A Showcase for Yemen's Past. (Frontline)

By Thomas, Karen | History Today, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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A Showcase for Yemen's Past. (Frontline)


Thomas, Karen, History Today


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 multiparty 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.

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