At 11 a.m. on Saturday 13 August, 2015, the battle between Ansar Allah forces (known as the Houthis) and the Popular Resistance Committees (aligned with the internationally-recognised government in Aden) rampaged the vicinity of the Taiz National Museum, southwest Yemen, resulting in a fire that destroyed large parts of it.
The Houthis used the museum, established in 1967, as a warehouse to store weapons from March 2015 until their withdrawal in August of the same year. Abu Al-Abbas Brigade, stationed on Taiz city’s eastern front, seized control of the museum until the Taiz branch of the General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums took over in 2017 and prepared an inventory of the remaining antiquities.
During this period, all contents of museums in Taiz were looted as stated in a report submitted by the Yemeni Ministry of Culture to the United Nations (UN) in May 2018 and inventory report number 75, presented by the Taiz branch of the General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums to the cabinet in September 2018.
Based on documents obtained by the journalist, this investigative report exposes how parties to the conflict stole antiquities from museums across the governorate of Taiz and how the internationally-recognised government failed to investigate what happened or to apprehend the perpetrators.
According to a report published by Yemeni organisation Mwatana for Human Rights in November 2018, Yemen’s cultural capital Taiz has been hardest hit by the war on the cultural level, with the destruction of eight archaeological landmarks since 2014.
The Houthis seized Taiz in March 2015 and used the National Museum, also known as Al-Ardi Museum, as a military base before withdrawing from it and other parts of the city five months later.
The inventory report submitted to the cabinet in September 2018 by the Taiz branch of the General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums stated that the museum was: “Robbed and looted during the Houthis’ militants presence in it.” The report added that the museum’s contents included rare and diverse antiques as well as Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts.
After the Houthis’ withdrawal from the city, Abu Al-Abbas Brigade seized control of the museum. As recorded in a document obtained by the journalist, detailing the Al-Bab Al-Kabir police station investigation with the individual in charge of securing the museum, the library’s gate in the museum had been ravaged by bullets before he assumed his duties.
According to the Yemeni cabinet to the UN, one hundred and forty-seven valuable manuscripts were missing from the National Museum, including 124 Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts and 14 Qurans, in addition to many other manuscripts missing from other museums in the governorate of Taiz.
The report detailed that a total of 1,631 antique pieces and manuscripts are missing from museums in Taiz, Aden and Zinjibar, and that 321 antiques and manuscripts are missing from Taiz’s museums alone.
The aforementioned inventory report confirmed that all antiques in the National Museum and Sala Museum in the governorate of Taiz were looted between 2015 and 2016. However, the report did not hold any of the parties to the conflict accountable.
Abu Al-Abbas Brigade and armed members of Al-Qaeda seized control of Al-Ardi, where the National Museum is located, after the Houthis withdrew from it, as reported by Mwatana for Human Rights. The area was consequently under the control of different Popular Resistance factions between 2015 and 2016.
Mwatana’s report quoted eyewitnesses stating that Abu Al-Abbas Brigade “looted the museum”, packing three bags with silver collectables and coins and three with copper collectables.
A document dated 8 May, 2017, revealed that Abu Al-Abbas Brigade transferred antiques from the museum to their headquarters before and after the General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums formed its committee in Taiz.
In April 2018, the General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums requested that the governorate urgently transfer the antiques at Abu Al-Abbas Brigade headquarters to the Yemen Bank of Reconstruction and Development after the brigade’s headquarters were shelled.
In early 2019, the minister of culture issued a decision to form a committee to carry out an inventory of the museum’s contents and oversee their retrieval from Abu Al-Abbas Brigade’s headquarters. The committee wrapped up its work in early March 2019.
A month later, Abu Al-Abbas Brigade confirmed that there were other collectables at its headquarters but asserted that it had nothing to do with their theft. In a statement posted on its Facebook page on 29 April, Abu Al-Abbas Brigade accused Popular Resistance forces of stealing them after raiding their headquarters in March, after the committee finished its work.
However, the investigation with the person in charge of securing the National Museum, also a soldier of Abu Al-Abbas Brigade, exposed some of the brigade’s members’ involvement in stealing the collectables.
