The village of Al Yanfa is built on the slopes of the Sahn Tamniah, a mountain range in the ’Asir Region in southwest Saudi Arabia. ’Asir can literally be translated as “difficult”, an aptly descriptive moniker referring to the steep slopes of the mountains that cover the region. Realizing how impractical it was to navigate the steep alleyways of Al Yanfa, the villagers decided to deploy architectural ingenuity to solve the problem.
A complex system of warrens was excavated underneath the buildings. These warrens intersect and branch off in different directions, leading eventually to the furthermost buildings of the cluster. Each building can access directly these warrens through one or more doors, which are usually small and tastefully decorated. Light is brought to the darkest sections of this maze by means of lanterns that hang from one of the reinforcing wooden beams.
The warrens are supported by wooden beams and poles, but their walls showcase masterful stone masonry construction. These stone foundations support the upper floors of the buildings, which are made of clay and silt. Each layer of silt and clay is capped with protruding stone slabs neatly arranged in parallel horizontal rows. The slabs protect the walls from rain and, as a result, slow down erosion of the silt and clay.
In addition to solving the problem of navigating steep alleyways, the network of warrens brought other benefits to the villagers of Al Yanfa. The crisscrossing tunnels under the buildings facilitate a constant circulation of air, which provides some solace during the hottest months of the year. This feature enhances the tried-and-true choice of building houses attached to one another to reduce direct exposure to the elements. In a similar vein, these warrens provide shelter during rainfalls and sandstorms, which are quite common in this region.
It is important to point out that these are not ancient ruins—people still live in the buildings of Al Yanfa. Although some buildings are in disrepair, many others are well kept, with different degrees of work done, including structural reinforcement, upward extension of the building, retrofitting, and renovation of the outer walls.