Yemen’s Thira fortress has withstood attacks from the Portuguese and Turks, but years of war have left the 11th-century citadel in disrepair, defaced by graffiti and littered with rubbish.
Overlooking the southern port of Aden, Sira sits on a Rocky Mountain island in the historic crater region, a strategic location that once made it a base for British colonial troops.
Cigarette butts litter the ground around its ancient walls, and a tourist scrawled “I love you” on the towers of this awesome fortress.
Yemen’s brutal war has not only killed hundreds of thousands, but also destroyed its rich architectural heritage, from iconic mud-brick towers to mosques, churches, museums and military forts.
Many important archaeological sites and tourist landmarks were damaged, and artifacts were looted and smuggled abroad.
“Neglect and ignorance have caused irreparable damage,” said Asmahan Arras, secretary general of the Yemeni Society of History and Archaeology.
“The lack of an official vision in Yemen to preserve and protect its cultural heritage and identity … has led to a dramatic deterioration,” she told AFP.
Aden’s cisterns, thousand-year-old rainwater tanks carved into the rock to replenish the city’s wells, are also neglected.
– ‘Frustrated and hopeless’ –
Yemen has been embroiled in a conflict between governments since 2014, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and the Iran-backed Houthis control large swathes of the north, including the capital, Sanaa.
Authorities have struggled to secure funding to maintain vital sites, many of which have been bombed or damaged, amid what the United Nations has labelled the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Houthi rebels controlled parts of Aden for months in 2015 before being ousted by pro-government forces.
At the time, the Military Museum – established as a school in 1918 and converted into a museum in 1971 – was destroyed in a bombing and eventually ransacked.
The Saudi-led coalition admitted in 2015 that some of the buildings were “legitimate military targets”.
Osman Abdurrahman, deputy director of the Antiquities Office in Aden, said the city’s main sites were still suffering from “systematic neglect”, in part because of a lack of funding.
“Even if we do get a little bit of funding, it’s not enough to cover the small part that is needed,” he told AFP.
With a budget of only about $200 a month, his office can barely afford stationery, he added.
“I feel frustrated and hopeless,” Abdurrahman said. “Sometimes I wish I had never studied archaeology.”