Yemen, its historical sites, and war; Part 3.

Between 12th Century BCE and 6th Century BC Yemen was one of the leading dynasties in the world, it was known as ‘Arabia Felix’ or Happy Arabia. The dynasties included Ma’in, Qataban, Hadramaut, Aswan, Saba and Himyar.  The Himyarite kingdom was an important one for Yemen, because it located its capital in Sanaa, the same location as today’s capital city.  The remains of the Ghamdan Palace where the rulers lived are in the Old City in Sanaa, and that too was destroyed in an earlier war.  The Himyarite period was known to the Romans, the Greeks, and the Egyptians as the Homerite Kingdom, and it spanned from 110BC to 520h (1126).   There were many cities in Yemen at that time with over 5,000 inhabitants, which was large for that period of history.  Because of its importance to Yemen, a museum collected the artefacts which were used by scholars and researchers; they numbered over 10,000 artefacts. This museum and its contents have now been erased, no longer available for scholars researching ancient world history.

dhamar museum
Dhamar museum, which contained 10,000 artefacts from the Himyarite period.
museum after bombing raid
The remains of the Dhamar museum today

The Regional Museum was the main museum of the Dhamar governorate. It was built at Hirran, north of Dhamar city, in 2002. It had several exhibition halls, a lecture hall, a computer laboratory and storerooms. Its pre-Islamic collection comprised over hundred inscriptions of various provenance and period, whereas the section dedicated to the Islamic archaeology contains some decorated artefacts bearing Arabic inscriptions, in addition to jewels and other handmade products of traditional handicrafts in Dhamar. The most important object is the wooden minbar (pulpit) from the Great Mosque of Dhamar city, which was dated to the fourth century Hegira (11th Century). This was bombed on 18th June 2015.  I have also heard that another museum has been bombed in Zinjibar, Abyan province, but I cannot find confirmation.

Another UNESCO site that has been damaged is the Al Ashrafiyya Mosque in Taiz.

The Al Ashrafiyya after its recent restoration
The Al Ashrafiyya after its recent restoration

One of the beautiful minarets of al-Ashrafiyya Mosque has been hit by tank shelling. It tooks more than 10 years to the Yemeni-Italian restoration team to complete the intervention and restore the original beauty of this holy place and they were ready to begin with the project for the restoration of nearby Al-Muzaffar complex, which now is unlikely to proceed.  It was damaged on 18th June 2015.

The damage to the minaret
The damage to the minaret

The south west corner of Yemen is indeed suffering considerable damage as several militias are fighting and it is also subjected to overhead bombing by the Saudi coalition.  The city of Lahj has been destroyed, mostly by militia activity.

(photos of Lahj from Fatema need downloading from phone and inserting.

Parts of Aden have suffered extensive damage.  The oldest district, Crater, is indeed built in the crater of an extinct volcano. Most of the buildings are relatively recent, but there was a pretty mosque that was used to illustrate stamps during the British occupation of Aden, called the Aidrus mosque.

aidrus mosque
Stamp depicting Aidrus Mosque

This mosque is believed to date from the end of the 15th Century. It was damaged during the 1994 civil war, when old Qu’rans were burned by Yemeni troops from the north, and it has been destroyed in May this year when Houthi militias burned down many of the buildings in Crater, including the Aidrus Mosque. I have no photographs of the mosque post damage  but this is a view of Crater at the time of the arson attack, which does not give me confidence that it has survived.

crater 006
Crater after arson attack by Houthi militias

Another building in Aden has suffered damage from bombs, this is an old Ottoman fort overlooking the harbour known as Seera Castle. This grand citadel was in excellent condition when I visited it in 2011, and commands extensive views of the sea and harbour. I understand it suffered extensive damage on 22nd June, although I have no photographs of the damage.

seera castle7
Seera Castle, Aden, now damaged by bombs.

I also understand that the port area has suffered considerable damage, but have no other details. The port has the remains of grand and imposing buildings erected during the British occupation of Aden, which were badly in need of loving care but not damaged or altered in any way, and after restoration could have been made the area into an attractive area for visitors. Also near the port was the attractive guesthouse of the Sultan of Lahj, or the Sultan of Abdali, who ruled Yemen in the Ottoman period and remained on good terms with the British during their occupation. Indeed, despite the long and bitter campaign to make the British forces leave, Adenis now remember the British occupation in positive terms and feel a strong allegiance with British people. The statue of Queen Victoria remained in place, and a small church damaged once by Al Qaeda and restored, were always treated with respect by Aden people.  I fear for these buildings that reveal a significant part of Aden’s 19th and 20th century history will be lost, and with it, the potential for developing tourism in this part of Yemen.

