrapers looking as if they were hurled down at the Persian Gulf from outer space, is being emulated in Beirut and other cities.

Yemen is different. For all its many woes — wars, a water crisis and the rise of Al Qaeda — the country’s adherence to ancient traditions often makes it feel like a refuge. Even outside the Old City, the bands and crescents of medieval Yemeni architecture can be seen on many newer buildings and homes, along with the translucent alabaster windows known as gammariyas...

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