Unique Heritage Devastated

Yemen's Unique Heritage Devastated by War

Michael Jansen of the Irish Times and Oliver Holmes of The Guardian describe the effects of years of misunderstanding and conflict in Yemen.

Michael Jansen - The Irish Times, Nov 2022

Michael Jansen has been the Middle-East correspondent for The Irish Times newspaper for over two decades. In an Irish Times article published in November 2022, she describes the destruction caused by war in Yemen.

Yemen’s unique heritage devastated by seven years of war

Thousands of ancient artefacts looted and archaeological sites deliberately destroyed

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 Sana'a-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, Sana'a’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 war between the Saudi-led pro-government coalition and the Houthi rebels, and the UN estimates, 80 per cent have been driven into poverty.

Ref: Jansen, Michael (2022) "Yemen's unique heritage devastated by seven years of war", Irish Times 29 November. © Irish Times. Available at: Irish Times or https://www.irishtimes.com/world/middle-east/2022/11/29/yemens-unique-heritage-devastated-by-seven-years-of-war/. (Accessed: 18 Dec 2023).

Oliver Holmes - The Guardian, Jan 2024

Oliver Holmes describes the consequences of the west’s self-isolation from Yemen in an article published in the Guardian, Sat 20 Jan 2024. The original report is illustrated with photographs.

Yemen: enchanting, complex, and much misunderstood

After years of self-isolation from Yemen, the west’s fight is based on limited information – and even less understanding

In the craggy hills on the outskirts of the Yemeni capital sits a fortified concrete building encased in a rust-red cage: the British embassy.

When commissioning its construction in the early 2000s – the beginning of the “war on terror” – the brief given by the British government to architects called for a design that would serve as a highly secure “bunker” and, at the same time, encourage people to “come in and have a cup of tea”. It was, after all, a building for diplomacy.

The safety fears were justified. London’s previous embassy had been attacked in 2000 and western diplomats have been repeatedly targeted since. But whatever the balance between welcoming and secure, the result was the same: for the past two decades, Britain’s envoys have been isolated and therefore under informed. Most critically, the building embodied a widely held view among western governments of Yemen as a security problem above all else.

Now, in 2024, the UK is engaging directly in a fight in Yemen, bombing Houthi militants as part of a US-led campaign. Yet, London and Washington have limited information on what is happening on the ground in Yemen, nor do they have a deep understanding of a complex country.

Locked away in their embassies and under strict security protocols, western diplomats have for years been cut off from the experience of the relatively small numbers of visitors to Sana’a’s cobble-stoned streets.

Even tourists were often able to travel more freely. Although mass tourism never took off in Yemen, a handful of tour agencies offered off-the-beaten-path adventures to the verdant Haraz mountains, famous for fortified castle-style stone villages that cling to and merge with the cliffside, surrounded by Yemeni “mocha” coffee bean crops. Holidaymakers with extra cash would fly to the island of Socotra, known as the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean, where up to a third of the plants and animals are found nowhere else, including the dragon blood tree, named for its crimson sap.

For a while, Yemen was infamous on travel blogs for “kidnap tourism”, where local tribes would abduct a hiker or cycling group and ransom them, on the condition the central government built a new school, or fixed a crumbling road. But stories of the tribes’ hospitality, including hosting feasts for their “guests”, meant some particularly daring tourists would deliberately venture into the hills in the hope of being kidnapped.

Sana’a, meanwhile, was a secret haven for Arabic students, who travelled from the more familiar study centres in Cairo and Amman (and Damascus before the 2012 civil war) in search of a culture and language less diluted by western influence. On the tip of Arabia – where Arabic is believed to have first emerged – Yemen has been geographically insulated, and the language spoken there remains startlingly classical. The equivalent in the west would be if there were a part of southern Europe where a form of Latin remained alive.

International Arabic language students would rent rooms in Sana’a’s walled old city, a Unesco world heritage site, where centuries-old buildings built of mud and red-baked brick rise to seven storeys high. These mini, ancient skyscrapers – decorated with geometric patterns and stained glass windows – remain in use today as private homes. Their residents still use the old tricks of these houses, hanging pots of water in alcoves to cool them with flowing air rather than electricity. And unlike much of the rest of the Middle East, public baths remain in use, and it is not unusual to see men in towels holding toothbrushes and shaving razors crossing the street and disappearing through a wooden door into a hammam.

