Yemeni Historical Sites Are Becoming Casualties of War

Bombings, looting, and the smuggling of ancient artifacts have turned historic UNESCO World Heritage sites into battlefields, tragic casualties of the war in Yemen.
Yemeni Historical Sites Are Becoming Casualties of War
Photo Credit: Inside Arabia

Military clashes between the Saudi and UAE-backed government forces and the Houthi rebel group are threatening the destruction of the historic Yemeni city of Zabid, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Houthis, who control the city of Zabid and the areas surrounding it, have been gathering their fighters to repel an advance by the UAE-backed forces, anonymous sources told Inside Arabia. The two sides are fighting a fierce battle in eastern areas of the city of al-Tahita, near Zabid, as reported by Al-Bayan newspaper.

Sources told Inside Arabia that the Houthis, in anticipation of the battle of Zabid, raided the home of 45-year old curator Arafat al-Hadrami. A source close to al-Hadrami, who preferred not to be named out of fear for his life said, “The Houthis asked al-Hadrami to hand over archaeological and historical manuscripts, and when he refused, gunmen raided his house and kidnapped him. His family still does not know where he is held.”

A growing fear is that the city will experience a devastating conflict, especially when the two sides are relentlessly attempting to control it. Both sides have a hostile and dark history concerning historic and archaeological sites. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called on all warring parties to protect the city of Zabid, which has the largest number of historical mosques in Yemen.

Local and international appeals have not persuaded the conflicting parties in Yemen to spare archaeological and historic sites, labeled by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) as “a universal human heritage and a unique witness to the common values of humanity.”

The conflict in Yemen has, over the last three years, already devastated dozens of historic sites listed on the World Heritage List, in cities like Sanaa, Zabid, Shibam Hadramout, and on Socotra Island. Other cities were nominated to join the list such as the old city of Saada and sites in the city of Taiz.

Old Medina of Sanaa
Photo Credit: Inside Arabia

These risks have only increased since the start of the armed conflict between al-Qaeda and the Yemeni army. The conflict spread into the historic Amariya mosque and school at the end of 2011. The Houthis’ conflict with al-Qaeda’s Ansar al-Sharia in Rada in 2014 caused damage to part of the wall of the Rada historical castle, which dates back to the reign of the Himyarite King Shammar Yahr’ish, who ruled in the third century AD.

Yemen enjoys a 4,000-year old civilization that has contributed significantly to the building of human civilization. The endangered Yemeni monuments are tangible evidence of a civilization that flourished through various stages in the history of the land. The long list of prominent Yemeni historical landmarks includes palaces, dams, temples, statues, mosques, domes, shrines, castles, fortresses, and museums.

The Houthis, President Hadi’s coalition-backed forces, al-Qaeda, and ISIS have all exploited the Yemeni archaeological sites by turning them into battlefields.

The Yemeni General Authority for Antiquities and Museums in Sanaa (GAAMS), under Houthi control, has reported a number of crimes committed against Yemeni heritage sites.

“The Saudi-UAE coalition airstrikes targeted 62 historic and archaeological sites that were entirely or partially destroyed in different places in Yemen. Al-Qaeda and ISIS targeted 19 religious sites, most of them old domes and shrines and two churches.”

“The Saudi-UAE coalition airstrikes targeted 62 historic and archaeological sites that were entirely or partially destroyed in different places in Yemen. Al-Qaeda and ISIS targeted 19 religious sites, most of them old domes and shrines and two churches.”

Inside Arabia obtained a copy of the report from the Authority. GAAMS accused the coalition airstrikes of targeting historic landmarks. The coalition, in turn, accuses the Houthis of using historical monuments as military sites in an attempt to justify its attacks. The Saudi-led Arab coalition also denies many airstrikes, even those already confirmed by the U.N.

“The terrorist organizations blew up more than 20 religious shrines, most of them were domes, tombs, and shrines of prominent Sufi figures in Hadramout east of Yemen, including the dome and shrine of Sheikh Ya’qub Bawazir, which dates back 800 years,” said Muhannad al-Siyani, head of the General Authority for Antiquities.

The history of ancient Yemen is divided into three phases: the first is the Kingdom of Sheba, the second is the period of the independent kingdoms of Hadramout, Qataban and Ma’in, and the third, and last in Yemen’s ancient history, is the era of Hamir.

Many monuments of Yemeni civilization are still buried. Archeological excavations continued until the beginning of the war. Historians and archaeologists were forced to flee the country and stop working at sites like the Awam temple, also known as Muharram Balqis, 10 kilometers south of the city of Marib, capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba. The area has received many people displaced by the war.

Scientists believe that the temple, which dates back to the seventh century BC, served as the main temple of the moon god of the ancient Almaqah kingdom. The temple occupied a special place in ancient Yemen, and visitors came from all over the Arabian Peninsula.