According to what he divulged in the interrogation conducted on 13 February, 2017, he allowed the owner of an antique shop in the popular market in Taiz to enter the museum and take two gold watches and four candelabras from Al-Badr Palace, which is part of the National Museum Complex. After they were sold, he received 300,000 YER (approximately $1,200 in line with the exchange rate at the time) as commission for the two watches and 40,000 YER (approximately $160) as commission for the four candelabras, in addition to a “handful” of various jewellery items sold for 150,000 YER (approximately $600).
Infographic of the museum’s contents that the Abu Al-Abbas Brigade soldier was involved in selling:
Section of the museum complex
Four swords, 22 daggers
Imam Ahmad Palace
Three gold women’s necklaces, Two women’s rings
Imam Ahmad Palace and Al-Badr Palace
Imam Ahmad Palace
55 gold, silver and ordinary pen sets
Imam Ahmad Palace
Imam Ahmad Palace
The same soldier allowed the antique shop owner to enter the museum again and take four swords. He later allowed him to re-enter and take 200 watches from Imam Ahmad Palace, including 50 metal, silver and gold pocket watches, seven daggers and 35 silver and gold pen sets. More contents were stolen from the museum, of which the soldier denies any knowledge.
The report submitted to the UN documenting the missing antiques contains photos of 27 silver and gold clocks and pocket watches, eight swords and daggers and dozens of jewellery items, only representing a sample of the missing watches and weapons.
A police report has been filed on the matter, naming the shop owner for selling the museum’s antiques. However, despite three years since the report was initially filed, he was freely running his business when the journalist visited his shop.
During the interrogation, the soldier disclosed that a battalion from Al-Sa’alik Brigade, backed by Al-Islah Party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, encouraged him to facilitate the looting of the museum’s antiques when it took an ancient equestrian saddle from the museum and told him that it was halal (permissible) to take anything from the museum because it’s “Houthi”.
In the interrogation carried out on 2 March, 2017, the soldier in charge of securing the museum revealed that he sent “silver coins to Sheikh (Abu Al-Abbas)”, adding that the latter received more coins in eight bags.
A source in the police department who requested anonymity shared that this was the last interrogation with the soldier. The source added that the authorities did not resume the investigation because names of “warlords” involved in the looting had surfaced.
Another source familiar with the process of inventorying the antiques at Abu Al-Abbas Brigade headquarters indicated that the inventorying process and investigation had been suspended due to the governor’s lack of cooperation.
A victim of the conflict
In February 2018, Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, the chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 2140 (2014) regarding the Yemeni crisis, called on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to inform museums and auction houses that exporting and selling Yemeni antiques is illegal and that measures must be taken to ensure that the money made from trading Yemeni antiques will not be not a source of funding to armed groups.
Article 4 of The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict stipulates: “The High Contracting Parties further undertake to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against cultural property. They shall refrain from requisitioning movable cultural property situated in the territory of another High Contracting Party.”
However, professor at South Texas College of Law Dr Derek Fincham believes that the Hague Convention will not help protect cultural property in Yemen, given the complexity of the civil war involving several internal and external actors.
Although Yemen has signed the Hague Convention, documents that the journalist acquired reveal that Yemeni army members were accused of looting the warehouses of the National Museum in Taiz.
Looting the museum’s warehouses
The Taiz branch of the General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums submitted a report to the Ministry of Culture in February 2019 informing it that the National Museum in Taiz: “Was still being looted although security guards are deployed inside it.”
The report accused members of the Yemeni army’s 22nd Mika Brigade, present in the military police headquarters, of looting the museum’s warehouses.
“We have previously reported that the museum’s contents have been looted while security guards were present there, and we requested from you (i.e. the minister of culture) to form a committee, carry out an investigation and interrogate the perpetrators, however, you ignored this request,” the report detailed.
A source from the Ministry of Culture confirmed that no investigation had yet been launched, despite two years since the thefts, because the perpetrators fight in the ranks of the Yemeni army, adding that those imprisoned for their involvement were released without trial.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.