City of Divine and Earthly Joys: The Description of San’a
by Sayyid Jamal al-Din Ali al-Shahari, translated and introduced by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
American Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS), 2001 . Yemen Translation Series 3. Pp. xii + 34. Notes. Bibliog. Pb. ISBN 1-882557-07-7. Distributed by The Middle East Studies Association of North America, 1643 Helen Street, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA.
This slim volume contains a vivid account of the social and economic life and architectural richness of Sana’a in the mid-l8th century, a time of relative peace and prosperity for Yemen under Imam al-Mahdi Abbas. It might not have been written if the author, a fourth generation descendant of Imam al-Qasim the Great, had not been imprisoned in 1753 for threatening the life of an elderly preacher in the city’s Great Mosque. Jamal al-Din’s sensitivity to detail and atmosphere is that of a man seeking to relive on paper cherished scenes of city life from which imprisonment has debarred him: Quranic recitations in lamplit mosques; poolside qat gatherings; sunlight gleaming on freshly plastered walls; bustling crowds at the city gates ‘like a huge multitude of ants at the entrances to their ant-hill when fair weather follows rain.
The Description of San’a, written between 1757-58, is translated from the Arabic text edited by Abdullah bin Muhammad al-Hibshi and published in 1993 by the Centre Francais d’Etudes Yemenites. It forms part of a much longer manuscript work held in the library of the Great Mosque. This translated extract is, essentially, a personal account of the city’s mosques and mosque gardens, houses, building materials and techniques, goods traded in the suqs, public baths, the garden suburbs, the Jewish community, and the social role of the mafraj. It also discusses arrangements for the disposal and recycling of waste, with the author remarking: ‘as for the cleanliness of this city, it is a matter which the tongue could not find words enough to describe’. If not in this respect, in many other respects the picture which Jamal al-Din Ali presents will be familiar to those who have had the opportunity to visit old Sana’a. What draws him still closer to us is his humanity — the affection and pride which inform his portrayal of an historic and flourishing city.
Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s scholarly introduction and notes add substantively to the value and interest of the text.