Yemen takes steps to recover looted artefacts

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden


A picture taken February 24th, 2018 shows the Zabid branch of Yemen's General Organisation for the Preservation of Historic Cities. The ancient city of Zabid in al-Hodeidah province is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. [Abdo Hyder/AFP]

The Yemeni government has been working to recover looted antiquities that were smuggled out of the country by the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) and to prevent them from being sold on the international market, officials said.

The Ministry of Culture has reached out to countries where stolen Yemeni antiquities are being sold and traded, in the hope of entering into agreements with these countries, said Minister of Culture Marwan Damaj.

Yemeni antiquities have been "excavated, looted and vandalised by the Houthis", he told Al-Mashareq, accusing the militia of destroying ancient sites in order to "obliterate Yemen's diverse cultural heritage".

He accused the Houthis of smuggling archaeological artefacts and manuscripts out of Yemen to sell in countries including the US, Britain and France.

And he highlighted the need to forge agreements "with countries that are main markets for the sale of Yemeni antiquities, in order to ban their sale and recover them".

Pursuing bilateral agreements

Damaj and Simon Smart, deputy chief of the British diplomatic mission in Yemen, met July 16th to discuss ways to prevent the trafficking of Yemeni antiquities in Britain.

They explored the possibility of establishing a formal agreement between the two governments to ban the sale, trade and transport of Yemeni antiquities in Britain, local media reported.

They also discussed the rehabilitation of a number of museums and training of Yemeni staff in this field, to be implemented by the British Council.

Yemen and the US previously signed an agreement to bar the import of looted Yemen artefacts, which went into effect February 5th.

Under this agreement, US authorities are imposing emergency restrictions to prevent the entry of Yemeni antiquities for a period of five years, through September 2024.

"The Houthi coup against the state has led to catastrophic results in all sectors," Damaj said, noting that the Houthis "deliberately destroyed archaeological sites by using them as military sites, thus causing them to be targeted".

Houthis bear responsibility

"The Houthis looted antiquities and manuscripts as the de facto authority," Deputy Minister of Culture Abdul Hadi al-Azazi told Al-Mashareq.

Since many of Yemen's artefacts and archaeological sites are located in Sanaa and northern provinces under the militia's control, the Houthis "bear the responsibility of protecting them", he said.

However, the Houthis have dealt with archeological sites "as thieves", as some museums were burglarised and others looted, vandalised and destroyed, he added.

Some archaeological sites and museums were used as staging points for military operations, and were damaged as a result, al-Azazi added.

Thanks to the efforts of the Ministry of Culture, he said, the contents of museums are registered, and Yemeni antiquities are protected under international agreements banning their sale.

Communicating with international agencies to prevent the sale of antiquities will achieve positive results, he said, because this will make it more difficult for the looters to sell antiquities in international markets.

Destroying Yemen's history

"When Taez was liberated from the Houthis, they looted very valuable artefacts and then targeted the museum militarily," said Abdul-Khaleq Saif, director of the National Museum in Taez province.

He accused the militia of deliberately destroying Yemeni history.

Security forces have managed to recover 70% of the holdings of the National Museum in Taez, and discussions are under way to recover the rest, he told Al-Mashareq.

He commended the Ministry of Culture's efforts to sign bilateral agreements to ban the trade and sale of Yemeni antiquities in the markets of other countries.

In addition to the Houthis, extremist groups such as the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other religious radicals have had a hand in looting and destroying Yemen's antiquities.

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