By Noah Browning and Mohammed Ghobari
DUBAI/CAIRO (Reuters) - Folklore calls Yemen the cradle of the Arabs but its ancient heritage is being destroyed as the Arab world's most powerful states bomb Houthi rebels in the impoverished country.
Air strikes this week on the Shi'ite Muslim militia's northern stronghold of Saada by a Saudi-led Sunni Muslim alliance partly razed the city's 1,200-year old Hadi Mosque, the oldest seat of Shi'ite learning in the Arabian Peninsula.
Ancient stucco buildings in the medieval coffee-trading port of Zabid on the Red Sea lie in ruins, while pro-Saudi tribesmen and the Iran-allied Houthis clash in central Yemen beside a shrine said to have been built by the Biblical Queen of Sheba.
The pre-Islamic walled city of Barakish in Yemen's north, capital of a trade empire which sent Arabian incense to perfume the temples of ancient Greece and Rome, has also been bombed as the alliance tries in vain to reverse Houthi gains.
An Ottoman fort of white stone on a mountaintop overlooking the central city of Taiz has been pounded for days after the Iran-allied fighters, Yemen's dominant force, holed up there.
Hundreds of people have died in more than six weeks of fighting while a near-blockade has cut off food and medical supplies, sparking a humanitarian crisis.
Added to the suffering of Yemen's people, the cultural destruction has given the Houthis an opportunity to polish their nationalist credentials as a movement resisting alleged foreign aggression and defending the country's identity.
"The alliance isn't content killing men, women and children, but anything that defines this society and its struggle," an angry resident in Taiz barked into the cameras of the Houthi TV channel al-Masira. "The aggression can't erase with its bombs the heritage of Yemen."
Residents said Houthi forces had used many of the damaged sites as places to assemble fighters and store weapons, however, and the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO has warned both sides against involving historic sites in the war.
"These attacks are destroying Yemen's unique cultural heritage, which is the repository of people's identity, history and memory, and an exceptional testimony to the achievements of the Islamic civilisation," the group's director Irina Bokova said in a statement on Tuesday.
The future identity of the Islamic world may be at stake, as sectarian strife playing out in Syria, Iraq and Yemen pits against each other armed groups from Islam's two schools, backed by the rival fundamentalist states of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Ironically, the Islamic past may be a casualty of the fight.
"The Houthi movement is a religious movement and Saudi Arabia is hard-line religious kingdom. These kind of parties don't give a priority to cultural history and are focussed on their ideological war," said Mahmoud al-Salmi, a professor of history at Yemen's Aden University.
"In a struggle for power, the conflict won't distinguish between what's old and valuable and what's a military target, and we risk losing these sites if the fighting goes on."
(Editing by William Maclean and Catherine Evans)