Safeguarding Yemen’s Cultural Heritage
The humanitarian crisis that worsens each day from the non-stop bombing campaign against Yemen has understandably been the focus of attention. The death toll is now well above 3,000 as all sides refuse to come to a settlement. If Yemen were a hospital patient, it would now be in intensive care.
Beyond the damage to life, limb, infrastructure and property, the destruction of this nation’s long and rich cultural tradition is in full swing. Bombs, missiles and ground fighting have destroyed, whether intentionally or not, a part of the ancient Marib dam far from any military objective, historic houses in the old city of Sanaa, a major medieval citadel overlooking Taiz, the Dhamar regional archaeological museum, a historic Zaydi mosque in Sa’da and the list goes on. Beyond this there is structural damage, blown out windows, bullet holes and destabilizing wall cracks in all the major towns affected by the fighting. The city of Aden now looks like Dresden.
On July 15 and 16 in Paris, UNESCO held an Expert Meeting on the Safeguarding of Yemen’s Cultural Heritage. This meeting brought together a range of scholars who work on this heritage, representatives of organization concerned with the illicit traffic of cultural objects and UNESCO officials. The Permanent Delegate of Yemen, H.E. Ahmed Sayyad, gave an impassioned call to protect the heritage of his country. Although travel out of Yemen was extremely difficult, the Chairman of Yemen’s General Organization of Antiquities, Museums and Manuscripts (GOAMM), Mr. Mohanad Ahmed Al Syani, and the Chairman of the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities of Yemen (GOPHCY), Mr. Nagi Saleh, were able to attend and provide a first-hand account of the damage already done and their needs for restoration after the conflict ends.
Yemen has over 30 registered historic sites, but there are literally thousands of sites of historical value to both Yemen and the world. Three of Yemen’s major towns, the Old City of Sanaa, the coastal town of Zabid and the southern town of Shibam in the Hadramawt are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. In addition, the island of Socotra, which so far has escaped direct damage from the bombing, is a protected natural zone due to its rich biodiversity. UNESCO, as the cultural and educational wing of the UN, is not directly involved in bringing about a political settlement to the current crisis, but it is concerned about raising awareness of the damage being done to Yemen’s tangible and intangible heritage. Several archaeologists spoke about the important sites and architectural heritage which are endangered not only directly by the fighting but also in danger of being looted. Yemen’s main national museum thus far seems to have escaped harm, but regional museums in the main fighting zones are in grave danger. Yemen also has a rich collection of Islamic manuscripts, many of which are in private collections but also in mosque libraries. Discussion at the meeting addressed the need to identify Yemeni cultural objects of all kinds that may be entering the black market, as has been the case in Iraq and Syria.
While damage to buildings and museums provides a visual reminder of the loss, it is also important to consider Yemen’s intangible heritage, the traditions of poetry, dance, stories, customary law and oral traditions that are disrupted by the current displacement of several million people in Yemen. It is easy to overlook this aspect of cultural heritage precisely because it is intangible and often taken for granted. But building up Yemen after the conflict will take more than millions of dollars of aid money, new infrastructure and all things tangible. Yemen’s culture is its breath, the life that gives meaning to everything else. That breath has been knocked out of its population, the vast majority of whom are suffering from lack of access to health services, portable water, electricity, fuel and food.
The current bombing campaign, with little regard for human life and cultural property, is only the visible part of a much longer war that the Wahhabi/Salafi extremists of Saudi Arabia have been waging against Yemen’s traditional culture and, indeed, against all other forms of Islam they do not agree with. This current war goes beyond the proxy war being waged by the Saudis against all Shi’a Muslims, including the Zaydis of Yemen. It is not at all a united Sunni vs. Shi’a war, as the Saudi Salafis represent a minority of Muslims worldwide and do not speak for all Sunni Muslims as much as their pocketbooks and control of Mecca would like them to. Islam is much more than a set of halal vs haram rules interpreted idiosyncratically by power elites and the clerics they patronize. Beyond the faith itself there is what the historian Marshall Hodgson called the “Islamicate,” a diverse civilization and culture that made substantial contributions in the sciences, arts, philosophy,humanities and economics. To efface this rich cultural heritage, as ISIS blatantly attempts in Iraq, is no more a crime against humanity and the vast majority of Muslims worldwide than the destruction of the historical buildings around Mecca and Medina to build high-rise malls and hotels for the super-rich.
Whatever your political view, blaming the Saudis and their allies or the Huthi-Salih alliance for its over-reaching power grab, the humanitarian and cultural tragedy that all sides are contributing to needs to be challenged and condemned. Imagine if such a campaign were being conducted in Greece today, if the Parthenon in Athens was targeted by a missile because it was alleged partisans were storing kalashnikovs there. If the rich trove of classical antiquities were looted from museums and archaeological sites were being dug up with bulldozers. We in the West would be outraged. Is the cultural heritage of the Middle East, the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, somehow less significant than our heritage from Greece and Roman? Is the ongoing destruction in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen something we can ignore because these are Islamic contexts? History unfortunately does repeat itself. Nero is once again burning Rome, this time with fighter jets and missiles, while we are watching and ignoring. Yemen will not die, no matter how long this conflict will stretch out It will recover from the bloodshed and damage, but its culture will suffer irreparable damage.