A Toll of Two Cities

Unless you are a specialist on the Middle East, the chances are you have never heard of Aleppo and Sanaa, two of the oldest cities in the region with continual habitation. Aleppo has existed for at least 7,000 years and Sanaa is known as the legendary city where Shem (Sam in Arabic) settled after the flood. Both the Syrian city of Aleppo and the Yemeni capital of Sanaa are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Both have been severely damaged by aerial bombing and local civil strife.

Historic City of Sanaa. Photo courtesy Daniel Varisco
Historic City of Sanaa. Photo courtesy Daniel Varisco

In recent weeks, the beleaguered government of Bashar al-Asad and Russia have combined to inflict major damage on the city of Aleppo that was already reduced in many parts to rubble. The medieval suq, one of the best preserved in the region, has been severely damaged by local fighting with up to 1,000 shops destroyed. The death toll in Aleppo is a large part of the estimated 450,000 Syrians killed by all sides since the start of the war. Many people have fled, but there are still as many as 270,000 who are trapped in Aleppo without access to water or basic supplies. There is no end in sight for the “Battle of Aleppo” without further killing and wounding civilians, especially given the use of barrel and cluster bombs by the Syrian government and the Russians.

The Saudi-led coalition bombing of Sanaa in Yemen began in March 2015 and has resulted in major destruction of the infrastructure and heritage sites, including centuries-old buildings in the city of Sanaa. Overall, the death toll from the fighting between the exiled interim president al-Hadi, supported by the Saudis, and the Houthi alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Salih has reached at least 10,000 in official counts but is in reality much larger. In addition to bombs directed at the heritage part of Sanaa, Saudi bombing has also hit part of the ancient Marib dam ruins, the thousand-year old mosque of the first Zaydi imam al-Hadi ila al-Haqq in Sa’da and a major historic fortress in Ta‘izz. Radical religious groups like ISIS and al-Qa‘ida have also contributed to the destruction, by blowing up historic shrines in Yemen’s south.

The region has not witnessed such blatant destruction of heritage since the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, when it is said that so many manuscripts and books were thrown into the Tigris river that the water turned black. The Wahhabi attack on Kerbala in 1802 was another atrocity, as described by a French eyewitness:

“That day came at last…12,000 Wahhabis suddenly attacked the mosque of Imam Husayn; after seizing more spoils than they had ever seized after their greatest victories, they put everything to fire and sword…The elderly, women, and children—everybody died by the barbarians’ sword. Besides, it is said that whenever they saw a pregnant woman, they disemboweled her and left the fetus on the mother’s bleeding corpse. Their cruelty could not be satisfied, they did not cease their murders and blood flowed like water. As a result of the bloody catastrophe, more than 4000 people perished. The Wahhabis carried off their plunder on the backs of 4000 camels. After the plunder and murders they destroyed the Imam’s shrine and converted it into a trench of abomination and blood. They inflicted the greatest damage on the minarets and the domes, believing those structures were made of gold bricks.”

The Saudis have continued to show their disdain for Islamic heritage by destroying most of the historic buildings in Mecca and replacing them with massive shopping malls and hotels. Their lack of concern for destroying the rich architectural heritage of Yemen should come as no surprise.

The toll of all this destruction, whether of human life or material culture, leaves a scar on the entire region. Both Syria and Yemen will have to be rebuilt on a massive scale, if the fighting can be resolved. Unlike the aftermath of either World War I or World War II, this is an open-ended state of war. It is not one nation state against another, but regimes holding on to power at any cost or funding proxy wars outside their own borders. Meanwhile, the United States, Britain and other major powers continue to supply billions of dollars worth of military hardware, including banned cluster bombs.

Do not bother to ask for whom the bell tolls.  The sum total of the toll of this destruction in two cities is a living hell for all.
Daniel Martin Varisco is president of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and research professor of Social Science at Qatar University. Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar. His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (2007). He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (www.cyberorient.net).

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