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Since a Saudi-led coalition last March began its bombing campaign against the antigovernment forces now controlling much of Yemen, more than 5,800 people have been killed. Experts say the bombs have also done irreparable damage to historical sites and precious antiquities, including ancient manuscripts dating back to the 10th century.
Unless action is taken soon, scholars warn, Yemen's rare collection of manuscripts — crucial windows to the region's past — may be permanently lost.
“Within these manuscripts are inscribed the collective memory of a people, a continuous cultural tradition from the 10th century to the recent present. Once this memory is erased, an important chapter of the story of what it is to be human is no longer recoverable," said David Hollenberg, director of Arabic at the University of Oregon.
The estimated 50,000 ancient handwritten books, called codices, represent the largest and most important set of unexplored Arabic-language manuscripts in the world, according to the website of Princeton University's Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative (YMDI).
With the help of a grant, Hollenbergset up YMDI in the 1990s in an effort to preserve Yemen's manuscripts using digital technology.
"The manuscripts are the bread and butter of the Islamic sciences. These private manuscript libraries are really the heart and soul of the classical Islamic tradition," said Hollenberg.
In response to the immediate threat posed to the manuscripts by the recent airstrikes, Hollenberg launched the nonprofit organization Save Yemen's Heritage last November. The project, which is in the process of obtaining legal status in the United States, is working with a local NGO in Yemen to send badly needed digital workstations and funds to staff in the country's capital, Sanaa.
"The machines will allow staff in Sanaa to continue their digitization work," Hollenberg said.
But before he can send any equipment, he needs permission from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which is responsible for enforcing economic sanctions against targeted countries and groups deemed a threat to national security. The OFAC last year imposed sanctions against antigovernment forces in Yemen, effectively freezing them out of the U.S. financial system. Americans who send funds to Yemen without OFAC clearance are subject to criminal and civil penalties.
Once this memory is erased, an important chapter of the story of what it is to be human is no longer recoverable.
director of Arabic at the University of Oregon
The Yemen manuscripts cover topics ranging from poetry, theology and Islamic law to history, grammar and etiquette, Hollenberg said.
Whereas scholars in places like Cairo and Istanbul have access to digital copies of ancient manuscripts due to technological advances, Hollenberg said access to manuscripts in Yemen has historically been limited to the families in possession of the codices.
"Collectively, they tell the story of the Yemeni people and the greater Islamic world," he said.
Hollenberg, who did not disclose the name of the local NGO in order to protect his colleagues' safety, said his team is in a race against time to preserve the texts — many of which have already been destroyed in airstrikes and shelling. Both the Saudi coalition and antigovernment forces have faced heavy criticism for striking heritage sites, the most recent being the National Museum in Taiz. The museum, which was struck in a raid on Sunday, housed a collection of manuscripts among other antiquities.
Hollenberg said that his colleagues in Yemen are in dire need of basic items such as hard drives, laptops and inexpensive petroleum generators.
The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C., had not responded to Al Jazeera's requests for comment by the time of publication.
In response to the widespread destruction of historical sites and antiquities, UNESCO in July 2015 launched an emergency action plan to safeguard Yemen's cultural heritage.
When the plan was announced, Yemen’s ambassador to UNESCO, Ahmed Sayyad, urged the international community to rally behind the effort.
“Sanaa, Aden, Taiz ... are all my cities and they are all your cities,” UNESCO's website quoted Sayyad as saying. “They are the past and present for every man and woman, whatever their religion or their identity. For this reason, the work to stop the destruction and to preserve is the duty of every Yemeni, every Arab, every Muslim, and every man and woman.”
Editors' note: This article was updated on Feb. 5 to take into account conflicting reports over who was behind the raid that struck the National Museum in Taiz.