'They're Beginning to Decay': Yemen's Ancient Mummies Threatened by War

Yemeni mummy
A general view shows a millennia-old mummy displayed in a glass cabinet at Sanaa University, in the Yemeni capital on May 10, 2017. The conflict threatens the fate of a collection of millennia-old mummies. Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty

Twelve ancient mummies are at risk of irreparable damage as a Saudi-led bombing campaign continues in Yemen, according to experts at Sana'a University.

The mummies, which date back to 400 B.C. and require constant care, have begun to rot as swathes of the city have been left without electricity and archaeologists have struggled to source the chemicals they need due to port restrictions and the closure of Sana'a Airport.

"Mummies need a suitable, controlled environment and regular care, including sanitisation every six months," Abdulrahman Jarallah, head of the archaeology department at Sanaa University, told AFP.

"Some of them have begun to decay as we cannot secure electricity and the proper preservative chemicals, and we're struggling to control the stench."

The conflict, which broke out in March 2015, pits Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels against Sunni pro-government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf states. The coalition intervened when rebels forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour to flee his Sana'a palace.

It has left more than 10,000 dead, the country on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, given rise to ISIS and rejuvenated Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, the group's most powerful arm. Both have continued to conduct attacks in the capital and the country's southern regions.

Read more: How the Houthis have provoked a human disaster in Yemen

"We're concerned both for the conservation of the mummies and for the health of those handling them," Jarallah continued. Both he and Fahmi al-Ariqi, a restoration specialist at the museum, called on the international community to intervene to help the museum team to maintain and ultimately save the mummies.

"We can already see the mummies suffering the effects of a long period of not having been properly maintained," Ariqi told AFP. "We need supplies and experts in this sort of maintenance to work with us to save the 12 mummies here at the university, as well as another dozen at the National Museum in Sanaa."

The process of mummification has traditionally been associated with Ancient Egypt, but the technique was also practised in other areas of ancient Arabia. Yemen's mummified bodies pre-date Islam and date from a time when kingdoms—such as Saba and Awsan—ruled a region then known as South Arabia.

Yemeni mummy
A general view shows a millennia-old mummy displayed in a glass cabinet at Sanaa University, in the Yemeni capital on May 10, 2017. Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty

"These mummies are tangible evidence of a nation's history," Jarallah said. "Even our mummies are affected by the war."

Another ancient site at threat from the conflict in Yemen is the Old City of Sana'a—inhabited for more than two-and-a-half millennia—where air strikes have reduced dozens of the area's famous gingerbread houses to rubble, drawing criticism from cultural agency UNESCO.

The Saudi-led coalition is yet to claim responsibility for the strikes. The only other country operating aviation in the country is the U.S., which is conducting a drone strike campaign against AQAP.

The Middle East's ancient treasures have suffered greatly at the hands of the war in recent years. Just as the rise of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has left the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra in the hands of jihadists and Libya's archaeological wonders, such as Sabratha, in danger, an ongoing conflict threatens time-worn artefacts in Yemen.