*** Yemen Yemeni history

Yemeni History

Yemen history
Figure 1.--Here we see a scene in an Aden market taken by a man traveler during the 1930s. It could have easily been shot not only centuries earlier, but a millennium earlier. A basic question which must be addressed in Yemeni history is why the country is so backward and poorly developed.

Yemeni history has been dominated by two forces, geography and religion. The country is located in the mountainous region at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula where it almost touches Africa. The Straits of Bab al Mandeb lead from the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Thus Yemen has traditionally been an important trading center between the Middle East and Africa, important for a country with few natural resources. What is now Yemen was of little interest to outside powers. The port of Aden in contrast was of huge importance. Aden function as a trading center under Yemeni, Ethiopian, Arab, and Ottoman control. Important commodities included ivory, gold, and slaves. Yemen was an important link in the African slave trade. The second major force in Yemeni history has been religion. Many scholars separate Yemeni history into a pre- and post-Islamic period. The country became involved into a vicious civil war competing conservative factions allied with Saudi Arabia with Arab Socialist factions backed by Egypt. The country is today one of the poorest most backward Arab countries with little modern infrastructure. A basic question which must be addressed in Yemeni history is why the country is backward and poorly developed.


The erlieset evidence of human habitation in Yement dates to the Muddle Palaeolithic period, basically the the age of the Neanderthals (300,000–35,000 BP). The work in the mountain province of al-Mahwit west of Sana'a w conducted by a French team (2008). Earlier Soviet-Yemeni expeditiond conducted 1983 and 1990 in Hadramaut and Mahra (1983 and 90) found evidence of evidence of early hanitation and stoned tools. More recent traces of human ctivityu, hunters and gatherers, have been found throughout Yemen. The evidence is mosgt prevalebt in the desert provinces and in the arojund he oases of Hadramawt. Srcheologidtd have alkso didcivered Stonehenge-like monoliths near the town of Zabid which haver been dated to the Bronze Age (third and second millennia BC).

Arabia Felix

Southern Arabia, much of which was modern Yemen especailly Aden, was referred to in the ancient world as Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia) referring to green areas where agricuture ws possible in contrast to the arid, rocky wasteland of much of the peninsula. [Periplus] Tade routes were also important. The original term was 'Eudaemon Arabia', referring to the port of Aden. 'Arabia Felix' was already in use i the ancient world, in the time of the Queen of Sheba (10th centurys BC). There was already a sense of mystery along with a vision of unbelieveable wealth and luxury for herr kingdom on the shores of the Red Sea.

Pre-Islamic Ancient Kingdoms

Yemeni scholars divide ancient history into two periods. Civilization developed in three areas with connection to the Indian Ocean (Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India). While distant from all three early centers, Yemen was located on important trade routes, both overland and maritime that meant that Yemeni society was exposed to these cultural influences. For a millennia, a sucession of wealthy city-states and empires arose. Their prosperity was based on geograpohy. they coukd harvest frankincense and myrrh--two of the most highly prized commodities of the ancient world as explained in theh . Abd their location meaant that yhey haaccess to such non-Yemeni luxury commodities from Asia and Africa. Yho included spices, ostrich plumes, and ivory. We are unsure to what exten skaves were a factor in this early period. The three most famous and largest of these empires were the Minaean (Maʿīn), the Sabaean (Sabaʾ, the biblical Sheba), and the Ḥimyarite (Ḥimyar, called Homeritae by the Romans), all of which were known throughout the ancient Mediterranean world; their periods of ascendancy overlap somewhat, extending from roughly 1200 bce to 525 ce.

