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Volume 50, Number 3May/June 1999

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Moonglow from Underground

Written by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

I live in a masterpiece. Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, is one of the most visually dramatic cities in the world. Its soaring houses—many, like mine, as high as seven stories—are of tawny mud brick banded by white plaster friezes and topped by dizzy parapets. "Sanaa," wrote a Yemeni poet in the ninth century, when the city was already considered ancient, "of the mansions and towers tall, high in antiquity, from time afore." Yet today, Sanaa is no museum exhibit: The brickmakers and masons, builders, joiners and plasterers are as busy as ever.

One craft, however, famous since pre-Islamic times, has almost disappeared: the cutting of alabaster windows. The windows are disappearing too, as more and more are replaced by glass, but if you wander around Sanaa at night, you can still glimpse a few, set high above the alleyways, diffusing subtle, enigmatic light.

No less enigmatic to me was how this alabaster got from under the ground into the window frames of Sanaani houses in the first place. With the help of an old friend, Hajj Abdullah al-Sayrafi, one of the few people left who know the process, and with a video cassette, I began to find out.

The video was a copy of the earliest known moving images of Yemen, filmed in 1937 by a French visitor, René Clément. As we watched, Hajj Abdullah gave a running commentary: "There's Bab al-Yaman...and the Cloth Suq.... Look! This is Suq al-Jabbanah, where we used to work, and—Stop!" I pressed the pause button as two men, caught in mid-stroke, sawed through a slab of alabaster. The film showed a world which, in many ways, remains unchanged: The crowds still press in the great suqs; the blacksmiths still squat by the furnaces, hammering, and the camel still turns the sesame press. But the alabaster cutters are gone. Hajj Abdullah gazed at the moment from his childhood. "That one might be Hajj Mushin al-Sayrafi, or al-Izzi. And Darwish used to work for us. But...I can't make them out. Of course, I was only a boy at the time."

At 63, Hajj Abdullah comes from the most famous family of alabaster cutters and merchants in Sanaa. He himself joined the business only a few years after the film was made. "It was hard work," he reminisced. "We used to start at dawn when it was cool, and we'd cut four panes before breakfast. And alabaster isn't like wood. It's uncooperative!" I pressed the play button again. The pair of figures working the two-man saw made the job look deceptively easy. With each long stroke, a shower of white dust fell, catching the sunlight.

The film came to an end. I looked out of the window into the night. Here, in the heart of Sanaa, the tall houses had melted into the darkness, but their lighted windows, mostly two rows on each floor, hovered in the gloom. Traditionally, the lower windows are glazed conventionally, while above them are other openings—arches, semicircles or pairs of circles one above the other. Most of the upper windows I could see were intricate traceries of plaster and colored glass; but a few shone with the dim, soft luminescence of alabaster, the color of clotted cream. The moon glowed overhead. Looking at it, it was easy to see how alabaster had got its Arabic name: qamari—moonstone.

Exactly when the builders of Sanaa began to use alabaster for lighting is not known. The sculptors of the ancient Yemeni state of Saba were carving alabaster inscriptions and sculpture from at least the fifth century BC. (See Aramco World, March/April 1998.) It was Sabaean rulers who built the sumptuous skyscraper palace of Ghumdan in Sanaa some 1800 years ago. The 10th-century geographer, antiquarian and poet al-Hamdani described it:

It rises, climbing into the midst of the sky,
Twenty floors of no mean height,
Wound with a turban of white cloud
And girdled with alabaster.

The palace's most famous feature was a belvedere on the roof, surrounded by bronze lions and eagles that roared and screeched when the wind blew through them. It was roofed with a single panel of flawless alabaster. This ceiling was so translucent, the sources say, that you could tell crows from kites as they flew overhead. (Poetic license got the better of some writers, who claimed that Ghumdan's lights could be seen in the city of Madinah, 1200 kilometers [750 mi] distant.) Not to be outdone, the Ethiopians who occupied Yemen in the sixth century were said to have included a pane of alabaster 10 cubits (5m, 16') square in the dome of their cathedral.

Probably the earliest alabaster in situ is a mere stone's throw from the hummock which is all that remains of Ghumdan. Now blackened and plastered over on the outside, several panes in the ceiling of the Great Mosque originally illuminated the area around the mihrab, the niche showing the direction of prayer. They probably date from a reconstruction of the mosque during the caliphate of al-Walid, from 705 to 715.

Yet alabaster was hardly limited to palaces and mosques. Al-Hamdani, in his description of the Arabian Peninsula, writes of a typical Sanaani room under the heading Wonders of Yemen to be Found in No Other Land: "The alabaster panes transmit the sun's brightness to the pastured interior, which reflects its essence and its brilliance."

