Yemen’s seven-year war has devastated its unique architectural heritage. Thousands of ancient and Islamic artefacts have been looted and smuggled out of the country to be sold online or by auction houses in the West.
The Sanaa-based al-Hudud Centre for Archaeological Studies has reported that 4,265 artefacts have been stolen. Of these, it says 2,523 have been sold for $12 million to collectors in the US, Britain, France, Germany, Israel and the Netherlands. More than 2,000 of these artefacts have been auctioned in the US, which, in recent years, has made a serious effort to retrieve and return stolen regional artefacts to their home countries.
While Iraq and Egypt are known globally as cradles of civilisation, Yemen, called Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia) by the Romans because of its pleasant climate, is revered in the Middle East as the birthplace of Arab civilisation.
The pillage of Yemen began in the 19th century, but the accelerated outflow of artefacts, branded “blood antiquities”, has taken place along established smugglers’ routes via Saudi Arabia and the Emirates since they have battled Houthi rebels in Yemen. While most treasures have been funnelled to the West, some have joined private collections in Qatar and Kuwait.
The ongoing destruction and looting of Yemen’s cultural heritage is the least-mentioned dimension of this conflict. All three Unesco cultural heritage sites – mud-brick-high-rise city of Shibam, Sanaa’s Old City, and Zabib, one of Yemen’s oldest towns – have suffered collateral damage during Saudi air raids. They and other bombed sites, including the 8th century BC Marib Dam, have been placed on Unesco’s endangered list.
A prime example of destruction and pillage was the Taiz museum, once an Ottoman palace, which was occupied by Saudi-sponsored government forces who shelled Houthi rebel fighters besieging the hill city. The rebels responded in kind, setting the museum on fire. Both sides, reportedly, looted manuscripts, stone sculptures, swords and shields, some of which were recovered.
The repatriation process is difficult, according to Mohanad Al-Sayani, head of Yemen’s General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums, which collaborates with Unesco. He told Agence France Presse: “We have two governments, a country in a state of war – and the trafficking of antiquities existed long before the conflict.” Unesco has assisted his organisation with inventories of some museums.
In a New York Times article published in June 2015, three months after the Saudi-Emirati intervention, Palestinian-American archaeologist Lamya Khalidi pointed out that looting for financial gain has been combined with “weaponising culture”. This is the deliberate destruction of Yemen’s heritage sites by the Saudis who adhere to the narrow Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, later adopted by al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Ideology, she wrote, “appears to be driving the Saudis’ air war against the physical evidence of Yemen’s ancient civilisations”.
The destruction of Yemen’s cultural heritage by the parties to the conflict, al-Qaeda and opportunistic gangs has taken place as the region’s poorest country has been devastated: 377,000 Yemenis have been killed in the the war between the Saudi-led pro-government coalition and the Houthi rebels, and the UN estimates, 80 per cent have been driven into poverty.