What makes me feel so sad is that everyone has lost, and no-one has gained.  This is a man made war that cannot be won by military means. In the end, Yemeni and Saudi people will have to sit down with people they hate and make painful compromises. They could have done this without the loss of life, the suffering, and the loss of Yemeni, and world, architectural and historical heritage.

Yemen, its historical sites, and war; part 2.

Even older than the 2,500 Old City of Sanaa is the Marib Dam.  On June 1, the ancient Great Marib Dam, described as “one of the grandest engineering marvels of the ancient world” and one of the most important ancient sites in Yemen dating back to the ancient Queen of Sheba, was damaged by Saudi airstrikes which hit the better-preserved northern sluice. The original dam was first built in the 8th century BC, in the city of Marib which was once the capital of the kingdom of Sheba (Saba).  Saba, or Sheba, was one of the four great early kingdoms of Yemen; the largest and most prosperous.

marib damMarib is close to the area where Yemeni oil and gas reserves are found, and has long been an area of tribal conflict in Yemen. Currently the Houthis are fighting with Al Qaeda for control.  All of the Saudi bombs are falling in areas where the Houthis are active. This was bombed on 22nd June.

A new dam was then built more recently, close to the location of the old one, at the expense of the late ruler of the United Arab Emirates, whose tribe resettled from Marib to the present UAEsome time in the 17th century.The new dam is built of earth across the Wadi Dhana, creating a storage capacity of 398 million cubic meters. The dam site is located 3 km upstream of the ruins of the old Ma’rib dam. The new dam, like the old, was designed to store water for irrigating the Ma’rib plains. However, the wadi bed at the new dam site consists of alluvial sand and gravel material 30–50 m thick. Seepage emanates from this dam that does not threaten its structure,but does lose water. As a way of capturing the seepage, consideration is being given to rebuilding the ancient Ma’rib dam, both as a functioning structure, and also as a historic monument and tourist attraction. The complexity and volume of work involved in this project make it necessary that several organizations work together under the aegis of UNESCO using financial contributions from international organizations. (Wikipedia). However, with the current situation of unrest this is unlikely to happen.

new marib dam
New Marib Dam

A UNESCO site which was bombed to extinction without any world protest was the Al Qahira Citadel in Taiz. Bombing was reported on 12th May 2015.  This had recently been restored and was now a recreational and tourist facility.  The earliest portions were certainly pre-Islamic and it might have been one of the most ancient sites in Yemen, with some claiming it was there since 10C BC.  On top of it was built a beautiful Ottoman fort.  It took 3 days of bombing before it finally was totally demolished.

al qahira castle being bombed
Al Qahira site being bombed

al qahira castle being bombed2al qahira castle being bombed3

Saada, in the north west portion of Yemen and close to the Saudi border, and the home city of the Houthis has come in for particular bombardment.  Parts of the city had already suffered extensive damage in 2004-2009, when the Saleh government with support of Saudi Arabia conducted wars in this region, and Saudi crossed the border in a military incursion themselves in 2009.  However, what is left of the city has now disappeared. This includes stunning the 9th Century Al Hadi mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world, bombed on 9th May 2015. This was followed by the bombing of the pre-Islamic city of Baraqish again a UNESCO site on the 11th May.

al hadi mosque
9th Century Al Hadi mosque before it was bombed.
al hadi mosque after bombs
The Al Hadi mosque after 9th May bombs.

This loss to the world is compounded by the displacement of a whole population, some of whom were related to the militias but many of whom were just ordinary Yemeni working people.  Some Saada residents were already living in refugee camps ran by Oxfam since 2009, and although Oxfam told the Saudi authorities the exact location of the refugee camp and advised them that it was not a military site, the camp was bombed on one of the first days of the campaign. The bombing continues as Saudis strike nearby villages on an almost daily basis.

