Never had I suspected that my first year of teaching as an adjunct professor of art history would become a campaign of the heart to raise students’ awareness of the art and archaeology of Yemen. I am fresh – just one semester removed – from a terminal degree earned in Venice, Italy that examined a philosophical aspect of some rather obscure Mannerist automata, which had captured my interest in pursuit of a graduate degree earned some years before in Florence. My conference papers, publications, and various fellowship stints had all unfolded within the canonical parameters of my Italian Renaissance specialization. What business did I have overhauling the traditional material of the survey course so radically to include civilizations, places, and works that have notoriously remained on the margins of mainstream archaeology and art history? For that matter, what do I possibly have to contribute to the pedagogical discussion that unfolds on this blog, with just two semesters of teaching under my belt? What I hope to transmit from this short essay is the utmost urgency that the present state of historic art and architecture in Yemen demands from any teacher and scholar, from not only the dedicated (and far more qualified) specialists in the various departments of American and international universities dedicated to Middle Eastern studies, but also down to the humble adjunct tasked with Survey 101. If we truly strive for a picture of human civilization in all of its varied splendor and achievements, the time to talk about the great kingdoms of South Arabia – all located in modern-day Yemen – is now, especially since much of that picture has been tragically destroyed before the scholarly community could truly begun to interact with it. The extent of that destruction has been and continues to be measured by such initiatives as the Yemen Data Project, and is mourned by experts, such as Lamya Khalidi’s recent eloquent and erudite eulogy.
My 101 unit covers antiquity through the Middle Ages in Europe and the Islamic world. In the first part of this Yemeni-inclusive survey class, the neglected prehistoric sites in South Arabia furnish the material for the broader discussion of such prehistoric material phenomena as petroglyphs, standing stones, and the earliest anthropomorphic figurines; Yemeni archaeology has revealed ample examples of South Arabian counterparts to the common narrative we teach in Survey 101, and these sites and objects from Yemen enrich our discussion of the routes which nomadic, anatomically modern humans reached the Fertile Crescent and Eurasia on their migration from Africa. In the second lecture, those early Mesopotamian civilizations are taught side-by-side with the rise of their centrally-governed counterpart-kingdoms of Arabia: the dominant Sabaean kingdom at Marib as well as more minor kingdoms like Ma’in, Qataban, Awsan, and the Hadhramawt.
The picture that emerges of Arabia is of one in possession of a refined sculptural tradition in stone and bronze, as well as of the fruits of sophisticated engineering expertise – embodied by the iconic Marib Dam and the Sabaean’s advanced irrigation systems, which supported an early agricultural civilization rarely included with its peers – and of the political and social organization necessary to construct its monumental works.
At this junction, the narrative of Yemen’s most impressive ruins by necessity takes a sharp turn into the ephemeral category and somber discussion of “what has been but is no more,” because these have been the targets of predominantly Saudi aerial bombing campaigns. By relying on past scholarship and recent mobilizations in response to the extreme crisis this war has provoked for Yemen’s heritage, however, our survey class is able to chart a basic chronology of major works that have by and large been eliminated from the material record in the past four years; this is a loss for all humanity, which had only just begun to truly engage with Yemeni art on the same level that Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Near Eastern archeology has enjoyed since the nineteenth century
As the survey lectures progress and we encounter Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the diverse kingdoms of the ancient Mediterranean basin, we remember the place of the Sabaean, Qatabanian, and Hadhramawt kingdoms in the interconnected economy of antiquity; these kingdoms represented the producers and shipping merchants of the coveted frankincense used in religious rituals from the Mediterranean to the Ganges.
The lecture on Hellenistic art in particular incorporates a great deal of objects with clear forms indebted to Greek models disseminated throughout the Near East and Asia: a bronze Cupid riding a lion from Qataban; bronze figurines of Hercules and Harpocrates from the northern trading hub Qaryat Al-Faw in present-day Saudi Arabia and, from the same site, our first glimpses of Arabian wall paintings. Here is another intersection that gives us pause because, on a wall from this site over the modern border, no bombs threaten its existence. One of the most intriguing of its images roughly dates to the first century and depicts the distinctive architecture that has dominated north Yemen through the present day: the celebrated Tower Palace type that has led to comparisons between Sanaa and a city of gingerbread or a Venice made of sand.
Surviving examples of this ancient building type that are hundreds, if not a thousand, years old are being decimated throughout north Yemen on a daily basis – no exaggeration – by the Saudi coalition, thus severing contemporary links that have changed little from those of the ancient past we see on Arabian murals.
Following Hellenism, I dedicate a special lecture to the Himyarite Kingdom, which rose from and eventually eclipsed the inland Sabaean Kingdom due to the shift away from the overland trade route to the sea trade plied by the Greeks and later Romans, among others. In this overview of Himyarite art and its formal differences from its Sabaean predecessors, we encounter distinctive stylistic differences, which make these two periods easily identifiable for any survey student. Here, too, is our last stop on the course of Yemeni antiquity before the rise of Islam, and this transition receives detailed attention, which adds nuance to the usually simplified narrative of Islam replacing an older polytheistic religion.
With the Himyarite Kingdom’s defeat at the hands of the invading Christian Abyssinians in the sixth century – who established churches throughout Yemen’s major cities during their tenure – followed by their defeat in turn by the Sassanid Persians, a more complex portrait emerges of religious pluralism on the Arabian Peninsula on the eve of Islam, and particularly in the cities of the south in what had begun to be called Yemen under its Himyar rulers. When we do get to the earliest era of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula, we again encounter some of its oldest constructions located in Yemen, many of which have been heavily damaged by airstrikes and still more of which are on the brink of total annihilation.
