Sana'a, also spelled "Sana", is the capital of Yemen and the centre of San‘a’ Governorate; however the city itself is not part of the Governorate, but forms the separate administrative district of "Amanat Al-Asemah".

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Sana'a (Arabic: صنعاء‎ Ṣanʿāʾ pronounced [sˤɑnʕaːʔ], Yemeni Arabic: [ˈsˤɑnʕɑ]), also spelled "Sana", is the capital of Yemen and the centre of San‘a’ Governorate; however the city itself is not part of the Governorate, but forms the separate administrative district of "Amanat Al-Asemah".

Sana'a is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. At an altitude of 2,300 metres (7,500 ft), it is also one of the highest capital cities in the world. Sana'a has a population of approximately 1,937,500 (2012) making it Yemen's largest city. The old city of Sana'a, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a distinctive visual character due its unique architectural characteristics, most notably expressed in its multi-story buildings decorated with geometric patterns.[1][2]


Astronaut View of Sana'a

Ancient period

Sana'a is one of the oldest populated places in the world. According to popular legend it was founded by Shem, the son of Noah.[3][4] It was known as "Azal" in ancient times, referring to Uzal, a son of Qahtan who was a great-grandson of Shem. Its current name likely derived from the South Arabian word for "well-fortified". Arab historian al-Hamdani wrote that Sana'a was walled by the Sabeans under their ruler Sha'r Awtar who also built the Ghumdan Palace in the city. Because of its location, Sana'a has served as an urban center for the surrounding tribes of the region and as a nucleus of regional trade in southern Arabia. It was positioned at the crossroad of two major ancient trade routes linking Marib in the east to the Red Sea in the west.[4]

When King Yousef Athar (or Dhu Nuwas), the last of the Himyarite kings, was in power, Sana'a was also the capital of the Ethiopian viceroys.

Islamic era

As of the dawn of Islam until the detachment of independent sub-states in many parts of Yemen Islamic Caliphate, Sana'a persisted as the governing seat, who himself is Caliph's deputy in running the affairs of one of Yemen's Three Makhalifs: Mikhlaf Sana'a, Mikhlaf al-Janad and Mikhlaf Hadhramawt. The city of Sana'a recurrently assumed an important status and all Yemenite States competed to control it.

The 8th-century Islamic jurist and founder of the Shafi'i school or jurisprudence, Imam al-Shafi'i visited Sana'a several times and praised the city, writing La budda min Ṣanʻāʼ or "Sana'a must be seen." In the 9th–10th century, the Yemeni geographer al-Hamdani took note of the city's cleanliness, saying "The least dwelling there has a well or two, a garden and long cesspits separate from each other, empty of ordure, without smell or evil odors, because of the hard concrete (adobe and Cob probably) and fine pastureland and clean places to walk." Later in the 10th-century, Persian geographer Ibn Rustah wrote of Sana'a "It is the city of Yemen—there not being found ... a city greater, more populous or more prosperous, of nobler origin or more delicious food than it."

In 1062 Sana'a was taken over by the Sulayhid dynasty led by Ali al-Sulayhi and his wife, the popular Queen Asma, who made the city capital of his relatively small kingdom which also included the Haraz Mountains. The Sulayhids were aligned with the Ismaili Muslim leaning Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt, rather than the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate which most of Arabia followed. Al-Sulayhi ruled for about 20 years but his reign was ended following his assassination by his principal local rivals, the Zabid-based Najahids. Following his death, al-Sulayhi's daughter, Arwa al-Sulayhi, inherited the throne, but promptly withdrew from Sana'a transferring the Sulayhid capital to Jibla where she ruled much of Yemen from 1067 to 1138. As a result of the Sulayhid departure, the Hamdanid dynasty took control of Sana'a.[5]

In 1173 Saladin, the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, sent his brother Turan-Shah on an expedition to conquer Yemen. The Ayyubids were able to gain control of Sana'a in 1175 and united the various Yemeni tribal states except for the northern mountains controlled by the Zaydi imams into one entity.[5] The Ayyubids switched the country's official religious allegiance to the Sunni Muslim Abbasids. During the reign of Ayyubid emir Tughtekin ibn Ayyub, the city underwent significant improvements and the incorporation of the garden lands on the western bank of the Sa'ilah, known as Bustan al-Sultan, where the Ayyubids built one of their palaces.[6] Despite Sana'a's strategic position, the Ayyubids chose Ta'izz as their capital while Aden was their principal income-producing city.

