Archaeological sites destroyed and monuments vandalised: the war that has been raging in Yemen since 2014 has greatly impacted the cultural heritage of the country, considered the cradle of many ancient civilisations. The Temple of Awwam – one of the most important monuments of the ancient kingdom of Saba – now sits abandoned and at the mercy of looters.
Collateral damage of the conflict between Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government, several important archaeological sites have been totally or partially destroyed. A study published in 2017 by a research collective in France identified around fifty historical sites that have been damaged in the crossfire, including Yemen's capital Sanaa (whose Old City district is classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site), the ancient ruins of Sirwah and several museums and ancient mosques.
The study blames the damage to these sites mostly on airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis.
The Awwam Temple, near the city of Marib approximately 120 km east of Sanaa, was spared from destruction in the clashes. However, the ancient site has been left unattended and abandoned during the conflict, making it a target for looting and desecration. Salah M. Ishmael, a young professional from the Marib region with a passion for archaeology, has launched a call on social media for young people in the area to clean up and maintain the monument.
'The site is not guarded, the stones are not protected'
The Temple of Awwam, also known as the Mahram Bilqis, dates back 3,000 years. The temple is dedicated to Almaqah, the god of the Moon, a god of the ancient kingdom of Saba. American researchers started excavating the site as early as 1951. They discovered and studied around 300 slabs which had Sabaean [Editor's note: an ancient language of Yemen] inscriptions on them. These stones are extremely important, because they document conflict, trade, peace treaties and foreign relations between Saba and other kingdoms.
But today, many of these slabs, 3,000 years old, are just thrown on the ground along with plastic bottles. People have smeared ink on the columns with pen and you can see litter everywhere. It's a disaster.
The site is not guarded, the stones are not protected by, for example, plexiglass or barriers to prevent people from touching the artefacts. Looters often scavenge illegally because there are no guards or surveillance cameras.
So I launched a call on Twitter to ask young people, academics and activists to participate in awareness campaigns and clean-up efforts, but also to put pressure on authorities, especially the General Organization of Antiquities and Museums (GOAM), to do something.
I also recently created a Facebook group with some friends in order to compile all the threatened archaeological sites in Yemen, some of which are in much worse states than Awwam, without garnering any attention.
For example, there is the city of Baraqish, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Ma'in – also built 3,000 years ago – whose walls were destroyed in a bombing by the coalition.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team reached out to the General Organization of Antiquities and Museums in Yemen to inquire about measures taken to protect archaeological sites. We will update this article if we receive a response.
Since the beginning of the Yemeni civil war in 2014, Houthi rebels have faced off with the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is recognised by the international community and supported by a Saudi-led military coalition. The war has cost more than 233,000 people their lives and displaced more than a million others.