Stolen heritage: The illegal and rising trade in Yemen’s rare manuscripts

10 min read
10 June, 2021
The devastating war in Yemen has been accompanied by the unscrupulous plunder and smuggling of the country's cultural heritage, with illicit trafficking in ancient Islamic and Jewish manuscripts on the rise.

On 24 January 2020, a pair of ancient manuscripts were found in the possession of two young men making their way to the Yemeni port of Mocha. They were passing through the Hanjar crossing, southwest of Taiz city when they were stopped and searched by security guards loyal to the internationally recognised government of Yemen who seized the manuscripts.

The police report (obtained by The New Arab’s sister publication, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed), revealed that the men were carrying two rare copies of the Quran which were over eight centuries old, and which had been stolen from the National Museum in Taiz during the looting of the museum in July 2015. At this time, the museum had come under the control of the United Arab Emirates aligned Abu al-Abbas Brigades, according to Ramzi al-Damini, the museum director.

The number of manuscripts stolen is unknown due to the fact that no inventory has been carried out since the looting. Ahmed Jassar, the Director of Antiquities at the General Organisation of Antiquities and Manuscripts (GOAM) in Taiz, explains that this is due to a lack of funds which has left the museum unable to pay the Inventories Committee.

Two rare copies of the Qur'an were seized during a smuggling attempt in January 2020 [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]
Two rare copies of the Quran were seized during a smuggling attempt in January 2020 [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

The smuggling operation had been directed by antique dealer Sami al-Maqtari, who had been in Saudi Arabia since December 2019 after being pursued for illegally trafficking ancient Yemeni manuscripts between Aden, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The two detainees stated that their role had been to deliver the copies to him – he would pay them 20,000 Saudi riyals ($5,332) for each manuscript and had led them to believe that he intended to return them to the national museum.

Cultural plunder

Yemen has an enormously rich cultural heritage and is home to many thousands of manuscripts and ancient parchments – including fine scrolls made from deerskin – some of which date as far back as the early Islamic period. The country also houses many manuscripts from other cultures in other languages such as Persian, Turkish, Ethiopic and Hebrew.

However, Warda al-Jaradi, the financial director for the House of Manuscripts in Sanaa explains that very few of these are registered with the relevant national bodies and most remain in traditional centres of learning, or in ancient mosques like the Al-Asha’ir mosque in the ancient city of Zabid.

For others, they have been passed down as family possessions. Mohammad Al-Falahi inherited 30 fragments of a Quranic manuscript from his father after his grandfather – the Sheikh of the Mikhlaf village in the Raymah governorate in central Yemen – handed it down to him.

Yemen has an enormously rich cultural heritage and is home to many thousands of manuscripts and ancient parchments - including fine scrolls made from deerskin - some of which date as far back as the early Islamic period

Al-Jaradi states that while the smuggling of Yemeni manuscripts is not new, it has increased markedly over the last six years since foreign forces have taken control of the country’s ports.

“We hear time and time again about Yemeni manuscripts being sold abroad, or being displayed in museums – mostly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, because photographing manuscripts in museums are generally forbidden, it is difficult to verify such information or to prove that they have been illegally smuggled out of Yemen,” she says.

The former president of GOAM, Mohanad Al-Sayani, (who died on 10 August 2020) had informed Al-Araby Al-Jadeed of previous attempts to contact the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for requests to help prevent the sale of plundered Yemeni manuscripts. UNESCO never replied, which Al-Sayani explained was because it only recognises the GOAM in Aden, not the one in Sanaa. 

Live Story

It was possible to verify one of these exchanges through a memorandum issued by GOAM on 17 April 2019, sent to Anna Pollini, the UNESCO representative for the Gulf and Yemen.

GOAM had requested UNESCO intervention to prevent the sale of part of a Yemeni manuscript dating to the Rasulid Dynasty (1229-1454). The two pages from the “Quran al-Jowz” manuscript had been spotted up for sale at Christie’s Auction House in London on 25 June 2020 for between $9,135 and $13,050. UNESCO did not respond to the request.

However, Pollini did respond via email on the reason for UNESCO’s silence. She clarified that no information was provided on the source of the item and that regarding the UNESCO Convention of 1970 (Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970), any request for compensation can only be acted on if the object in question is listed on the national inventory of the member state.

She stressed that the Convention stipulated that state parties should adopt measures – like the establishment of national inventories – to ensure the protection of their cultural property from illicit trade. In spite of this, UNESCO had looked into Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database, and the manuscript was not listed. She concluded that in this case, it would not have been possible to use the 1970 Convention to retrieve the item because both the source and ownership were unknown.

Smuggling via Yemen’s land crossings

The smuggling of stolen manuscripts and other cultural artefacts predominantly takes place across Yemen’s land borders. Before 2017, during a period of Saudi-UAE control over ninety percent of the country’s border crossings, trafficking in such items had occurred via the seaport of Mocha.

However, since 2017, the Yemeni police force has thwarted many attempted operations of this kind, according to Amin Majidi, the Deputy Director of Criminal Investigations of the Military Police in Taiz. In 2020, for example, three attempted operations were intercepted at the port, the last resulting in the arrest of six smugglers carrying archaeological relics dating to the Pre-Islamic era and manuscripts from the 7th Century AH (13th Century AD). The historical items were given to GOAM in Taiz for inspection by a team of specialists.

Yemen is renowned for its rich cultural heritage [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]
Yemen is home to a rich collection of rare manuscripts [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

Frequent smuggling attempts also used to take place across Yemen’s eastern border with Oman, Jassar explained, however, these declined following an agreement between the Yemeni Ministry of Culture and their Omani counterpart aiming to combat the illegal trade. 