Alabaster was also set into the domes of bath houses, and a contemporary poet described bathing under "a sky with many moons." While window glass was still a luxury in Europe, Yemenis had found an answer to the problem of illumination—under the ground.

Curious to explore alabaster's subterranean origins, I persuaded Hajj Abdullah to take me to the al-Sayrafi family's mine, out on the road that leads to the ancient Sabaean capital, Marib. Half an hour out of Sanaa, we turned off the paved road and entered a small plain set between cliffs. Isolated hamlets and vineyards dotted the dusty landscape. After a short distance, we came to a line of mounds, recognizable as spoil heaps, up against a low hillside. The crumbly, dun-colored earth glittered with the crystalline fragments of alabaster. After some encouragement from Hajj Abdullah and Sa'id al-Uqbi, a local villager who used to work the mine, I clambered down into the mouth of one of the few shafts that remained open. Bent over under the low ceiling, I descended steeply for 10 meters (35'), until my way was blocked by a cave-in. Looking nervously at the roof of the tunnel, I felt the beginnings of claustrophobia and decided to continue my research at ground level.

"This shaft was one of the shorter ones," Sa'id told me as I brushed the dust off my clothes. "But it went down twice as deep as you got. Then it went straight into the hillside, following the alabaster seam." Alabaster, a type of fine-grained gypsum, occurs in thin layers sandwiched between strata of friable shale. Picture an ant trying to remove the icing from between the layers of a very heavy and crumbly cake—while leaving the cake itself intact—and you have an idea of what it is like to be an alabaster miner.

"When I reached the alabaster," Sa'id went on, "I'd follow the seam, digging out the shale above and below it. Other workers took the spoil to the surface. When I'd excavated a slab about three spans by five, I'd sit under it and chip through three edges where it was joined to the seam. Then, when the slab was completely free, I'd let it down onto my back and carry it up the shaft. We used to follow the seams many meters under the hillside, so it was a long way up to the ground." Since the slabs were around two inches thick and weighed at least 35 kilograms (80 lbs), it is hardly surprising that a skilled miner could extract no more than two a day. And the work was done by the light of a single, flickering kerosene lamp. I felt thoroughly ashamed of my claustrophobia.

The slabs were then carried to Sanaa by camel in sets of four, two placed on each side of the hump. It was at this point that the al-Sayrafis and their workmen took over. Hajj Abdullah took me through the cutting process. First, the shape of the panes required was marked out with a ruler and compass, and the slab cut to shape with a small saw. The next stage was to saw the slab vertically into three or four panes, each about one half to a full centimeter thick (2/10" to 4/10").

"Alabaster has a grain, like wood," Hajj Abdullah told me, "but you have to know how to find it. And different grades have different textures. The first grade, sharifah ("noble"), is the hardest to saw. But it has the finest color, like clarified butter."

Some panes, merely 15 by eight centimeters (6" x 3"), were used to light staircases; other were much larger, like the semicircular windows 125 centimeters across (50") that the al-Sayrafis made for the Dar al-Sa'adah, "The Palace of Felicity" completed by the Yemeni ruler Imam Yahya in 1923. But, while the shapes and sizes varied, I had noticed that alabaster is nearly always set in walls facing either east or west.

"That's because in the morning or the afternoon the sun is low in the sky, and the alabaster cuts out the dazzle," Hajj Abdullah explained. Rather like a polarizing lens, then, alabaster reflects the harsher rays of the sun, but apparently without reducing the amount of light entering the room. "And the strange thing about alabaster," he went on, "is that it seems to increase the light. I remember when my brother Muhammad put two new panes into our top room. I went into the room and said, 'Who lit the pressure lamp?'"

The problem with alabaster, however, is that it darkens and cracks with age, and turns to the color of old ivory, or caramel. The house-proud would renew their alabaster windows as often as every five years. As Yemen opened up to the international economy in the 1960's, a labor-intensive industry such as alabaster cutting was unable to compete with the newly available varieties of inexpensive glass. The al-Sayrafis turned to carpentry, and the moon-windows of Sanaa were eclipsed.

That night, I rewound the video for Hajj Abdullah and we watched the alabaster cutters again. The figures seemed almost balletic, moving with a lightness that belied the hard work. Once more, Hajj Abdullah tried to identify them, recalling names from his boyhood: Hajj Mushin, al-Izzi, al-Tawil, Darwish, al-Ghaythi. As I listened, I thought of the other men before them, now nameless, generations of alabaster cutters going back to the Sabaean builders of Ghumdan, the masters of a craft that has almost entirely disappeared.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith has lived in Yemen for 16 years. He is the author of Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land (1997, John Murray, 0-7195-5622-8), which won the 1998 Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book Award. It will be published this year in the US by Overlook Press.

This article appeared on pages 22-25 of the May/June 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1999 images.