The war against Yemen is a hidden war: over 4 thousand deaths, a million internally displaced people, and 21 million people without constant access to food and water. Another layer is added to the devastation suffered by the civilian population, namely that of the vast archaeological and architectural heritage of a country that was the cradle of Arab and Islamic civilization. Every nook of the cities of Sana’a, Marib and Aden tell the history of the Arab world and its encounter with the peoples of Asia and Africa, and now they are in ruins. “Paradise”: this is the Arabic meaning of the name Aden, the port city in the south that has been the target of violent raids by the anti-Houthi coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
What the Islamic State is doing in Iraq and Syria, erasing Palmira and Nimrud, Riyadh is doing in Yemen. And the world remains silent. We spoke to Lamya Khalidi, an American archaeologist of Palestinian origin who works at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. Khalidi lived in Yemen for eight years and has followed events there since 2001. Now she monitors the damage caused by the ongoing conflict.
After more than five months of the war, is it possible to take stock of the sites damaged or destroyed, to estimate the losses for Yemeni heritage?
It is difficult to give exact figures, as not even the local authorities are able to move around the field to document the damage. At present, however, the assessment is terrible. The latest report by the Ministry of Interior dates back to July 19 and includes 43 sites (mosques, archaeological sites and tourist spots). I believe this number has increased dramatically over the past two months because of the violence of the bombings. It is impossible to estimate the number of artifacts damaged or destroyed. We can do this in the case of the Museum of Dhamar, which was pulverized in an air raid: We knew the number of objects stored there before, and we need no additional estimates; everything was lost. And we must not forget that the raids, chaos and poverty facilitate the looting of sites and museums. Then there are sites that were bombed several times, such as the ancient dam of Marib or the sites in Baraqish and Sirwah, which date from the first millennium B.C.
Of the most popular sites, the symbols of the impact of the destruction of world heritage, which are now lost forever?
Given the scale of the destruction, we have to divide damage to tangible assets into five categories: cities; monuments, such as mosques, citadels and fortresses; archaeological sites; archaeological finds; and museums.
The museum in Dhamar is a significant example of the extent of the loss. The museum housed tens of thousands of artifacts, which were catalogued by the hard work of many Yemeni and foreign archaeologists. It was in an archaeological site that had been excavated before the construction of the museum. It was pulverized in a second. I can’t comprehend how anyone could fail to react to it. If the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo was bombed, the world would mobilize in shock and disgust. When the museum in Mosul was vandalized, videos were shared around the world and people reacted harshly. Here we are talking about national museums, national institutions that protect priceless treasures. There are numerous archaeological sites, many of which were hit at the beginning of the war by the Saudi coalition and then bombarded again, despite the efforts of UNESCO and archaeologists to protect them as world heritage. These include the dam of Marib, which is still a target, an undertaking of engineering genius from the first millennium B.C. when Yemen was ruled by the Sabean dynasty. Another city from the same era, Baraqish, which had been restored by an Italian team, was hit a few days ago. The temple of Nakrah was completely renovated by the Italians, and the temple of Athtar, the city walls and the house used by the team have all been reduced to rubble. When it comes to cities classified as UNESCO sites for their stunning, unique architecture, the list is long: It is hard to find a village in Yemen that doesn’t have its own distinctive feature.
The most obvious acts of vandalism have been the raids on the ancient cities of Sana’a and Shibam, both World Heritage sites. Less known examples include Zabid, Wadi Dhahr and Saada, which are on the list for admission to UNESCO. And then there are the monuments, mosques, citadels and sacred tombs destroyed by air raids or vandalized by groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS, who see forms of idolatry in them. This is nothing new in Yemen. In the 15 years we have worked here, Wahhabi militants have often come from Saudi Arabia to destroy Yemen’s heritage. But these mosques and tombs are part of a rich and ancient identity that weaves the religious and cultural sides of Islam together.
Many do not know how extensive the Yemeni heritage is, or how universal.
It is a country with a culture formed of a mosaic of elements from southwestern Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. It is an incredible mix of people, sounds, tastes, aesthetics and architecture that are naturally combined in a beautiful way, against the background of one of the most varied landscapes in the world. Now everything is in danger.
Do you think that in the future it will be possible to recover part of that heritage? Or is the damage irreparable?
The greatest tragedy is the civilians victims and the extent of the damage to their infrastructures and homes. When the crisis ends, restoration of this heritage will not be a priority. In any case, you can only restore something that still exists. That which is destroyed is lost forever and irreplaceable. The continuous bombardments over some sites and the complete demolition of others leave little hope.
What Riyadh is doing in Yemen to the local heritage is exactly the same as what ISIS is doing in Syria and Iraq.
Are there any international organizations trying to put pressure on the Saudis to protect this heritage?
The world is absolutely silent in the face of what is happening in Yemen. There’s not even good media coverage. Meanwhile, people are terrified, the raids are so violent and heavily affect populated areas. Entire families do not know where to go or what to do. This demonstrates that the coalition bombs indiscriminately, without worrying about human lives, cultural heritage or international law. The stories of my friends and colleagues who remained in Yemen remind me of the Israeli attack on Gaza last summer.
In the case of the historical heritage, the raids are indiscriminate but also very precise. Some sites are in the middle of the desert, such as the Marib dam. You can only strike it with precise coordinates. And then if you redo it for weeks it is clearly a case of deliberate destruction, because the site is not a threat to anyone. There are no roads nearby or any surrounding villages. UNESCO has delivered a list of protected sites to Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh is indifferent. The pressure placed on the Saudis is worthless: The attempts at protection are not proportional to the level of destruction. UNESCO tries to do its part, but it has no influence. No one listens.
In an editorial in The New York Times, you spoke of “Saudi vandalism.” What is Riyadh’s goal in destroying the symbols of a country with centuries of history? Is it to impose their narrative, their authority?
I do not know what the goal is, but I can say that it is calculated destruction. I know these sites, where they are, which are inhabited and which are not, and I know that it is not easy to hit them unless you want to. On the other hand we have cities like Sana’a and Shibam, UNESCO sites that clearly have large populations. They are obviously crowded with civilians and are home to important cultural heritage.
The Saudis, who have a no-fly list, do not respond to questions about why they’re causing such destruction. I don’t think they will as long as their allies, the U.S. and Europe, keep sending them high-precision equipment that causes mass destruction.
No one is accusing them of crimes against humanity. It is pure vandalism, exactly what ISIS is doing in Syria.