EVEN to the most seasoned traveler in the Arab world, the gingerbread ``tower houses'' and mosques of Sana's old city, fancifully decorated with delicate latticework and swirls of white gypsum, present a unique sight. A veritable museum of medieval Islamic architecture, the walled quarter of Yemen's capital is one reason why tourists are starting to brave minor hardships to come to this exotic mountainous land, once ruled by the Queen of Sheba.
But after surviving centuries of war and occupation, this picturesque gift of Yemen's past has met a more formidable enemy.
Sana's old city ``is threatened by the irreparable decay that modern development inflicts on historic cities,'' says a UNESCO report that four years ago launched a worldwide appeal for money to save old Sana from the ravages of pollution and urban sprawl. Without such support, the report concludes, ``there is a very real danger of the old city's dying.''
As the 20th century belatedly crowds in, residents wonder if the grace of the old city and its non-20th century way of life can be preserved.
``Our trouble started in the '60s when the way of life of the Yemeni people began to change,'' explains Abdulrahman al-Haddad, chairman of a four-year old government commission charged with preserving the old city.
One predator has been water. With pipes now bringing water into the old city, but no drainage system to take it out, dampness has spread, eroding the masonry walls of the caravanserais (inns) and seven- and eight-story tower houses that are home to large extended families.
Another problem has been the cars that now ply the narrow streets, vibrating foundations and forcing many long-time residents out of the old city and into Sana's fast growing suburbs.
Until the early 1960s the entire population of Sana lived in the old city. Today the old city's 50,000 residents make up just over 10 percent of the capital, leaving old Sana, with its rutted streets and open sewers, in a perilous state of decline.
So far nine nations have launched projects to upgrade infrastructure, rehabilitate buildings, and provide materials and technical services. But with money in short supply, old Sana is losing its race with time.
Despite its losing battle with modernity, the old city, with its active mosques and extensive market place, has managed to stay vibrant.
``It's not a dead museum with statues,'' says Mr. Haddad. ``It's a very old city but it is very much alive.''