Reinforced concrete, corrugated iron and breezeblocks are encroaching on the Grand Mosque of Zabid, an ancient cultural and economic capital of Yemen that today lies in danger of ruin.
"What is happening in Zabid is terrible. These priceless archaeological treasures are just dying," warned Francois Burgat, director of the French Centre for Yemeni Studies.
"This town on the Tihama, the (Red Sea) coastal plain of Yemen, has stood the test of time for eight centuries. But over the last two decades, it's been falling apart," he said.
Along with Sanaa and Shibam, on the ancient incense route and dubbed the "Manhattan of the Desert" for its centuries-old skyscrapers, Zabid is on UNESCO'S list of world heritage sites.
But the authorities in Yemen, one of the poorest countries on earth, have been slow to adopt a conservation policy for treasures such as Zabid.
"Zabid was a shining light in the Arab and Muslim world for centuries thanks above all to Al-Ashair University and Grand Mosque, whose reputation was as high as that of Cairo's Al-Azhar," writes Paul Bonnenfant, a researcher at the French centre.
Founded in the 9th century, "it was also a major trading center because of its location as an international axis between Aden and Mecca, through which goods transited from India to the Mediterranean," he adds.
Zabid is now paying a heavy price for a modernization in which planning has taken a back seat.
The brick-built town with its reputation as the birthplace of algebra has been disfigured by apartment blocks while ancient ornaments lie abandoned or are being swamped by the reinforced concrete of modern development.
The lack of adequate drainage for waste water and for the region's rare but heavy rainfall is eating away at foundations and walls of the old buildings, while trash fills the streets of the town of 20,000.
Zabid remains an education centre for two schools of orthodox Islam law, Shafiism and Hanafism, as well as religious sciences and Arabic grammar.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has commissioned a technical study on ways to protect the town and financed archaeological, architectural and ethnological assignments.
Among dozens of action plans, the study has called for monuments to be restored and the preservation of ancient manuscripts.
"But the protection of the town requires an urgent and huge mobilization if we want to conserve one of the most prestigious testimonials of human history," Bonnenfant stressed.
Zabid would need infrastructure projects and "productive activities involving the local community".
The program will also need funding from Yemen's oil-rich neighbors in the Arabian Peninsula, said Burgat. "Every day another treasure dies in Yemen. Gulf donors must know this, after all it's a part of their history too." - SANAA (AFP)
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