A Showcase for Yemen's Past
Karen Thomas previews 'Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen', the main exhibition at the British Museum over the summer months.
Yemen’s historical sites have been sadly neglected due to under-investment in conservation. Now, prompted by growing international concern about the country’s crumbling heritage, conservationists are rebuilding the citadel of Sana’a as a showcase for Arabian history.
Yemen is Arabia’s forgotten jewel, a country whose breathtaking beauty and awe-inspiring scenery have seduced generations of travellers, but where recent sporadic Islamic insurgency has helped to keep the country’s vast touristic potential untapped.
According to Yemeni folklore, the southern port city of Aden is the site of the Garden of Eden, the burial place of Cain and Abel or the launch-port for Noah’s legendary ark. What is undisputed is that Yemen was one of the wealthiest and most powerful trading empires of the ancient world, dominating the myrrh and frankincense trades.
Ma’rib Dam, built in 800 BC, sustained a sophisticated agrarian community for more than a thousand years. After Ma’rib Dam burst, and with the decline in demand for Arabian incense, Yemen’s fortunes declined. The country was occupied by subsequent waves of colonists, the Portuguese, the Ottoman Empire and by British troops.
One of the world’s most isolated, traditional societies in the early twentieth century, Yemen was splintered into tribal allegiances, ruled by a religious-feudal elite. Only one boy in twenty attended Quranic school. There were no qualified doctors and no paved roads.
However, isolation helped to preserve Yemen’s ancient buildings and historic sites – a heritage that has all but vanished in Arabia’s oil-rich states. Its recent history has been a turbulent sequence of division and reunification. Yemen entered the twentieth century in 1962, after a military coup created the Yemen Arab Republic in the north.
Now, however, Yemen’s heritage is in peril, and conservation experts have called on the government and international bodies to protect the relics of the southern Arabian nation’s 7,000-year old history.
In historic Sana’a, capital of unified Yemen, one medieval palace collapses beyond restoration or is razed to make way for real estate every single day. The Yemeni capital boasts more than 20,000 old palaces, but at the current rate of demolition and collapse, a third of these 400-year-old buildings will have vanished by 2010.
Pro-Western North Yemen and pro-Soviet South Yemen reunified in May 1990 creating the Republic of Yemen, Arabia’s first multi-party democracy. It seemed that Yemen was heading for recovery, but then Iraq invaded Kuwait. As regional governments bankrolled the Western-led drive to expel the Iraqi forces, Yemen questioned the use of Western troops against an Arab neighbour on Arab soil.
Yemen paid for its rebel stance. Up to 3 million Yemeni migrant workers were expelled from the GCC in 1991, wiping out the country’s estimated $3 billion-worth of annual foreign remittances. In 2000, Yemeni remittances stood at just $1 billion.
Against this turbulent backdrop, it comes as no surprise that the need to conserve Yemen’s heritage has not been a priority. But now, with the IMF directing Yemen’s economic policies, there are clear signs that economic growth is threatening the country’s neglected urban and rural heritage.
Real estate prices soared by 200 per cent in the last decade and traditional architecture using mud-brick construction methods dating back 1,000 years is over-run by breeze-blocks and concrete. Bloated agri-businesses and urban sprawl are blighting Yemen’s ancient stone villages and carved mountain terraces.
Yemeni artefacts are also vanishing at an alarming rate, many excavated from unexplored desert sites by impoverished tribes and smuggled across the border for sale in Saudi Arabia.
Now, however, money is finally available to rebuild Sana’a National Museum – and work has started on this flagship project to protect Yemen’s rich heritage.
The National Museum project is significant, one of the few historic sites to have won sizeable funding for restoration, and is therefore seen as a test case. Dutch conservation experts have begun the $15 million refit of the Mutawakil Royal Citadel complex in a joint venture with the Yemeni government.
Ironically, the site is relatively modern. The Al Mutawakil Mosque was built in the eighteenth century, the centrepiece of an expanding complex. The ruling Ottoman elite added the Turkish Hospital in 1895 and a hammam (Turkish bath house) and fortress in the early twentieth century.
The Yemeni ruler Imam Yahya built Dar Al Sa’ada, the main palace, in 1928 and modified a second palace, Dar Al Shukr, in 1935. Restoration works aim to replicate the original Turkish and Yemeni architecture, adding modern exhibition space and upgrading the Imam’s diwan (reception hall) to host private and corporate parties.
‘The idea is to restore the entire citadel,’ says Marco Livadiotti, consultant to the Yemeni government. ‘The target was to create a museum of Sana’ani architecture that will be a cultural centre, transforming the former royal citadel into the biggest museum in the Middle East by 2004.
‘The restoration of all the buildings and palaces will be done with traditional materials and technique – stones, bricks, clay and local wood.’
Lacking co-ordinating bodies to link diverse international initiatives, and hemmed in by competing demands on its resources, the Yemeni government relies heavily on foreign donations to ease the threat to its national heritage.
UNESCO patronage in the early 1990s of World Heritage sites Sana’a, Shibam and Zabid has failed to protect and restore the country’s heritage – late last year Zabid was awarded new, ‘at risk’ status and is now considered an emergency case. Yemeni officials complain that UNESCO has no officers in Yemen and has provided little funding.
Despite all the best intentions, delegations of international heritage experts – each generating countless new feasibility studies, most delivering barely a quarter of a million dollars for conservation schemes – have failed to stem what pessimists see as the irreversible collapse of Yemen’s heritage.
One problem is that Yemeni officials – literally – don’t know what they have. In 2000, Italian backers launched a $500,000 pilot project to create Yemen’s first inventory of historic sites, focusing on the southern Hadramawt province.
The list will enable experts to identify the sites in greatest need, and estimate funding requirements. If the project succeeds, it could be the blueprint for a more comprehensive study covering all historical sites – a venture that would require at least $2 million.
‘The country is growing fast, and its heritage is paying the price,’ Livadiotti concludes. ‘There are no rules or conditions to protect Yemen’s heritage, no inventories of its monuments, no rules governing what happens to a place once it is given protected status. How can we protect our heritage, when we don’t know what there is to protect?’
- ‘Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen’, a new exhibition at the British Museum, opens on June 9th in the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery. Spectacular artefacts dating back to the 6th-century BC highlight the history and culture of a complex civilisation.
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