Yemen’s Heritage at Risk
The relentless bombing campaign and human rights violations in Yemen on all sides have led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. There is another aspect of the conflict that should not be forgotten. Yemen has the richest and most varied archaeological and architectural history on the entire Arabian Peninsula. In addition to the loss of life, property and infrastructure, the conflict has endangered this treasure of world heritage.
On February 1, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) published an Emergency Red List of Cultural Objects at Risk for Yemen. Drawing on experts at museums in the United States and Europe, this list illustrates the kinds of objects that are most at risk of being illegally taken out of Yemen and sold elsewhere. The purpose of the list is to show the kinds of objects, based on those already in museums, that could be floating on the market and to warn museums and collectors against buying them. Check out ebay or any other site that sells used items and you will see the extent of the problem.
Early on in the conflict the Dhamar Archaeology Museum, with many relics inside, was destroyed by Saudi bombing. This museum housed a wooden minbar (pulpit) from the Great Mosque of Dhamar city, which was over 1,000 years old. Other museums have been destroyed in the fighting, including the Taiz National Museum which housed the history of the last days of the imamate. The insecurity has led to illegal excavations looking for objects to sell outside Yemen.
Among the priceless historical sites destroyed or badly damaged by aerial bombing is the millennium-old mosque of the first Zaydi imam, al-Hadi illa al-Haqq, in Sa‘da. The famous citadel known as al-Qahira, sitting above Taiz and recently opened as a national monument, was obliterated by another Saudi airstrike. Even the ruins of the Ma’rib Dam, a site mention in the Holy Qur’an, were targeted by the Saudi coalition.
The kinds of Yemeni antiquities include inscriptions in the South Arabic script writing carved onto date palm sticks, and Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts extending back more than a millennium. There were many sculptures from stone and bronze objects made in Yemen before the Islamic era. Other objects include statuettes, figurines, bust of people, architectural elements, clay, copper and alabaster vessels, coins, seals, lamps, jewelry, weapons and astrolabes.
The raiding of Yemen’s heritage began before the current war. Yemen has the largest number of manuscripts in private collections, most of which are undocumented. Jealously guarded in the past, younger generations sometimes do not have the same desire to preserve them or would rather have the money a wealthy buyer from abroad can provide. A number of Yemeni manuscripts have ended up in private or university libraries in Saudi Arabia.
But the Saudi interest in Yemeni manuscripts is not to learn more about the history of the faith, as Sabine Schmidtke warns. The Wahhabi view of Islam propagated with oil wealth around the world has been intolerant of other Islamic views from the start and has a long record of destroying historical monuments, including an attack in 1802 on the Iraqi shi’a city of Karbala and especially inside the kingdom. Their intolerance is taught even in their school textbooks, as noted by Human Rights Watch. The news released last September that the USA will help the Saudis “purify religious books of extremism” might as well have been said on April 1. The very nature of Wahhabi Salafi views is one of intolerance, as their multi-targeted proxy war with Iran shows quite clearly. Even ISIS is an offshoot of Wahhabi ideology, as can be seen here. Allowing women to drive and attend sporting events is hardly a major reform to the extremism the Wahhabis have poured forth for two centuries. What about chopping off people’s heads and a refusal to let other religions practice their faith? The Crown Prince’s vow to “return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam” would be quite a feat, since Saudi Arabia only had even a glimmer of such Islam before the Wahhabi doctrine took over.