The Degradation of History

Violations Committed by the Warring Parties against Yemen’s Cultural Property

Publish Date
November 15, 2018
Pages Count
The Degradation of History
Mwatana Launches its Report “The Degradation of History”
Press Release
Mwatana Launches its Report “The Degradation of History”
November 15, 2018

Historical Background:

Yemen is the cradle of one of the oldest civilizations known to man in the Middle East. Historical sources indicate that the science of history of the Arabian Peninsula was prominent in the south[1]. This civilization relied on trade, mining, agriculture and urbanization, which enabled it to create a stable society that recorded this development and transferred its accumulated experience through history. A portion of this experience has been transferred out of Yemen, at varying intervals, with humans migrating north[2].

Given the climate of Yemen, which is directly linked to the influence of the monsoon, agriculture flourished in this country, and its inhabitants developed effective irrigation methods such as canals and dams. This agricultural prosperity had a direct impact on the social relations that created a system of intangible heritage associated with rituals of worship, irrigation and harvesting.

The work in the field imposed a wider participation of women[3] outside their households, along with the men. As evidenced by monuments and inscriptions, the old and stable Yemen gave a great deal of space to the participation of women in the public sphere, culminating in the assumption of power by women. On the other hand, the synergy between the geographical location and the global trade movement turned Yemen into a point of contact between Egypt, the South Seas and India[4]. This was a major reason for why Yemen became the target of ambitious and greedy international interests, as it was a privileged country during a certain period of its history[5]. During that period, the country was dominated by wealthy classes that were interested in building palaces and castles[6].

Not only did this development attract colonizers to Yemen, but it also represented a turning point, since it allowed the Yemenis, along with many other things, to document Yemen’s old history, with its legal and political traditions to resolve disputes among themselves[7], the establishment of successive states, the union and the division between the old provinces[8]. Many remaining artifacts and sites still exist and constitute a vivid witness to the boom and prosperity of old Yemen. However, most historical sources agree that numerous artifacts and archeological sites in Yemen remain “buried under dust and sand”.[9]

The medieval history of Yemen was equally rich; and it was the period during which Islam and, later on, multiple denominations, spread in the country. During that period, “history” was written with more awareness, particularly with the adoption of the Arabic language, as an official language for writing. The manuscripts preserved in the country’s libraries carried many of the teachings of Islam. The libraries of the Grand Mosque of Sana’a, the National Museum of Taiz, the Library of Zabid and the library of the city of Jibla have kept a substantial number of these manuscripts.

These “relics” recorded a number of important moments in the history of Yemen, including the ascension of Queen Arwa bint Ahmed al-Sulayhi (473-532 AH/1080-1138 AD) to the throne. The Queen has been given titles such as “Lady” and “Free”, and Queen Arwa is still known by these attributes to the present. Her reign is greatly revered by the Yemenis because it led to long-standing political traditions[10], ensuing development[11] and clear interest in infrastructure[12].

In addition to the accumulated artifacts during this period, the Islamic State created various types of religious buildings[13], schools (madrassas)[14], shrines, temples, tekyehs, fortresses, samars, baths and castles that characterized – in their different architectures – the state. Although the multiplicity of Islamic states, their continued conflict with each other, and external interference in the affairs of the country have had a significant impact on the destruction of some historical monuments, their influence is also reflected in the diversity of Islamic art in Yemen[15]. However, those conflicts and interventions have been marked by an acute hostility towards history and diverse heritage.

Despite the cycles of political conflicts and wars that Yemen has witnessed since the dissolution of the last stable kingdom in its ancient history, and the periods of conflict in the era of the Islamic states and their aftermath, the country retained part of its tangible and intangible heritage until the late 20th century. Yemenis preserved this heritage because of social customs that are closely associated with history. Many sources[16] attribute this to the isolation that characterized political practices in the last centuries of the second millennium, especially in the northern regions of Yemen. However, since the beginning of archaeological excavations in the mid-eighteenth century, the tangible heritage (inscriptions and antiquities) in both the southern and northern regions has been increasingly exposed to looting, theft, smuggling, destruction or distortion.

