Antiquities smuggling plunders Yemen’s heritage [Archives:2007/1052/Culture]

May 21 2007
Ghasham calls on UNESCO to protect Maqwala Museum.
Ghasham calls on UNESCO to protect Maqwala Museum.
With no room to keep large ancient antiquities, they are left at the General Organization of Antiquities door for months until the specialists in this organization held a meeting to decide upon their authenticity.
With no room to keep large ancient antiquities, they are left at the General Organization of Antiquities door for months until the specialists in this organization held a meeting to decide upon their authenticity.
We finished documenting Bayhan Museum and we hope to inventory the museum, which is as important as documentation, according to Shujaa Al-Deen.
We finished documenting Bayhan Museum and we hope to inventory the museum, which is as important as documentation, according to Shujaa Al-Deen.
Ancient pieces smuggled out of Yemen never return. Antiquities sell for $10,000, while a manuscript of the Quran sells for $3,000.
Ancient pieces smuggled out of Yemen never return. Antiquities sell for $10,000, while a manuscript of the Quran sells for $3,000.
Nisreen Shadad
and Saddam Al-Ashmori

Smuggling antiquities has become widespread nowadays, as the lengthy process of evaluating their authenticity, coupled with weak surveillance, has pushed many to become smugglers.

Most smugglers interviewed were simple people owning antiquities of their own; however, because they are jobless and needy, they sought to sell them to Yemen's General Organization of Antiquities, Museums and Manuscripts first. Some waited a long time and then finally received their money, while others got nothing. Because of the lengthy and boring evaluation period, as many described, still others shortened the process and dealt immediately with smugglers. Many of these three types of individuals, particularly those who are jobless, became smugglers.

Reasons for smuggling

As Abdullah Bawazeer, head of the antiquities organization, explains, “The main factor behind antiquities smuggling is Yemen's extensive borders, which provide more opportunities for smugglers. Additionally, the absence of local authorities and security bodies, which are supposed to control smugglers, particularly in Marib and Al-Jawf, also plays a vital role in creating more smugglers.”

Smuggling penalties differ from one individual to another, according to the crime. “When apprehending a smuggler, the General Organization of Antiquities confiscates the antiquities and the smuggler is submitted to prosecution, with each smuggler punished according to the crime,” Bawazeer noted.

Yet, such penalties don't make a big difference or produce any significant change, not because the Yemeni government is lenient with them, but because smugglers have organizations, gangs and sometimes protectors to compel the government to free them, according to Bawazeer.

“To protect our heritage, the most important thing we can do to limit such a phenomenon is cultivate within Yemenis the importance of preserving their heritage. Ancient artifacts and manuscripts are the heritage of all Yemenis, neither owned by one particular individual nor a particular generation; therefore, it's illegal to sell something we don't own ourselves,” Bawazeer continued.

Mohammed Abdul Raqeeb, a specialist in museum administration, agrees with Bawazeer about the importance of citizens' awareness about the value of their heritage. “The reason for smuggling is public ignorance about the importance of such antiquities to the nation as a whole, since ancient artifacts reflect Yemenis' history and civilization.”

Ahmed Shuja'a Al-Deen, general director of the museum in Sana'a, considers the system of receiving antiquities from the public as destructive. “The process we follow within the antiquities organization is the main reason creating smugglers. We first receive ancient antiquities and manuscripts, and then we attempt to define and describe them. After that, we form a union to present them and consequently, decide whether they're real or fake. The union also determines a suitable price for each piece.”

As Al-Deen described, this process takes a long time, so citizens may spend more money during this transaction period than the price of the antiquity. “A man from Raymah received YR 10,000 for his piece; however, he spent much more than that during the transaction,” he pointed out.

To clarify this idea, Al-Deen recounted an occurrence last year. “A union must be formed at the beginning of each year; however, it never happens. For example, in 2006, after five months, the union decided to meet and after another five months, it held a meeting.

“The names of those whose antiques are accepted go to the Finance Ministry; however, the ministry refused to pay them, saying we were so late and the year was about to end. It is a rule; therefore, we were compelled to use 2007 finances to pay citizens who had been waiting since early 2006.

“We don't consider the money paid to citizens the price of the antiquities because they deserve more; rather, it's only a reward for their cooperation with the government,” Al-Deen pointed out.

Overlapping job descriptions creates further corruption within the organization. “Because the general administration of the museum; it is one of the administrations that exists in the General Organization of Antiquities, doesn't perform its duty very well, other administrations intervene in each others' work and duties,” Al-Deen alleged.

For example, “Leaders have passed over us and done our job without informing us or we sometimes find other administrations doing our work under the direction of our leaders. Therefore, some administrations have no work, not because of a lack of jobs, but because of overlapping,” he explained.

One of the biggest reasons for antiquities smuggling is the existence of antiquities traders at Al-Melh Souq in Sana'a. Yemeni citizens possessing antiquities often seek a souq to sell their pieces because they prefer the easiest, as well as the more profitable method, according to Al-Deen.

“Moreover, the penalty is lenient, so that upon leaving prison or paying the fine, they continue smuggling,” he observed.