Another Citadel that was bombed was close to the Red Sea port of Hodeida, the Sharif Citadel in the city of Bajel.  This was struck on 24th May. I can find no details of damage sustained.

al sharif bajel
Al Sharif Citadel, Bajel.

One ancient site which I knew well which I believe is lightly damaged is the Dar al Hajjar, the House on the Rock. This was a palace of the last Imam of Yemen who was overthrown in the 1960s.  It was built in 1786 and is an icon of Yemen, it is in a valley north of Sanaa called Wadi Dhar.  Prominently located in the centre of the wadi, it is visible from most of the mountains that surround the valley, and I often went running in this wadi, with the view of Dar al Hajjar from many vantage points. Now a museum, it was hit on 4th June.

Dar al Hajjar2
The iconic symbol of Yemen, Dar al Hajjar in Wadi Dhar.

I am hoping that this wonderful museum survives the war. Part 3 describes more architectural gems that have been damaged.

Yemen, its historical sites, and war.

Yemen is an ancient civilisation; its location in the centre of the three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, and adjacent to seas that link those three continents; plus its relatively moderate climate in the highlands and high rainfall comparative to other parts of the Arabian peninsula meant that it had people who were able to trade and develop sophisticated and wealthy settlements.  It controlled the spice trade and the frankincense trade routes, and for centuries it produced all of the world’s coffee, exported from its port Mocha. The Islamic Empire was centred on the Hijaz and Asir Mountain ranges, which run along the Western side of Arabia, the southern portion of which is Yemen.  The more northerly part of these mountains contains the Islamic cities of Medina and Mecca, which were won in battle by the Saud tribe in 1924 and became part of Saudi Arabia. Hence Yemen’s ancient heritage sites are particularly important not only to Yemeni people, but also they are part of the important heritage of humankind. Although it has been an impoverished nation in recent decades, it has a glorious history, and that is reflected in its ancient sites. It has walled cities, citadels, engineering projects, mosques, and palaces, many that stretch back to long before the birth of Christ.

Many of these sites have recently been renovated with international funding, and many are deservingly an important part of the UNESCO world heritage collection.  Yet these ancient sites that have stood the test of time are now being bombed, sometimes to the point of extinction, by the bombs that are being poured down on Yemen and its people by a war coalition that states it is ‘saving’ Yemen.   Of course, it is difficult to access information in a war situation, but it is obvious that there has been major damage to some of the major sites, some of which have been eradicated altogether.   Many of them are known to me personally, and I feel it as a personal loss.

Many of these sites are not near to people’s homes, but in Yemen people still live in ancient places, making them into living museums.  I always felt it was a privilege to visit them, and see them still operating as they did centuries ago, not as places which are just preserved for visitors to peek at.  The ones that are still lived in have not only sustained the loss of their architecture, but they have also killed the persons living there, and their sustained and sophisticated culture, which will be lost along with the architecture.  Because the structures for emergencies is not well developed, individuals are left to work alone to help survivors and to make the damaged property safe.

YEMEN-searching for survivors, old city
Old City, Sanaa; searching for survivors

The most important of these was only 20 minutes’ walk from my home when I lived in Sanaa’a, the Old City.  It was built of red bricks, with ornate white gypsum patterns and alablaster windows.  Some of these houses were up to five stories high, each story housing one branch of the family.  When I was living in Yemen, the lanes were being paved with grey stones, a massive project paid for by the Dutch embassy.  It was a walled city, and inside its walls it was a self sufficient space, with beautiful green gardens and an ancient souk, still selling traditional crafts that Yemenis used in their homes. Over each window was a fanlight shaped window with coloured glass, and that was why I loved walking through the Old City so much at night, it looked like fairyland. Sometimes when we walked around, we would come across wedding festivals, we would stop and watch the men dancing their intricate wedding dances, waving their jambiyyas, a curved dagger that they wore in their waistband.

There have been two major strikes on the Old City, one on 11th May, and a bigger one on 12th June 2015.

old city pre-bomb
The old city, Sanaa
old city after bomb blast2
The same site, after the bomb blast.

I read an article about a 99 year old woman who had lived in the city for almost all of her life, who has now had to move away from the city for safety.  There are no military establishments in the Old City, and nowhere for Houthis to set up camp and it is hard to understand why this was deemed necessary.