The Yemeni society also maintained a less extreme[17] culture and was more inclined to respect diversity. The economic boom associated with the trend towards oil[18] exploration, gave this culture a modern dimension. In urban societies, fashion, cinemas[19] and music[20] flourished, while the countryside (villages) preserved its identity, which was protected by the bonds of lineage and good neighborliness. It was a complete moral system, based on goodwill, on a set of values inherited through the customs that constituted the laws of ancient Yemen, in addition to the religious teachings affirmed by Islam.

The style of rural architecture reflected these ethics. Over long periods of the Yemeni history, many Yemeni villages built houses that were formed from a horizontal series of interconnected rooms. More than a family could live in a residential complex, which usually consisted of one floor. Members of these families saw each other in the common halls during their daily domestic activities. On moonlit nights, families, with their women and men, chatted in the common halls of these structures and told stories of a mythical nature.

The adopted pattern of horizontal construction was the standard feature of the popular classes in their coexistence and bias towards each other. On the other hand, the classes that distinguished themselves, such as the sheikhs and the landowners, were keen to reflect their wealth through buildings with a vertical construction.

This social convergence allowed people to develop a culture of coexistence and openness. Cultural diversity was significantly reflected in a variety of popular clothes, songs, and events of a mystical[21] social nature. If the tangible heritage of Yemen was subjected to risks of obliteration, distortion, theft and smuggling throughout the country’s political conflict, the 1970s should be seen as a critical period in terms of the dangers surrounding the intangible heritage because the developments that occurred during this period and its aftermath, were accompanied by an activity of an ideological nature that also centered on investing in the economics of oil and the techniques of scientific development. As the oil and technical boom peaked, the differences between ideological currents, including sectarian divergence between the two most prominent religious sects, Sunnis/Shiites, increased. Although the situation in Yemen took on other names: Shafi’i/Zaidism, this discrepancy eventually led to the emergence of unusual manifestations of extremism pertaining to the intangible heritage, which was characterized by coexistence and openness. This situation gradually culminated with the targeting of tangible heritage (cultural objects), whether intentionally as a result of hostility towards it, or indifference to its historical value.

After the dredging of the Yemeni identity, the current war against the remaining tangible heritage and cultural property was launched and resulted with the country losing, day after day, its diverse heritage, its traditions that were entrenched in the governance and its economic and cultural practices.

The parties to the war have been engaged in the destruction of a large number of cultural objects, whether by using them for military purposes or by causing disproportionate damage to them. Because these parties and affiliated armed groups also carry a hostile attitude toward history that is inconsistent with their ideology, many cultural properties have been destroyed in their areas of control.

Instead, the internal parties to the conflict have, on more than one occasion, concentrated on historic buildings and castles, causing considerable damage[22]. The Arab Coalition forces also raided historic cities listed on the World Heritage List[23], archeological buildings and castles[24], which led to their total and partial destruction.

Lack of Accountability

The perception that the destruction of cultural heritage and property is an insignificant behavior encouraged the parties to the conflict to commit further violations. With the state of idleness in identity, the parties to the conflict have deepened their hostile view of a history that is incompatible with their ideology and thus destroyed the heritage in which they see a threat to their existence. However, these parties would not have committed any violation of cultural property unless they were certain that they were immune to accountability and punishment.

In this regard, we wish to confirm that heritage is a crucible of cultural diversity and a factor that ensures sustainable development[25]. Considering that heritage is a common human path, and that Yemen is a signatory to many conventions to safeguard its heritage, it is the responsibility of the international community to contribute to the protection of this heritage, in addition to the responsibility that the authorities and society must assume in the protection of their cultural and historical heritage and property.

In times of conflict, cultural property may be exceptionally included on the “enhanced protection” list adopted by the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention elaborated in 1999. It is therefore necessary for the international community to include the heritage of Yemen on the list and to prevent attacks against it or prevent using it for military purposes[26].

Pointing to the violators or those backing them may make these parties reluctant to act with aggression or indifference in regard to Yemen’s heritage and cultural property. It is useful to remind these parties of the responsibilities they must undertake to protect the heritage and the sanctions that await them in the event of disavowal of these responsibilities[27].

