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.
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.
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.