Al-Araby Al-Jadeed's investigator was able to make contact with a well-known antique dealer in Sanaa, claiming that he had access to a 400-year old handwritten copy of the Quran, with pages made from deerskin, which he wanted to sell. To convince the trader, he showed him a photo of the “copy” (the photo was obtained from an anonymous source).

The dealer sent an agent to confirm the existence of the copy, before offering to purchase it for 10,000 SAR ($2,666). Our investigator learned that this copy of the Quran could be sold in Saudi Arabia for 50,000 SAR ($13,330). It was apparent that some members of the security forces were routinely paid bribes to allow certain packages to go through the crossings unchecked.

This copy of the Quran could be sold in Saudi Arabia for 50,000 SAR ($13,330)

From Taiz to Israel

In October 2019, a smuggling attempt was foiled at a security checkpoint in al-Rada’ in the al-Bayda governorate, central Yemen. The item in question was a fragment of a Torah manuscript which the smugglers had intended to sell on in Saudi Arabia. The smugglers were handed over to the Antiquities Prosecutor in Sanaa and the manuscript was placed in the care of the Sanaa House of Manuscripts, according to Hamdi al-Razhi, who works in the Department of Manuscripts at the Ministry of Culture there.

The seized relic turned out to be part of an ancient biblical scroll, which in its complete form is made up of two sections, each of which stretches to 24 metres in length, and which were stolen from the Taiz National Museum in June 2015. The first section had reappeared in the possession of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video clip broadcast on Hebrew media channels on 21 March 2016, during the reception ceremony of a Jewish family who had emigrated from Yemen.

A Torah scroll, previously displayed in Taiz National Museum, is currently in Israel
A Torah scroll, previously in Taiz National Museum, was smuggled into Israel after the plundering of the museum [Getty Images]

Most ancient manuscripts smuggled out of Taiz in recent years are Islamic and Jewish, says Jassar. He mentions the disappearance of a Torah manuscript signed by the famous Yemeni Rabbi Shalom ben Yosef Shabazi after the museum was looted. It then turned up in a September 2016 sale at the Sotheby’s auction house in Britain and was sold for $52,500 according to Jassar, who explains that this manuscript was one of 115 authentic manuscripts carrying Shabazi’s signature.

A Torah manuscript signed by the famous Yemeni Rabbi Shalom ben Yosef Shabazi, disappeared after the museum was looted... it then turned up in a September 2016 sale at Sotheby’s auction house in Britain

Insufficient documentation

Jassar acknowledges that the lack of inventories is a huge problem: not one has been made in any of Yemen’s museums or manuscript houses since 2011 due to a lack of funds. This is the case despite it being relatively inexpensive, with no more than seven million Yemeni rials ($10,000) to pay for the preparation of a general inventory listing all the manuscripts and artefacts in Yemen.

The House of Manuscripts had proposed carrying out a field survey in 2021 across the country in order to register those manuscripts which could be piled up in dusty corners in the traditional centres of learning and to restore damaged ones.

“We have submitted a proposal requesting Parliament to activate laws combatting manuscript smuggling," Al-Jaradi explains. "We have raised this matter before and have urged for a prison sentence of at least four years, as well as larger fines than those that exist at the moment of 50,000 YER (around $100)."

Ineffective laws and rampant corruption

The Antiquities Prosecutor in Sanaa, judge Al-Kastaban, views the Yemeni law concerning the smuggling of cultural artefacts (Law 21 of 1994) as ineffective due to its lax implementation. The law states that criminals will face up to five years in prison, or be fined at least 50,000 YER, or both, while Yemeni authorities will confiscate artefacts seized and any tools used for the smuggling operation and these will be deposited into the care of the Antiquities Support fund.

However, smugglers are rarely subject to punishment due to corruption – there is often collusion with state officials or others in positions of authority. This fact was made clear in December 2017 when the authorities in Sana’a raided the home of Major General Mahdi Maqoula, who had disappeared without a trace after the death of Yemen’s Ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh: numerous plundered artefacts were discovered in his home.

The law also states that “trade in moveable artefacts is prohibited unless official permission has been obtained from the Antiquities Authority” and emphasises that even if permission is obtained, the circumstances in which these objects may be traded is very narrow and subject to ministerial rules and regulations. Al-Kastaban says that in effect this renders the holder of a licence to trade unaccountable and thus allows others (for example state officials) to hide the practice of illicit trade in artefacts through the licence holder.

Al-Razhi accuses former government officials of having exploited their positions to help in trafficking priceless manuscripts out of the country, gifting them to foreign ambassadors, or selling them on to antique dealers. Some of these former officials are currently being charged with these crimes in absentia (their names will remain anonymous here). He finds it hard to believe that statues and carvings, in some cases quite large ones, could have exited Yemen unnoticed – conceding that this would be easier with manuscripts that can be easily hidden in suitcases or boxes.

“Yemen has transformed into a trade corridor for African manuscripts, and this has opened a space for smugglers of Yemeni cultural heritage too,” adds Al-Razhi.

He cites an incident where a Yemeni trader called Muhammad al-Samei was arrested in the possession of Ethiopian manuscripts five years ago; security forces had believed the manuscripts were from Yemen. He was handed over to the Antiquities Prosecution in Sanaa and a case was filed against him which lasted four years. Then it was ascertained that the manuscripts were in fact from Ethiopia. Al-Samei was released and the manuscripts were restored to him in 2019.

This is a huge issue says al-Razhi, because if this is permitted with manuscripts from other countries, then it naturally opens up the space for a similar trade in ancient Yemeni manuscripts alongside their counterparts in other parts of the world.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original (including full documentation from the original investigation) click here