Last semester, we had just about gotten to this point when the International Council of Museums (ICOM) released their Red List: Cultural Objects at Risk, Yemen. I’m one of those professors who doesn’t hesitate to bribe their students with extra credit points to push them to attempt things that are well beyond the traditional purview of an introductory Survey 101 and, as a result, I posed a challenge: since we had covered Sabaean, Himyarite, and other Yemeni artworks for the better part of the semester, what other American class was better prepared than them to contribute contextual information on the pieces that were circulating in ICOM’s list? The response I got made me proud to circulate their report on Yemeni antiquities, and the end result was recognition from my university, as well as a sense of satisfaction that my students told me they had never expected or imagined could come from fulfilling their Fine Arts requirement.
In addition to the students in my 101 unit, my 102 students – who start in the French Gothic and finish in the contemporary art world – have found themselves the recipients of a Yemeni arts’ curriculum designed to combat ignorance and destruction with education and appreciation.
The tragic circumstances of the Yemeni war have been framed in the language of art history, resurrecting the vivid horror and the crucial context of Picasso’s Guernica and the broader context of art surveys’ canon of modern war-time works. For many students in my class whose lives have thankfully never come into contact with war in their own home countries, the study of the canonical works from the two World Wars for any art survey are theoretical and appreciated at a considerable intellectual distance; raising their awareness of the unchecked atrocities that have unfolded in Yemen in the past four years is an eye-opening education of that universal human sentiment of revulsion and horror, which makes those artworks we study from the early and middle twentieth centuries so enduring.
As we navigate the latter half of the twentieth century and move into the art of the first two decades of our own century, what better thread of human sentiment in art to follow than that which speaks for the human consciousness, from Rubens’s Consequences of War to the grafitti artist, Murad Subay, the “Yemeni Banksy”? Subay has used the modified style and visual language of his astronomically-successful British counterpart in an effort to bring global attention to the suffering of the Yemeni people. At the close of the second unit of the art survey, my students are able to analyze Subay’s body of work from their long perspective on art, resistance, conscience, and message.
Yemen, even in tragedy, is a cornucopia for the student of art history, equally as much in antiquity as in the present day, and I hope that in teaching its art history I am fostering a positive awareness and sense of common humanity for a new generation of university students, rather than merely mining away at its goldmine of original and engaging curriculum materials. In the course of researching the present state of objects in Yemen’s erstwhile museum collections, I have become indebted to the kind and generous scholarship of Drs. Saleh Al-Haj and Khalid Al-Ansi, and the many more who are actively working on the frontlines to document and preserve as much as possible.
However, the deepest debt of my heart to Yemen goes back almost twenty years ago, when I found myself a refugee in Sana’a. How does an American girl become a refugee in Yemen in 2005, you might ask? Overnight, is the answer, when that American girl is from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina broke the canals. I can remember vividly the day in late August when I was obliviously planning to visit the internet café in Sana’a to register for Fall classes at Tulane: on that day, when my friend looked at me with eyes full of pity and told me that my city no longer existed. I watched Al-Jazeera coverage of helicopters evacuating the lucky few from rooftops and was unable to contact my family, who did not evacuate and remained in New Orleans through its descent into real anarchy.
For weeks, my salvation was the hospitality and generosity of the late and truly great Sheikh Abdillah M. A. Al-Thor, the Sheikh of Sheikhs of Sana’a, but a man who preferred to be called the “Sheikh of Peace.” I was taken into his household as a daughter, and it was then that my true experience of Yemen began. Before that, I had been a foreign student living in rented rooms while I studied Arabic at YIAL (Yemeni Institute of Araic Language, formerly CALES) in the historic center. My female teacher had been my sole point of contact with the immensity and timelessness of Yemeni culture. When I was swept up into the heart of Sheikh Al-Thor’s household, welcomed as an honored guest to the diplomatic meetings that unfolded in his diwan, and included in his wife and daughters’ busy social calendar of weddings and haflas, I saw another world few can imagine now. The most impressive aspect of it all, however, was the unconditional love and protection that the Sheikh’s family and, indeed, every Yemeni showed to me, a very vulnerable stranger, when they learned of the tragic circumstances of my home and family. Across all barriers of language and experience, my heart found a true family in Sana’a, one which I continued to keep close, even as my career took me to other corners of the globe.
In the past years, as I have watched war crimes multiply and a calculated tactic of starvation and disease unfold under bombardment and blockade, I still am processing the fact that I seem to be one of just a few witnesses to a genocide. What’s worse, I know all too well that most of my peers, friends, and students in the United States wouldn’t be able to locate Yemen on a map, if they’ve even heard of Yemen at all. That ignorance, that black hole that “Yemen” evokes for many in the West, is an asset for those who wage criminal wars in obscure countries. We know all too well the international uproar which accompanied the destruction of Palmyra and other sites by the hands of Saudi-funded Islamic extremists, but who can mourn for the loss of an entire chapter of humanity that was just beginning to be written? Over the course of the past few years, I have had to take stock of what I can possibly do to help, on any scale large or small, and the most rewarding solution that I’ve found has been through the humble vehicle of the Art Survey classes, which I have been tackling in my first year as a professor. The damage that has been done to Yemen, its people, and its historical patrimony cannot be undone, but if Yemen were integrated into our wider worldview and finally given its due place, we would begin to fight the ignorance which has given license to its annihilation.