Yemen – History

There are many archaeological sites in Yemen showing evidence of very early settlers. Fragments of buildings, sculptures, reliefs, inscribed tablets, Greek and Roman manuscripts, jewellery and vessels testify to a flourishing culture.

Many neolithic spearheads and knives have been found in the desert regions. From the second millennium BC onwards, there was a succession of kingdoms – the dynasties of Ma'ain, Saba, Qataban, Awsan and Himyar (10th - 3rd centuries BC). The metropolises of these kingdoms were built on the trade routes at the edge of the deserts. Unique irrigation systems were laid out here (the great Marib Dam, which made an entire valley fertile), buildings constructed of clay bricks, and an infrastructure with sophisticated ventilation through a central duct and various openings and windows. Achievements in building and engineering were complemented by highly artistic achievements in the area of sculpture and relief, as well as in the development of writing. Large inscribed tablets in blocks of stone tell of events in the ancient kingdoms. Many reliefs show friezes of ibexes, proving that in ancient times the ibex was common in Yemen, and was revered. Smaller finds from the various archaeological sites are displayed in the well-equipped National Museum in Sana'a.

At a very early date, political, economic and trading relations were established between the Yemenite dynasties and other early cultures of the ancient world. Yemen became a classic transit land for transporting goods from the Indian sub-continent to the Mediterranean countries. Thus transport and the dangers of crossing the desert regions became a main source of income. Through this transit function, Yemen also remained open to foreign influences.

One of these was Islam, which spread from the 7th century onwards from Mecca and Medina. Yemen was one of the first countries to convert to Islam, so that over the centuries it became a stronghold of Islam in the south of the Arabian peninsula. Many different forms of Islam, some of them originating in Yemen, found their followers. The majority of Yemenis are Sunnites, but there are various Shiite groups, such as the northern Zaidis (who are currently trying to re-establish the Imamate), and the Wahibi, based in Saudi Arabia, continue to proselytise. The Sufis have their followers in the Hadramaut; the Ismaelis have made Hotaib their pilgrimage centre in the highlands.

The finest Islamic buildings in the Arabian countries date from what we in the west call the Middle Ages – from the 8th to the 15th century AD. In Yemen, mosques were built very early, and a typical style developed. Such mosques can be seen in Sana’a, Shibam/Kaukaban and Al Janad, and those in and around Taiz and Thula are also culturally and artistically significant. The mosque complexes usually have an ablution fountain for washing before prayer, inner courtyards, minarets and madrasahs (Koran colleges). Sometimes – as in Jiblah – they include a palace.

Islam architecture in Yemen tells us much about the development of Islam architecture in general, as well as about the history of the typical Yemeni style. Islam forbids any figurative representation; thus calligraphy, the Arabic ornamental script for Koran texts, and elements of architectural decoration (stucco, glass and alabaster windows) were cultivated and refined to perfection.

Secular Yemeni architecture is also unique; the best examples are in the old quarter of  Sana'a, in some of the mountain towns north-west of Sana'a, in Ibb and Jiblah, and in the impressive clay houses in the Hadramaut. Many of these clay buildings are centuries old, and in towns such as Habban, which is just being revived, new building is carried out in the old style.

Yemeni agriculture has flourished continuously for over three thousand years. Whether Bedouin camel or goat herding (especially for Saudi Arabian buyers) or cultivation of the terraced mountain slopes, oases in the wadis or small fields in the fertile region – farming is based on ancient traditions and skills developed over centuries to wrest a harvest from even the  most infertile piece of land.

During more recent centuries, Yemen was in turn under Turkish, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian influence. Until the 1967 revolution, the imams endeavoured to insulate Yemen and restore the old order, imposing feudal structures. Only since the 1970s has the country opened up, allowing hesitant progress for liberalisation and democratisation. The South, periodically separated, was under British colonial control and from 1967-1990 under Soviet influence, but the mixture of tribal traditions and deep Islamic religiosity has remained.