Since the 1980s, UNESCO has listed four Yemeni sites on the World Heritage List: the city of Shibam Hadramout, the ancient city of Sanaa, the city of Zabid, and Socotra Island. All of these sites and cities have been destroyed, looted or occupied to some extent. The coalition air raids targeted the old city of Sanaa on June 12, 2016, and several times thereafter, causing the extensive destruction of buildings over 500 years old. It also targeted the historic city of Zabid several times. Al-Qaeda furthered the destruction by bombing the city of Shibam Hadramout on November 22, 2015.

Nadia al-Kokbani, a professor of architecture at the University of Sanaa, lamented the crimes committed by the coalition aircraft against the ancient city: “The city has lost an important part of its historic, architectural and cultural identity.”

Sanaa dates back to the fifth century BC and, until recently, was one of the most important tourism destinations in Yemen. The historic city of Saada, the stronghold of the Houthis, has suffered the most from the airstrikes.

The Yemeni antiquities banks have not been excluded from the chaos of the airstrikes.

Muhannad al-Siyani, head of the General Authority for Antiquities, reported that, “The National Museum of Dhamar, which contains 12,500 artifacts dating back to different periods of history, was destroyed entirely. Most of these artifacts [date] back to the Hamriyah state. The wooden tribune of the Dhamar Grand Mosque, which is more than a thousand years old, was entirely destroyed. It is the second oldest Islamic wooden tribune after the one in Kairouan Mosque in Tunis.”

“The General Authority for Antiquities in Sanaa has imposed strict security measures on museums and strengthened their protection. A number of measures have been taken, such as the closure of museums since the beginning of the war, and the concealment of the contents away from exhibitions in safe places,” according to al-Siyani.

Yemeni Historical Sites Are Becoming Casualties of War.
Photo Credit: Inside Arabia

Al-Siyani pointed out that museums “have been exposed and are still at great risk of bombing and looting.” In addition to the Dhamar Museum, museums such as  Popular Heritage Sanaa, Ataq, Aden and the National Museum of Sanaa have been bombed.

In a statement to Inside Arabia, al-Siyani denied that museums had been looted in Sanaa. “On the contrary, valuable pieces have been recovered from the homes of high-ranking government officials,” he said, referring to military and security leaders from the government of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. These valuable pieces were seized by the Houthis after taking over Sanaa in September 2014.

Not only do senior officials possess valuable antiquities, but many are also facilitating the smuggling of antiquities and artifacts.

According to news reports, Houthis are implicated in the looting of a number of these museums, including the National Museum of Sanaa, which is the central bank of the Yemeni antiquities. News reports have revealed a growth in trade and smuggling of antiquities internationally, especially from countries marked by unrest and war. Recently, the Swiss Security Authorities announced the seizure of stolen antiquities originating from Yemen, Libya, and Syria in Geneva.

In March 2016, the Houthis (after taking over Sanaa Airport) were accused of facilitating the smuggling of an antique Torah as part of a deal allowing the last Yemenite Jewish rabbis to go to Israel, along with the rare version that they had held in the family for 500 years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met 19 Jews in Tel Aviv coming from Yemen to Israel. An Israeli government spokesman said the group from Rida included a rabbi of the expatriate Jews there, who had brought a Torah scroll believed to be between 500 and 600 years old.

Several Yemeni news websites reported that “the Houthi group smuggled one of the oldest copies of the Qur’an, which had been written on deer skin and  preserved in the Great Mosque in Sanaa, and that leaders of the Houthi group sold the rare copy to an Iranian businessman for three million US dollars through a Kuwaiti intermediary.”

The Island of Socotra is Subject to Occupation, Looting, and Devastation

The UAE has taken advantage of the local and global public’s preoccupation with the war to enhance its influence on Socotra Island, far from the military operations.

Using  Chapala and Megh, two cyclones that hit the island and caused extensive damage to its infrastructure, as a pretext, the UAE has tightened its grip on the island under the purported claim of doing charity work.

The island of Socotra, known for its unique, endemic flora and fauna, and listed by UNESCO in the World Heritage list, is allegedly being destroyed by the UAE.

The UAE started “exploiting and plundering its natural resources of rare plants and birds and transferred them to Abu Dhabi,” according to statements by Nasser Baqzqouz, the Minister of Tourism for the Houthi movement’s so-called National Salvation Government. He accused his government of silence in the face of the UAE-made changes in the island, which is one of the largest nature reserves of the world. He said “those who came to Socotra are robbers stealing rare trees and razing everything that this natural environment abounds with.”

According to the Baqzqouz, a number of rare plants and birds have been taken to Abu Dhabi. Both the public and the government have accused the UAE of occupying the island.

Yemeni activists have launched a strong campaign against the UAE and demanded an end to what they called “the UAE occupation of the island.” UAE officials have purchased land and built on its natural reserves, which is forbidden by Yemeni law.

Some have called the island “the most exotic region in the world.” The New York Times has described it as the world’s most beautiful island.