While the Rasulids controlled most of Yemen, followed by their successors the Tahirids, Sana'a largely remained in the political orbit of the Zaydi imams from 1323 to 1454 and outside of the former two dynasties rule.[7] The Mamelukes arrived in Yemen in 1517.

Ottoman era

The Ottoman Empire entered Yemen in 1538 when Suleiman the Magnificent was Sultan.[8] Under the military leadership of Özdemir Pasha, the Ottomans conquered Sana'a in 1547.[7] With Ottoman approval, European captains based in the Yemeni port towns of Aden and Mocha frequented Sana'a to maintain special privileges and capitulations for their trade. In 1602 local Zaydi imams led by Imam al-Mu'ayyad reasserted their control over the area,[8] and forced out Ottoman troops in 1629. Although the Ottomans fled during al-Mu'ayyad's reign, it was his predecessor al-Mansur al-Qasim who had vastly weakened the Ottoman army in Sana'a and Yemen.[7] Consequently, European traders were stripped of their previous privileges.[8]

The Zaydi imams maintained their rule over Sana'a until the Ottomans relaunched their campaign to control the region in the mid 19th-century. In 1835, Ottoman troops arrived on the Yemeni coast under the guise of Muhammad Ali of Egypt's troops,[8] but were unable to capture Sana'a until 1872 when their troops led by Ahmed Muhtar Pasha entered the city.[7] The Ottoman Empire instituted the Tanzimat reforms throughout the lands they governed. In Sana'a, city planning was initiated for the first time, new roads were built and schools and hospitals were established. The reforms were rushed by the Ottomans in order to soldify their control of Sana'a to compete with an expanding Egypt, British influence in Aden and imperial Italian and French influence along the coast of Somalia, particularly in the towns of Djibouti and Berbera. The modernization reforms in Sana'a were still very limited, however.[9]

North Yemen period

The residence of Imam Yahya in the Wādī Ẓahr (وادى ظهر) near Sana'a

The oldest known copy of the Qur'an, found in Sana'a in 1972

In 1904, as Ottoman influence was waning in Yemen, Imam Yahya of the Zaydi imams took power in Sana'a. In a bid to secure North Yemen's independence, Yahya embarked on a policy of isolationism, avoiding international and Arab world politics, cracking down on embryonic liberal movements, not contributing to the development of infrastructure in Sana'a and elsewhere and closing down the Ottoman girls' school. As a consequence of Yahya's measures, Sana'a increasingly became a center of anti-government organization and intellectual revolt.[9]

In the 1930s, several organizations opposing or demanding reform of the Zaydi imamate sprung up in the city, particularly Fatat al-Fulayhi, a group of various Yemeni Muslim scholars based in Sana'a's Fulayhi Madrasa, and Hait al-Nidal ("Committee of the Struggle.") By 1936 the leaders of these movements mostly imprisoned. In 1941 another group based in the city, the Shabab al-Amr bil-Maruf wal-Nahian al-Munkar, called for a nahda ("renaissance") in the country as well as the establishment of a parliament with Islam being the instrument of Yemeni revival. Yahya largely repressed the Shabab and most of its leaders were executed following his son, Imam Ahmad's inheritance of power in 1948.[9] That year, Sana'a was replaced with Ta'izz as capital following Ahmad's new residence there. Most government offices followed suit. A few years later, most of the city's Jewish population emigrated to Israel.[10]

