Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Yemen heritage destroyed

The destruction of part of the Old City of Sanaa in airstrikes last week has underlined the need to find a political solution to the conflict in Yemen, writes David Tresilian from Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

With the architectural heritage of Iraq and Syria already suffering at the hands of war and civil conflict, last week it was the turn of Yemen to feel the force of the destruction taking place across the Arab world when historic buildings in the capital Sanaa were destroyed in bombing raids.

The destruction, taking place in the early hours of 12 June, destroyed a complex of traditional houses in the Al-Qasimi neighbourhood of the Old City of Sanaa, a World Heritage Site protected by the UN’s cultural arm UNESCO.

“I am shocked by the images of these magnificent many-storeyed tower-houses reduced to rubble,” the organisation’s director-general, Irina Bokova, said. “This destruction will only exacerbate the humanitarian situation, and I reiterate my call to all parties to respect and protect the cultural heritage in Yemen.”

Damage was also caused to the Old City of Sanaa in bombing raids on 11 May, and the Great Dam of Marib, one of the most important heritage sites in the Arabian Peninsula and mentioned in the Quran, was damaged during an airstrike on 31 May, possibly damaging ancient Sabaean inscriptions.

On 9 June, the Ottoman-era Al-Owrdhi historic compound just outside the perimeter of the Old City of Sanaa was severely damaged by bombing.

The National Museum in Dhamar was completely destroyed earlier in May, along with its collection of 12,500 artefacts from the surrounding region. The Old City of Zabid, also on the World Heritage List, the historic centre of Sadaa, presented for World Heritage listing, and the old cities of Mukalla and Taez have also been damaged in the conflict, according to UNESCO.

The pre-Islamic remains of the ancient walled city of Baraqish have been damaged, the organisation said.

“I am particularly distressed by the news of air-strikes on heavily populated areas such as the cities of Sanaa and Sadaa,” Bokova said in May. “In addition to causing terrible human suffering, these attacks are destroying Yemen’s unique cultural heritage, which is the repository of identity, history and memory and an exceptional testimony to the achievements of Islamic civilisation.”

The Saudi-led airstrikes, dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, started on 26 March in response to attacks by Houthi rebels on the southern port city of Aden where the country’s president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, had fled from the capital Sanaa in February.

Sanaa, like much of the rest of the country, has been in the hands of the Houthi rebels since late last year. Following the beginning of the airstrikes, Hadi left Aden for Riyadh where he is now in exile.

UN Security Council Resolution 2216, adopted on 14 April, has called on the Houthis to withdraw from Sanaa and other areas of the country. Negotiations to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict opened in Geneva on Monday, continuing the earlier National Dialogue Conference between the political forces in Yemen.

Since the beginning of the bombing campaign in March, some 2,300 people are believed to have died in Yemen with some 10,000 injured. 80 per cent of the population is believed to be in need of humanitarian assistance in a country that is already the poorest in the Arab world with an estimated 54 per cent of the population living in poverty.

The destruction of the country’s architectural heritage has given rise to protests worldwide, partly because of the important historical role that Yemen has played in the Gulf and wider region.

The Old City of Sanaa, listed as a World Heritage Site since 1986, has been a major Islamic centre since the 7th and 8th centuries CE, as can be seen from its 103 mosques and over 6,000 houses built before the 11th century.

According to UNESCO, the city’s characteristic many-storeyed tower-houses built of rammed earth “are an outstanding example of a traditional Islamic human settlement”.

Yemen also contains sites and monuments dating back to before the Islamic period, and the country is known to readers of the Bible and the Quran from the famous visit paid by the queen of Sheba, queen of the ancient southern Yemen kingdom of Saba, to king Solomon described in the biblical Book of Kings and Sura 27 of the Quran.

The Great Dam of Marib, located 130km east of Sanaa, mentioned in Sura 34 of the Quran, and damaged in bombing on 31 May, was once a wonder of the ancient world and bears witness not only to the sophistication of early hydraulic technology but also to the development of urban settlements and agriculture in the Arabian Peninsula.

According to the UNESCO Website, “like Babylon in Iraq, Jerash in Jordan and Baalbek in Lebanon, Marib… represents a great civilisation equal to those of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Abyssinia.”

The remains of the ancient city, which include temples, a necropolis and residential quarters spread out over a 98 hectare area, are one of the most significant historic sites on the entire Arabian Peninsula, UNESCO said.

The capital of the Sabaean kingdom, Marib once controlled the caravan route that brought spices and incense to the Mediterranean world. The three Magi mentioned in the Bible may have passed through Saba on their way to visit the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, since one of the Magi is said to have brought a gift of myrrh, made from the resin of a shrub that is native to Yemen.

The Old City of Zabid, also damaged in bombing raids and listed as endangered by UNESCO, was the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th centuries CE. Its development was due to Ibn Ziyad, founder of the Ziyadite Dynasty, sent to the region by the Abbasid caliph Al-Maamoun in 820 CE.

It has the highest concentration of historical mosques in Yemen, 14 of them dating from the Rasulid period (1229-1454 CE), and is characterised by its traditional burnt brick domestic architecture and important Islamic university.

The Old City of Saada in the north of the country, presented for World Heritage listing and also described as having suffered significant damage in the present conflict, is one of the oldest cities in Yemen, founded by the Imam Al-Hadi Yahya in the 9th century CE and being the birthplace of the country’s characteristic Zaydi version of Shia Islam.

It is described on the UNESCO Website as being particularly important for its earth architecture, 3,000-metre earth walls with 52 watchtowers and 16 gates, and characteristic domestic architecture.

The 11 successors of the first Zaydi imam are buried in the city’s Great Mosque, with 14 other mosques dating from the 10th to the 16th centuries bearing important witness to the development and propagation of Islam in the region.

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