Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 26th January 2020

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World Monuments Fund restores buildings in war-ravaged Yemen

GOAM identified 66 archaeological sites and monuments damaged in the war in Yemen.

A struggle for survival. The National Museum in Taiz after restoration. (Karen Dabrowska)

A struggle for survival. The National Museum in Taiz after restoration. (Karen Dabrowska)

LONDON - Yemeni conservators trained by experts of the World Monuments Fund have restored the Imam Palace, a 19th-century Ottoman building that was converted into the National Museum in Taiz in 1967.

Taiz, a battleground in the civil war that has consumed Yemen since 2015, sustained serious damage to heritage sites. In 2016, the National Museum was shelled and its collection of manuscripts destroyed. A 16th-century mosque was blown up by Houthi rebels, prompting the World Monuments Fund (WMF) to place the city on the watch list for the protection of heritage in 2018.

At a discussion in London’s Imperial War Museum, where an exhibition titled “Culture Under Attack” has been assembled, WMF Executive Director John Darlington said the group’s watch programme “highlights places of great importance that are in need of help, be it because of conflict, natural disaster, abandonment or inappropriate development.”

“Through the watch we are able to put a spotlight on a cause, assist with expertise and with funding,” Darlington said.

In 2018, WMF Britain in collaboration with Yemen’s General Organisation for Antiquities and Museums (GOAM) received $132,000 from the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund, which funds projects in 12 MENA countries where heritage is threatened.

The two-part project included training and professional support in applying the acquired skills to restore an edifice in Taiz.

“GOAM chose the Imam Palace, which was built for Imam Ahmad Hamid al-Din, ruler of the kingdom of Yemen. It is a very fine building, with elaborate decoration, wood and brickwork, stained glass and wonderful mashrabiya balconies,” Darlington said.

“It was badly damaged in 2016 and our ambition through the project was to restore the magnificent exteriors and roof – the essential steps for preservation.”

Five GOAM team members were selected for training by international experts. After the training, the team made a damage assessment of the building. Work began in the spring of 2019 and was completed in November. The team used a range of traditional techniques to restore the facades, roof and exterior.

Alessandra Peruzzetto, WMF’s programme director for Archaeology in the Middle East, said she had expected many challenges with the restoration of the museum “but things went very smoothly. The people were really dedicated to the work. They were really organised.”

The WMF applied for another grant to rehabilitate the interior of the museum. It would also like to restore Al Badr Palace next to the National Museum.

“The bombing affected the Al Badr Palace, which was badly damaged,” Peruzzetto said. “In the case of the National Museum, the damage was just to the exterior walls.”

The discussion was addressed by Eric Vallet, coordinator of the Maghreb chair at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, who provided an overview of the destruction of Yemen’s cultural heritage.

He pointed out that GOAM identified 66 archaeological sites and monuments damaged in the war in Yemen. Thirty-five religious sites and shrines were destroyed and vandalised by extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda, which consider shrines and monuments to be pagan temples.

The affected sites include historic houses in the old city of Sana’a, the Marib Dam, the military museum in Aden, the Aden Branch of the National Centre for Yemeni Archives and the Dhamar Museum.

“The looting and smuggling of antiquities, which began 20 years ago, has increased (during the war) but the international community has been very slow to condemn what is taking place,” Vallet said.

Yemen is one of the richest countries in the MENA region when it comes to natural, cultural, historical and architectural heritage. It has four UNESCO World Heritage List sites: the Socotra Archipelago, the old city of Sana’a, the old walled city of Shibam in Hadramawt governorate and the historic town of Zabid.

In November, a report by the independent Yemeni group Mwatana for Human Rights included concerns about the destruction of heritage. The report stated that all parties to the conflict have been involved in attacks and hostilities against cultural properties, including archaeological sites and historical landmarks dating back more than 2,000 years.