In the souk, women wear all-black niqabs similar to in Saudi Arabia, or the more local style, with a red and green flourish. Many men wear a thawb, a long robe, often in white, and a thick belt decorated with metal filigree with an ornamental jambiya knife front and centre, its hilt traditionally made of horn.

Tim MacKintosh-Smith, a British Arabist, travelled to Old Sana’a in the 1980s when he was in his twenties, and was so beguiled he stayed, and was occasionally spotted in his full Yemeni attire.

For a while, some international freelance reporters were able to live and work in the country, often working for Yemeni editors running English-language news outlets, such as the Yemen Times and Yemen Observer.

The authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled from 1990 by making deals and paying off Yemen’s tribal leaders, was in power. He was widely accused of playing up the threat of Islamist militancy in Yemen to get money and support from the US and its allies.

Stephen Seche, US ambassador to Yemen from 2007-2010, has previously described Saleh as an “extraordinary manipulator” who was continuously “sounding the alarm” on al-Qaida.

News reporting in English was tolerated by Saleh’s government, especially as the main international story at the time was on al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), including one of its members, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underpants bomber”, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day in 2009.

But to the frustration of Yemenis, their country was increasingly seen through the lens of militancy, a state always on the precipice of becoming “the next Afghanistan”.

In coordination with Saleh’s government, George W Bush started using drones to attack al-Qaida targets in Yemen, a policy Barack Obama expanded, often killing entire families in the process. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have continued the drone strikes.

During the early 2010s, British diplomats and military attaches would venture out of their compounds for meetings with Yemeni public figures, which would be held in ornate living rooms with guests sitting on divans for hours chatting and chewing khat leaves, a mild narcotic with a strength somewhere between coffee and cocaine. But after the UK outlawed khat in 2014, British diplomats were forced to abandon chewing sessions, further isolating themselves from Yemeni life.

Focused on al-Qaida, the west did not pay significant attention to the hardline Shia Houthi insurgency that was raging in northern Yemen. But after Saleh was ousted as president during the Arab spring pro-democracy protests in 2011 – and severely injured in a bomb attack on his presidential compound – it was the Houthis that took advantage of the ensuing civil war to claim the capital in 2014.

A year later, the UK and US evacuated their embassies, leaving themselves even more detached. The civil war forced many Yemeni journalists and academics to leave. Western diplomats have not returned; Arabic language schools have shut down, and tourism has largely vanished.

The Romans gave Yemen the name Arabia Felix, or “happy Arabia”, for its rich supplies of myrrh and frankincense, while Yemenis claim the biblical Queen of Sheba was in fact the Queen of Saba, an ancient, pre-Islamic kingdom in the region. Still, in the English-speaking world, Yemen is a country reduced to headlines, which are rarely positive. Yemenis of a certain age living in the UK and the US say that, often, the only example people can think of when the word “Yemen” is mentioned is an episode from the TV series Friends, when Chandler Bing inadvertently gets on a plane there – presumably the writers could not think of anywhere more remote and little known.

Yemenis would rather people knew their country for its culture of hospitality, its ancient history and architecture, its food (such a lamb broth Fahsa, topped with fenugreek and cooked in a stone pot over a foot-high gas flame), or at least its people, including the Nobel peace prize winner Tawakkul Karman, known as the “mother of the revolution” after she helped topple Saleh during the 2011 pro-democracy protests.

The Yemeni researcher Nadwa al-Dawsari, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, has written extensively on the failures of western policies towards Yemen, which she says has been viewed “solely through a security lens”.

After Biden was elected in 2020, al-Dawsari wrote that his administration needed to finally develop a real Yemen policy. “This should start by understanding the local dynamics of the conflict in Yemen by talking directly to Yemenis,” she said.

Four years later, after Houthi attacks on shipping lanes, the US and UK are bombing Yemen with new vigour but with even less insight or on-the-ground information on what can and cannot be achieved, or what is at stake from the violence. Western diplomats are making decisions after years of being cut off from the sights, smells and charm of Yemen.

Ref: Holmes, Oliver (2024) "After years of self-isolation from Yemen, the west’s fight is based on limited information – and even less understanding", Guardian 20 January 2024. © Guardian. Available at: The Guardian or https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/jan/20/yemen-enchanting-complex-and-much-misunderstood. (Accessed: 21 Jan 2024).

Jan 2024

Email: Dr Peter Bennett