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Yemen’s antiques threatened by corruption, looters and smugglers

Published on 14 January 2013 in Culture
Amal Al-Yarisi (author)

Amal Al-Yarisi


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Antiques from hundred’s of years worth of history don’t recieve the required care despite their historical value.

Antiques from hundred’s of years worth of history don’t recieve the required care despite their historical value.

Yemen has long been noted for its unique history.  Proof of this is the numerous historic relics found in museums and archaeological sites that piece together the country’s rich cultural heritage. However, questions are now being posed regarding how serious concerned authorities are about protecting the country’s antiques against saboteurs and merchants looking to earn a quick buck by smuggling and selling the historic valuables.  

Yemen's unstable security and economic situation over the past two years has led to an increase in the black market for antique relics said Mohammed Al-Sanabani, the head of the Antiquities General Authority.   

According to Abdulkarim Al-Barakani, the Deputy Manager of Antiquities and Cultural Properties Protection, a lot of smuggling takes place at Sana'a Airport where illegal merchants seek to access lucrative markets outside Yemen.  However he says the Antiquities General Authority has done much to work with security at the airport.

Since 2010, approximately 450 antiquities, including genuine artifacts, fake antiquities and folklore have been confiscated he says, 60 of those were in 2012.  

Al-Barakani says the authority is establishing a committee to take inventory of the confiscated items and try to find safe homes for them where they can be studied and displayed for the public.

While he says smuggling at the airport is being taken into account, a huge issue still exists in terms of land and sea smuggling.  

This is what happened to Abyan Museum in Zinjibar.   

Al-Barakani says the museum has been devastated by looters who seized the opportunity to steal during an absence of security caused by Al-Qaeda's war with the state. He says the current state of the building is "pure debris."

“Abyan Museum is the only one that was absolutely looted,” Al-Barakani said.

The Antiquities Authority designed a catalogue containing pictures of the robbed items in a bid to aide in their recovery but little progress has been made. Al-Barakani says they are seeking the help of international authorities to find the stolen items.

A lack of security cameras may pose the biggest threat to museum antiquities.

The National Museum in Sana'a was shut down in 2011, a year marked by havoc, because it had no means of surveillance.  Due to this, the acclaimed museum with artifacts that date back to the pre-Islamic era has had to hide from the public.

"We are afraid, so we prefer to keep the antiquities hidden in storage," said Ibrahim Abdullah Al-Hadi, the Guardian of the National Museum.

Museums are trying to take precautions to keep track of their treasures.   

The National Museum has a database that tracks antiques as they enter the museum, the only one of its kind in the country.    

However, Al-Hadi says the database lacks maintenance and allows room for corruption.  

“Unfortunately, this wealth is not cared for," he said.  

Marib Museum is another project in need of government support, said Al-Sanabani.

"The antiquities of this museum are still kept in storage and under the disposal of the governor," he said.  

He says the government needs to create a national list of museum artifacts so authorities can keep track of them.

Al-Barkani says his protection agency has a plan to set up an information center connecting all the concerned authorities in order to combat antiquities trafficking in cooperation with the Defense Ministry.

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