Inside the Restoration of the Amirya Madrassa

The grandeur beneath the rubble was obvious—'impeccable, perfect materials and perfect proportions.'

By Andrew Lawler|Sunday, April 02, 2006
RELATED TAGS: ARCHAEOLOGY
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yemeni52
With foundation walls three feet thick, the Amiriya, a 16th-century palace and mosque in Rada, Yemen, has weathered earthquakes, monsoons, and tribal warfare. The ruler who sponsored the monument, Sultan Amir ibn Abd al-Wahhab, had a residence on the second floor. The first floor contains this courtyard.
Reha Gunay/Aga Khan Trust for Culture
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yemeni56-full

It took almost 15 years of labor with wooden tools and dental instruments to clean the stucco in the prayer hall. Beneath the whitewash, every crevice was filled with dried carpet-beetle larvae.

Selma al-Radi
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yemeni57-top

The Amiriya is by far the most exuberant of Yemen's 48 surviving painted mosques. Koranic inscriptions and a multitude of brilliant geometric and floral patterns animate the walls of its prayer hall. Above, the hall before and after restoration. Archaeologist Selma al-Radi calls the hall a pattern book of designs. Some, like those shown below, resemble textile designs from India.

Reha Gunay/Aga Khan Trust for Culture
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yemeni57-text
Lamya Khalidi

But before construction began, Portuguese ships were spotted off the coast of Yemen, retracing the course of Vasco da Gama, who had sailed to India in 1498. Soon the Portuguese had taken control of shipping routes in the Indian Ocean. The Mamluks who ruled Egypt solicited help from Sultan Amir to fight the Portuguese. sultan's reluctance to join them led to battles that ended his reign. Trapped by the Mamluk army, was captured and his head impaled on a pike at the entrance to Sanaa, a town about 150 miles from Rada. The Tahirid's ancient enemies, the Zaydi imams from the north of Yemen, took power. They eschewed contact with infidels, and thus the sea trade. For the next 400 years, the imams and the Ottomans of Istanbul vied for control. The Amiriya fell into disrepair.

When al-Radi took on the restoration in 1983, she didn't know where to begin. She consulted with Izzi Muhammad Gasaa, a master stonemason in town, who agreed to work at half his rate. "Ifollowed him," she says, "and learned from him."

He died in 1987 at the age of 62, long before the project's completion. But his son, Muhammad Gasaa, continued the work. Al-Radi used the project to foster traditional building skills among a cadre of workers whom she hopes will rescue the region's heritage. "Eventually, these people will export their knowledge of plaster, wood, masonry, mud bricks, and waterproofing," she says.

Al-Radi despises the common practice of using cement to repair ancient buildings. "Slapping on cement is easy and cheap, but it actually pulls a building apart," she says. "I've told officials in Syria and Jordan and elsewhere that we have the knowledge and techniques to do this correctly, but they think I'm the funniest thing they've ever met."

Using a mortar called qudad, made from a mix of quicklime and volcanic cinders, al-Radi's workers pound a layer into the cracks between brick or stone, then smear a thin layer over the entire external surface of the building. Workers spend months polishing the surface with smooth river stones. Hairline cracks mean that large expanses must be redone. Once completed, qudad can last centuries with little maintenance.

On a recent afternoon, a local man seated in the shade across from the Amiriya called out sharply to al-Radi, asking when he will once again be able to pray in the Amiriya. "It will be a museum," she replied, just as brusquely. 

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