Seeking to erase the past has become part of the predictable modus operandi of violent groups such as ISIS, which infamously set about destroying and looting cultural heritage in the territories it occupied in Iraq and Syria. In Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban decided the 1,500-year-old giant Buddhist statues carved into the cliff face at the Unesco world heritage site of Bamiyan were idolatrous and blew them up. In Yemen, the Houthis have been travelling down the same path, desecrating archaeological sites and destroying and pillaging historic buildings, including mosques and churches. Now they have taken to looting libraries.
The motives for such behaviour range from zealous ideology, driven by a twisted misinterpretation of the tenets of Islam, to the Houthis' entirely temporal business of raising money to fund terror and warfare. Looted books, like Iraqi treasures before, could find their way into the hands of unscrupulous private collectors. But perhaps the most sinister reason for the destruction of cultural heritage is an attempt to blur the truth of the past, in the hope of preparing the ground for revisionism to take root.
The latest reported outrage by the Houthis is the looting of the historic library of Yemen’s ancient city of Zabid, capital of the country until the 15th century and a Unesco historic site since 1993. According to the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the rebels have stolen priceless manuscripts, books and artefacts from the library, an act rightly condemned as a crime against Yemeni and global civilisation. Such acts are the dull edge of a sword the Houthis have been wielding in more insidious ways. Last year it emerged that the rebels had introduced a new curriculum in Sanaa University, presenting a distorted historical perspective promoting Iran’s world view and rewriting the university’s widely respected Islamic cultural studies programme.
There is one lesson, however, that the Houthis themselves will come to learn, as ISIS and the Taliban have learnt before them. Books can be stolen, history rewritten, archaeological sites desecrated and buildings and statues blown up. But the collective memory of a people is not so easily erased. The theft of invaluable books that tell part of the human story is a crime against all humanity. But a nation's culture and heritage also dwells in the hearts, souls and memories of its people. Yemeni civilisation is built on foundations that cannot be shaken by the depredations of some passing historical footnote.