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Student looks at millennia old mummy at Sanna University Mudeum, Yemen.

Civil War in Yemen Threatens Millennia-Old Mummies and Other Cultural Treasures

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It is estimated that the civil war in Yemen has caused the death of thousands of people and has pushed millions to the brink of famine during the past two years. Now it’s starting to damage the nation’s cultural treasures by destroying ancient mummies, a unique part of the country's rich history.

Yemen’s Civil War’s Consequences Now Threaten the Dead

Yemen’s civil war has taken countless lives during these past two years. While famine and disease spreads all over the country, it has now begun to have negative effects on the dead as well. A collection of millennia-old mummies at Sana’a University Museum in the Yemeni capital is one of the many potential victims of the catastrophic war’s consequences.

Protest in Sanaa, Yemen (February 3, 2011)

Protest in Sanaa, Yemen (February 3, 2011) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With no steady electric power and the nation’s ports under occupation, scientists are doing all they can to save the twelve mummies from the heat, humidity and a lack of preservative chemicals.

Some of the mummies, from polytheistic kingdoms that dominated the area around 400 BC, still have teeth and strands of hair. "These mummies are tangible evidence of a nation's history, but even our mummies are affected by the war,” Abdulrahman Jarallah, head of the archaeology department at Sanaa University, told AFP. And he continues, "Mummies need a suitable, controlled environment and regular care, including sanitization every six months. 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. We're concerned both for the conservation of the mummies and for the health of those handling them."

View of the City of Sana’a rooftops

View of the City of Sana’a rooftops (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Not the Only Mummies in Danger

Unfortunately, the mummies in Yemen are not the only ones facing destruction at the moment due to human intrusion. As April Holloway reported in a previous Ancient Origins article, the Chinchorro mummies of Chile, which have been preserved for at least 7,000 years, are turning into black slime due to rising humidity levels causing bacterial growth on the skin. More than one hundred mummies – the oldest in the entire world – are turning gelatinous as a result of the rapidly spreading bacteria and Chilean researchers are desperately seeking funds to preserve the deteriorating mummies before they are lost for good.

Chinchorro mummy, one of the oldest preserved in the world, at the museum in San Miguel de Azapa, Arica, Chile.

Chinchorro mummy, one of the oldest preserved in the world, at the museum in San Miguel de Azapa, Arica, Chile. (CC BY 2.0)

Chinchorro mummies are one of the wonders of Andean archaeology and appear to reflect the spiritual beliefs of the ancient Chinchorro people, although the exact reason why they mummified their dead is unknown. Some scholars maintain that it was to preserve the remains of their loved ones for the afterlife, while another commonly accepted theory is that there was an ancestor cult of sorts, since there is evidence of both the bodies traveling with the groups and of being placed in positions of honor during major rituals, as well as a delay in the final burial itself.

Despite surviving for at least seven millennia, they began deteriorating about 10 years ago, when moisture began to allow bacteria to grow, said Ralph Mitchell, a Harvard University professor emeritus of applied biology. About 120 mummies, which radiocarbon dating dates from 5050 BC and before, are rapidly deteriorating in the archaeological museum of the University of Tarapacá in Arica, Chile. Only around 300 Chinchorro mummies have been discovered over the years (the 120 endangered constitutes 40% of them) and thus it is essential they are protected in order to preserve the last traces of this fascinating ancient culture.

Chinese Mummy Preserved for Centuries was Destroyed in a Day

In another case of mummy destruction, a perfectly preserved Chinese mummy uncovered in a 300-year-old burial area, was almost instantly destroyed once archaeologists opened the coffin – it turned black within hours of the coffin being opened. The individual was wearing extremely ornate clothing which indicates that he was a very high-ranking official from the early Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912.

Once the tomb was opened, the natural process of decay started. Although the man’s face was almost normal when it was found, within hours the face, as well as the skin on the whole body turned black and a foul smell emanated from the coffin.

Zabid, Yemen. 1000 years ago it was among the most sophisticated centers of learning in Arabia.

Zabid, Yemen. 1000 years ago it was among the most sophisticated centers of learning in Arabia. (CC BY 2.0)

Yemen’s Culture and People Will Endure

The conflicts in Yemen have also caused an air and naval blockade on Huthi-controlled Red Sea ports that are some of the most important entry points for food and aid. The UN recently estimated that nearly sixty percent of Yemen's population is at risk of famine.

On the other hand, Yemeni archaeologists have requested that local authorities and international organizations do all they can in order to preserve Yemen's mummies by easing access of supplies and personnel. "We can already see the mummies suffering the effects of a long period of not having been properly maintained. 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." Sanaa University Museum restoration specialist Fahmi al-Ariqi told AFP.

Despite those desperate calls for help going unanswered so far, local archaeologists have not lost their faith and remain optimistic for the future, being confident that their heritage can and will be saved. "Yemen is full of archaeological sites and mummified remains that are still undiscovered," Jarallah tells AFP and adds, "Our culture, our history, will never disappear."

Top Image: Student looks at millennia old mummy at Sanna University Mudeum, Yemen. Photo Credit: AFP KhaleejTimes

By Theodoros Karasavvas



Re: The Chinchorro mummies. Since artifacts are generally cased in lucite, Why can't the air be evacuated and replaced with helium? No chemical reactions, and no bacterial growth.

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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