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Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Yemen suffers cultural vandalism during its war

Sanaa's Old City, one of Yemen's UNESCO sites, has been ravaged by the conflict [Getty]

Date of publication: 26 March, 2018

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In-depth: The erosion of Yemen's rich cultural heritage as its war rages into a fourth year threatens to destroy the identity of Yemenis themselves, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
While Yemen's conflict has devastated its population, another parallel war has ravaged the country: a war on Yemen's historic cultural heritage.
 
Along with millions suffering malnourishment and diseases such as cholera, with most of the population dependent on humanitarian aid, Yemenis are further dehumanised as a central part of their identity is destroyed.
 
Historically located at a crossroads between Asia and Africa, Yemen has served as the centre of many dynasties, including the Sabaean Kingdom, and is thought to be the birthplace of the Biblical and Quranic Queen of Sheba. Its vast history has left behind countless unique archaeological wonders, which reflect Yemen's distinct culture.
 
Yet as with teh Islamic State group's deliberate destruction of Syrian monuments, cultural vandalism is also taking place in the Yemen conflict. In many cases, Yemen's sites are also deliberately targeted.
At least sixty of Yemen's monuments have been damaged or destroyed since the Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in March 2015
At least sixty of Yemen's monuments have been damaged or destroyed since the Saudi-led coalition began its bombing campaign in March 2015, reported Lamya Khalidi, an archaeologist on Yemen at the CEPAM laboratory at the Université Côte d'Azur. Among these are unique archaeological monuments, old cities, mosques, churches, museums and tombs.
 
Khalidi highlights that more than three-quarters of these sites had been destroyed by the Saudi-led coalition's bombing.
 
"All armed groups have targeted historic sites one way or another since March 2015. However, the most blatant and systematic of them is without any doubt, the Saudi coalition, and they are the ones who have made the most irreparable damage in Yemen," she told The New Arab.
 
She added that, while IS and Al Qaeda had targeted historic sites, their damage was insignificant compared with what the coalition has done.
 
Despite UNESCO notifying the coalition of historic locations to avoid, it has not noticeably taken measures to prevent damage in its airstrikes.
As soon as the war commenced, the erasing of the country's history began. The first casualty from March 2015 was Sanaa's Old City, one of Yemen's three UNESCO heritage sites
As soon as the war commenced, the erasing of the country's history began. The first casualty from March 2015 was Sanaa's Old City, one of Yemen's three UNESCO heritage sites. More than 3,000 years old and filled with countless ancient homes, mosques and other historic buildings, much of its architecture was shattered by Saudi bombs. Among the rubble was the prominent Qubbat al-Mahdi mosque.
 
Soon after, Marib, the ancient capital of the Sabaean Kingdom and a major centre of religious and cultural development in the 8th century BCE, came under fire. It held the largest built dam in antiquity, mentioned in the Old Testament and the Quran. Marib's Dam has been heavily damaged by coalition bombing, as has its Old City and Awwam Temple. 
 
Then there is Baraqish, another archaeological city repeatedly targeted throughout the war, damaging its ancient structures. The Temple of Nakrah, from the 4th century BCE has been mostly destroyed by coalition bombing, along with the ruins of Sirwah, another archaeological site, which has faced extensive damage - including its main tower.
 
Shibam, famous for its mudbrick-made high-rise buildings and capital of the Hadramawt kingdom, known as "the Manhattan of the Desert", has also been defaced.

Read more: Protecting Middle East heritage from Islamic State
 
Khalidi said that Saudi Arabia's role in causing Yemen's humanitarian crisis indicates it would have no concern for Yemeni heritage.
 
"If you add to that their glowing record of hitting civilians during weddings, funerals, in schools, marketplaces, in buses and fisherman in boats, to name a few, there is little doubt that there is a total disregard by Saudi Arabia and its coalition for human life, for international law, or for World Heritage, let alone precautionary measures," added Khalidi.
 
Taiz, a southwestern city in Yemen which, like Sanaa, has many historic buildings, has been hit hard from fighting between pro-Hadi forces, Houthis and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Its Al-Qahira castle has been damaged, along with other structures.
 
Abdulkader, a Yemeni from Taiz, told The New Arab that all warring sides should bear responsibility for destroying Yemen's precious architecture, which is important to Yemenis.
Both Houthis and extreme Salafists have an issue with ancient holy shrines that do not conform with their twisted interpretation of religion
"Both Houthis and extreme Salafists have an issue with ancient holy shrines that do not conform with their twisted interpretation of religion," he said.
 
"Taking people's heritage from them is taking their identity, personality and character from them. We love our monuments, shrines and heritage. I almost cry when I hear about this aggression against our heritage."
 
He reported that the Houthis had repeatedly shelled mosques in Taiz.
 
Meanwhile other historic locations are still under threat, such as the UNESCO World Heritage site at Zabid. A gem of early Islamic history, Zabid holds the highest concentration of mosques in Yemen, and was its capital in the 13th and 15th centuries. No reports of significant damage have yet emerged, but the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNESCO have warned that warring parties risk damaging the city.
 
As Zabid is under Houthi control, it could also come under fire from the coalition - which opposes the Houthi rebels.
 
"Cultural heritage is among the victims of this prolonged conflict," said Anna Paolini of UNESCO.
 
"The peculiarity of Yemen is that most villages and cities retained their traditional historic vernacular architecture. Yet the risk of damages to this heritage during the conflict is very high, and while it continues, heritage is at high risk," she added.

Read more: Humanitarian groups urge protection of Yemen's 'architectural jewel' amid fighting
 
To prevent further damage to Yemen's cultural heritage, Yemeni factions must negotiate an end to the conflict, and international backers to warring parties must end their support. While it continues, foreign historians and archaeologists are prevented from carrying out important work on these sites. 
 
Preserving and restoring Yemen's historic sites will prove a challenge to the government, as the fractured state struggles to provide a basic healthcare, education and security infrastructure.
 
UNESCO has, said Paolini, pledged to assess the damage and to restore Yemen's World Heritage properties. 

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey 

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