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Tue Oct 31 22:32:53 MST 2000

Yemen Times


A Continuing Threat to Yemeni Antiquities

Karen Dabrowska

The latest excavations under Yemeni sands which are unearthing the 3,000
old ruins of a huge temple complex believed to be the lost capital of
the Queen of Sheba are an archaeologists dream come true. ‘The circular
temple sanctuary is packed with artifacts, pottery, artwork and
inscriptions, opening a new door to the ancient civilizations of
southern Arabia’, Dr. William Glanzman the principal director of an
international team which has been working on the site

But the site could also be a lucrative hunting ground for smugglers
constantly in search of ‘easy money’ from pilfered antiquities. In May
this year the customs and antiquities office at Sana’a International
Airport frustrated an attempt to smuggle out antiquities from the
pre-christian era. They included ancient manuscripts, the statues of
humans and animals and a stone jar.

The smugglers tried to ‘export’ the antiquities inside bulky boxes under
the pretext that they were being sent to the Expo-2000 exhibition in
Hanover.   ‘The antiquities trade does not thrive on recirculating items
from private collections. It needs to be refueled and this refueling can
only be done through the illicit plundering of archaeological sites’,
Carl Phillips, Director of Excavations in Yemen taking place under the
aegis of the British Archaeological Mission to Yemen, pointed out.

Britain has the unenviable reputation of being a smugglers paradise. In
a report published by the Museums Association in June it is pointed out
that in Britain it is still legal to trade in cultural material
illegally exported from other countries. The report ‘Stealing History’
describes in detail the huge scale of modern looting ranging from the
alarming rate of destruction of archaeological sites in Italy to the
looting in Mali which has become an international scandal.

The trade is an underground activity and it is impossible to estimate
its financial level. Estimates have ranged from £150 million to £2
billion a year. Phillips also a lecturer in the archaeology of
pre-Islamic Arabia at the Institute of Archaeology in London keeps an
eye on London’s antiquities market where a number of valuable items from
Yemen have surfaced.

‘The bottom line is that if there wasn’t a market there would be no
looting’, said Liz Robertson the Museum Association’s policy officer.
‘The trouble is we have no sense of outrage about the looting of
archaeological sites in the way that we do about the loss of wildlife
and even the removal of birds’ eggs’, she said.

The Museums Association is urging the British government to sign two
international agreements, the 1970 UNESCO and 1995 Unidroit conventions.
This would prevent Britain being used as a market place for material
which was illegally obtained and provide a means for reclaiming material
exported illegally from this country.

During its colonial days in Aden and south Yemen Britain played a role
in the preservation of antiquities. In the 1960s, when Stephen Day was a
colonial officer in the then Western Aden protectorate an antiquities
ordinance was in force in the colony of Aden. It required anyone wishing
to possess or export an antiquity to get the permission of the Director
of Antiquities. But there was no ordinance in the interior.   ‘At that
time I was, among other things, adviser to the Fadhli Sultan’, Day
recalls. ‘He became very interested in antiquities. I remember taking
him to the British Museum and giving him a lot of books. He appreciated
that this was an important element of national wealth, of great
importance to future generations. He brought in an Antiquities Ordinance
to the Fadhli sultanate which I drafted and since the Fadhli sultanate
was on the eastern border of Aden, the route for most of the smuggled
antiquities, including those coming out of North Yemen, it enabled the
police to confiscate a lot of smuggled goods and stop any looting within
the Fadhli Sultanate. But that was only one of 21 states in the

Day continues his story with nostalgia and some regrets. ‘The sultan
then became Minister of Justice in the federal government and I
persuaded him to propose that the federal government which covered most
of the interior should introduce an antiquities ordnance. It was at that
point that my superior reprimanded me for wasting people’s time because
there were many more important priorities than antiquities. And I
replied very pompously because I was very young that in 50 years time it
might be the only aspect of British rule that anyone remembered. We
didn’t do it. No antiquities ordnance was introduced and personally I
feel ashamed at the absence of any legacy in that respect. I say that
having seen particularly what the French did in their former colonial
territories. They did marvelous work in developing knowledge about the

After independence the Yemeni authorities have done their best to make
up for British indifference to the preservation of the country’s
heritage. They have often been praised for their efforts to protect
archaeological sites especially during civil wars when buildings and
monuments were destroyed and antiquities were stolen from museums. Today
a strict check is made by customs to stop illegal ‘exports’.

Forgers have turned out to be conservationists in disguise. Once word
gets around that a lot of money has been paid for worthless look alike,
many would-be buyers think twice before parting with their money for a
statue that could have no value.   Pilfering of antiquities is also a
problem in other Middle Eastern countries. In August, Egyptian police
foiled an attempt to smuggle antiquities thought to be worth at least
$15 million to the United States. They included a column from a Greek
temple and chairs inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl found in a
shipment of furniture about to leave the port of Alexandria.

In Iraq there are small museums at most of the archaeological sites but
many valuable artifacts have been stolen. In its Issue of January 1997,
Trace, a magazine which liaises with international police forces and the
art world in tracing stolen works, estimated 4,000 items were looted
during the Gulf war in 1991. Black marketers have been encouraged by
legitimate deals. On the legal market an Assyrian stone carving was sold
for £2.7 million to a Japanese collector.


Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222

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