Sabean Kingdom Trading Kingdom (1st millennium BC)

Trading was important from the dawn of Yemeni history as a result of Yemen's geographic location. The first era in Yemeni history is associated with the development of important trade routes. Aden has its earliest recorded mention in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, (6th century BC). Aden along with Canneh is one of the places with which the important trading center of Tyre had trading connections. Canneh and Aden were the two principal termini of the spice road of western Arabia. It operated for about a millennium, although began to decline (1st century BC). Key products in these early trade routes seem to have involved commerce in frankincense and myrrh. This trade was for a long period monopolized by the southern Arabians--the Sabean Kingdom. The Sabean Kingdom flourished (750-115 BC). . The ancient frankincense route led from southern Arabia north to Gaza in Palestine. It was an inland caravan route extending about 3,400 kms. This era ended with the decline of the eastern cultural centers (about 100 BC). This was in part caused by improvements in marine commerce and the establishment of direct sea route between Egypt and India.

(1st century BC--6th centuries AD)

The Sabean Kingdom was replaced by the Himyarites (115 BC). The second important era in Yemeni begins with the founding of the Himyar Kingdoms. This involved the rise of urban centers in the Yemeni high plateau. Christianity and Judaism began to replace the largely animistic tribal cults (4th century AD). The Himur Kingdom declined (4th century). It is at this time that Tome reached the eastern Medfiterrean and began expanding their power and influence even to the Red Sea in the 1st century, altyhough military expecutiins kargely failed. They did learn the Yemeni secrets, especially the profitable secrets of the Yemeni traders concerning rankincense and myrrh. They also learned about the monsoon winds and how to trade from Red Sea ports to southern Asia and eastern Africa where traders from Aden previously had unoque access. Maritime trade began to repalce Arabian cravans. The result was the gradual economic decline of of Aden. Expensive infrastructure projects were affected. This included the Great Dam at Maʾrib, the cornerstone of a the huge irrigation project that helped tur=n Yemen green. It was one of the most impressive engineering marvels of the ancient world. The dam broke (6th century AD). The long era of the Yemeni trading collapsed. The final Ḥimyarite king was Dhū Nuwās (Yūsuf Ashʿar He was a convert to Judaism who order a massacre of the largely Christian population of Yemen at the time. The survivors appealed to the Byzantine Emperor. The Emperor convinced Axum (modern Ethiopia) to come to the rescue of the Christians. King Kaleb sent an army comandded by Abraha against the Jewish Himyarite king Dhu Nuwas (525). Duu Nuwas and many Jews were killed. This was the end of the Himuar Kingdom

Axum/Ethiopia (525-575 AD)

The earliest written information on Ethiopian history comes from the Bible when it was reported that the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon (1000 BC). The first known Ethiopian kingdom began to develop around Axum (3rd century BC). Axum developed from the Semitic Sabeam kingdoms in southern Arabia. It developed from the Iron Age proto-Axumite period to become a regioinal power (1st century AD). Axum like the Yemni kingdoms, across the Bāb al-Mandab (Gate of Tears), was a trading empire. This meant that that Axunm nd Aden were regionl rivals. Here geography was a factor. The Horn of Aftrica shoots out into the Indian Ocean toward Arabia. This provided a natural channel for trade and commuication. Axum came to control the ivory market in northeast Africa. It became a regional power (Around 100 AD). The Kingdom of Axum was centered in modern Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, but the borders varied ovedr time. [Phillipson, p. 48.]. This varied over time. Axum gradually encroached on the Meroe kingdom in modern Sudan, eventually conquering it. A Syrian, Frumentius, grew up in Axum and converted the King and Christianity became the state religion. Frumentius became the first Bishop of Ethiopia (330 AD). Axum survived as an important regional power until the rise of Islam. At the time, Axum was in contact with the Mediterraean world, both Rome and the Bzaantine Empire hgich suceeded it. Axum conquered or exercized influejnce over most of Yemen and southern Arabia. Axum conquered the Himuar Kingdom (525). Kaleb appointed a Christian Himyarite, Esimiphaios (Sumuafa Ashawa) as viceroy. Aksumite general Abraha aided by Ethiopian forcrs seized power (530). Kaleb sent two expeditions against Abraha, but both failed. Kaleb thern recignized Abraha as his new viceroy. [28] Southern Arabia become an Ethiopian protectorate under Abraha and his son Masruq.[27] Abraha invaded the Hejaz (western Arabia) to the north, but was repilsed. His siege of Mecca is described in the Koran.

