Ancient mummies rot as Yemen war vexes even the dead

SANAA, May 2 (Reuters) - Famine and disease haunt the living, but not even the dead are spared the calamities of Yemen's two-year-old civil war.

Ancient mummies are withering away in a major museum for lack of electricity and preservative chemicals from abroad - a sign that the conflict is harming not only the country's present and future but also its rich past.

The dozen spindly corpses, curled into the fetal position or swaddled in baskets, belong to a lost pagan civilization around 2 1/2 millennia ago - long before the advent of Islam.

7 PHOTOS
Mummies at Sanaa University
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Mummies at Sanaa University

A mummy dating back to an ancient Yemen era is seen at a museum at Sanaa University, in Sanaa, Yemen April 29, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

A man looks at a mummy dating back to an ancient Yemen era displayed at a museum at Sanaa University, in Sanaa, Yemen April 29, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

Photographers take photos of a mummy dating back to an ancient Yemen era displayed at a museum at Sanaa University, in Sanaa, Yemen April 29, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

Women look at a mummy dating back to an ancient Yemen era displayed at a museum at Sanaa University, in Sanaa, Yemen April 29, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

People look at a mummy dating back to an ancient Yemen era displayed at a museum at Sanaa University, in Sanaa, Yemen April 29, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

People look at a mummy dating back to an ancient Yemen era displayed at a museum at Sanaa University, in Sanaa, Yemen April 29, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi)

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Lying beneath glass panes within the archaeology department in the capital Sanaa's main university, the mummies might have spent their eternal slumber blissfully unaware of the otherworldly warplanes pounding their homeland.

A Saudi-led military coalition has carried out thousands of air strikes in a bid to dislodge Yemen's armed Houthi movement from the capital. The conflict has killed at least 10,000 people and unleashed a humanitarian crisis.

But a timeless enemy, abetted by the disorder of war, threatens the mummies' repose.

"The mummies have started to decay and are infected with bacteria. This is because we don't have electricity and the machines that are supposed to maintain them," said Abdelrahman Jarallah, head of the university's anitiquities department.

"We need some chemicals to sanitize the mummies every six months, and they aren't available due to the political situation."

Power cuts plague Sanaa, sapping the dehumidifiers that help preserve the "Hall of Mummies." Funding to government bodies like the university have suffered from a struggle between Yemen's warring parties for control of the central bank.

Antiquities experts are appealing to the university and the culture ministry for funding and equipment to better fend off the microbes eating into the mummies' flesh.

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Yemen war, airstrikes in Yemen
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Yemen war, airstrikes in Yemen
Yemeni rescuers search the ruins of buildings destroyed in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on February 10, 2016 in the capital Sanaa. / AFP / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A Yemenis man walks past flames rising from the ruins of buildings destroyed in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on February 10, 2016 in the capital Sanaa. / AFP / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A Yemeni firefighter extinguishes smoke rising from buildings destroyed in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on February 10, 2016 in the capital Sanaa. / AFP / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemenis stand amid the ruins of buildings destroyed in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on February 10, 2016 in the capital Sanaa. The coalition has been carrying out air strikes against Iran-backed rebels across Yemen since March. / AFP / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemenis check the rubble of buildings destroyed in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on February 10, 2016 in the capital Sanaa. The coalition has been carrying out air strikes against Iran-backed rebels across Yemen since March. / AFP / MOHAMMED HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - FEBRUARY 10: A Yemeni man tries to extinguish fire after the war crafts belonging to the Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes at Beit al-Miad district of Sanaa, Yemen on February 10, 2016. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A Yemeni man carries the body of a child killed in a mortar shell attack on the country's flashpoint southern city of Taez, as clashes between fighters from the Popular Resistance Committees, loyal to Yemen's fugitive President and Shiite Huthi rebels continue on February 3, 2016. The city of Taez is held by loyalists of Yemen's internationally recognised government, but it has been besieged by the Iran-backed rebels for months. Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi loyalists backed by a Saudi-led coalition have fought back and have been trying to retake Taez province and pave the way towards the rebel-held capital. / AFP / AHMAD AL-BASHA (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A Yemeni boy checks the damage following a mortar shell attack on the country's flashpoint southern city of Taez on February 3, 2016, as clashes between fighters from the Popular Resistance Committees, loyal to Yemen's fugitive President and Shiite Huthi rebels continue. The city of Taez is held by loyalists of Yemen's internationally recognised government, but it has been besieged by the Iran-backed rebels for months. Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi loyalists backed by a Saudi-led coalition have fought back and have been trying to retake Taez province and pave the way towards the rebel-held capital. / AFP / AHMAD AL-BASHA (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images)
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But the coalition's closure of Sanaa airport and a near-blockade over a key Red Sea port - aimed at stopping weapons shipments - have cut off imports of specialty goods like the chemicals needed to ward off the microscopic menace.

Sheba and other Yemeni kingdoms once provided the frankincense and myrrh hauled by desert caravans to perfume the temples of the Holy Land and ancient Rome.

Modern combat, however, is disfiguring important cultural treasures. Air strikes have leveled medieval mudbrick towers in Sanaa's old quarter, a medieval mosque and an Ottoman fort.

Al Qaeda militants have dynamited Sufi shrines and armed attacks in Houthi-held lands have sent packing many members of a Yemeni Jewish community dating from the time of King Solomon around 1,000 B.C.

"So many places have been destroyed because of this war," lamented Ameeda Shaalan, an antiquities professor who still hopes the mummies can be saved. "We now have some things that have survived, and we must preserve them."

(Writing by Noah Browning and Tarek Fahmy; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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