Ahmad began a process of gradual economic and political liberalization, but by 1961 Sana'a was witnessing major demonstrations and riots demanding quicker reform and change. Pro-republican officers in the North Yemeni military sympathetic of Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt's government and pan-Arabist policies staged a coup overthrowing the Imamate government in September 1962, a week after Ahmad's death.[9] Sana'a's role as capital was restored afterward.[10] Neighboring Saudi Arabia opposed this development and actively supported North Yemen's rural tribes, pitting large parts of the country against the urban and largely pro-republican inhabitants of Sana'a.[9] The North Yemen Civil War resulted in the destruction of some parts of the city's ancient heritage and continued until 1968 when a deal between the republicans and the royalists was reached,[10] establishing a presidential system. Instability in Sana'a continued due to continuing coups and political assassinations until the situation in the country stabilized in the late 1970s.[9]

British writer Jonathan Raban visited in the 1970s and described the city as fortress-like, its architecture and layout resembling a labyrinth," further noting "It was like stepping out into the middle of a vast pop-up picturebook. Away from the street, the whole city turned into a maze of another kind, a dense, jumbled alphabet of signs and symbols."

Contemporary era

Following the unification of Yemen, Sana'a was designated capital of the new Republic of Yemen. It houses the presidential palace, the parliament, the supreme court and the country's government ministries. The largest source of employment is provided by the governmental civil service. Due to massive rural immigration, Sana'a has grown far outside its Old City, but this has placed a huge strain on the city's underdeveloped infrastructure and municipal services, particularly water.[9]

Sana'a was chosen as the 2004 Arab Cultural Capital by the Arab League. In 2008, the Saleh Mosque was completed. It holds over 40,000 worshipers.

On 21 May 2012, Sana'a was attacked by a suicide bomber, resulting in the deaths of 120 people.

Geography and climate


Generally, Sana'a is divided into two parts: the Old City District ("al-Qadeemah") and the new city ("al-Jadid.") The former is much smaller and retains the city's ancient heritage and mercantile way-of-living while the latter is an urban sprawl with many suburbs and modern buildings. The newer parts of the city were largely developed in the 1960s and onward when Sana'a was chosen as the republican capital.[10]

The following are the list of districts in the city:

New City

  • Al Wahdah District
  • As Sabain District
  • Assafi'yah District
  • At Tahrir District
  • Ath'thaorah District
  • Az'zal District
  • Bani Al Harith District
  • Ma'ain District
  • Shu'aub District

Old City

  • Old City District


Sana'a features the very rare mild version of a desert climate. Sana'a sees on average approximately 200 mm of precipitation per year. However, due to its high elevation, temperatures are much more moderate than many other cities on the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, average temperatures remain relatively constant throughout the year in Sana'a, with its coldest month being January and its warmest month in July. The city seldom experiences extreme heat or cold. However, some areas around the city can see temperatures fall to around 15 or 20 °F (−8°C) during winter. Frost usually occurs in the early winter mornings, and there is a slight wind chill in the city at elevated ares that causes the cold mornings to be oddly bitter, including low humidity. The Sun warms the city to the high 60s and low 70s during the noontime but it drops drastically as night falls in. The city experiences many microclimates from district to district because of its location in the Sana'a basin and uneven elevations throughout the city. Summers are warm and can cool rapidly at night, especially after rainfall. Sana'a receives half of its annual rainfall during the months of July and August. Rainfall comes depending on the year; some years could see 500–600 mm of rainfall, while others can barely get 150 mm. High temperatures have increased slightly during the summer over the past few years, however, low temperatures and winter temperatures have dramatically fallen over the same period.

Climate data for Sana'a (2250 m)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 19.8
Average low °C (°F) 5.1
Precipitation mm (inches) 0.0
Source: National Weather Service


Old City

The old fortified city has been inhabited for more than 2,500 years and contains many intact architectural gems. It was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1986. Efforts are underway to preserve some of the oldest buildings some of which, such as the Samsarh and the Great Mosque of Sana'a, are more than 1,400 years old. Surrounded by ancient clay walls which stand 9–14 metres (30–46 ft) high, the old city contains more than 100 mosques, 12 hammams (baths) and 6,500 houses. Many of the houses resemble ancient skyscrapers, reaching several stories high and topped with flat roofs. They are decorated with elaborate friezes and intricately carved frames and stained-glass windows.

