Bricks and mortar fire: Yemen’s cultural heritage is in the crosshairs

A growing conflict and poor governance are both playing a role in the failure to protect Yemen’s cultural landmarks. Reuters

The ramping up of attacks on Islamic State (IS) positions in Syria by France, the UK, the US and Russia has overshadowed a second civil war in the Middle East – in Yemen.

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition joined the conflict between President Mansour Hadi and the Houthi rebels seeking to overthrow him. Like Syria, the conflict has been brutal. By late October, the fighting had left more than 5700 dead, including at least 573 children, as well as 27,000 injured. More than 19 million people are unable to satisfy their basic needs and have already resorted to humanitarian aid in the country.

Saudi airstrikes have also affected several historic sites, damaging irreplaceable parts of the region’s cultural heritage.

The conflict’s origins

The conflict tearing apart Yemen is, to a large extent, rooted in the tensions triggered by the reunification of Southern Yemen (Republic Democratic) with Northern Yemen (Arab Republic) in May 1990.

In 2011, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was pushed into exile following a popular revolt. This movement quickly evolved into a tribal confrontation including the Houthis. This group, also known as Ansar Allah, is a congregation of northern tribes that initiated a regional uprising against Saleh in 2004. The Houthis demand equal treatment as well as autonomy within Yemen, which they believe is too influenced by Saudi Arabia and the US.

In 2012, after Saleh’s exile, Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi was elected president. In response to growing discontent, he tried to implement a new federal system that took into account specific tribal agendas. This was rejected by the Houthis, who then took Sana’a, Yemen’s capital at that time, and forced him into exile.

This triggered the Saudi intervention, supported by a coalition of seven Arab countries and backed by the US, the UK and France. The situation is rendered even more complex by the actions of al-Qaeda and IS, which each have their own agenda in the region.

A rich heritage

Yemen’s rich history is connected to its location as a crossroads between Africa and Asia as early as the Paleolithic and throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. This territory became the centre of the Saba kingdom as early as the second millennium BCE, strategically located on the caravan roads of the Arabian Peninsula.

One of the Sabean capitals, Marib, was a major regional centre of cultural and religious development in the eighth century BCE. Later on, several clans and tribes witnessed the entrance of Mohammed in Sana’a, considered during the seventh century AD as the pearl of the Arabic peninsula. The region’s dense history is now found in numerous archaeological sites, structures and intangible traditions spread throughout the country.

To protect this heritage, Yemen ratified the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in 1980 and listed three cities: Zabid, Sana’a and Shibam.

Zabid, the capital of Yemen from the 13th to 15th century AD, was a cultural and religious centre. Students from the entire Muslim world would gather at its university and the magnificent Asai’r mosque. The city is surrounded by high walls and structured around a complex system of water canals. This created an impressive network of streets and alleys bordered by traditional houses in pisé (a building technique using rammed earth).

Sana’a has been continuously occupied for more than 2500 years. It is the capital of the Yemeni kingdom and the place of Christian martyrdoms. It is also an important centre of learning. It includes more than 6500 traditional house-towers, ornamented with carefully sculpted cornices.

Shibam is surrounded by 15th-century walls and provides some of the best examples of the vertical architecture that is typically Yemeni.

In addition to these World Heritage sites, Yemen hosts numerous marvels such as Jibla’s terraces of ziziphus and euphorbia, and the caravanserai of Jabal Haraz.

Destruction and vandalism

Yemen’s rich cultural heritage is now under serious threat. The growing conflict and poor governance are both playing a role.

In 2000, UNESCO listed Zabid as “cultural heritage at risk” to underline the poor urban planning policies that had led to the destruction of more than 40% of the city’s traditional houses. In 2015, Sana’a and Shibam joined the list as the Arab coalition launched its first airstrikes in the region.

Sana’a’s fragile pisé buildings were among the first to suffer from the Saudi campaign in 2015. Archaeologist Lamy Khalidi has attested to the destruction of the Dhamar regional museum, which shelters thousands of artefacts from the country’s history. She has also highlighted damage to more than 25 cultural sites and monuments since the beginning of the conflict, including the al-Qahira castle in Taiz.

Some of the airstrikes do not seem to have any direct strategic imperatives – for instance, those on the Dhamar museum, the Marib dam and the civilian areas of the old Sana’a.

Pro-government forces destroyed a Shia mosque in Aden. And in October, parts of the ancient city Baraqish were heavily damaged.

To this damage we must add destruction caused by IS, which has already attacked a Sufi shrine in Lahj.

The Yemeni presidential palace in Aden was destroyed in fighting in September. Reuters/Faisal Nasser

A need for urgent action

Considering the mobilisation to stop destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, the international community has been slow to condemn what’s taking place in Yemen.

UNESCO is seeking to mobilise that community. Its director-general, Irina Bokova, has put in place an emergency action plan that integrates outreach, data collection and work on the ground in order to limit the ongoing destruction.

Archaeologists present in Yemen are also compiling a no-strike list. The US is funding ICOM’s “red list” of antiquities that may end up on the international market.

On a November visit to Saudi Arabia, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond hinted that the Saudi intervention could end. However, airstrikes are still hitting Yemeni cities, including a hospital run by Doctor Without Borders and a water bottling plant.

Western countries are justifiably outraged over the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, yet the UK and US are selling weapons and providing intelligence to the Arab coalition. By pursuing their strategic goals in the region, these and other countries are indirectly contributing to the destruction of Yemen’s cultural heritage.

This article was originally published in French