Persian control (575-628)

Axum contolled Yemen for half a century. The Ḥimyarites grdually grew resentful of the who they increasingly saw as usurpers. The behavior of Jewish abd Christin lkeaders may have alienated the population. They turned to the Persian Sāsānian dynastyfor herlp in expel the Aksumites. The Persians added Yemen to their empire which became a satrapy (575). This was before Persia was Islamic. Mohammed has his first relevation (613). Islam grew slowly, but increaingky attracted followers. He marhe on Mecca (629). Persian cointrol would not survive the rise of Islam. The last Persian governor of Yemen seems to have converted to Islam (628). This may have simoply been a mater of accepting the inevitble--the increasing political dominance of the growing Muslim community.

Islamic Era (628- )

Yemeni history has since the over throw of Persian rule been dominated by Islam which reached Yemen at a very early stage in the Islamic era. The Prophet in fact was still alive when Yemen converted, and became an Islamic province. Yemen followed the Four Rightly-guided Caliphs, the Umayyads, and the Abbasids. From the first conversions to modern times, Islam has been a major force in Yemeni history.

Conversion (7th century)

Persian Governor Badhan converted (628-30). Subsequently many of the Yemeni sheikhs and their tribes also converted. Mohamed returned to Mecca, seizing control (630). The mosques in al Janad and the great mosque in Sana'a were built. With the conversion to Islam, Yemeni became a backwater and their history became for centuries essentially that of al Arabia and the Caliphate.

The Caliphate (8th-13th centuries)

The Caliphate became the center of all Islam. Yemen was, however, at the periphery of the Muslim world and the Caliphate had difficulty controlling Yemen from Baghdad even at the peak of their power. As the power of the Caliphate declined so did control over Yemen. Thus local rulers ruled in Yemen with only nominal control by the Caliphate. The Caliphate and the heart of Islam was destroyed by the Mongols (13th century).

The Rassites

With the destruction of the Caliphate (13th century), Yemen was ruled by the Rassites--Immans of the Zaydi sect. Yemen was, however, subject to the influence of the powerful empires which could exert their influence to the south, the Mamelukes in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. At time their control was substantial and at other times only nominal.

The Mamelukes (14-15th centuries)

The Mamelukes in Egypt defeated the Mongols before they could permanently affect the Islamic culture of the Middle East. They also seized power in Egypt and exerted influence on Yemen.

Ottoman era (16th-20th centuries)

The Ottomans defeated the Mamelukes and added Egypt to their empire (16th century). As with the Caliphate, the degree of effective Ottoman control over Yemen varied over time. Al Moka (Mocha) on the Red sea coast became the most important coffee port in the world. The coffee was not orioduced in Aden, but marketed tthere. (The coffee was priduced in Ethiopia. Coffee became a very valuable commodity. This led to the decline of Aden. Yemen benefited from Arab control of the Arabian Sea. This monopoly was broken with an Ottoman-Arabian fleet was defeated at Diu (1509) by the Portuguese which led the European maritime outreach. This was of immense significance. Until the Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean, trade between the East and Europe had to go thorough Arab ports or land caravans passing through Ottoman/Arab controlled caravan routes. Direct maritime trade with the East significantly weakened the Ottoman Empire and Arab trading ports and strengthened the Europeans. Yemen was but one of the Arab principalities affected.

