Heritage Under Threat
The libraries of Yemen are well known to be treasure troves not only for the rich and still largely unexplored literary tradition of the Zaydi branch of Shiism but also for a much wider spectrum of Islamic intellectual history, beyond Zaydism. The history of Zaydism in Yemen dates back to the ninth century CE when Imām al-Hādī Yaḥyā b. al-Ḥusayn (d. 298/911) founded a Zaydi state with Ṣaʿda as his capital. When in the sixth/twelfth century the Zaydis of Yemen became politically unified with their coreligionists in the Caspian region of northern Iran, where a second Zaydi state had been established during the ninth century, a transfer of scholars and books set in from northern Iran, a leading intellectual center at the time, to Yemen.
Some of the libraries in Yemen that were founded during this period still exist today. This is the case, by way of example, for the library that was [End Page 120] founded by Imām al-Manṣūr billāh ʿAbd Allāh b. Ḥamza (r. 593/1197–614/1217) in his capital Ẓr. The library grew steadily over the centuries and was transferred during the early twentieth century to the newly founded al-Khizāna al-mutawakkiliyya, nowadays the Maktabat al-Awqāf or al-Maktaba al-Sharqiyya, located on the premises of the Great Mosque in Sanaa in an annex building that had been constructed for this purpose by order of Imām Yaḥyā b. Muḥammad Ḥamīd al-Dīn (r. 1904–48).1
On the other hand, many of the libraries of Yemen were time and again affected by instances of loss of books through theft, confiscations, and even destruction of entire collections. In the course of Imām al-Manṣūr's all-out war against the Muṭarrifiyya sect during the thirteenth century, for example, nearly the entire literary legacy of the Muṭarrifīs was destroyed. Incidents of destruction of private book collections also occurred during the Ottoman occupation of major parts of Yemen, between 1547 and 1629 and again between 1872 and 1918.2 Moreover, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, manuscripts became a highly valuable commodity when European, Ottoman-Turkish, and Saudi merchants and travelers to Yemen began to purchase thousands of manuscripts that are nowadays housed by libraries outside of the country. In fact, one of the principal purposes behind Imam Yaḥyā Ḥamīd al-Dīn's previously mentioned founding in 1925 of the Khizāna al-mutawakkiliyya in Sanaa, where he had the remains of the former ruler's library in Ẓr transferred, together with the holdings of many other historical libraries, was to put a stop to thet and other losses. The [End Page 221] numerous codices that had originally been produced for the library of Imām al-Manṣūr billāh and were sold at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries to various libraries in the Middle East and Europe indicate that this was indeed a serious concern. Confiscations of private libraries also frequently occurred over the course of the twentieth century. In 1948, when Imām Aḥmad b. Yaḥyā Ḥamīd al-Dīn (r. 1948–62) ordered the execution of ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Wazīr, who served at the time as president of the parliament, and had some of the houses of the Bayt al-Wazīr demolished, the library of the Bayt al-Wazīr was confiscated and taken to the Great Mosque in Sanaa.3 Following the coup d'état of 1962, the former palace library and the personal collections of the members of the royal family, as well as the collections of former ministers and other government officials, were confiscated and eventually transferred to the Maktaba al-ġarbiyya and later on to the newly founded Dār al-makhṭūṭāt.
Over the second half of the twentieth and the first decades of the twenty-first century, Yemeni authorities have been constantly fighting manuscript dealers, trying to prevent them from smuggling manuscripts out of the country...