One of the most popular attractions is Suq al-Milh (Salt Market), where it is possible to buy salt along with bread, spices, raisins, cotton, copper, pottery, silverware, and antiques. The 7th-century Jami' al-Kabir (Great Mosque) is one of the oldest mosques in the world. The Bāb al-Yaman (Yemen Gate) is an iconized entry point through the city walls and is more than 1,000 years old. Nearby is Tahreer Square, also known as Freedom Square or Change Square, which has been the site of protests, and where Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakel Karman has been camped in a tent throughout the Arab Spring movement.

A commercial area of the old city is known as Al Madina where development is proceeding rapidly. In addition to three large hotels, there are numerous stores and restaurants. The area also contains three parks and the President's palace.


Football (soccer) is the most popular sport in Sana'a. The city is home to the Ali Muhesen Stadium, home of the Yemen national football team, and is mostly used for football matches. The stadium holds 25,000 people.


Year Population
1911 18,000[11]
1921 25,000[12]
1931 25,000
1940 80,000
1963 100,000
1965 110,000
1975 134,600[13]
1981 280,000
1986 427,505
1994 954,448
2001 1,590,624
2004 1,748,000 (Census-Metro[14])
2005 1,937,451[7]

Population growth spiked starting in the 1960s as a result of mass rural migration to the city in search of employment and improved standard of living.[10] Sana'a is the fastest growing capital city in the world with a growth rate of 7%,[15] while the growth rate of the nation as a whole is 3.2%.[16] About 10% of the population resides in the Old City, while the remainder live in the outside districts.[10]

Jewish community

Jews have been present in Yemen since the 10th-century BCE and form one of the most historic Jewish diasporas. After the creation of the state of Israel about 49,000 (of an estimated 51,000) of Yemeni Jews were airlifted to Israel, almost 10,000 of whom were from Sana'a (see the English-language book Jews and Muslims in lower Yemen: a study in protection and restraint, 1918–1949). There was essentially no Jewish population in Sana'a until the Sa'dah insurgency broke out in Saada Governorate in 2004. The Houthi rebels directly threatened the Jewish community in 2007, prompting the government of President Saleh to offer them refuge in Sana'a. As of 2010, there were around 70 Jews living in the capital under government protection.[17]


As the capital city of Yemen, 40% of jobs in Sana'a are in the public sector. Other primary sources of formal employment in the city are trade and industry. Like many other cities in the developing world, Sana'a has a large informal sector which is estimated to constitute 32% of nongovernmental employment. However, while there is a greater variety of jobs in Sana'a as compared to other cities in Yemen, there is also greater poverty and unemployment. It is estimated that 25% of the labor force in Sana'a is unemployed.[18]


Yemenia, the national airline of Yemen, has its head office in Sana'a.[19] Sana'a International Airport is Yemen's main domestic and international airport. There is currently no rail network but there are plans to install one in the future. A primary means of transport in the city is via dababs, minibuses which carry about 10 people. Taxis are also a very common form of public transport and there are coaches to major cities such as Aden and Taiz.

The 1,000-year old Bab Al-Yemen (the Gate of Yemen) at the centre of the old town.



  1. Young, T. Luke. "Conservation of the Old Walled City of Sana'a Republic of Yemen". MIT.
  2. Anna Hestler; Jo-Ann Spilling (1 January 2010). Yemen. Marshall Cavendish. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-7614-4850-1. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
  3. Marchand, p.1.
  4. Aithe, p.30.
  5. McLaughlin, p.16.
  6. Elsheshtawy, p.92.
  7. Bosworth, p.463.
  8. Dumper, p.330.
  9. Dumper, p.331.
  10. Ring and Salkin, p.631.
  11. Wavell, p.245.
  12. Statesman's Year Book, 1922, p.1367.
  13. Hestler, p.56.
  14. Aldosari, p.134.
  15. "Sana'a running out of water with no plan to save it". The Global Urbanist. Retrieved 23 March 2010.
  16. "At a glance: Yemen – Statistics". UNICEF.
  17. Persecuted Yemeni Jews to be given sanctuary in Britain, The Independent, 14 April 2010.
  18. "Sana'a, A City Development Strategy". The Cities Alliance. 2006.
  19. "Yemenia." Arab Air Carriers Organization. Retrieved 26 October 2009.