British protectorate (1800-1967)

European maritime trade with Europe began (16th century). Gradually Britain and France developed as the primary contending powers. Britain emerged as the major European power in India after the Seven Years War and Clive's victories in India (1760s). India became seen as the jewel in the British crown and became a huge factor in British strategic thinking. This trade for three centuries was conducted around the Cape of Good Hope, meaning Britain had no real interest in Aden. This changed with Napoleon's Egyptian campign (1798-99). One result of this was the development of a Red Sea route to India, involving a land component from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Suddenly Aden with its magnificent port became important to the British. The British established a garrison at Aden (about 1800). They signed a treaty with Aden's ruler, the Sultan of Laḥij. This route grew in importance after the Napoleonic War. The concern was strategic involving trade and commerce, the slave trade was especially important. Further developments increased British interest in Aden. Britain outlawed the slave trade (1807). The primary British concern was the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the Royal Navy was committed to ending it. Eventually Britain extended its efforts to the Indian Ocean. And Aden was an important market for captive Africans. (Yemen in the 20th century would be the last country to abolish slavery.) Another development was the advent of steam navigation leading to the need for a coaling station between Suez and India, a the time an overrland trait route route between the Meduiterrnean abd Red Sea. The British seized Aden from the Ottoman Sultan (1839). Aden becanme such a huge coal-bunkering facility that it became known as the 'Coalhole of the East'. Aden grew hugely in importance in importance with the opening of the Suez Canal (1869). Aden had no really productive economy other than than what was associated with the port. The British negotiated a series of treaties which established the south Arabian Protectorate. While the British controlled Aden, the Ottoman Sultan had religious authority -- extremely important in a Muslim territory and conveying political import. British policy in Arab areas that bdcame part of the Empire (like Egupt) was not to intervene significntly in society. Stsmping out the slve trade was an exeption. Aden was not a colony and the British did not intervene significantly in domestic affairs other than efforts to end the slave trade. Their interest was focused on the naval base and coaling station. As World War II loomed, Aden became a Crown Colony. When Italy entered World War II, the British population in British Somalia was evacuated temporarily to Aden (1940) until the Allied East African campaign invded Somalia and Ethiopia and defeated the Italians (1941). After the War Aden was a quiet outpost of the British Empire until Arab nationalism and Communism began to sweep the the region. Britain tried to promote the develooment of a moderate independent government, but was unable to resist the appeal of Nasser's Arab nationlism and Communism. Britain withdrew from Aden (1967). Yemen became a battlegound between the competing visions of Nasser's socilist-tinged Arab nationaslism and Saudi Islamic fundamentalism. This has proven disatrous for Yemen. The country has no productive economy. It's one important economic asset as in ancient times was its geogrphic location and magnificent harbor, but the instability and fighting between insurgent groups made Aden useless as a port in international trade. Ships calling at Yemen became potential targets for various insurgent groups. This is why Yemen was one of the poorest countries in the world and became even poorer after the British exit. .

Modern Yemen

The Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers. The British aided by the Arab Rebellion drove the Ottomans out of The Arabian Peninsula as well as Palestine and Iraq. Ottoman control of Yemen and Arabia was tenuous even before the War. The Ottoman Empire was formally dissolved after the War. The Kingdom of Yemen was established. Britain retained a naval base at Aden. The country than became involved in the Cold War. One faction was supported by Nasser's Egypt with an Arab socialist agenda and am association with the Soviets. Another faction was supported by the Saudis and a more conservative agenda. Yemen itself was a very conservative country, barely touched by the modern world. It has thus been a country in which Islamic fundamentalism has considerable appeal. Little is left of Nasser Arab socialism. Rebels in the north staged attacks in Saudi Arabia which resulted in a Saudi military response. The northern Houthi rebels belonging to the minority Shia Zaidi sect have clashed with the Yemeni Army (summer 2009). In the fighting, hundreds of civilians have been killed and more than a quarter million people displaced. The government declared a ceasefire (February 2010).


Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. This is a 1st century AD book by an anonymous Greek author.

Phillipson, David (2012). Neil Asher Silberman (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Archaeology (Oxford University Press: 2012).


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Created: 2:51 AM 6/15/2009
Spell checked: 5:28 PM 6/30/2020
Last updated: 10:12 PM 10/19/2022