While some authorities doubt work by foreign delegations, Bawazeer affirmed their cooperation in protecting Yemeni heritage. “Delegations working in Yemen submit to numerous rules that systemize their work and after making an agreement with them, they receive authorization to work in Yemen. We request such delegations provide a preparatory report, followed by a detailed report about their work after five or six months,” Bawazeer explained.

Inventory and documentation

The Yemeni government is interested in annually taking stock of simple things at the General Organization of Antiquities , such as armchairs in the office, while museums, which are considered Yemen's heritage, are neglected and have no an annual inventory, according to Al-Deen.

Documentation is an important way to protect Yemeni antiques. “We just finished documenting Bayhan Museum. There were many missing pieces, and due to poor previous documentation, we didn't know the exact description of the piece or even what it looked like,” Al-Deen recalled.

Such documentation can assist the Yemeni government in finding any antiquities missing from Bayhan Museum because each piece and manuscript is provided a complete description and a picture.

Smugglers' stories

One smuggler related his reason for smuggling, recounting, “I lived in an area full of antiquities. My father collected them as a hobby and decorated our home. After his death, my family moved to Sana'a, but life there is more difficult than in the village. Due to spending more in Sana'a, I began thinking about selling one of our antiquities, so I took one of the manuscripts and went to the General Organization of Antiquities to sell it officially. However, those in charge of ancient antiquities told me to wait until they have their annual meeting. Weeks and months passed, but I heard nothing about my piece.”

He then got to know several antiquities sellers (smugglers) who offered him a lot of money for his artifacts. “After I got to know such people, I worked with them. We usually go to those locations that are famed for ancient antiquities, then to villagers to buy their pieces and consequently, sell them,” he explained.

“I became a smuggler because I'm jobless. Moreover, official channels procrastinate in paying us. I have many artifacts, as well as the fact that I live in an ancient area,” he added.

“We smuggle antiquities to countries near Yemen, as well as those far away. However, it's easier for us to smuggle pieces to countries near Yemen because we can contact those smugglers easily and meet them at the borders, as we have certain places to meet each other,” he noted.

He continued, explaining, “We hide small pieces in our clothes and bags. The best things to smuggle are bronze or marble pieces because the airport apparatus can't define it.”

“If the government cared about Yemen's ancient antiquities, it would deal with us transparently,” he concluded.

Another smuggler justified his reason for smuggling: “The reason for my work in this field is because of the seductive sums of money offered to antiquities smugglers.”

He began working in this field after discovering in his village a bronze sculpture of a man with one hand on his breast and the other extended with a gold bracelet around it. “The sculpture seemed priceless, but when I went to the General Organization of Antiquities to tell them about it, they showed no interest in it. I couldn't trust them, so I left.

“After a long time, someone told me about men who pass through ancient Yemeni areas seeking to buy artifacts. I followed their trail until I found them and sold my piece for YR 5,000, although it deserved more. The Yemeni government is lethargic, while others work daily to buy our pieces,” he observed sadly.

“After working as a middle-man, I searched for precious antiquities and then presented them to antiquities traders,” he added.

“Antiquities traders usually are those interested in antiquities, as well as operating antique stores, and such people usually have foreign customers. For many years, numerous foreigners came to Yemen and wanted to see antique stores, where they saw and bought them,” he recounted.

Nevertheless, some Yemeni citizens prefer to keep their antiquities in their home rather than sell them. “Because I live in an ancient area, I've found numerous antiquities near my house. While digging to widen my yard, I found a small bronze sculpture and other antiquities used for drinking,” explained one anonymous citizen.

“I went to the official channels because I heard that whoever gives them such items will be rewarded. I went to the General Organization of Antiquities, but I didn't bring my pieces with me. I met a man there, who advised me to find somewhere else to sell my pieces. He told me, 'Yes, they'll receive them from you, but you'll run after them for your money year after year – and Allah only knows whether you'll get it or not!'” he continued.

“My home is the best museum for these antiquities,” he concluded.

Maqwala, a historical area with a neglected museum

Maqwala is a historical area located in Sanhan village approximately 15 km. from Sana'a. Its ancient antiquities reflect the history of Maqwala's settlement (the period between the ends of the fourth millennium B.C. until the second half of the first millennium). Upon viewing this land, one feels as if he's living thousands of years ago.

For four years, Abdulqader Ghasham has struggled to keep Maqwala Museum open. He's also its founder. “I discovered all of the manuscripts and ancient artifacts in a well beside my house. I informed the government about the well in order for it to dig in it and remove all of the antiquities; however, my call fell on deaf ears.

“Therefore, I dug in the well myself, removed our nation's heritage and designated part of my house in which to display them. Many smugglers were ready to buy them for millions and surely, in a very short time, I could be a millionaire, but I can't sell Yemen's heritage.”

Ghasham now has spent up to YR 6 million to save the antiquities. Additionally, he's stopped anyone from digging in Maqwala and removing artifacts so as not to give them a chance to sell Yemen's heritage.

However, Ghasham complains that he can't obtain his rights. “The head of the General Organization of Antiquities is very helpful; however, there are many who refused to grant me my rights.”

Victims of journalistic articles

Some refused to speak about corruption within the General Organization of Antiquities, as they described, because they spoke to journalists before and then were penalized. “You write, but we'll receive the punishment,” one anonymous individual commented.