Yemen's struggle to protect its ancient treasures from looters

Opportunistic looters are taking advantage of Yemen's neglected historical sites, with some offering big rewards for help finding valuable relics

Al Mukalla museum is located inside a mansion that has not been inhabited or repaired since 1999. Saeed Al Batati / the National
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Since taking over Hadramawt's provincial antiques office, Riyadh Bakarmoom has been offered meals out, tickets to big events and millions of Yemeni riyals to help smugglers identify and buy rare relics.

"They send me pictures of items on WhatsApp and ask me to say if they are real treasures or not," he told The National at the office of the General Organisation of Antiquities and Museums in Al Mukallah, the capital of the province in south-eastern Yemen.  

Mr Bakarmoom, 33, has a master's degree in archaeology from Jordan, and is adept at excavations and reading ancient languages.

The callers are usually businessmen from Yemen or the Gulf states, or sometimes they are close friends carrying a message for the buyer. “I tell them I cannot offer any kind of help,” he said.

Yet the number of calls is growing, adding to his concerns that opportunists are keeping a close eye on the artefacts at the city's museum. They are waiting for a security lapse, he fears, to break in.

"We deposited the most valuable items inside the vault of a local bank, which costs us YER25,000 (Dh365) a month," he said.

Riyadh Bakarmoom complains that smugglers are eyeing treasures of Al Mukallah museum, urging quick funds to repair the museum. Saeed Al Batati / the National

Al Mukallah museum is located inside a ramshackle palace built in the 1920s when the area was part of a large kingdom known as the Quaiti Sultanate. The museum was initially built in the early 1960s in a small building not far from its current location, but after the fall of the dynasty, the South Yemen Marxists republic that replaced it relocated the museum.

Since then, it has been left to gather dust – meaning the five rooms on the ground floor that house paintings, stone statues, carvings, statuettes and other items that go back to human prehistory are vulnerable to break-ins.The second floor houses items from the Sultanate era. 

Years of negligence, a lack of regular upkeep and many smash-and-grabs have already left their mark. A layer of crusty salt is expanding along the walls, woodworms are eating into the wooden stairs and have ruined old books and documents.

The items that have survived looting so far are scattered on the ground. A small statue that lost its hand during a raid, beautiful vases and other items from the Sultanate's era are kept inside a wooden box. The glass display cabinets are now empty and dirty.

“As you can see, the museum is in a condition of misery. There are no proper windows, doors or any sort of protection,” Mr Bakarmoom said, adding that his office is understaffed and lacks funds.

“Our monthly budget is YER21,650. That means there are not enough funds for inspecting archaeological sites or for repairing damaged treasures.”

Inside Al Mukallah museum, glass display cabinets that used to showcase items are empty and dirty. Saeed Al Batati / the National

In 2015, Al Qaeda militants stormed the city aiming for the nearby coffers of the central bank. They broke into the palace, where they took up positions on the first floor of the museum and began shelling the bank's guards. The returning fire smashed the museum's coloured windows and, when they left, looters wreaked havoc.

"They were looking for gold or silver items, so they grabbed swords and removed metal from the sultan's throne," Mr Bakarmoom said.

When the dust settled, local conservationists rushed to assess the damage. They took many of the remaining items home and released a statement saying the museum had been completely ransacked to deter more looting.

The items have recently been returned.  

Local authorities allocated YER40 million early this year for repairs to the eastern part of the palace in response to desperate appeals from local archaeologists.

"The works will end in 10 months and will save the palace from falling down," Mr Bakarmoom said.

Since the UAE-backed Yemeni forces brought security and peace to the city, he hopes to be able to turn the museum into a destination for tourists.

“We are in need of another YER30m riyals to repair the museum. We want to change the windows, doors and to fix the security cameras,” he said.   

Checking his mobile, Mr Bakarmoom found on his WhatsApp photos of stolen artefacts and this time he has to respond.

“Sometimes I lie about their history and value. I tell them the items are not worth a penny because if someone told them they are treasures, they would go back to the country’s archaeological sites and dig up more.”