The prosecution of responsible people[28] convicted of the destruction of cultural property in Africa has set a good example of good endeavors for the protection of the world’s human heritage and how the world, if it has the will, will send its deterring messages to all those who have set themselves up as enemies of history.

In the end, efforts should be relied upon in order to stop the war and start a serious dialogue to get Yemen out of its predicament. As the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate and the political stalemate remains, belligerents gamble with the country that was once a single entity and, in three years of war, has almost faded away.

Concepts and Definitions

  • Cultural Property

Most international law instruments as well as some national legislation have used the concept of “cultural property” to refer to movable and immovable property, which are of great importance to the cultural heritage of peoples. If the term “property” refers to all objects that are traded in order to meet the needs of humans, the term “cultural” defines the social and historical context of these properties[29].

Considering the texts of international conventions that define the concept of cultural property, we found that the most acceptable and common definition, in light of the international law, is derived from two sources:

  • First Source: Article 1 of the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954), which contains three sub-paragraphs:
  1. movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular; archaeological sites; groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest; works of art; manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest; as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above;
  2. buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a) such as museums, large libraries and depositories of archives, and refuges intended to shelter, in the event of armed conflict, the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a);
  3. centers containing a large amount of cultural property as defined in sub-paragraphs (a) and (b), to be known as ‘centers containing monuments’.
  • Second Source: The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property[30]. The Convention defined “the term ‘cultural property’ as property which, on religious or secular grounds, is specifically designated by each State as being of importance for archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science and which belongs to one of the following categories: property relating to history,  products of archaeological excavations, original works of statuary art and sculpture.”
  • Cultural Heritage:

Cultural heritage represents the values that should be passed on to future generations, whether tangible, such as objects and sites, or intangible, such as customs, traditions, knowledge and language. It is the legacy of physical and tangible artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.

The UNESCO Convention Concerning the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972) defined cultural heritage in the following three paragraphs:

  • Monuments: architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, and combinations of features, which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;
  • Groups of buildings: groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape, are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science;
  • Sites: works of man or the combined works of nature and man, and areas including archaeological sites which are of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view.
  • Tangible Cultural Heritage:

Tangible heritage includes buildings, religious and historic places, religious and funerary artifacts, such as temples, cemeteries, mosques, and military and civilian buildings such as fortresses, palaces, castles, baths, barrages, towers and walls, which are considered worthy of preservation for the future.  Tangible heritage includes objects significant to the archaeology, architecture, science or technology of a specific culture. Its preservation is important to the study of human history because it provides a concrete basis for ideas, and can validate them, as opposed to a reproduction or surrogate[31].

  • Intangible Cultural Heritage (Living Heritage)

The intangible cultural heritage means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills that communities transmit from generation to generation[32].

Methodology of the Report

This report is based on investigative field research during which Mwatana Organization for Human Rights conducted thorough investigations in nine[33] Yemeni governorates. These nine governorates witnessed violations and attacks against cultural property and objects, with most of them possessing a great historical, artistic and spiritual value.

Mwatana documented this report in various contexts since the second half of 2014 and for a period of three years. In these contexts, the incidents were the result of different types and complex patterns of violations and attacks on cultural objects in Yemen. At least 34 sites that have been documented by Mwatana have been subjected to various types of attacks, such as aerial bombardments, ground attacks, bombings, vandalism, deliberate destruction and damage, as well as hostile acts against these cultural objects or their deliberate use for direct military purposes.

During field visits, Mwatana’s research unit was able to gather testimonies of people who were eyewitnesses to those violations that targeted these cultural objects. Among those who testified, were officials and individuals who lived near this cultural property or attended it to observe their religious duties. The research for this report includes more than 76 interviews conducted for over more than three years. Mwatana’s team documented these interviews during field visits and was able to document more than one testimony for every attack involving such cultural property.

Mwatana didn’t offer any financial or in-kind payment to those who testified, and the identities of some people who testified in parts of this report were kept anonymous for the sake of their safety.

In its ranking of the incidents presented in the report, Mwatana listed first the archaeological sites associated with the history of ancient Yemen and then included the monuments associated with the historical periods that followed. For the purposes of the report, Mawtana has provided a historical overview of all the cultural properties it has documented, by referring to reliable and recognized historical and academic references.