Yemen battles to save ancient heritage from destruction

Museum in Taiz latest casualty of conflict in which more than 40 sites caught in the crossfire of Saudi-led bombing campaign and fundamentalist attacks

by Marie Zawisza  |  5 February 2016
Yemen battles to save ancient heritage from destruction
Aftermath of Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen and one of three Unesco World Heritage Sites in the country that have been damaged in ongoing fighting. Photo: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Air strikes by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition and attacks by fundamentalist groups linked to Al Qaeda and Isil have caused widespread destruction to Yemen’s heritage, losses that have been under-reported compared with the destruction wreaked by extremists in Syria and northern Iraq.

The latest casualty is the National Museum in the city of Taiz, which was badly damaged when shelled by Houthis militants on Sunday, the Associated Press reports.

The coalition’s bombing campaign, which began last March, together with iconoclasm by Islamist extremists, has resulted in damage and destruction to 47 sites in Yemen during the crisis, according to the country’s General Organisation of Antiquities, Museums and Manuscripts (Goamm). They include three Unesco World Heritage Sites: Sanaa, Zadib (the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th century) and Shibam (nicknamed “Manhattan in the desert” because of its towers, built in the 16th century). Meanwhile, an Isil suicide bombing in June caused major damage to the Qubat al Mahdi mosque in the capital Sanaa.

Silence in the West

The reasons for the West’s relative indifference to the destruction in Yemen? “Yemeni heritage does not recall classical antiquity, as does Palmyra [in Syria],” says Samir Abdulac, who is chairman of the International Council on Monuments and Sites’ working group for safeguarding cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq and neighbouring countries.

Politics is another reason for the silence. Since March 2015, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia—an ally and partner of the West—has been carrying out intense air raids in Yemen to hunt down Iranian-backed Houthi militants. The coalition’s ongoing campaign has caused the bulk of the destruction to the country’s heritage. “In wartime, alas, military forces don’t look at the heritage value of a site if they consider it necessary to bomb it,” Abdulac says.

“[The Saudi Arabian-led coalition] has been informed since the beginning of the war about sites to avoid, with the co-ordinates provided to them by Unesco,” says Anna Paolini, the director of the Unesco office in Doha, Qatar, representing the Arab states in the Gulf and Yemen. Some heritage sites could have a strategic military interest for the Houthis—sites such as the Medieval fortress of Al Qahera in Taiz, in the southwest of the country, which was destroyed last June.

Other destroyed sites could have been collateral damage, rather than direct targets­—for example, the ancient site of Baraqish and its recently restored temple and murals. “The coalition had targeted a camp of archaeologists—luckily without anyone inside. Undoubtedly, it imagined it was housing weapons,” Paolini says. “Even in this war context, Saudi Arabia hasn’t justified its hits.”

Some experts suspect that Saudi Arabia is directly targeting Yemeni heritage. The archaeologist Lamya Khalidi gives the example of the ancient Marib Dam, which was badly damaged last May. She says: “It’s located in a desert zone. Those who know Yemen, as I do, know that it could not have had any strategic interest, and that no one could hide anything there. Saudi Arabia had the co-ordinates of the site, which could not have been hit by accident.”

Also in May, the Dhamar Regional Museum was pulverised. Around 700 objects were retrieved from the rubble. The attack was justified on the grounds that weapons could have been hidden in the building. “The personnel of Goamm, with whom I have worked for a long time, controlled access to the museum,” Khalidi says. “They had a guard 24 hours a day. How could arms have been deposited there?”

Saving what they can

Yemenis are trying to protect and restore what they can. The General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Sites in Yemen is trying to raise $4.3m from international agencies to restore 113 historic houses damaged by the bombing of Sanaa last summer.

Before the war, all the houses had been recorded with Unesco. “Today, we have all the knowledge needed to reconstruct them identically,” says Nagi Thowabeh, the organisation’s director. “We’re only missing the funds.” He hopes that negotiation, via intermediaries, with different parties in the conflict will allow this heritage to be preserved. “After the first bombing of the ancient city of Sanaa, the Saudis promised not to begin again. They bombed the city again. But for several weeks, there have not been new destructions in the Old City. I hope that this respite will continue.”

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